NOTE: Since this story initially ran on Feb. 22, 2017, a subsequent followup has been posted by WRFA.
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MONTGOMERY, ALA. – The number of hate groups in the United States rose for a second year in a row in 2016.
That’s according to a report released earlier this month by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which not only tracks the number of hate groups in the country, but also provides an interactive “Hate Map” that shows where the headquarters for the groups are located.
SPLC identified 917 hate groups in operation across the country– up from 892 in 2015. The SPLC defines hate groups as those that “… have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”
Seven of those groups are headquartered in Western New York and, for the first time since the organization began tracking data, one group is listed as being headquartered in Chautauqua County.
According to SPLC, the Church of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan has a headquarters in the Town of Harmony near Panama.
SPLC senior fellow and editor of the Intelligence Report Mark Potok tells WRFA that this group is one of several that are an offshoot of the original KKK from the 1860s, although it’s been in decline for the past few decades.
“The church is an organization that started quite a long time ago in 1960. It was based then as a confederation of southern Klans formed to battle back against the civil rights movement,” Potok explained, adding that during its heyday, the group was responsible for coordinating more than 1000 simultaneous church burnings across the south. “The church is now much smaller than it used to be. It’s a mere four chapters and are headquartered in Panama, NY. They’ve also got chapters in Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina.”
Potok also says that the SPLC came to be aware of the headquarters in Panama through internet activity.
“They’ve announced themselves so it wasn’t any great piece of detective work to find them, and that’s true of most Klan groups. There are a few that really seek to remain secret but I would say the large majority of Klan groups in the United States are highly interested in publicity – they like getting public attention,” Potok said, adding, “They’ve got a webpage and so on where they list their chapters and that kind of thing.”
And Potok also tells WRFA that while the Church of the National Knights of the KKK is headquartered in the county, it doesn’t mean it is active in the county.
“The fact that it’s leader is headquartered in Panama doesn’t necessarily mean at all that he carries out any activities – street rallies or leafleting or anything like that there,” Potok explained. “We find as a general matter that very often Klan leaders do not really engage in Klan activities in their home town, basically because it would make life miserable for them. So in his case, I’m not sure where they’ve been active – other than they are a real group and they exist on the ground.”
Potok says that purpose of the annual Hate Map is to not draw attention to the groups, but to educate and raise awareness for the general public.
“The reality is that many people in our country are quite shocked to learn that there is a Klan group in the town next door, or a neo-Nazi organization in the county next to your own,” Potok said. “So that’s really our purpose is to educate the public about these groups – the fact that they have not simply disappeared, as many people think they did in the 1960s, and that in fact they’ve been growing in recent years.”
According to the SPLC, the growth in hate groups in the country in 2016 has been accompanied by a rash of crimes targeting Muslims, including an arson that destroyed a mosque in Victoria, Texas, just hours after the Trump administration announced an executive order suspending travel from some predominantly Muslim countries. The latest FBI statistics show that hate crimes against Muslims grew by 67 percent in 2015, the year in which Trump launched his campaign.
“2016 was an unprecedented year for hate,” Potok said in the report at the SPLC website. “The country saw a resurgence of white nationalism that imperils the racial progress we’ve made, along with the rise of a president whose policies reflect the values of white nationalists. In Steve Bannon, these extremists think they finally have an ally who has the president’s ear.”
SPLC was founded in 1971 is an American nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation. The organization’s identifications and listings of hate groups have been the subject of controversy, with critics arguing it has taken an incautious approach to assigning the label of “hate group.”
WRFA will have a complete interview with Potok during our upcoming Community Matters program, which airs at 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23.
Meanwhile, officials in Panama and Harmony are aware of the SPLC listing. One official told WRFA they want to assure the public that Panama and the surrounding area is tolerant and inclusive, and that because someone with ties to a hate group is living in the area in no way means it’s a reflection of the entire community.