Can this KKK leader rebrand?

Story highlights

Imperial Wizard denounces recent slayings at Jewish institutions, says new Klan not about violence

Historians, marketing experts say there's nearly no chance the KKK could rebrand

A week ago, a white supremacist shot and killed three at Jewish-affiliated facilities in Kansas

CNN  — 

Pointy hats, white robes, crosses burning, bodies hanging from trees.

The images of the Ku Klux Klan are reminders of the nation’s ugliest moments from the Civil War through the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s.

Last Sunday, the world was confronted with another image of the Klan: 73-year-old Frazier Glenn Cross, a white supremacist and avowed anti-Semite, in the back of a police car, spitting, “Heil Hitler!”

When his alleged rampage at two Jewish institutions in suburban Kansas City, Kansas, was over, three people were shot dead – a teenage boy and his grandfather along with a woman who worked with visually impaired children.

A member of the Confederate White Knights speaks during a rally at the Antietam National Battlefield September 7, 2013 near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

The carnage was devastating to many. Imperial Wizard Frank Ancona was upset, too.

“What this guy just did set back everything I’ve been trying to do for years,” said Ancona, who leads the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

CNN tracked Ancona down on Twitter, where he has 840 followers, after he and other self-professed hate group leaders denounced the shootings in interviews with USA Today and CNN affiliate WDAF in Kansas City, Missouri.

“I believe in racial separation but it doesn’t have to be violent,” he told CNN. “People in the Klan are professional people, business people, working types. We are a legitimate organization.”

Cross, who founded the Carolina Knights of the KKK in the 1980s, went “rogue,” Ancona said.

Charged with capital murder and first-degree premeditated murder, Cross did not enter a plea at his first court appearance. He requested a court appointed attorney and is scheduled to be back in court later this month.

New way for the KKK?

Ancona, who lives in Missouri, insists there’s a new Klan for modern times – a Klan that’s “about educating people to our ideas and getting people to see our point of view to … help change things.”

He said he and those like him can spread that message without violence – a sort of rebranding of the Klan.

The idea may sound absurd, but is it conceivable?

No, say top marketing experts, brand gurus and historians – and for many reasons.

The Klan could change its name, get a smooth-talking spokesperson, replace the robes with suits and take off those ridiculous hats, but underneath, people would recognize its message is the same.

“They stand for hatred; they always have,” said Atlanta-based brand consultant Laura Ries. “Maybe they don’t believe in shooting up a center for Jewish people, but they still support beliefs that are beyond the scope of understanding for most people and certainly the freedom and equality our country believes in.”

Other experts raised the question: If the Klan isn’t violent, what’s the point?

“What would you be left with? Benign racism?” asked Jelani Cobb, director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut.

The victims of the shooting rampage, Cobb noted, were not Jewish. One was Catholic and two were Methodist.

“In the most basic sense, the fact that the people who were killed were not Jews drives home Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s point that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he said. “It’s the most horrible metaphor for the fact that we are all impacted by the legacy of hate, even when it’s not specifically directed at the group to which we belong.”

Even if the modern KKK at large distances itself from this supposedly “rogue” element, Cobb said, that doesn’t make up for the group’s past.

“Violence and racial intimidation were the KKK’s raison d’etre. They’re not simply a controversial civic organization. If in fact they reject violence, the only honest way of establishing that would be to do restorative work for the incredible damage their history of violence has already done,” he said. “No sensible person is going to wait around for that to happen.”

Disorganized discrimination

From a sheer marketing perspective, the lack of central leadership poses more problems for the KKK if it’s serious about revamping its image. Just look at the Catholic Church, Ries said.

“The KKK doesn’t have a Pope. Look at what that guy has done. You have to have a leader like that to make people believe a change has happened,” she said.