HUAC and the Klansmen
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November 4, 1965, Vol. XI, No. 3
HUAC and the Klansmen: Case Study in Futility
By Paul Cowan
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Day after day a plainly dressed witness, an Imperial Dragon, or Grand Nighthawk, a Kludd, or some other officer of the Ku Klux Klan sits quietly on the witness stand, across the table from House Un-American Activities Committee investigator Donald Appell, who first made his reputation during the Alger Hiss trials as the discoverer of the pumpkin papers. Sometimes Appell asks about violence in the South, or intimidations, or plans for massive torchlight rallies. More often he produces some document -- a bank statement, a Klan chapter's constitution, an income tax return -- and asks the witness to identify it.
"Mr. Chairman, I respectfully decline to answer that question because I honestly feel it will intimidate me on the grounds of the Fifth, First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States of America," the smalltown bricklayer or businessman replies.
Daily the audience in the hearing room dwindles -- stranger, more titillating things are happening elsewhere in Washington. Reporters are still in attendance by the legion, but at the press table someone is always asleep. Other correspondents kill time by reading the papers, gossiping, or chatting idly with a future witness.
The Klansmen, when they are not on the stand, manage to keep one another amused. Transplanted, their group intact, from the small towns of the rural South, they are sufficient to themselves -- they testify with each other in mind, joke on the sidelines together, hold press conferences which may annoy Northerners but will probably please the folks back home.
Their tactics are different from the tactics of left-wingers called in front of the committee. A radical sees his hour before HUAC primarily as a moral ordeal, to be met with a response as passionate and articulate as possible. But never do the Klansmen or their slow-talking lawyer, Leslie V. Chalmers, berate the committee or challenge its right to exist. They sit on the witness stand silently, apparently hoping to bore the hostile public into submission. The Klansmen will have a chance to talk later, outside hte hearing room before a battery of TV cameras.
The committee members in attendance are an assorted group. Edward Willis of Louisiana, HUAC's chairman, is not the hot-headed, angry subversive-baiter that one has imagine. A gentle, almost courtly man with slow intellectual reflexes, he continually halts the hearings to demand that a question be more fully explained or even, on occasion, to greet an old friend.
The investigator of the hearings, Charles Weltner of Georgia, seems anxious to live up to his image as the John F. Kennedy of the New South. Quite consciously, it seems, he physically detaches himself from the rest of the committee, contsantly leaning so far back from the great dais behind which the members sit as to be nearly invisible. He leaves the room every half hour or so for some intellectual pause that refreshes. A well-dressed, compact-looking man, he is the only committee member whose questions are always lucid and efficient.
Joe Pool of Texas is the only committee member whose manner most reminds one of HUAC's mood during the '50s. His questions, no matter what their political content, are usually hasty and ill-tempered, designed to put the witness on the defensive. One day last week George Dorsett, the Grand Kludd (chaplain) of the North Carolina Klan, was on the stand refusing to testify. When Appell, noting Dorsett's anti-Communist statements, began to ask him -- a professional to a novitiate -- what knowledge of Communism he possessed, Pool interrupted with great heat. "It would be more appropriate to ask what knowledge he has of fascism," he said ironically. Appell failed to take the cue, and the hearing room was quiet for several seconds. "All right," Pool continued, evidently satisfied by his own virtue. "I'll ask that question." Dorsett of course refused to testify, and there was another silence. Finally, Pool looked at Dorsett furiously. "There's no use staring at me like that," he yelled, "you aren't scaring me one bit."
The HUAC Congressmen do seem unanimous in their view that Klansmen, like left-wingers called before the committee, only exist as organizational functionaries -- not as human beings whose ideas and feelings can usefully be discussed. For instance one Klansman, Joseph DuBois of Goldsboro, North Carolina, decided to testify rather than be regarded as a subversive. He seemed eager to explain the history of his involvement in the organization. In a series of brief speeches he described the poverty of his youth, his years in the Marines which left him shell-shocked, and his subsequent efforts to gain some education and set up a small business. Here at last was a chance to perceive a Klansman -- totally evil in the Northerner's imagination -- as a legitimate human being. But the committee wasn't interested.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]
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