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Why does the Ku Klux Klan burn crosses?

June 18, 1993

Dear Cecil:

Why does the Ku Klux Klan burn crosses when they claim to be such gung-ho Christians? I've heard this comes from a Scottish ritual of some sort, but I shudder to think that a downhome American tradition like the Klan has actually been a subversive plot by wily Scotsmen

Cecil replies:

The Scottish apparently originated cross-burning, but it was your friends in the mass media who helped sell the idea to the KKK — media being somewhat broadly construed here to include novelists and filmmakers. You think media complicity in the more disreputable aspects of pop culture is a recent phenomenon? Uh-uh. Try 1810.

Eighteen-ten was the year the Scottish romantic writer Sir Walter Scott, a great admirer of ancient Scottish traditions, first brought the "fiery cross" to modern attention in his poem The Lady of the Lake. In the poem the cross is set ablaze on the hilltops to summon the Scottish clans. Scott's work was especially popular in the American south, where much of the populace was of Scotch-Irish extraction.

The original Ku Klux Klan, which was founded in 1866 and disbanded in the early 1870s, didn't burn crosses, but that didn't stop author Thomas Dixon from saying they did in his pro-KKK novel The Clansman (1905). "The Fiery Cross of old Scotland's hills!" a character in the book announces. "In olden times when the Chieftain of our people summoned the clan on an errand of life and death, the Fiery Cross, extinguished in sacrificial blood, was sent by swift courier from village to village."

Though it had done well enough on its own, The Clansman didn't become a national phenomenon until Dixon sold the movie rights to the pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who used it to make his groundbreaking film The Birth of a Nation. In a dramatic scene, the movie's hero rears up his horse and brandishes a flaming cross to summon the Klans to drive out the black oppressors (!) and their northern white allies who controlled the south during Reconstruction. Meanwhile the movie theater's orchestra (remember, this was the silent era) struck up Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries." Southern white audiences generally went nuts at this point, clapping and cheering.

Knowing a good idea when he saw one, William J. Simmons, the founder of the Klan in its second incarnation (1915-1944), cobbled together a cross and burned it at a meeting of the newly-established Knights of the Ku Klux Klan on Thanksgiving night, 1915, on Stone Mountain near Atlanta. Flaming crosses have been a Klan trademark ever since.

Just one problem. The fiery cross of Scottish legend wasn't the upright Roman cross commonly used by the Klan. Rather it was the X-shaped cross of St. Andrew. St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, and an X-shaped cross probably also was a lot easier to make a signal bonfire out of. But nobody ever said the Klan's big attraction was its meticulous sense of detail.

Where does the name Ku Klux Klan come from? It seems the men who founded the original Klan were tossing out ideas for a name when somebody came up with kukloi, plural of the Greek kuklos, circle. Somebody else had the bright idea of twisting kuklos into Ku Klux. Klan was added later for alliteration, and they spelled it with a K rather than a C so as not to confuse the rank and file.

Burning issues

Dear Cecil:

I just read your column on the Scottish origin of cross burning by the Ku Klux Klan and would like to make a few clarifications. While I do not believe it was your intention, your article seems to imply that Scots were a bunch of bloodthirsty cross-burners. This is not the case at all. The flames were never doused in "sacrificial blood"; rather, each family representative would cast a torch into the fire to announce they had arrived. The flames went out on their own when the timbers had been consumed. This tradition is still performed at the Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, Scottish Festival every July.

Granted, people of Scottish and Irish descent settled mostly in the southern United States, which explains much of the violence in the history of that region (see Celtic Origins in Southern Violence, Dr. John Pancake, University of Alabama). However, I can assure you that there is not now, nor has there ever been any connection between the highland clans of Scotland and the KKK.

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