Column: That time I met KKK Grand Wizard David Duke

In his new regular column, veteran journalist A. Craig Copetas looks back at some of his most memorable interviews and examines their continued relevance today. In this one, he recalls an ominous encounter with the then leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Satan recently made a cameo appearance on France’s most watched evening news programme. He popped up to spit enthusiasm on January’s attempted coup d’état in America and stimulate the Big Lie that the results of the 2020 US Presidential Election were illegal.

The on-screen demon’s legal name was David Ernest Duke, a 71-year-old self-described white nationalist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist, convicted felon, and hierophant of twice impeached former President Donald J. Trump.

America best knows Duke as the erstwhile grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, America’s oldest white supremacist terrorist hate group and star of director D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent movie “Birth of a Nation”.

Some Americans venerate Duke as their champion. Last week, for instance, the Texas Senate voted to eliminate a requirement that public schools in America’s second-largest state teach that the Ku Klux Klan and its white supremacist campaigns of terror are “morally wrong”. Others scorn him as a mostly forgotten elder statesman of racism. Facebook banned him in 2018. Twitter in 2020 cut his feed to 53,000 followers for “hateful conduct”.

Duke remains a ghoulish thread in the nation’s fabric, lingering proof that there’s no longer anything in America too monstrous for human credibility.

I can guarantee Duke meets that pitiless definition because the New York Daily News, where I covered crimes in New York City to civil wars in Latin America, in 1978 sent me to meet him in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, and return with a detailed story about how this child of the peace, love and brown rice 1960s somehow missed Woodstock and was transformed into a professional racist. The conventional wisdom at the time assured us that America’s Baby Boomer generation – those, like Duke, born between 1946 and 1964 – of conservative and liberal political superstars was more enlightened. Duke was an exotic mutation who could not endure.

Or so we were led to believe. I was instead sucked into some three hours of macabre unfit for a family newspaper and never filed the story, the only time my editor let me walk away from a deadline.

It was impossible to isolate what activated Duke’s metamorphosis. Today, more than four decades after meeting the Wiz, and with years of having covered some of the worst global atrocities known to humanity, my encounter with Duke continues to trigger terror dreams forged in fact.

A selection of Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods in various colours hang on a coat rack.

Grand wizard David Duke’s ground-floor office is across the street from an integrated primary school. Duke grabs an unloaded rifle and sticks it out an open window.

“Bang-Bang,” he shouts, pointing the weapon towards a group of Black children outside for recess.

“Don’t do that,” I say, but he keeps bang-banging until the kids run away.

“Why did you do that?”

Duke spins around. His blue eyes are glowering, terrifying and, using the long rifle like an orchestra conductor’s baton, he flutters the weapon towards a series of some dozen framed drawings nailed high atop the office walls.

“These are the twelve Jewish types,” Duke says. “Study them,” he adds, pausing. “Your name is not Jewish,” he continues in a tone frighteningly more interrogative than declarative.

“I’m Greek,” I say.

“Fantastic,” Duke blusters. “Greeks understand purity,” he adds. “Let’s go have some crayfish for lunch.”

Duke collects his car keys and walks towards a station wagon.

“Watch this,” he says, flipping a switch. A large cross adorned with numerous glowing light bulbs automatically emerges from the rear of the vehicle.

Duke’s drive-time chatter is peppered with “n*****s” and “k***s”. His ability to employ violent racial slurry as nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, often in the same sentence, is malevolently remarkable.

“What type of women do you prefer?” Duke asks.

“Well, my girlfriend is a blonde.”

“That’s great,” he enthuses. “I like blondes, too,” he adds, suddenly grabbing my shoulder as we pull into the parking lot.

“You must be careful,” Duke warns. “A lot of those blondes are Jewesses with dyed hair.”

Inside the restaurant, dozens of folks lined up to backslap Duke. I decided decoding communal lunacy was best left to medical professionals, or perhaps the statisticians at Quinnipiac University, whose recent national poll showed 85 percent of Republicans would prefer to see candidates running for elected office in 2022 who mostly agree with Trump and 66 percent would like to see him run for president in 2024.

The devil is indeed in the details.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Source: Al Jazeera