Romeo and Julie in Klan hoods

by Jacob Holdt





Part one

Written right after my first visit with the Klan

Additional photos for this story


Pamela visits Jeffery in prison

I am, at this writing, traveling on the American highways and want to emphasize that this travel story in no way is finished. To travel is for me not a question of finished excursions, but of traveling into the human being along the way. And when can you really call such a journey through our creator’s great melting pot finished?
Some of the people who have fascinated me most in recent years are the many "children of hate" I pick up hitchhiking on the American highways - lonesome and down-hearted, they often stand on the roadside waiting for days to get a lift, since nobody will pick them up. Since they have met our rejection throughout their lives in similar ways, we are surprised and shaken when we hear in the media how they suddenly explode in hateful reactions towards the very society, which had turned its back to them. It is such a pity, for it is my experience from many years of traveling among the "children of hate" that you hardly find more loving people. Not least is this the case for the Ku Klux Klan.

If you immediately raise their eyebrows to this statement, I will ask you during your reading to put away your own hateful and negative thoughts about the Ku Klux Klan and try - at least for a little while - to meet these people with loving thoughts. Already now it will dawn upon you how hard this is and that hate is thus not monopolized by the Ku Klux Klan. Rarely have I experienced this so strongly as right now when I have managed to penetrate far into the very symbolic stronghold of hate - the headquarters of the strongest, fastest growing and according to experts the most dangerous Klan group in America, the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

My journey to become accepted by the Klan has been long, for I, too, suffered from negative thinking about Klan people. First of all, my black ex-wife gave me a thorough understanding of how they had terrorized her home town, Philadelphia, Mississippi, and murdered three civil rights workers there. Years later I had to fly my black co-worker, Tony Harris, home in shock from a lecturing tour in Norway, when he on national TV had seen the Klan shoot into a demonstration with submachine guns in his hometown, Greensboro, and, among others, murder his former girlfriend, Sandy Williams. So, yes, I am not blind to what violence the Klan can contain. But already in these two cases I got a bit of understanding when I heard about the poor backgrounds of these Klan folks. One of the murderers in my ex-wife’s hometown was Jim Bailey, whom she had played with as a child and thrown rocks after. Being "poor white trash," he had lived in the same rotten shacks as she did on "the wrong side of the tracks." Therefore, I quickly saw part of their violence as very similar to the violent patterns among blacks - brought about by the feelings of being ostracized and held in contempt by society. For no whites with respect for themselves would choose to live there "on the wrong side of the tracks."

Later I started going on lecturing tours in the USA and frequently picked up hitchhiking Klan members. On these long and seemingly endless drives, I had a good chance to meet the human being behind the façade of hate. For the façade indeed was always an incredibly closed and hostile face of the type which, right away, repels most other people. But since I long ago had experienced the same patterns in the most hurt blacks as well as in female rape victims, for example, I knew intuitively that the people we discriminate against are those who have themselves previously been hurt and discriminated against. It is easy to love women who beam confidence and extroverted love because they themselves have always met the same. But I am almost always blown away by the hostility and closedness I experience in many rape victims in the USA whom we afterwards further discriminate because they are overweight, for example, when they frequently eat themselves out of their pain. When it comes to racism, I have long ago learned that what we discriminate is not color of skin, but pain - such as it often manifests itself in a despairing cocktail of anger and hostility patterns among those we ostracize.

When I have met these reactions we deceptively call "hate," it has therefore always been a challenge for me to try to overcome my own immediate negative feelings for the human being behind them and instead show them extraordinary obligingness. Perhaps it started as pure curiosity, but when I quickly discovered how much gratitude and love I got in return, I began to see it as a kind of selfishness. For we who have managed to go through life without encountering too much pain have, of course, a craving for some love as well. And that you don’t get - as you well know - without investing a little yourself. That is, if you are among those lucky ones who have a surplus to invest.

A typical racist I picked up in Georgia called for exactly such an investment. He was closed and expressed himself in unmistakingly racist tones. He owned nothing except for a little box of cassette tapes, so in order to open him up a bit I asked him about his music and got him to play it on the car radio. In my ears it was hideous metallic music, but the more I asked him about it, the more he began to straighten up with pride over the interest he suddenly was subject to. And little by little I could begin to ask him about his childhood. As I had guessed, he had been beaten terribly by his father. Yet he added: "But I deserved a good beating because I was a bad child."  Here right away, I saw the typical link in the classical racist. Of course no child deserves to be mistreated or humiliated, and by excusing his father, he had inevitably projected his pain out on others. In this neck of the wood, that naturally meant the blacks. With his negative reactions to blacks, he therefore all the time experienced the blacks react negatively to him, with the result that he in the end became convinced that they were the cause of his deeper pain. This is the vicious circle of oppression, which long ago made me realize that the typical racist is just as much a victim as the blacks.

But where is the border between common racism and direct hatred? That I also discovered quickly - especially from hitchhikers I picked up. In the solitude of the car, you have a better opportunity of penetrating deep down into the human soul than in more superficial meetings. This is what can make traveling by car on the monotonous, boring American highways incredibly exciting. One night in Tennessee I picked up a lost hitchhiker who at first seemed closed and impervious, but something in his quavering voice made me suspect incest. Over a long time I therefore asked him in a loving way about his childhood. And sure enough, slowly - from the depths of his soul - there emerged a ghastly story of a stepfather’s rape of him, which he had firmly put a mental lid over. He was at any rate himself surprised by the memories that turned up, but also about the fact that he had never told anyone about it before.  In just a short time this knot of a closed person was transformed into one great case of gratitude that would do anything for me. During a coffee break I showed him my book (about underclass blacks) and suddenly he blurted out if I didn’t want to come with him to the Ku Klux Klan meeting he was on his way to. I had never in my hitchhiking years been able to track down this secret organization. Now one of its members suddenly and lovingly opened up to me and offered me his help in taking hidden pictures of the secret cross burning - actually betraying his own friends. I knew that from now on I could trust him, but really how grateful such incest victims are for the help you can give them is showed by the following episode.

After the public recruiting rally was over in the afternoon, we sat and ate in a McDonalds where I encouraged this dirt-poor Klan man to use my credit card to call home and let his family know that he had arrived safely. But now his mother told him how his uncle had just been murdered cold blooded by two blacks. Suddenly, I saw his face become transformed into all the hatred I had first seen in him. I was doubtful if I now dared to trust this man to go with him out into Alabama’s dark and deserted woods along with a bunch of mentally deranged and hooded men burning crosses in something that I knew would degenerate into mass hysteria. For now he knew everything about my relationship to blacks. Never have I been more terrified. And it was now myself who needed to call around to friends in America and family in Denmark to say that if they had not heard from me before midnight they should sound the alarm. It was one of the few times in my life, I have shown courage. For you only show courage if you do not have deep faith in the goodness of people. On that day I had my doubts and really had to overcome my fear. Fear is based on seeing the negative side in human beings, whereby we inevitably encourage evil. Today I am glad that I chose to "show" trust in this child of pain. Such people can feel so bad about themselves that they only attain a sense of self worth from seeing that others fear them. For them trust is the same as a declaration of love.

So I decided that I had no choice but to trust him and went with him into the woods. I cannot say that I regret it, for during this cross burning I recorded the most amazing pictures and soundtrack, which have since helped make my slideshow into such a success. Our agreement was that whenever I had taken a roll of film I would discreetly hand it over to him, so that if suddenly the Klan members found out and confiscated my film or worse, he would have the film and afterwards send it to my family. Everything went fine since I myself was dressed up in a hood-like coat under which I could conceal my cameras as effectively as the Klan members could conceal their guns.

And so I here learned my first important lesson on the Ku Klux Klan; that its need for love far, far surpasses its need to hate. Since then I have unremittingly preached that love is the only way to cure racism, but if I had not had it so dramatically demonstrated during my Klan-friend’s powerful spiritual struggle and my own sweat dripping doubts that night, my words would long ago have sounded hollow in my own ears. For my trust in him was precisely not a matter of being "blind" or "naive", but a choice. A choice about not abandoning human beings in the very moment when they appear most terrifying - behind a gun in the ghettos or a burning cross in the woods - just when their shrill cry for help reveals that they need you the most.  

On the personal level I have always felt that it was far easier to help Klan folks and Nazis out of their destructive behavior than common everyday racists because the cause and effect relationship is so much easier to identify in them.  At least when it comes to the rank and file members. But is that also the case for the leadership?

This is what I have an unusual chance to examine, as I, at the time of this writing, have succeeded in winning the confidence of the leader of America’s largest Klan group, the American Knights. Two Danish TV reporters last year followed me on the American highways to make a program about my work and got the idea of confronting me with the Klan leader, Jeffery Berry. Due to a rescheduling of my lectures, I could not myself be present and had to speak to him in a pre-recorded video. (I will later send a copy of that video). Here I told him about my deep sympathy for the Klan since I had never met anything but deep scars in the form of, for example, incest and childhood mistreatment in the Klan people I had met. In their poverty and society’s ghettoization of them they also in every respect in my eyes resembled the black ghetto I had traveled so much in. It was maybe a bit bold and brash to compare the Klan with the black underclass right up in the Klan leader’s face, but the incredible happened. Jeffery listened intensely to every one of my words without interrupting and afterwards he said candidly: "I want to meet this man. Promise me that you will let me meet this man."

It was obvious that I had touched something deep in him, so when my lecturing now a year later brought me close to Indiana, I therefore decided to visit him in his headquarters in Butler. Here in this poor town, where everyone looked like Ku Klux Klan people, I asked around for him and ended up with some shabby whites in a shoddy run-down boarding house. They were all losers and drunks with feelings of self-worth inversely proportional to everything they wanted to do to get me to stay and give them a bit of attention. They all came from broken families and hungered for love as they had met nothing but hardship in life. Only after numerous beers and cups of coffee was I permitted to leave. One guy in a tattered undershirt knew Jeffery jolly well, for "Jeffery killed my father." And then I was given a long story on how his father and Jeffery had long ago been drinking buddies and how Jeffery had killed him. I didn’t really believe it - as he himself was not really sure about the details - but the setting somehow fit well with what I since learned.

Tania in the gas stationFor Jeffery was now in prison, I was disappointed to find out through him. I nevertheless wanted to meet Jeffery’s family and was told that his daughter, Tania, worked on a Clark gas station on the outskirts of town. Here I gassed up and when I went in to pay I asked the attendant if she was Tania. Yes, she said surprised. I then told her about the TV-program with her father and asked if she was herself in the Klan. Yes, she said and beamed with pride. She was extremely overweight and appeared to have the same low self-worth as the others, but with an expression of someone who has grown up in a narrow-minded persecuted religious cult - a bit like the Mennonites I did a lecture for a few days before.

She said that her father would "love" to get a visit from me in prison. When you consider that she had lived all her life in a despised Klan group, it was touching to see how open and forthcoming she was. As with the others in the boarding house, she would not let me leave, and even though there was a line of costumers behind me, she continued talking and gave me free donuts to get me to stay. Already here I discovered that the picture I had made of the Klan based on the many lost supporters I over the years had picked up - who were nothing but "children of pain" starving for love - actually also hold true of the very top of the biggest Klan group in America.

When I realized that Jeffery was in the restricted part of prison not open to visitors, I gave up my project and went out to the car. But just as I was driving out of the lot, Tania came running after me short of breath and knocked at the car from behind. This indeed took her a great effort, for her overweight was great and the distance to the car and the line inside was even greater. She came to tell me that Jeffery’s wife, Pamela, had just come home from work, so I went to meet her. Just like Tania, Pamela had a sad, subdued look about her. I was now told all the details of what had happened with Jeffery. Two TV-reporters had been there to interview him and had afterwards reported to the police that Jeffery had held them hostage. Since Jeffery had felt that they only came to portray him in a hateful light, he had afterwards demanded to have their tape handed over. According to Pamela, who had witnessed the whole episode, he had just held them back for at most 5 minutes.

With Pam outside the Klan church


Pamela liked me right away and wanted to help me get into the prison. I now drove to their Klan headquarters outside town, a dilapidated house next to the Klan church with its big mobile cross of steel outside. Hesitatingly Pamela invited me inside - hesitating because the house was one big mess and at first reminded me of the shoddiest black shacks I had photographed in the South. Yet, this turned out to be the home of the most powerful Klan leader in the US - with local chapters all over the world. As always with poor people, I felt a great sympathy for them right away here in the midst of this dismal poverty and began discreetly to ask her out about her childhood as I always do with Klan people.

My cautiousness was not necessary at all, for like most of these poor social casualties, she was just hungering for a human being to give herself away to. I didn’t even need to ask about incest. It all came pouring out of her automatically about a "weird" stepfather, who had used her sexually, about how she had put a lid over it for years etc. When she talked about all the years she was a drug user, she several times said apologetically that she had since become aware that it probably was caused by those sexual encroachments on her in childhood. I could have added - with my knowledge of other Klan people - that this was probably also the reason she had found her way into the Klan, but I didn’t say it as I didn’t want to take her pride from her.  

When I asked if Jeffery had had a similar childhood, she nodded approvingly, but said that she didn’t want to tell me all about it right now - evidently because she didn’t want to compromise him as a leadership figure. But at any rate he had suffered such terrible beatings in his "dysfunctional family" that he as a child had run away from home and since lived on the street as a "hustler," she said. Now I realized to what extent I had hit the bull's eye with all I had said to him in the TV-program about my sympathy for the Klan because I had found that they all had suffered damage and social rejection similar to what I found among my friends in the black underclass.

Through approaching the Klan with such loving feelings, I had thus managed to travel into and steal the very heart of the Klan. For it was at this moment I decided that I would later move in with Pamela for some time to help her with the best of the counseling I have learned in my many years of racism workshops. She is - completely like the rank and file members - an incredible willing and grateful "victim." And that in spite of the fact that she is now the real leader of the world’s biggest and - according to the Southern Poverty Law Center - most hateful Klan organization.

But perhaps that "hate" actually lies somewhere else, I now had to ask? For neither she nor - as I later found out - Jeffery, as far as I can tell, hates anybody - except themselves. That may sound surprising for the leaders of such a large so-called hate group. But the more time I spend with Pamela in private, the more I feel that all their outwardly hate rhetoric is just an image they blow themselves up with in order to get a little attention from the surrounding society in the midst of their own unhealed pain. Indeed, that it is rather the outside world that hates or has a need for someone to hate as much as it is the Klan.

Pam with the letters from JeffIn any case, it is where Jeffery and Pamela have arrived today. For both of them it is their first happy marriage. Pamela has been through two marriages before - both with men who beat her badly as is seen with many incest victims who seem to go around with an invisible mark in the forehead screaming, "Beat me!"  In the Klan they had hit it off together. As she says: "The Klan is nothing but a lodge of like-minded beer drinking people."

That I was witnessing a deep, deep love in this relatively short marriage I saw when I photographed the large basket with all the thick letters he had written to her from the prison where he had only been for 3 months. Every day he writes. The prison will not give him ballpoint pens, so he is always forced to borrow one from his black fellow inmates. To further crush his pride, they have shaven his beard and cut him bald like the captured Taliban fighters being held in Cuba.  

I seem to find every proof here in my usual declarations on how only love can cure hatred (though love from a person outside the Klan would have probably been even more effective). For since they found each other she has made him completely give up his former hateful rhetoric in public. As she herself states it "It just isn’t like him to hate, he loves everybody after all." As a Klan leader he had just been trapped in some of the hateful historic language of the Klan. What made him give up his hate-talk was when Pamela convinced him that nobody cares to listen to all that hate any longer in today’s politically correct climate. And since Jeffery is starving for attention and a sense of power, it didn’t take much effort to get him to talk about "equal rights for all" instead. What had struck me when I saw the TV-program in Denmark was that he never said anything hateful. I have very often seen people, when leafing through the images in my book, come with spontaneous hateful diatribes against the pictured "lazy niggers," but Jeffery said nothing negative when he leafed through the book and in fact defended the blacks against the "negative" way I portrayed them.

Several times I heard Pamela say how she and Jeffery had loved all the propaganda commercials that had run endlessly on TV since the World Trade Center attack. The images of white, black, yellow, brown and red Americans standing firmly together in one great brotherhood, making America strong, had moved them deeply. They had immediately afterwards changed the huge neon sign in front of the Klan church from the previous "White pride worldwide" to "American pride worldwide." In other words, they were now precisely where all other Americans stand. The need of our deeper human pain to find scapegoats had become blind patriotism turned against the evil out in the greater world rather than against citizens in their own society.

Their love began to look like a Romeo and Juliet story for me - unlike Shakespeare, not in each "klan" but within the same Klan - with the outside world united in hate against them as a result of their clumsy attempt through a stronger than usual youthful anger to struggle themselves out of their childhood scars. And just at the moment when they were about to succeed in struggling free of this anger through their mutual love for each other, society launches a crackdown on them and separates them from each other. Morris Dees - my old ally from the Southern Poverty Law Center who has fought the Klan all his life - gets involved in a harmless case concerning a quarrel between Jeffrey and some TV-reporters in order to lock him away for life. There are no witnesses and no injured people, only one word against another, in a case, which in Denmark would not even have given a single day in prison. In order to avoid a court case threatening him with 30 years in prison, Jeffery pleads guilty to a lesser charge and ends up with 7 years.

I can’t help seeing the whole case as one huge political persecution of the same kind I remember from the times of The Black Panthers - an incredibly oppressive class society’s attempt to pit the poor against each other, whites against blacks, through the ruling media’s constant attempts to sell hatred and fear. For Jeffery’s drinking lodge would have been nothing but such a drinking club for "the children of pain" had not the media - also the Danish - all the time come running to ask them to dress up in the symbols of hate. Society’s oppressed and ostracized anger - Black Panthers with guns as well as Klan people in hoods - are always willingly parading and exposing themselves because they are starving for a little attention as a substitute for the love they never had. Whether they expose their pain on Ricky Lake shows or in violent instructed fights on Jerry Springer shows makes no difference for them. If only they can get their few seconds of fame and we - the better off in society - can get our few seconds of justifying our hate or disgust for the poor. We have not changed all that much since the Roman gladiator days. For right when Jeffery is about to make it out of this hate-circus with the help of his loving wife, a TV-station from Kentucky rolls up, bringing with it hateful preconceived ideas of the Klan and not the slightest empathy for Jeffery as a human being - and the conflict is bound to break out.

The need of the outside world for gladiator entertainment tries to keep Jeffery locked in the Coliseum arena in a life and death fight with black gladiators at a moment when Jeffery is getting strength enough to realize that the black gladiators are his real allies. It is the surroundings which has seized Jeffery as a hostage - not the other way around.

No white lawyers would take Jeffery’s case, only a black lawyer took it with no qualms. When I asked Pamela if Jeffery had problems letting a black lawyer represent him, she looked genuinely surprised at me and said: "You have totally misunderstood him. Jeffery has absolutely nothing against blacks, just as my own best friend is black." All this hatred against blacks was in reality just the gladiator’s play to the gallery. Jeffery had run a show about hate just as I myself had run a show about love because of our different upbringings - insecurity versus security -.which had made it natural for us to use different kinds of rhetoric in order to reach an audience craving to hear both parts. When first you have achieved some kind of success with your rhetoric, you very soon get locked in by it, I knew very well from my own experience. What matters is what we carry in our hearts. And there I right away did not perceive much difference between Jeffery and myself.

I had certainly not arrived with the intent of helping a Klan leader out of prison, but the more time I spent in the Klan, the more I realized that he was in every sense of the word a "political prisoner" - railroaded into prison not for any crime - but for convictions mostly attributed to him for the Ku Klux Klan’s terrible actions in the days before he had joined. Therefore I now intend to join in Jeffery’s defense in cooperation with his black lawyer, who thinks he can get Jeffery’s sentence reduced. With my lifelong record of struggling against racism in my work with American Pictures, I hope my words will carry a little weight. It is a strange situation, because I thereby suddenly find myself on the opposite side of the fence of the prosecutor, my old ally Morris Dees, who successfully has been fighting the Ku Klux Klan all his life. The question I now had to ask was if Morris Dees had done anything to fight and heal hate.

Morris Dees and his Southern Poverty Law Center have tried to justify their actions against Jeffery by putting his entire list of sins from his angry youth on the Internet - and this is not to be sneezed at. But without being asked, Pamela had already shown me every one of the documents from his long catalogue of crimes. They only make me see even more the similarity to the Black Panthers who had tried to organize and recruit from a similar wrecked poor class, and who, as fear-inspiring power symbols, achieved a sudden pride when they made it into the media. Later they were destroyed from the inside by the various crimes of their members from the "lumpen proletariat" as they called these hurt and ostracized victims of the underclass. They lost and instead of dealing with its pain, America has since decided to lock that same underclass effectively up in the biggest prison population any society has ever had in history.

Pam with the granchild and the parrots

No, the children of pain have never been the best behaved! Jeffery’s 3-year old grandchild already walks around saying "white power" as naturally as I previously heard black children say "black power" mainly because she has heard it from the two parrots in Pamela’s bedroom. They constantly screech "white power" after having listened to the answering machine for years.

Bedroom? Well, if you insist. When I couldn’t find a bedroom in the messy house, I asked Pamela where she slept. It turned out that her "bed" was on the humid concrete floor in the storage room with the parrots. Here we are talking about the leader of the world’s biggest Klan group!  Or are we actually talking of a poverty and social oppression so dismal and powerless that it sees no other way out than repeating after parrots puffing itself up in their borrowed colorful feathers to get a little attention from the outside world?

Pam looking for pictures in her bedroom

For me there is no doubt, and therefore Pamela and Jeffery have my full sympathy. They evidently feel that, and thus their family opens itself up completely to me and shows me an incredible confidence. With enormous curiosity I was permitted to go through all of Jeffery’s papers already the first evening. All the accounts and membership cards were lying around in a muddle, but nothing was kept secret for me. And I was permitted to photograph everything. If there was a Klan picture on the wall I thought was interesting, Pamela offered immediately: "Well, take it with you." My car was so full of Klan insignias that I was justly afraid afterwards to have it searched by police - something that by the way often happens to me in America, but never in Europe.

For an anti-racist like me, it was a dream-come-true to penetrate right into the heart of this secret organization, which FBI-agents for years have tried to infiltrate. But I discovered quickly that what I was revealing here was not this lodge of poor, desperate heaps of pain, but on the contrary the outside world’s need to hate that which it refuses to acknowledge. Most clearly, I had experienced that when I toured with my slideshow in Germany. The German youth, which was in the midst of clashing with the Nazism of their parent’s generation, were absolutely furious when I tried to understand the Klan or the Nazis as human beings in my show. When I was not myself present at the lectures, they paradoxically vented their hate towards my stand-in, a black American. After some years like that, all my black employees refused to stand and "defend the Klan" and fled from the hatred. Even today I am bombarded daily with calls and e-mails from school children all over the world about the Ku Klux Klan, and I often wonder why they at such an early age - probably manipulated by their teachers - have such a great need to make abominate other human beings and worship evil. For it is hatred when we judge people only on their appearance without making any attempts to acquaint ourselves with their backgrounds. When I begin to tell them that the Klan are people completely like themselves, they obviously do not wish to hear more or become confused – brought up as they are in a world of computer games teaching them destroy "the bad ones."

To travel is to search for self-knowledge, and in my journey into what I thought would be the stronghold of hate, I first and foremost learned to see the monster in myself.  

The story continues in Part Two:
A prisoner of love, not hate

Links to groups mentioned above:

American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
(site has been inactive while Jeff was in prison, so I have put it up on my own website here for you to see)

Southern Poverty Law Center


  Copyright ©2003 Jacob Holdt