The KKK and the Power of Symbols

A cross on fire with a man in a white KKK cap watching
A Klansman in Jackson County, Ohio, watches a cross burn with his children. (Photo by Paul M Walsh/Flickr.com)

Artists are the individuals who create new realities, who shape the culture and its future. Think that’s an exaggeration? Remember the first time you saw a cell phone? Or how about video conferencing? I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t on the street or in an office. More likely it was watching “Star Trek” reruns on TV. They were using personal handheld communication devices and video calls at a time when that was 100% science fiction. It took the real world decades to catch up and make them a reality. So the power of art to shape and influence our culture and therefore our future can’t be overstated.

Unfortunately, this works in negative ways just as profoundly. I was reminded of this when I read an article about the KKK’s history of cross-burning.

I wasn’t surprised to read that members got the idea from D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation. Fire has been an elemental influence on people since the dawn of human civilization. It can be an incredibly powerful force when put to good use, and it can be equally devastating when used destructively. It’s no wonder that it has served as such an unfortunately effective tool of intimidation by the likes of the KKK for the last 100 years.

I hope there will come a time when the sight of a burning cross will be such a distant cultural memory that it will fail to strike fear into anyone’s heart. 

But I also think that understanding history and how things have come to be the way they are helps us realize that things are a certain way simply because enough people agree that it is so. And if enough people stop agreeing or change their viewpoint and adopt a new one, that new agreement, shared, becomes our new reality. Symbols, good and bad, only have power when we imbue them with it.

Black and white image of a man and woman
A scene from the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. (Public Domain)

I hope there will come a time when the sight of a burning cross will be such a distant cultural memory that it will fail to strike fear into anyone’s heart. Like so many cultural symbols, the Christian cross has been co-opted by many different groups to support their agendas, good and bad. My hope is that this particular symbol—the burning cross—born out of an artist’s vision and brought to life by an intolerant minority of fearful people, will soon lose its power as a symbol of hate and intimidation.

Sound too optimistic? That same article noted that the KKK had a high membership mark of 4 million people in the 1920s. Their numbers today? Around 5,000. They are a dying breed.

I choose to believe that our best days are in front of us, individually and as a society, and I look forward to a new generation of artists who will design fresh symbols and imbue them with hope, optimism and excitement for what’s to come and the world they will create.

Author

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