By Melissa Crawley
More Content Now
For more than 25 years, the American Experience documentary series on PBS has produced hundreds of hours of television examining small and large historical moments that have helped to define who we are as a nation. This winter, the series premieres five new films, including “KIansville U.S.A.,” the story of the most successful civil rights-era grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan’s history. In three years, Bob Jones grew the North Carolina Klan from a small collection of friends to 10,000 members, which was more than all the Southern states’ Klan groups combined. As a result, North Carolina, thought of as the most progressive Southern state during this time, became known as Klansville, U.S.A.
The transformation of a state that prided itself on a moderate, non-confrontational approach to race relations (coined “the North Carolina way”), into the most powerful Klan stronghold in the South is a worthy subject for this documentary series. The film is a solid critical exploration of a dark chapter in our American experience that offers important insights into the conditions that lead to the Klan’s resurgence during the civil rights movement in America in general and in North Carolina in particular. Through a careful examination of Jones’ appeal and the social and economic conditions of those who will eventually follow him, the film skillfully explores the mindset that enabled the Klan’s rise.
Jones, along with charismatic preacher George Dorsett, grew North Carolina’s branch of the Klan through a carefully plotted statewide campaign. Rallies were designed as festive, family events that, after dark, turned into more fiery calls for civil action. While Jones persuasively framed the Klan as different things to different people, his general pitch was that the organization had a “holy mission” to bring white people together to better themselves. As the film shows, Jones’ rhetoric quickly became an appealing message to many poor white people from predominantly rural areas who felt threatened by the growing economic advancement of black people, were looked down upon by the state’s wealthy white population and alienated by the discourse of the “new South.”
In traditional documentary style, the film primarily combines archival footage with commentary from researchers. But it also includes a brief interview with a former member of the Klan that illustrates the organization’s powerful emotional pull for some people. The man recalls that his initiation was a moment that he will never forget because it made him feel “less alone.” It’s an interesting first-person account that speaks to the Klan’s dangerously effective strategy of using inclusion as a way to validate racism.
While Jones was a persuasive personality, the film makes a strong case that it was more than one man’s rhetoric that transformed North Carolina’s moderate approach to race relations. The central argument and the strength of “Klansville U.S.A.” is that Jones’ success was in part due to a complex mix of social and economic factors. The film is worth watching because it makes a valuable contribution to both the historical record of the civil rights movement and to our understanding of institutionalized racism.
“Klansville U.S.A” premieres on Tuesday, Jan. 13 at 9 p.m. EDT on PBS.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.
Stay Tuned: Klansville U.S.A.’ examines a dark chapter in our American experience
By Melissa Crawley