Texas Governor Rick Perry has opened a new issue to try to lift his floundering campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, insinuating that President Barack Obama just might not be an American citizen. Asked if Obama was born in the United States, Perry told Parade Magazine, in an interview published on October 23, “I have no reason to think otherwise.” But he then qualified his answer, stating, “Well, I don’t have a definitive answer.”
Perry’s comments on Obama’s background are puzzling, considering that the President has produced a long form birth certificate proving his U.S. citizenship. For those Republicans who have become known as “Birthers,” Obama’s documention is not enough. To them, he will always be under suspicion as an alien. Whether it is his brown skin, Arabic middle name, or African father that feeds the doubters, he remains the source of heavily publicized right-wing conspiracy theories, now given credence by Perry. According to an October 12 PPP poll, 39 percent of registered Republicans still do not believe Barack Obama was born in the United States.
But by channeling the paranoia, Perry may have opened himself up to unsettling questions about his own background and family history. In his stump speeches since announcing his candidacy, Perry almost invariably touts his humble roots, describing a hardscrabble but wholesome childhood in Haskell County, Texas, the origin of his small-town traditional values. Yet the New York Times has reported the pervasiveness of racist attitudes in Haskell County, where white residents referred to the segregated area on the other side of the tracks as “Niggertown.” The Times story followed the report in the Washington Post on the Perry family ranch in West Texas, where the governor often entertained guests, called “Niggerhead.”
But both papers missed an additional important historical fact: Haskell County was home to an active, large and influential chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The genealogy of a prominent farmer and longtime resident of Haskell County, Oran Ewan Webb, refers to the Klan as a central facet of life in the county, noting:“There was a meeting of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan at the O E Webb farm four miles east of Haskell on Monday night September 29, 1924. Public lectures were given by speakers of state reputation. Every officer of the Haskell County Klan was present. (Notice from Haskell newspaper).”
During the 1920’s, the Klan virtually controlled Texas state politics. According to the Texas State Historical Association:
“With a membership of perhaps as many as 100,000, the Klan used its united voting block to elect state legislators, sheriffs, judges, and other local and state officials. Its greatest success, however, was in securing the election of Earle Bradford Mayfield to the United States Senate in 1922. The following year the Klan established firm control of city governments in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Wichita Falls, and the order probably had a majority in the House of Representatives of the Thirty-eighth Texas Legislature, which met in January. By the end of 1922 the paid membership swelled to as many as 150,000, and Kluxers looked forward to even greater triumphs.”
Though Klan membership declined steadily after the Great Depression hit Texas, local chapters remained active throughout the civil rights era. The Times reported that when Perry entered Texas A&M in 1968, some students posed for yearbook photos in Klan robes, while others formed a dairy group called the “Kream and Kow Klub” — KKK. Today, an underground Klan chapter operates in West Texas, and in 2010 its members left fliers in a parking lot at Texas Tech University.
Perry may continue to believe, or pretend, that he does not have a “definitive answer” to the question about Obama’s citizenship — even though the state of Hawaii does. But he must have a “definitive answer” to another question closer to home — whether members of his family belonged to the Klan, or attended Klan rallies. It is an indisputable fact that the Klan was a central component of the cultural and political heritage of Perry’s hometown. Were members of his family ever members of the Klan? The national press has begun to put Haskell Country’s disturbing history of racism in the spotlight. Given Perry’s gesture to the “Birthers,” it is now time to learn more about his background. What exactly were his family’s ties to the Klan, if any, and if so, why has he kept the information hidden from the public for his entire political career?