David Duke’s Twisted Take on the Civil Rights MovementHistorians in the News
tags: conservatism, KKK, White Supremacy
To revive his dreams of building a mass movement, Duke needed to start something new, and again he looked to the black civil rights movement for guidance. In 1980, Duke announced that he was launching the National Association for the Advancement of White People—the NAAWP. The group’s answering machine presented it as “a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to equal rights for all people and to the preservation of the heritage and culture of the white race.”
For Duke, the NAAWP was a clean slate, a group untainted by violence. It was also, perhaps, an admission that he’d taken the wrong approach to white-power movement-building.
This bizarro version of the NAACP didn’t win any political victories. In the first half of the 1980s, Duke worked mostly as a newsletter publisher, writing up and reprinting racist articles. By 1984, Jesse Jackson was a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. That year, David Duke’s name appeared in the New York Times just once.
Historian Lance Hill has followed Duke since the 1970s. He thinks there’s a simple explanation for why Duke lost steam. “Ronald Reagan,” Hill says. “Once Reagan came into power—here’s somebody who expressed many of the policies that the openly white supremacist groups had been advocating as organizing issues. And it just sucked all of the fuel out of the radical right-wing movement.”
If Duke couldn’t beat Ronald Reagan, he had to be like Ronald Reagan. The clean-cut Klansman bit had run its course. Duke’s best path forward was mainstream politics.