(VIA CNN) — Pointy hats, white robes, crosses burning, bodies hanging from trees.
The images of the Ku Klux Klan are reminders of the nation’s ugliest moments from the Civil War through the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s.
Last Sunday, the world was confronted with another image of the Klan: 73-year-old Frazier Glenn Cross, a white supremacist and avowed anti-Semite, in the back of a police car, spitting, “Heil Hitler!”
When his alleged rampage at two Jewish institutions in suburban Kansas City, Kansas, was over, three people were shot dead — a teenage boy and his grandfather along with a woman who worked with visually impaired children.
The carnage was devastating to many. Imperial Wizard Frank Ancona was upset, too.
“What this guy just did set back everything I’ve been trying to do for years,” said Ancona, who leads the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
CNN tracked Ancona down on Twitter, where he has 840 followers, after he and other self-professed hate group leaders denounced the shootings in interviews withUSA Today and CNN affiliate WDAF in Kansas City, Missouri.
“I believe in racial separation but it doesn’t have to be violent,” he told CNN. “People in the Klan are professional people, business people, working types. We are a legitimate organization.”
Cross, who founded the Carolina Knights of the KKK in the 1980s, went “rogue,” Ancona said.
Charged with capital murder and first-degree premeditated murder, Cross did not enter a plea at his first court appearance. He requested a court appointed attorney and is scheduled to be back in court later this month.
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Ancona, who lives in Missouri, insists there’s a new Klan for modern times — a Klan that’s “about educating people to our ideas and getting people to see our point of view to … help change things.”
He said he and those like him can spread that message without violence — a sort of rebranding of the Klan.
The idea may sound absurd, but is it conceivable?
No, say top marketing experts, brand gurus and historians — and for many reasons.
The Klan could change its name, get a smooth-talking spokesperson, replace the robes with suits and take off those ridiculous hats, but underneath, people would recognize its message is the same.
“They stand for hatred; they always have,” said Atlanta-based brand consultant Laura Ries. “Maybe they don’t believe in shooting up a center for Jewish people, but they still support beliefs that are beyond the scope of understanding for most people and certainly the freedom and equality our country believes in.”
Other experts raised the question: If the Klan isn’t violent, what’s the point?
“What would you be left with? Benign racism?” asked Jelani Cobb, director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut.
The victims of the shooting rampage, Cobb noted, were not Jewish. One was Catholic and two were Methodist.
“In the most basic sense, the fact that the people who were killed were not Jews drives home Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s point that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he said. “It’s the most horrible metaphor for the fact that we are all impacted by the legacy of hate, even when it’s not specifically directed at the group to which we belong.”
Even if the modern KKK at large distances itself from this supposedly “rogue” element, Cobb said, that doesn’t make up for the group’s past.
“Violence and racial intimidation were the KKK’s raison d’etre. They’re not simply a controversial civic organization. If in fact they reject violence, the only honest way of establishing that would be to do restorative work for the incredible damage their history of violence has already done,” he said. “No sensible person is going to wait around for that to happen.”
From a sheer marketing perspective, the lack of central leadership poses more problems for the KKK if it’s serious about revamping its image. Just look at the Catholic Church, Ries said.
“The KKK doesn’t have a Pope. Look at what that guy has done. You have to have a leader like that to make people believe a change has happened,” she said.
Without a clear leader, marketing experts said, crafting and conveying a spin-friendly message is impossible.
That was evident the minute members of the “new” Klan denounced the shootings. Soon after Ancona spoke to reporters, other self-described “real” Klansmen began attacking him online for not adhering to authentic Klan doctrine.
“This movement is a hodgepodge of little groups that, as often as they attack their enemies, attack one another,” said Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups.
He estimates there are about 8,000 KKK members nationwide.
“To call these guys disorganized,” he said, “doesn’t quite do it.”
Potok pointed to a 2013 rally in Memphis, Tennessee, that drew about 75 Klan members. They arrived in their typical get-up to protest the city’s move to rename three city parks that honored Confederate leaders.
Then it got confusing and weird.
Another group of Klansmen showed up to protest the first Klan group, according to Potok and a local media report.
The second Klan group claimed to be about nonviolence and actually teamed with a black Crips street gang. The second group of Klansmen wanted people to know they were the real deal, the ones everyone should listen to, Potok recounted.
Bullhorns apparently belonging to the first KKK group died shortly after their gathering began. Memphis’ Commercial Appeal reported that their chants of “white power” were barely audible over the approximately 1,000 folks who showed up to protest racial intolerance.
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Potok doesn’t put much weight in the Klan’s condemnation of the Jewish center shootings, because it’s not the first time hate groups have done that. They did it after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing orchestrated by militia sympathizer Timothy McVeigh and after a white supremacist killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, he said.
“There’s a method to doing that. By publicly saying, ‘Oh, not us; we don’t do that,’ they think they’re protecting themselves against law enforcement zeroing in on them or from us suing them,” Potok said. “That doesn’t work, but they believe that.”
In the early 1980s, Morris Dees, SPLC’s co-founder and chief trial counsel, began using courts to secure monetary damages against hate groups. Courts then seized the groups’ assets. By 1991, many had gone into bankruptcy.
In 1981, Dees successfully sued the KKK and won a $7 million judgment for the mother of Michael Donald, a black lynching victim in Alabama. The judgment bankrupted the United Klans of America, which had to sell its national headquarters to help pay it off.
In the early 1980s, while operating the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Cross eschewed white robes for fatigues and recruited active-duty soldiers as members.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, which released a summary of its files on Cross this week, the group “drew notoriety for its paramilitary training exercises” and carried out attacks on African-Americans.
The SPLC sued Cross for operating an illegal paramilitary organization and for intimidating African-Americans. The two sides settled, with the Knights barred from operating.
But a month later, Cross resurfaced with an offshoot: the White Patriot Party.
Ancona, the imperial wizard, is aware of that history and said he thought it might be helpful if he and Potok had a conversation.
Throughout CNN’s interview, Ancona was cordial and repeatedly said he wanted to speak with media about the Klan’s message. He won’t be able to divulge too many operational details of his group, he said, because fraternal rites and rituals bar him from discussing exactly what they do.
Ancona explained that he’s in his second four-year term as imperial wizard, elected by state Klan group’s leaders, known as grand dragons. To get their message out, the Traditionalist Knights of the KKK wear their usual attire and stand on roadsides handing out flyers.
They also have a Web page, and they use Twitter and occasionallyLinkedIn, where Ancona promotes “working together as a team and a unit” to “strive to increase awareness of the destruction of our constitutional rights and the plight of the White race in America.”
“Facebook keeps deleting my posts,” he said.
Ancona’s branch of the KKK has a toll-free hotline that asks callers to press 1 if they would like an information packet, 2 for media inquiries, or 3 to talk to a member of the organization.
An outgoing voice mail explains the group is “unapologetically committed to the interests and values of the white race. We are determined to maintain and enrich our cultural and racial heritage. White people will simply not buy the equality propaganda anymore and have begun to doubt some of the anti-Klan hysteria that they have been fed in school and from TV and movies.”
Rhetoric and reaction
Dan Hill, a marketing expert who specializes in how consumers react emotionally to advertisements, said there can probably never be a Klan rebranding.
“Disney is happiness. Nike is you’re proud you ran the race. The Ayran Brotherhood — that’s somewhere on the spectrum of rage and outrage,” he said. “We are talking about an emotion that leads to violence. If you use that rhetoric, you can’t say you didn’t expect that kind of reaction.”
That’s a lesson history keeps trying to teach.
“The Klan has always been about wolves in sheep’s clothing,” said John Rowley, president of advertising agency and crisis management firm Fletcher Rowley in Nashville. “Hate groups have never had on their business cards the n-word or some sort of overt act of violence. They’ve always tried to appear a little more inclusive and less threatening, so it’s not surprising that they’re saying they are against this shooting.”
Rowley’s firm has worked on more than 500 political campaigns for Democrats in 46 states, including the 1991 election of Edwin Edwards for governor of Louisiana. The election made national headlines because Edwin’s opponent, former KKK leader David Duke, made an unexpectedly strong showing.
“Duke was a master of rhetoric to seem like a well-mannered candidate on the outside when he was a zealot on the inside,” said Rowley.
There were several factors that contributed to Duke’s loss, but when it comes to groups like the KKK, Rowley said, speaking as an ad man, even the “best spin must be grounded in reality.”
“Their core mission violates American core values right now,” he said. “We don’t believe in discrimination. You can’t just put a nice wrapper on that with the right words and a rebranding campaign.
Or to compare it to a product, “if you have a car that is killing people because the gas tank is exploding, it doesn’t matter how fantastic the ad campaign is for that car.”