Tag Archives: texas

Lifting the Hood Off Rick Perry: Was His Family In The Ku Klux Klan?

Members of Texas-based Klan chapters rally in 1992

Members of Texas-based Klan chapters rally in 1992

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?

Rick Perry distorted historian, who likened Texans’ “inherent chauvinism,” “belligerence” to Israel (Updated)

Update #1: Perry repeated his mis-citation of Fehrenbach in the Wall Street Journal today.

Update #2: A friend wonders if Doug Feith, who is now advising Perry on foreign policy, was the one who slipped Fehrenbach’s quote in.

Yesterday, Republican presidential candidate and current Texas Governor Rick Perry attacked President Barack Obama and the Palestinian UN statehood bid in a foreign newspaper, the Jerusalem Post. Perry devoted most of the editorial to assailing Obama as anti-Israel. But buried in the op-ed, in a line intended to highlight the shared values of Texas and Israel, Perry quoted the historian T.R. Fehrenbach. “Historian T.R. Fehrenbach once observed that my home state of Texas and Israel share the experience of ‘civilized men and women thrown into new and harsh conditions, beset by enemies,’” Perry wrote.

Fehrenbach published an authoritative book on the ethnic cleansing of the Comanche Indians by the Anglo settlers of Texas. He wrote with deep sympathy for the indigenous population, and though he expressed a strong identification with Texan culture, he was harshly critical of the settlers’ cruely toward the native population. Perry’s quoting of Fehrenbach seemed curious, so I opened up my copy of Fehrenbach’s “Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans” to see if he cited the historian accurately. When I found the passage Perry had pulled from, my suspicions were realized: Perry (or more likely some half-wit speechwriter) had distorted Fehrenbach’s original text and taken it wildly out of context.

The full passage Perry quoted from is on page 257 of Fehrenbach’s “Lone Star:”

The Texan’s attitudes, his inherent chauvinism and the seeds of his belligerence, sprouted from his conscious effort to take and hold his land. It was the reaction of essentially civilized men and women thrown into new and harsh conditions, beset by enemies they despised. The closest 20th-century counterpart is the State of Israel, born in blood in another primordial land.

Fehrenbach would have agreed with Perry that Texas shared values with Israel. But unlike Perry, he thought that those values were all the wrong ones: hatred of the other, a reliance on violence to seize land, and a legacy of ethnic cleansing. According to Fehrenbach, what Israel did to the Palestinians in 1947 and ’48 — and continues to do — is analogous to the Texans’ treatment of the Comanches and Mexicans during the 19th century. The comparison highlights Israel’s distinction as the world’s last settler-colonial state; a country based on an anachronistic system of ethnic exclusivism. It is hard to imagine that Perry would have scored any political points by quoting Fehrenbach accurately. So instead, in the name of his presidential ambitions, he distorted and abused the writing of one of the Lone Star state’s most celebrated historians.