Armed with a dozen cameras, two assistants and enough equipment to sink a ship, reportage photographer Mary Ellen Mark arrived like a storm in Tennessee to photograph the Ku Klux Klan (page 82). 'I tried to portray the Klan as it really is,' she says, 'rather than stamping my own negative perspective on it. I just kept silent and got on with it.' As a streetwise New Yorker, she was amazed by the contrast in culture, especially after finding her abandoned umbrellas exactly where she'd left them two days previously. Mary Ellen Mark's distinctive black‑and‑white images have appeared regularly, for nearly 30 years, in Life, American Vogue, The Sunday Times and Stern.
Rachel Pendergraft is the power behind the new-look Ku Klux Klan. Tahir Shah met the KKK Grand Dragon.

March 1995
Picture Editor Alex Robertson

Pendergast and her Klansmen

Rachel Pendergraft was pre­sented with her first set of hooded robes before she could walk. Her earliest memories are of midnight ceremonies, burning crosses and oaths of allegiance to the Ku Klux Klan. Brought up in the very bosom of the Klan, Pendergraft, now aged 25, has become its most powerful female member in America today. Hers is the modern face of the most feared 'hate group' in the USA.

Pendergraft is blonde and fair‑skinned with large hazel eyes. Standing in the doorway of a run‑down motel room somewhere in east Tennessee, dressed in a tailored navy suit, cream blouse and large gold earrings, she smiles the wide, fuchsia‑glossed smile of a woman who understands the importance of first impressions.

The room is cluttered with vanity cases, five or six suits with Italian labels are draped over the beds and children's toys are strewn across the floor. Charity, aged three, and Shelby, almost two, are watching television dressed in their Sunday best. Hanging in one corner of the room are two sets of white silky robes, full length and hooded with visors, bearing the black stripes that indicate membership of the highest order of the Klan. These are the robes of a Grand Dragon, one of the Grand Council of the Knights of the KKK, and Pendergraft is the first woman to have entered their ranks.

Rachel Pendergraft with her daughters, her father and Michael Lowe, state director of Texas, and a member of the Grand Council.

The Ku Klux Klan is approaching the millennium with a brand new strategy. It has re‑aligned its dogma and refined its message, become environmentally‑friendly and media aware. But perhaps most significantly, the Klan is now deliberately recruiting women to its highest echelons. Gone are the calls to arms. This is 1995 and the Klan is promoting a softer, more matriarchal image. There may be a time and a place for lynchings, but KKK coffee mornings are so much nicer.

'When we were kids there were always Klan picnics and barbecues,' says Pendergraft, in her Southern drawl. 'I didn't have any coloured friends but I did once know a Mexican girl. We weren't close. She understood that I belonged to the Klan.'

She pauses while Charity squirms onto her lap. 'I'm really dedicated to the Klan,' she says. 'I'm committed because I care about the future of my children. I love my people because they're white, I love my kids because they're white ‑and I'll love my grandchildren 'cause they'll be white.

'You must understand,' she continues, suddenly animated, 'we don't hate black people, we just love white people.'

This phrase is the Klan's bright new slogan. It graces billboards and baseball caps and rolls off the tongues of KKK cable TV presenters. 'We haven't changed our attitude in anyway,' says Pendergraft, 'but we are perfecting our image and working on our professionalism.'

Pendergraft and her father veteran Klansman Thom Robb run the largest and oldest Klan group in the United States. Known as the Knights of the KKK, the faction has realised that the only way the Klan can become a viable national force -as it was in the 20s when it commanded five million members ‑ is by appearing to change its spots. Their radical programme for change has met with hostility from the old‑school Klan members. Indeed the Knights, or 4K as they are informally known, lost about half their membership when the reforms began.

But father and daughter are undeterred by their short‑sighted brethren. Their call to disrobe for public functions, to tone down the anti‑ethnic rhetoric and to welcome women into the fold, is all part of a Klan clean‑up designed to bring them into line with the vast swell of right‑wing Christian fundamentalists in America. The time has come when the Ku Klux Klan can, with a bit of whitewash, come out of the shadows and be counted, not as a secret organisation of die‑hard Southern men, but a political force to be reckoned with.

Marc Caplan of the Anti-Defamation League, one of the groups that monitor the movements of the Klan and other 'hate groups', feels that although the restructuring might be unpopular in the short term, it is well‑thought‑out and its implications for the future are disturbing. 'Women were always the weak link in the hate movement,' he says. 'The women, who were traditionally forbidden to attend Klan meetings, were the ones who held the men back. Now that they've become fully integrated, everything has changed. Not only are they seeking power within the organisation but they are responsible for indoctrinating the children. And children are the future of the Ku Klux Klan.' Robb confirms the new policy. 'Remember that the majority of American voters are women. We must therefore appeal to women and place them at high levels of leadership.'

A robed Knight of the KKK in a field near Pulaski: “Women are seeking power within the organization.”

Pendergraft is working on drawing 'bright young single' women into the Klan. Right now, she claims, women make up about 45 percent of the Klan. 'We have a lot of single women,' she says. There are lawyers, businesswomen, students, office workers. 'When I was single, I converted my husband, Scott. He wasn't a KKK member when we met, just a nice young guy with the same white Christian values as me.'

Now the couple are bringing up their children in 'the faith'. 'I wouldn't say "nigger" around the house,' says Pendergraft, with the sweetest smile. “I do try not to put down the non‑whites when I'm with the kids. But it's so important to instil racial pride in one's kids when they're as young as possible. White kids in the US have been given a guilt trip for long enough, just 'cause they're white. We're developing a special Youth Corps programme for American youngsters between 12 and 17. This is a special area to concentrate on.”

Pendergraft and her father recently bought 100 acres of land in the Ozark Mountains for this project. The site, she says, will house the new national office and a KKK two‑year leadership programme will be run from there. 'We're like any business. We're working on nurturing leaders. If you have a message you need well‑turned‑out people to appeal to the masses.'

And it's the voting masses that Pendergraft and her Knights have in their sights. 'I think we're going to see our organisation becoming a major political force in this country,' says Pendergraft bluntly, and then, in a voice choked with emotion, 'I believe that a Klansman will lead the nation within the next 25 years. The White House was built for a real white leader.'

Next stop on the road to white supremacy is the annual Klan homecoming 10 miles from the motel, in Pulaski. The Knights of the KKK return to Pulaski once a year, to honour their founders and to preach their message.

On Christmas Eve 1865, six young men convened in the shadows of a candlelit Pulaski house and established a secret sect, whose silly name and spooky attire reputedly originated as part of a plan to commit harmless, unattributable pranks. Within months, news of their success and the clandestine appeal of the gang was attracting a more serious following.

Ashamed of their infamous legacy, the people of Pulaski have stayed at home on this wet December day. Advertisements in the press announce: 'Hey Kids, come see Santa Klaus ‑Souvenirs ‑ Crafts ‑ Country Music ‑ Klowns - Bagpipers ‑ Have your picture taken with a robed Klansman'.

The mayor of the town cannot refuse the Klan its right to demonstrate. 'Until a couple of years ago,' he says, they used to yell, "Nigger Out! Nigger Out!" and make Nazi salutes when they marched. But the worst of it is hearing people from other communities calling Pulaski the Klantown.'

Rachel Pendergraft leads the Klan through the deserted streets of Pulaski. At the homecoming ceremony.

In the town square, Pendergraft and her colleagues set up stalls and Ku Klux Klan banners. As Klansmen come out of the woodwork, the new face of the Klan is put on display. 'We have hot‑dogs, nachos, T‑shirts and baseball caps,' says Pendergraft. 'Klan Kitsch' includes badges that read Klan Kids Kare, T‑shirts with the slogan Racial Purity is America's Security, ceramic hooded Klansmen with eyes that glow red in the dark and KKK hooded dolls.

Standing over the doll stall is Anastasia Robb, Pendergraft's sister‑in‑law. 'I made the dolls' robes myself,' she announces. Aged just 19, Robb is dedicated to the Ku Klux Klan. 'I've never had any close minority friends. I always knew that I wanted to marry an Aryan man and have Aryan children,' she declares. Next to her stall a batch of hotdogs is being cooked up by a Klanswoman dressed, like many present, in the new politically correct uniform of the Klan ‑white shirt and black tie, Klan badges and baseball cap on which there is a picture of a robed Klanswoman and the slogan Girls In The Hood.

The current issue of The White Patriot newspaper, written and edited by Rachel Pendergraft, is passed around the stallholders. Inside, along with articles telling Klansmen to resist killing 'negroes' and peddling drugs, is a section enticing the reader to become 'a friend of the Knights of the KKK'. To sign up you pay a fee of $25 ($15 for the crippled) and sign a form stating, 'I am an Aryan and not of racially‑mixed descent. I am not married to a non‑white, nor do I date non‑whites'.

Many Klan members have travelled thousands of miles to come 'home' to the birthplace of the KKK. Thom Robb, a short, mousey man in a dark suit and shabby raincoat, saunters about encouraging the stallholders. In the past he called for the execution of gays and immigrants; today he is watchful and image‑conscious. Now he prefers to go by the name of National Director rather than Grand Wizard and only 'robes up' for special private cross‑lightings, of the kind that takes place later that evening at a secret location 12 miles outside Pulaski.

Here the Klansmen reconvene on private land. Under the cover of darkness, a convoy of vans, trucks and sedans makes its way into a field at the centre of which is a vast, diesel‑soaked cross, standing 4Oft high.

There are calls to 'robe up'. Far from the gaze of the American voters, the Ku Klux Klan re‑enact a rite that is as old as their order. 199Cloaked in gleaming white satin, the Knights move like apparitions across the field, encircling the giant cross – the symbol of the Klan's Christian identity with blazing torches. Then, in unison, the robed figures thrust their blazing firebrands towards the cross with a chorus of 'White Power'.

Klansmen erect the cross that will be ceremonially burned.

As the homecoming progresses, the proceedings are monitored from afar by anti‑Klan groups who believe the new‑look Klan is more dangerous than the old. Says one, 'In the past the rhetoric was savage and their style open­ly militant. Now its sugary sweet and perfectly groomed, so it's easier for people to swallow. Below the veneer, of course, nothing has changed.'

When the hot‑dogs are finished, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan prepare to march around Pulaski. Pendergraft gathers the children together, hands out KKK banners, and helps to position the Klansmen in lines, at precise l0ft intervals. They are ordered not to make any racist remarks.

In absolute silence, the men, women and children of the Klan march through the now‑deserted streets. Some of them are clutching Klan flags. At the head of the entourage is Rachel Pendergraft. As the Klan marchers reach the house where their organisation was born, they pause. Pendergraft's face suddenly loses its persistent smile. With the expression of someone chilled to the bone, she raises her arm in a Nazi salute. Beside her, the Ku Klux Klan Santa Klaus does the same.

Video: Mary Ellen Mark photographing the KKK in Pulaski, Tennessee, 1995