Robert Byrd was an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan. What does that mean?

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June 30 2010 7:04 PM

What Does an Exalted Cyclops Do?

He reports to the Dragon and coordinates the Centaurs.

Robert Byrd. Click image to expand.
The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd

Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, died Monday at 92. While he was most famous as a master of the Senate's obscure rules, Byrd wore many hats during his lifetime, including that of Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan. What are the job responsibilities of an Exalted Cyclops?

He presides over the Council of the Centaurs and writes quarterly reports to the Grand Giant. In the Klan hierarchy, each local chapter, or Klavern, is led by an Exalted Cyclops. This member is typically elected by his fellow Klansmen and serves a one-year term. According to the original 1867 Prescript of the Ku Klux Klan, the Exalted Cyclops reports to a Grand Giant, or provincial leader; a Grand Dragon, or state director; and the Grand Wizard, or national chair. Below the Cyclops on the org chart were the Grand Magi, the Grand Monk, the Grand Exchequer, the Grand Turk, and, finally, the rank-and-file members known as Ghouls or Knights.  (Many of these titles have changed over time, and most of the sub-Cyclops ranks have been eliminated.) The Exalted Cyclops' responsibilities include presiding over Klavern meetings, initiating new members, and appointing Councils of Centaurs—that's Klan-speak for a jury—to try and punish wayward Ghouls.

Despite the specific duties laid out in the Klan's founding documents, there's no way of knowing exactly what Byrd did as Exalted Cyclops. Klaverns have clashed with the central office throughout the Klan's history, and there's plenty of evidence that many chapters operated on a much less formal basis than the Prescript and subsequent manuals suggest. The meeting agenda for a typical Klavern in the 1940s, when Byrd was an Exalted Cyclops, would have included a discussion of black or Jewish outrages against native-born white Protestants. Byrd denied that his members ever discussed violence or even so much as held a parade, and there is no evidence to contradict his claims.

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There wasn't much money in it for Byrd, either, since the Klan operated as a pyramid scheme. Each member paid $10 at initiation (that's about $115 in current dollars), plus annual fees of $6.80. The national, state, and provincial headquarters each got about a 20 percent slice of the action. The Kleagle, or recruiter, also took a cut. The remainder was used to pay out a nominal salary for the Exalted Cyclops, but it wasn't enough to live on. (Local Klan leaders had other, more regular jobs.) During the 1920s, when national membership topped 4 million, holding high KKK office could be lucrative—the Grand Dragon of Indiana, for example, earned more than $200,000 in 1924. By the time Byrd came along, however, membership had plunged. He managed to rope in only around 150 members, so his Klavern could not have been making much more than a few hundred dollars annually, with most of that revenue paying for recruitment activities and meeting space.

The Klan's whimsical titles of office hearken back to its Reconstruction-era beginnings. In 1865, six Tennesseans formed a club that mainly involved dressing up in costumes and riding around Giles County after dark. * Their ghoulish appearance spawned a legend that they were apparitions of soldiers from the bloody Civil War battle of Shiloh seeking revenge against the freedmen. Sensing the fear of a few credulous blacks, nearby localities started copying the stunt, and representatives from around the region formed an umbrella organization in Nashville in 1867. The titles of offices drew upon the ghostly mythology surrounding the group.

These titles, while odd to the modern ear, were in line with fraternal organizations of the time. Members of the Masons, the forefathers of the fraternal-order movement, aspire to be Worshipful Masters or Senior Wardens. The Lamb's Club, which first appeared in the U.S. in 1874, is headed by a Shepherd and a Boy. When the Shriners formed in 1870, their leaders were styled the Potentate and the Chief Rabban.

Today's Exalted Cyclops is responsible for rehabbing the chapter's image, as the Klan tries to rebrand itself as a community service organization, civil rights advocate for whites, and semilibertarian political action group. (They do advocate placing all HIV-positive Americans in state-owned hospitals.) Several Klaverns now participate in the Adopt-a-Highway program. The group has also adopted the slogan "America's Oldest Civil Rights Organization."

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks David M. Chalmers, author of Backfire: How the Ku Klux Klan Helped the Civil Rights Movement, Marilyn Mayo of the Anti-Defamation League, and Rory McVeigh of the University of Notre Dame. Thanks also to reader Colin Samuels for asking the question.

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Correction, July 6, 2010: The original identified the Klan's home county as Pulaski. It began in the city of Pulaski, which is the seat of Giles County. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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