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Deep in the dark South

The Ku Klux Klan started after the US Civil War, grew stronger after the First World War and the prejudice is still being passed on, Deedee Cuddihy reports

Generation KKK: Passing the Torch

St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, Glasgow

until April 9

workshops information, tel 0141 565 41123

The American writer and film-maker Michael Moore has dismissed the Ku Klux Klan as stupid people running around in funny costumes, but photojournalist James Bates, who is white and comes from Mississippi, believes they are still a force to be reckoned with.

The current estimated membership stands at 6,000 and Bates was profoundly affected by what he saw when he photographed the Klan - with permission - over a four-year period from 1998 to 2002. A selection of his observations form the exhibition Generation KKK: Passing the Torch, now at the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow.

Bates says the 40 black and white photographs show that "the KKK ideology of racist separation and white supremacy is firmly embedded in the social structure of some communities and is being passed down from generation to generation".

The terrorist society based in the southern states of America was founded in the 1860s after the Civil War with the aim of preventing black people from voting. At its height in 1925, the KKK was believed to have had four million followers who declared a hatred of not only black people but also Jews, Catholics, socialists, communists and foreigners.

Schools from as far as Fife and Aberdeenshire brought S5 and S6 pupils to Glasgow for the opening of the exhibition last month, when the photographer was present to give them a personal tour, followed by an illustrated talk.

The pupils, many of whom are studying the American civil rights movement as part of their Higher or Intermediate 2 history course, heard Bates describe his first experience of attending a Klan cross lighting ceremony, having first gained the confidence of an Imperial Wizard, Ricky Draper. (His photograph of the event, taken late at night in May 1998 in a privately owned field, is one of the most powerful in the show. It features 12 white-robed Klansmen with their arms outstretched, dwarfed by a huge burning cross.) Bates told the pupils: "I was nervous because, even though I had permission to be there, the fence surrounding the rally field was guarded by Klansmen with assault rifles - and bottles of whiskey and bourbon - on the look-out for people trying to sneak in.

"Once the cross is on fire, it's an overwhelming experience. I wondered if it was all for show but then I saw members of the Klan - men and women - with tears in their eyes and that got my attention. It was shocking to see how real it was to them and how very passionate they were about it."

Pupils saw video footage by Bates of an Imperial Wizard at a Klan rally telling members: "The revolution is coming! Get your guns loaded and be ready to fight!"

Although the photographer says that in his professional capacity "it is not my place to judge either side of this or any other issue", he told the pupils: "If you ever hear any jokes or comments about race, I would encourage you to be bold and stand up and let them know that it's wrong."

Classes attending the schools' event were the first to use the Generation KKK reflection sheet, designed for teenagers to stimulate reflection and discussion by highlighting certain photographs in the exhibition and posing questions about them.

Many of the pupils said they found Bates's photographs of children taking part in Klan activities the most disturbing, particularly one which shows the young son of a Klansman looking at a golliwog being hanged, taken three years ago.

"It's wrong to hate people because of the colour of their skin," one pupil said.

Although all of her classmates agreed, one of them added: "But I don't think asylum seekers should come here. I think everyone should stay in their own country."

A pupil from the same school stated, as fact: "All white Americans hate black Americans." He said he had seen it on television.

The education team at the St Mungo Museum will be offering workshops to secondary schools visiting the exhibition in the new year. The workshops will explore not only racism but other issues on the theme of intolerance, moral responsibility and citizenship. features a simply presented history of the Klan, including first-hand accounts of its activities

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