In “Part One: Atlanta and the Klan “, I shared some of the history of the Ku Klux Klan in DeKalb County, Georgia and specifically about the Venable family that owned Stone Mountain and were associated with the resurgence of the Klan in 1915 and 1963. As a result, DeKalb County, unfortunately, played a significant role in national Klan history.
About the James Venable interview and history
“Part Two: Atlanta and the Klan” is an interview with James Venable (1901-1993) by James Mackay that was conducted in 1982. James Venable was the Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Klan from 1963 to 1987, “which he organized as one of several rival Klan factions nationally” (NY Times). Venable had but continued the family tradition. As a 13 year old, he attended the 1915 Klan resurgence and rally on top of Stone Mountain. He was with his uncle, Sam Venable, who, as one of the owners of Stone Mountain, also became the secretary of the Klan.
This one-hour long interview is the first in-depth conversation I have found of a mid-to-late 20th century Klan leader in Georgia and offers a sense of his philosophical orientation on culture, society and politics. With the current rise of white supremacist actions and contention in America, understanding some of this thinking is likely essential to, if desired, adequately critique it all.
In the interview, Venable, of course, makes reference to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Imperial Wizard of the Klan – created in Tennessee in 1865. Also, Venable knew Forrest’s son who lived in Atlanta and was the Georgia Klan’s Grand Dragon. He also states that he went to school with Nathan Bedford Forrest III.
And while Venable’s biases are definitely reflected in the interview, still many will be surprised that as an attorney he successfully defended some Black clients, as well as, Black Muslims in Louisiana. Nevertheless, his white supremacist views prevail and, he said, the $25,000 he earned from the Muslim case were used to promote the Klan.
In the interview with James Venable there are references to some of the leading figures in Atlanta who Venable either knew or was exposed to, as well as reference to the infamous 1915 lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia.
As summary comments are not provided about these individuals in the interview, below is brief information about some of those referred to by Venable, as well as about the Leo Frank case:
* Asa G. Candler (1851-1929) – Candler was a neighbor of the Venable family. “Asa Griggs Candler, founder of the Coca-Cola Company, was also a banker and real estate developer and was noted for his philanthropy. Born in Carroll County in 1851, Candler was one of eleven children of a prosperous merchant and planter. Brought up with a firm work ethic and strong religious beliefs, he learned the trade of “prescriptionist” and went into the pharmacy business in Atlanta”. (New Georgia)
* Tom Watson (1856-1922)- “The public life of Thomas E. Watson is perhaps one of the more perplexing and controversial among Georgia politicians. In his early years he was characterized as a liberal, especially for his time. In later years he emerged as a force for white supremacy and anti-Catholic rhetoric”. (New Georgia)
* Eugene Talmadge (1884-1946) – “A controversial and colorful politician, Eugene Talmadge played a leading role in the state’s politics from 1926 to 1946. During his three terms as state commissioner of agriculture and three terms as governor, his personality and actions polarized voters into Talmadge and anti-Talmadge factions in the state’s one-party politics of that era. He was elected to a fourth term as the state’s chief executive in 1946 but died before taking office”. (New Georgia)
* The Leo Frank Case (1915) – “The Leo Frank case is one of the most notorious and highly publicized cases in the legal annals of Georgia. A Jewish man in Atlanta was placed on trial and convicted of raping and murdering a thirteen-year-old girl who worked for the National Pencil Company, which he managed. Before the lynching of Frank two years later, the case became known throughout the nation. The degree of anti-Semitism involved in Frank’s conviction and subsequent lynching is difficult to assess but it was enough of a factor to have inspired Jews, and others, throughout the country to protest the conviction of an innocent man”. (New Georgia)
The interview is archived in the “DeKalb History Center” in DeKalb County, Georgia.
James Mackay (1919-2004), who interviewed James Venable, had a fascinating history himself. His efforts, however, largely focused on working for justice. He was a former Congressman from Georgia and state legislator who also served as the president of the DeKalb Historical Society (1984-1986). It was Mackay who wisely “developed the idea to create an oral history collection to document the history of DeKalb County, Georgia. His plan called for interviewing public officials, teachers, shopkeepers and other longtime residents of DeKalb who had different experiences and memories to share”. (DeKalb History)
Mackay’s progressive stance and work was impressive. I need to say that he also graduated in 1936 from my high school “Druid Hills” in DeKalb County, Georgia, as did at least one of the Venable family members decades later who I also knew and was a year ahead of me in school. Mackay was also active in the Glenn Memorial Methodist Church on the Emory University Campus, where I was raised as well. Here is a sampling of Mackay’s impressive achievements in his advocacy for justice:
He organized Georgian Veterans for Majority Rule and began to work toward the elimination of the County unit system, which was one of the Jim Crow-Era laws that disenfranchised black voters, as well as voters in populous areas. After many years, these efforts resulted in firmly establishing the rule of One Person-One Vote. Mr. Mackay served with distinction in the Georgia Legislature for six terms. Active in the struggle for civil rights, he worked to keep the public schools of Georgia open during the heated debates over desegregation, and was one of thirty legislators who voted not to change the state flag to incorporate the segregationist-inspired Confederate battle emblem in 1956. Also during his term, he worked toward the acquisition of Stone Mountain as a State Park. In 1964, Mackay was elected to the U.S. Congress from Georgia’s 4th District. During his term, he helped to pass the Voting Rights Act and secured the health care of senior citizens by voting for Medicare. (Legacy.com)
About Chuck Burris
While Mackay doesn’t dig into the trenches of Klan beliefs and activities with James Venable, still, without doubt, this account of the Atlanta Klan leader is important for a better understanding of the complexities of it all.
Complexities? The interview of Venable by Mackay was in 1982, years later however, in 1997, Chuck Burris becomes the first Black mayor of Stone Mountain until 2001. He was a Morehouse student who, in the 1960s. attended some Saturday Morehouse classes under the instruction of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Burris was also on the Stone Mountain City Council from 1991 to 1996 before running for mayor. However, when Burris ran for the city council in 1991“he attracted an unlikely supporter… James Venable, the former Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Klan, allowed Mr. Burris to put a placard in his yard and said he’d vote for the political neophyte.” (Legacy)
Venable died in 1993, and Burris, in fact, ended up buying the Venable house in Stone Mountain. As noted in the New York Times in 1997, when Burris became mayor:
Now Stone Mountain has elected a black mayor. What is more, it has elected a black mayor who happens to live in the same house where Mr. Venable, himself the mayor in the 1940’s, lived for most of his life.
”Tell me,” said Chuck E. Burris, the Mayor-elect, ”that God doesn’t have a sense of humor.”
”There’s a new Klan in Stone Mountain,” Mr. Burris said in an interview, ”only it’s spelled with a C: c-l-a-n, citizens living as neighbors. And I guess I’m the black dragon.” (NY Times)
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