The Klan My Experience: Atlanta and the Klan

After the 2000/11 disaster in New York, George W. Bush said he was going after terrorists, and my first thought was “Good, he’s going after the Ku Klux Klan!” It certainly was wishful thinking on my part! The Klan has always been considered America’s major terrorist group and/or the initiator of terrorism through its hate propaganda and Georgia’s DeKalb County, both in and around the capital city Atlanta, has played a central and national role in it all.
I am originally Canadian, but all of this comes close to home for me as, since the early 1950s, DeKalb County in Atlanta is exactly where I have mostly lived and grown up since I was a 6 year old child.
It appears also that given the recent white supremacist promotional and protest events, such as the Charlottesville tragedy and the killing in Charleston in 2015, there has been a lot of reflection by many of us in the United States about Klan history and white supremacy overall, and I am one of those.
Further, the national Klan, launched in 1865-66, and Klan rebirths in 1915 and 1963, have invariably been a backlash to counter achievements for justice.

We should also add that in the 21rst Century in 2017 we are witnessing what could be described a fourth resurgence of the Klan due to the intensification of white supremacist activities. This is both a response to what seems to be a sympathetic White House to white supremacy overall, along with the white supremacist response to the country having just completed two terms of its first Black President, Barack Obama.

And don’t think for a moment that the Klan has its leadership exclusively among the white working class, because if you do think that way you would be wrong. Its leadership – whether directly in the Klan or of white supremacist sentiments – has always resided in America among its white elite.

And how do you define the “white elite”? They are “white” Americans with either inherited family wealth or professional leaders such as lawyers, physicians, dentists, those in the military or those in corporate and/or in government positions, etc. In other words, they are everywhere in society. And they are interested in “power”, largely to accrue profits, pure and simple.

As civil rights leader Reverend Joseph Lowery once said, “The Klan might not be wearing sheets today, but instead they are sitting in boardrooms.” These were words of wisdom, yet the Klan members and leaders, as stated, have almost always been sitting in boardrooms or legislatures, etc. since the beginning. And further, as a Mississippi friend of mine once said, “the Klan never does anything without approval from its white elite leaders” which also makes sense.

The white elite involvement is reflected in the Atlanta history about the Klan. As you will note in the history below, Klan leaders were a General, “failed” pastor and attempted physician, businessman, dentist and lawyer.
Finally. it is also important to note that historically the white elite in America has always benefited financially through the white/black conflict and the selling of “hate”. It has been a way to also control workers and farmers where profits accrue upward to the elite. It has been, in fact, along the lines of what Karl Marx stated, that “people are treated differently for profit”. And there have always been attempts in America to treat people differently be it by race or class or religion for profit.
But rather than addressing the profit motive here, this article is largely about the history of the national Klan initiatives in DeKalb County in and around Atlanta, Georgia that includes efforts to undermine America’s movements for civil and human rights. And further, historically, in much of their infrastructure and organizing, the Klan has tried to keep everything a secret. It is way past time to expose them as much as possible so we know what we’re dealing with.
About the Klan and Atlanta

William Venable

To understand the Klan vis-a-vis Atlanta and the United States overall, we need to consider some of the Venable family members that have had a long residency in the Atlanta area.

It was William Venable (1852-1905) and Sam Venable (1856-1939) who purchased Stone Mountain in DeKalb County, Georgia in 1886 for $48,000 and the family maintained ownership until the State of Georgia purchased Stone Mountain in 1958. (See biographical information about William and Samuel Venable in the appendix below.)

Sam Venable

In turn, Stone Mountain has served as the home base for Klan activity since the early 1900s, not only because of Sam Venable’s interest and involvement in the Klan but also because he allowed it to be used to create what became the“largest high relief sculpture in the world, the Confederate Memorial Carving, depict(ing) three Confederate figures of the Civil War – President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.” (Stone Mountain Park)

Here’s more of a description of the carving:

The entire carved surface measures three-acres, larger than a football field and Mount Rushmore. The carving of the three men towers 400 feet above the ground, measures 90 by 190 feet, and is recessed 42 feet into the mountain. The deepest point of the carving is at Lee’s elbow, which is 12 feet to the mountain’s surface. (
Stone Mountain Park)
   

Most people think the carving was completed in the early 1900s. Not so. Surprisingly, the Confederate carving at Stone Mountain was not finished until the 1970s. Its completion, according to some, was initiated by white supremacists who clearly held disdain for the successful passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act and completing this depiction honoring the Confederacy was a way to counter those victories with arrogance and disrespect.

President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

At Stone Mountain, as you might also expect, there was a dedication ceremony to celebrate the completed carving. Georgia officials presumed President Richard Nixon was coming to the event but he instead sent his “reviled” Vice President Spiro Agnew to give the keynote and this created a controversy in itself. In a May 9, 1970 editorial entitled “Shame and Disgrace,” the Atlanta Constitution stated:

It is a shame and a disgrace that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew will make the chief address dedicating Stone Mountain Memorial Park’s monumental carving.
Honorable men ride that rocky ledge, Gen. Robert E. Lee foremost among them. He never would have dismissed dissenters as “elite snobs.” Never would he have suggested that snobbery had anything to do with the course the country should follow.
A general-in-chief of the Confederate armies (who fought in a dying cause, to be sure), Lee had traits sorely needed in this hour of the nation’s history. His temper and patience seldom failed him. Self-control was his nature. On those rare times when his wrath did get away from him, he followed it with a particularly gracious act to the one who had felt his displeasure.
Spiro Agnew has none of those redeeming qualities. He has the grace of a drill sergeant and the understanding of a 19th century prison camp warden. (virginia.edu
Klan Beginning, It’s Rebirth and Role of Atlanta
Nathan Bedford Forrest
Regarding Klan history at the national level, the initial Klan organization was formed in Pulaski, Tennessee “between December 1865 and August 1866 by six former officers of the Confederate army”  including the former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (see who became its first Grand Wizard (Wikipedia). “In the late 1860s Forrest began an association with the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, a secret society that terrorized blacks and opposed Reconstruction efforts. (History.com) (See biographical information about Nathan Bedford Forrest in the appendix below.)

Then, Atlanta and Stone Mountain come into the mix regarding Klan development.

William J. Simmons

The second resurgence or re-birth of the Klan was on Thanksgiving Day in 1915. William J. Simmons, also in Atlanta, organized the event on the top of Stone Mountain after being inspired by the recently released infamous and controversial film, “The Birth of a Nation

directed by D.W. Griffith that depicted Black males as unintelligent and sexually aggressive toward white women. In the film, it was the Klan that saved the day and protected white women.  (See biographical information about William J. Simmons in the appendix below.)

Historian John Hope Franklin observed that because of the popularity of the film in the South that “had it not been for “The Birth of a Nation”, the Klan might not have been reborn in 1915″.  (Wikipedia)

It was also from “The Birth of a Nation” that Simmons was inspired by the depiction of the Klan “cross burning” that was not a part of the original Klan in 1865 but which, however, Simmons made sure was used in the 1915 event at Stone Mountain. Below is a description:

 

Looking eastward on a chilly Thanksgiving night in 1915, residents of Atlanta were met with an unfamiliar sight. Fifteen miles away the barren summit of Stone Mountain was illuminated by flames rising high into the blackness. The city, still reeling from a summer of anti-Semitic angst over the murder conviction and subsequent lynching of Jewish industrialist Leo Frank, would have been excused for thinking the giant burning cross was a work of Jewish retribution. In fact, it was the same violently anti-immigrant men who had committed the recent act of mob justice, and were now inaugurating the renewal of the Ku Klux Klan. It was the first time a burning cross had been used as a hate symbol in America. But the formerly innocuous act would soon become one of the hallmarks of the Klan-enduringly equated with intimidation, fear, and violence in the South and beyond.
On the mountaintop that night were fifteen men led by William Joseph Simmons, a failed medical student and army veteran who had been inspired by the popular new movie, The Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith’s silent film, based on the 1905 novel “The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan”, includes scenes depicting Klan members burning crosses before lynching a black man accused of murder. Simmons and company, fresh from committing their own act of extrajudicial justice, adopted the flaming cross symbol. But the origins of the practice were a far cry from the racist rabble rousing espoused by the Klan’s second coming. (Time Line)
Sam Venable was involved in this 1915 gathering and became secretary of the Klan.
Also, “the youngest participant that fateful night atop Stone Mountain was thirteen-year- old James Venable, Sam’s nephew.” (Atlanta’s Stone Mountain: A Multicultural History)

James Venable

“In 1922 Hiram W. Evans, a dentist from Dallas, Texas, displaced William Simmons as the leader of the Klan and attempted to turn the organization into a powerful political machine.” (Georgia Encyclopedia)

Close to five decades later, James Venable led the 1963 third resurgence of the Klan, also held at Stone Mountain. Venable then became the imperial wizard of the National Knights of the Klan from 1963 to 1987.
In summary, DeKalb County, Georgia, therefore, holds the record for two-thirds of these major national Klan initiatives.
Klan Organizing and Response to Civil and Human Rights Initiatives and its Mission 
What is described here is by no means the extent of the response by the Klan to human and civil rights initiatives but instead is a few major examples. The 1963 Klan organized by James Venable gathering took place just two months after the huge and impressive August 28, 1963 “March on Washington” when Atlanta resident and civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his acclaimed “I Have a Dream Speech” in which he includes the comment, “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia”.
The 1963 Klan gathering in Georgia was also but a month and a half after the devastating African American 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and
Carol Denise McNair)

(The bombing was)….an act of white supremacist terrorism which occurred at the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, September 15, 1963, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device beneath the steps located on the east side of the church.

 
Described by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity”, the explosion at the church killed four girls and injured 22 others. (Wikipedia)
Clearly, the Klan’s third resurgence under the leadership of James Venable on November 1, 1963 at Stone Mountain coupled with the Birmingham bombing were disdainful reactions by white supremacists to the growing civil rights movement and demands for justice in the United States. It was very similar to the motives leading to the creation of the Klan itself in 1865 with the intent being to strike against emancipation and the beginning of reconstruction involving the leadership of freed slaves.
To provide a sense of the documented mission regarding “white” supremacy being the major quest of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, below is a portion from the 1921 Klan constitution that includes reference to white supremacy. To read the entire constitution, click here.
CONSTITUTION AND LAWS

Knights Of the Ku Klux Klan (Incorporated)
Imperial Palace, Invisible Empire
Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Atlanta, GA (1921)
 

Proclaim to the World

 

…..We invite all men who can qualify to become citizens of the Invisible Empire to ap- proach the portal of our beneficent domain, join us in our noble work of extending its boundaries, and in disseminating the gospel of “Klankraft,” thereby encouraging, con- serving, protecting and making vital the fraternal relationship in the practice of an hon- orable clannishness; to share with us the glory of performing the sacred duty of protecting womanhood; to maintain forever the God-given supremacy of the white race; to commemorate the holy and chivalric achievements of our fathers; to safeguard the sacred rights, privileges and institutions of our Civil Government; to bless mankind and to keep eternally ablaze the sacred fire of a fervent devotion to a pure Americanism.   

Apparently, the constitution developed for the 1921 Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was adapted from Nathan Bedford Forrest’s original Klan constitution in 1868 that can also be read by clicking here.

DeKalb County and the Venable Family

 

DeKalb County, in Atlanta, is where many of the Venable family lived and where I grew up, as well. In fact, at least one of the Venable family relatives, who I knew, went to my high school – Druid Hills – close to Emory University in Atlanta.
However, the details of the Venable family history I have only recently discovered. As is usually the case in the South, I heard rumors about some of the Venable family and questionable activities at Stone Mountain while growing up, but never had the details. And I never made the connection between the Venable family house in our Druid Hills area and Klan activity. Yet, growing up, I never wanted to go near Stone Mountain and didn’t go there until much later.

Venable House
Below is a videoed lecture by Venable family member, Frank Eldridge, as he describes the Venable House where he grew up along with other Venable family members. Eldridge’s great grandfather was William Venable and Sam Venable was his great uncle.
The house was sometimes referred to as “Stonehenge”. Located on 1410 Ponce de Leon Road in Atlanta, it is now St. John’s Lutheran Church and is just a few blocks away from where I presently live. Some years ago, the church members invited Eldridge to speak as they wanted to learn about the history of the building.
I am astonished with the fact that while I have been doing some of this research that a surprising number both black and white activists in Atlanta who I’ve mentioned this history to – some of whom also live close to the Venable House – like me, they knew nothing of the history of the Venable family and Klan involvement. It is simply not something that has been discussed. This is typical southern behavior I must say which is often not to question enough – especially by those who have lived here a long time – to hid what they think might be happening, sometimes to try to excuse it, and then sweep it under the rug.
My older brother said recently that some of the fraternities at Druid Hills High School would occasionally hold parties at the Venable House.
Here is a brief description of the house:

The Tudor Domestic Gothic building above is the Stonehenge Mansion near the corner of Oakdale and Ponce de Leon in eastern Atlanta, Georgia. It was built by the Venable family in 1914. The architect was Edward Bennett Dougherty. The mansion is now part of St. John’s Lutheran Church.               

Samuel Hoyt Venable and William Venable owned the Southern Granite Company, which owned Stone Mountain, Arabia Mountain, and Pine Mountain in Georgia. The mansion was therefore built of granite from Stone Mountain, which is about twelve miles to the east. Stone Mountain granite is a gray granite… (University of Georgia)

(See the Appendix for  information about other Atlanta structures built from the Stone Mountain granite.)

Some Venable family members have seemingly regarded the Klan involvement as unfortunate. In fact, Frank Eldridge said that while running for government positions he had never verbalized his family’s Klan history. He said that the presentation he was giving at the church was the first time he had spoken in public about his family’s Klan connection, as having the Klan association known, he said, would not be helpful for a politician or judge.

Eldridge, however, has had an impressive legal career.

In 1965, Judge Eldridge was admitted to the Georgia Bar and practiced as a trial lawyer until April 15, 1979, when he was appointed to the Superior Court of Fulton County by Governor George D. Busbee, where he served and was re-elected without opposition until his appointment on July 16, 1996, to the Court of Appeals of Georgia by Governor Zell Miller. He served as Chief Judge of the Superior Court of Fulton County as well as District Administrative Judge and served on the Judicial Council and the Executive Committee of the Council of Superior Court Judges. 
(Also) ….since 1974, he has taught adults in the “International Class,” which is comprised of a racially, ethnically and culturally diverse group of international students and immigrants as well as American citizens by birth and naturalization. (Georgia Appeals)
 
Eldridge noted that his relative, James Venable, was considered the disreputable member of the family. James Venable’s career was also political in addition to his Klan activities. He was the mayor of Stone Mountain Village from 1946 to 1949 and he was also an attorney in Decatur, Georgia that is located, as well, in DeKalb County. 
Here’s more about James Venable and his Atlanta connection, where, in a 1982 interview, he mentions connections with the descendants of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Atlanta. (The excerpt below is from a transcribed interview with James Venable by James Mackay.)

….but really you never become a Klansman till you complete the third degree, the Knights of the Great Forrest, named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was the first Imperial Wizard, and his son was a Grand Dragon of Georgia, lived out there on Forrest Avenue, and black people have been successful in changing that name of that street after Ralph McGill there. He lived the third house, right at Glen Iris, on Forrest Avenue. I went to school with Nathan III. He finished military college at West Point. He died in 1946. I was acquainted with his father, who was the Grand Dragon of Georgia and the son of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, perhaps the bravest general, he and Stonewall Jackson. He had twenty-nine horses shot from under him, Nathan Bedford Forest. History doesn’t recall these facts.

 

Venable mentions Forrest Avenue, close to downtown Atlanta, being named after the original klansman, Nathan Bedford Forrest. My father used to teach in the Emory University Dental School in the 1950s on that very Forrest Avenue that was then changed to Ralph McGill Boulevard. It was named after McGill who was known as the anti-segregationist editor of the Atlanta Constitution.

Being “White” in the South

 

Atlanta also used to be the headquarters of the “Anti-Klan Network” led by the esteemed civil rights leader, Reverend C.T. Vivian. In the 1980s, Reverend Vivian asked me to participate in a Klan recruiting effort in the small town of LaGrange, Georgia south of Atlanta. In the LaGrange town square, the Klan was to have a Klan member at each corner handing out information about the Klan to drivers coming into the square.
Reverend Vivian wanted white activists standing next to the Klan members at each corner to, in contrast, distribute information about the Anti-Klan Network. I did precisely that.
Standing next to a Klan member who wore his Klan robe, I distributed information about the Anti-Klan Network while also observing Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI)
staff looking out the windows of some of the office buildings with their rifles in hand. It was rather sobering to say the least. I heard the FBI was there as well.
While I was handing out the Anti-Klan Network materials, a “smiling” white male drove his truck around the square with black workers sitting in the back of the truck. It was clearly a scare tactic to intimidate the workers and make them more malleable – an age-old white supremacist and Klan tactic.

In the above narrative I have not written extensively about the specific activities of the Klan but rather about some of the early Klan formation. However, in my recollection of my high school in Atlanta, the Klan activities were not discussed openly even though they were occurring not far away.

Further, as someone “white” and, reflecting upon growing up in Atlanta and in the South, I realized that there were often rumors in my high school and elsewhere of outrageous “white supremacy” atrocities in and outside the city, yet much of it was not openly discussed and was rarely in the press as well. Everything was done in secret it seems.

This is called a “closed” society, which describes the South at its core and in which you are enclosed in a vacuum of lies and deception and lack of openness altogether…but I and some others knew instinctively that the culture left much to be desired. It was as if by closing yourself in, by not saying something openly or inquiring openly, that it was in some way a testament or an attempt to think, for one, that the violence and racist actions didn’t actually exist or also that you improperly try to distance yourself from it. And you can’t actually do that because by being “white”, all of us are, one way or the other, complicit in it all.
We are complicit by not saying anything, not learning about and not doing anything about this insane mindset and societal and oppressive impact of “white supremacy”.

This kind of “closed” thinking and lack of action against white supremacy is exceptionally harmful in countless ways. White supremacy tears at and rips apart the heart of society and not just in the South, but throughout the country and the world. I even heard from visiting scholar Gerald Horne this week, in his Atlanta lecture, that the surviving members of the “Little Rock Nine”, who, in 1957, integrated the Little Rock, Arkansas school, are still receiving death threats.  Yes, it is white supremacy on steroids for sure.

In fact, if we don’t know the present actions and the history of it, and if we don’t acknowledge the actions and impact of white supremacy overall, we don’t then know how to appropriately react against it.
The Venable House 

Frank Eldridge speaking

about the Venable history  

 

Appendix

(1) William Venable (1852-1905)

He is the son of William Richard Venable (1826-1873) and Sarah Cornelia Hoyt (1834-1916). He married Sarah A. Miller , daughter of Thomas Compton Miller on 15 Dec 1877 maybe at, La Grange, Troup Co., GA. William in 1874 is listed as Deputy Clerk Superior Court. William’s wife Sallie predeceased him by eight years leaving him with two daughters. Two daughters survived him, Coribel Venable Kellogg and Robert Ridley “Bob” Venable Thornton Roper, she is named after Dr. Robert Ridley of Atlanta. William was a Georgia State Senator for many years and served one term as President of the Georgia State Senate. He was a member of the Atlanta Police Board, a prominent Mason, a Knight of Pythias, and a member of all the city clubs. William and his brother, Samuel H. Venable owned and operated the Southern Granite Company which in turn owned Stone Mountain, Arabia Mountain, and Pine Mountain. (Find a Grave)

(2) Sam Venable (1856-1939)

Sam and his brother William bought Stone Mountain in 1887 from several owners. They were the first to own the entire mountain. They founded Venable Brothers and opened and operated the quarries at Stone Mountain. Under their able management the granite from this mountain made possible one of the major industries in the Empire State of the South, and played a prominent part in the rebuilding of Atlanta after the destruction of the War Between the States. Stone was quarried by the Scotch and Welsh quarrymen, who were imported for their skill in this field. Granite was cut for paving blocks, which were in great demand prior to the use of other materials for paving streets. Curb and building materials were also produced at Stone Mtn. and shipped all over the United States. In 1916, Samuel H. Venable jointly with his sister Elizabeth Venable Mason, and their nieces Coribel V. Kellogg and Robert V. Roper deeded to the United Daughters of the Confederacy the steep side of Stone Mountain and the adjacent land for the purpose of a Confederate Memorial. It was stipulated in the deed that if the memorial was not completed in twelve years, it would revert to the owners.
Samuel H. Venable, unmarried, Pres. Venable Bros., owners of Stone Mountain and Pine Mountain. Clubs: Capital City Club, Piedmont Driving Club, and Druid Hills Golf Club. Summer home: “Mont Rest” and “Wohelo” Stone Mountain, GA. Residence: “Stonehenge,” Druid Hills, Atlanta, GA. The United Daughters of the Confederacy contacted Gutzon Borglum to carve a head of Robert E. Lee on the mountain. After lengthy study of the mountain contour, Borglum said, “It seems to me that the only fitting memorial to the South of 1861-1865 by the equally great South of today, is to reconstruct as best we can the great characters of those days, and colossal proportions, carve them in high and full relief in action, mounted and on foot moving across the granite mountain in the arrangement of two wings of an army, following the mountain contour, moving naturally across it’s face to the East.” The first of the 200 feet high figures was unveiled in 1924. Borglum’s superb head of Gen. Robert E. Lee was unveiled. The UDC lost control and was taken over by the KKK. In 1925 the sculptor was dismissed. Many years later Borglum completed his carving on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills. Sam never married. In 1920 he deeded his half of the mountain to his sister, Elizabeth Venable Mason. (Find a Grave)

(3) James Venable (1901-1993) 

James R. Venable, a Georgia lawyer and white supremacist who organized a major Ku Klux Klan faction in 1963 and headed it for nearly 25 years.

From 1963 to 1987, Mr. Venable was the Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Klan, which he organized as one of several rival Klan factions nationally.

 

Mr. Venable’s ancestors owned Stone Mountain near Atlanta and ran a granite quarry there. The mountain, the site of a 1915 rally that revived the nearly extinct Klan, later became a state park and memorial with a giant relief of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, and Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson carved in the mountainside.

 

Mr. Venable was mayor of Stone Mountain Village from 1946 to 1949 and used the mountaintop and nearby family land for annual Klan rallies.

 

As a lawyer in Decatur, he sometimes represented blacks. He won acquittal for a black accused of murder and won an appeal for two Black Muslims in Louisiana convicted on charges stemming from a police raid on their mosque.   (NYTImes)

(4) Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877)  
Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate general during the Civil War (1861-65). Despite having no formal military training, Forrest rose from the rank of private to lieutenant general, serving as a cavalry officer at numerous engagements including the Battles of Shiloh, Chickamauga, Brice’s Crossroads and Second Franklin.
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