Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old man accused of killing nine African American parishioners of a Charleston, South Carolina, church, has been tied to white supremacist beliefs. The mass shooting serves as a reminder that hate groups continue to be active throughout the U.S.—and that includes Kentucky.
The Birmingham-based Southern Poverty Law Center recognizes 784 active hate groups in the U.S. Of those, 16 are active in Kentucky. The Kentucky groups include black separatist, the Klu Klux Klan and racist skinhead, among others.
The activity and strength of these groups throughout the state, however, is unclear.
To make the center’s list of active hate groups, an organization must “have made defamatory statements about an entire class or group of people that are just flat out false,” said Keegan Hankes, a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Usually, these are targeting minority communities,” Hankes said.
But hate groups have undergone changes in recent years. Their online presences have increased, but their real-life presences—meetings, protests, membership—have declined, he said.
“That doesn’t necessarily show the phenomena of hate going down or even the phenomena of deep racism,” said Kathleen Blee, distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Blee, who studies race and hate groups, said the number of people who identify with hate ideology has had a “very pronounced” increase in recent years.
People who identify with a hate ideology but aren’t members are considered “lone wolves,” Blee said.
About 70 percent of the 60 most recent terrorism attacks in the U.S. were conducted by people acting alone, according to a study released in February by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In 2013, there were nearly 230 reported hate bias crimes in Kentucky, according to a report from the Kentucky State Police. In 2010, 69 hate bias crimes were reported.
More than half of the offenses in 2013 (52 percent) were assault reports. And about 70 percent of all offenses were motivated by racial bias—40 percent stemmed from “anti-black” motivations, according to the report.
Hate crime offenders in Kentucky are most commonly white (63 percent) and most offenses occur most frequently at a residence (46 percent), according to the state police report.
Blee said it’s difficult to generalize hate groups. Some groups focus on policy changes and align with non-violent practices, while others, she said, “would love to be associated with what Roof did.”
Hankes, of Southern Poverty Law Center, said many groups try to give the appearance of legitimacy but simultaneously push a message based on blatant bias. Hankes said an example in Kentucky is the state League of the South chapter, which advocates for Southern coal mining and coal workers.
“That may be true, that may be actually their position, but what they’re not doing is advertising the fact that they are an explicitly racist, neo-secessionist group,” Hankes said.
Spencer Borum, chairman of the northcentral region of the League of the South’s Kentucky chapter, said the group advocates for the “survival, well-being and independence of the Southern people.”
“We’re a pro-white group, we’re a pro-southern group,” Borum said.
Borum, 28, said he disagrees with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s claim that the League of the South is a hate group.
“It’s not that we’re pro-white because we dislike other people —we’re pro-white because that is who we are. We’re realists,” he said. “We’re nationalists in the traditional sense of the word.”
Borum said the group has 11 dues-paying members in the north central region. Increasing their ranks has proven difficult, but he said he believes the state has a “huge base of sympathizers.”
A spokesman for the FBI’s Louisville office declined to discuss hate groups in detail, citing policies against revealing investigative procedures.
The FBI does investigate hate crimes, according to their website, which they say is the top priority of their Civil Rights Program.
Louisville Metro Police also did not respond with details regarding how much attention they dedicate to hate groups.
Blee said that being knowledgeable of hate groups is important. Though groups’ membership numbers are waning, they have had success in recruiting young people.
“If young people don’t know about hate groups they may not know what they stand for,” she said. “Sometimes they get pulled into these groups without really knowing what they’re about.”
Hankes stressed these groups are protected by the First Amendment and “are allowed to have these beliefs.”
Blee said hate groups and racism are not inevitable. She said hate is not inherent, it’s learned. “People aren’t born with those ideas, they learn those ideas, it’s absolutely something that society can overcome,” she said.