From Burning Crosses to Burning Cross Burners - OZY | A Modern Media Company

From Burning Crosses to Burning Cross Burners

From Burning Crosses to Burning Cross Burners

By Richard C. Harris

Cross burning at nighttime Ku Klux Klan rally.
SourceHank Walker/Getty


Because if Saul can become Paul, there’s plenty of hope for the rest of us.

By Richard C. Harris

I grew up being called names, picked on, made fun of, bullied.

At age 16, that all changed: I joined the Ku Klux Klan.

I rose quickly in the ranks. I became the Grand Dragon of Indiana. In the ’70s the Indiana Ku Klux Klan was the largest Klan north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and I was its leader. No one called me names anymore.

The anger and hate just simmered inside of me, often bubbling up and erupting. I was aware of demographers predicting that by 2050 whites would no longer be the majority race in America. I used it as a recruiting tool to entice whites to join the Klan.

They shoved a gun up to my head and warned that if I talked, I’d get a bullet to the brain.

We in the Klan always talked about “the coming race war,” and we started stockpiling weapons and bomb-making materials in hopes of stemming the tide of the demographic changes. When you read in today’s news about white power groups promoting a race war, do not dismiss it as the whims of a few deranged radicals. Planning and plotting for this has gone on for decades.

Inside though? I felt empty and alone.

My radical transformation finally came in 1978. That was when I was ordered to start reading the Bible and start sounding more religious in my public speeches.

Most people are shocked to learn the KKK believes they are the true Christians on this earth. I quickly noticed places in the Bible where the Klan chaplains had twisted the Scriptures and lied to us, though.

I felt I had ruined my life, but there was no getting out — I was in too deep.

But I knew I had to get out. The truth of white superiority was nothing but a lie. They shoved a gun up to my head and warned that if I talked, I’d get a bullet to the brain. Then they let me leave.

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The author, in 1974

Even though I spoke often about the “coming race war” while running the Klan, I didn’t actually believe it would ever happen.

And so I privately denounced racism and the white power movement. But publicly kept my mouth shut for about 13 years. Then I went to college to become a pastor, and I started speaking out against the Klan and racism around 1991. I’ve since survived three assassination attempts.

Then? Then I became an adjunct professor at Purdue University, and now I serve as the first white pastor on the staff of an historic African American church in Florida.

Yes, God has a sense of humor. Yes, people can change. And yes, change is what America drastically needs right now.

My favorite university course I developed and taught was Interracial Communication in the USA. I team-taught it with an African American colleague.

The main reaction we get from students? Anger: “Why are we just learning these things now?”

White, Black, Hispanic, Asian. They are angry. Angry that they didn’t learn the true history of the Civil War. That no one ever taught them the history of Jim Crow. That no one helped them understand how the idea of race came about and the impact it’s had on our communication with each other.

They are angry. They are uncomfortable. But they are also grateful that they are finally learning and can start building better relationships and communicating more intelligently with those who do not look like them. 

Even if by the 2000s America would be so integrated in schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods that you’d think there would be no problems between the races. That the new generations would never know segregation. That everyone would have friends of all races. I really didn’t even think the White Power movement would even still exist. 

Of course, I was wrong. We don’t relate, communicate, or resonate well with each other across racial lines. We’ve never been trained to; in fact, we’ve been conditioned not to.

While I’ve always discouraged violence as a means of social change since I left the Klan, as I’ve watched the peaceful protests over the past few years and seen the response (or lack thereof), I have come to believe that were it not for some of the violence happening now, most of the country would soon forget about race issues as they always do. 

This time seems different though. I’m hearing white people actually talk about systemic racism — something they would have denied vigorously in the past. Perhaps enough people are listening to enact the changes we so desperately need as a nation.

So I teach our students a simple framework to remind them of what they can do to decrease their own racial biases: Respect differences, Accentuate similarities, Cultivate other-race friendships, and Expand racial literacy.


A new life, with new colleagues in a Florida church.

And what our students in that interracial communication course experience is what I wish for everyone in America to experience. Could the events of the past few weeks be the catalyst? We can only hope, pray and keep working toward that end. America has been in crisis mode for a long time when it comes to race relations. To bring that crisis to an end, let the conversations begin.

I mean if a Grand Dragon of the Klan can change to the point of being a pastor in an African American church, then there must be hope for the average American to leave racial bias behind.

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