‘BlacKkKlansman’ and William Shockley’s Eugenic Agenda

Adam Driver, left, and John David Washington in “BlacKkKlansman” (Photo: David Lee/Focus Features).

Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman‘ is a gladiatorial depiction of racism as a past returned into the present. In one of many clear connections throughout the film, actor Topher Grace, who plays Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke argues that the Klan must refine their message to make it more palatable. Later Duke’s character reverently references the research of his “friend” William Shockley as proof that Klan initiations “celebrate and affirm the superior race.” The scene was quick. Viewers unfamiliar with the name William Shockley likely missed it entirely. But this depiction of Klan activities, closely followed by jarring footage of Heather Heyer’s murder at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, truly spoke to a web of ideological connections between the 1960s white supremacist groups and today’s alt-right, particularly on the issue of eugenics.

William Shockley’s career demonstrates the rhetorical pivots that birthed the alt-right.  Shockley was, by profession, a physicist with a background in electronic transistor research. Yet, throughout the civil rights movement, Shockley increasingly espoused eugenic theories about the biological inferiority of African Americans. Whereas earlier eugenicists unabashedly designated people of color “unfit” and advocated compulsory sterilization of “unfit” populations, Shockley presented himself as an academic, whose Voluntary Sterilization Bonus Plan was a solution to an expanded welfare system. Shockley believed welfare encouraged “the least effective elements of the Blacks to have the most children” and doomed African Americans to “a destiny of genetic enslavement.” He held no degrees in the fields of biology or genetics but Shockley’s opinions were generously subsidized by the Pioneer Fund. The Pioneer Fund was initially formed in 1937 to support research into eugenics and “race betterment.”

Pioneer Fund leadership was habitually circumspect about its membership and funding processes. This became especially critical as nightly news broadcasts demonstrated the terrible consequences of fire hoses, police dogs and Klan violence trained on civil rights workers. In an effort to assert academic credibility, eugenic theorists increasingly manufactured distance from the Ku Klux Klan. Thus, when movie David Duke asserts that Black freedom endangers “white identity”, a fictional movie truthfully reflects historical events.  In speeches and eugenic publications such as Mankind Quarterly, contributors never mentioned the Ku Klux Klan, but offered more tacit support of white supremacist groups. Various articles included oblique statements in support of segregation and insisted that segregation was not discriminatory.

Even as eugenic theorists professed a distinction between themselves and the Ku Klux Klan, their financial commitment to the White Citizens’ Council (WCC) spoke volumes.  While the White Citizens’ Council was no Blackkklansman-esque Klan organization, its members were equally as dangerous. Founded in July of 1954, the WCC was steadfastly committed to resisting Brown v. Board’s integration decree. As early as 1959 Pioneer Fund director Harry Weyher discussed budgets and cost projections for the White Citizens Council telecast Forum.  This marked the beginning of a lengthy and lucrative association between the Pioneer Fund and the White Citizens Council members. Additional Pioneer Fund grants found their way to the Mississippi White Citizens Council and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. While each of these organizations defined themselves as “nonviolent,” a rash of Council sanctioned assaults and stated support for “a few killings” to maintain segregation, belied their claims.

Following the Civil Rights Movement, members of the White Citizens Council sought to rehabilitate their public image, like David Duke’s Blackkklansman group. As a result, discussions about racial segregation became statements in favor of “the southern way of life” rather than segregationists or students of eugenics. Still, these changes were cosmetic rather than sincere as the White Citizen’s Council publication, “The Citizen”, continued to often cite Pioneer Funded eugenicists. Additionally, projects such as Carleton Putnam’s 1961 book titled Race and Reason: A Yankee View (partially financed with Pioneer Fund money) retained advertisements in “The Citizen”. Putnam described integration as a Jewish “equalitarian conspiracy” and opposed universal suffrage on the grounds that “to apply it to states or communities with high percentages of a retarded race is suicidal.” Putnam’s opinions were so outrageous that they “embarrassed even the governor of Mississippi.” But William Shockley, who appeared only briefly in The Blackkklansman, wrote the foreword for Putnam’s book. Today Putnam clearly retains an audience as the updated version of Race and Reason was released a scant year ago.

The Ku Klux Klan followed suit. An organization still under the thrall of grand wizards in white robes had little hope of attracting new recruits without a change in tactics. But younger Klan disciples like David Duke, who founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1974 were certain that the Klan still had a future. Under his tutelage, Louisiana “grand wizards” of the Ku Klux Klan became “national directors” and members exchanged white robes for white dress shirts, a point reiterated in the Blackkklansman. These ideas became transnational when Duke met his British counterpart Nick Griffin. Seated next to Duke, Griffin acknowledged that philosophies about white racial purity were rearticulated as white racial identity in order to preserve the influence of white supremacist platforms.

Even with these surface level changes, the newer KKK covertly continued to accept financial support from the Pioneer Fund. Commensurate with their financial ties to the eugenics movement, the KKK echoed eugenicists desire to “encourage welfare recipients to have fewer kids” in order to avoid a future where “the white population in America will be swamped.” Like William Shockley before him, David Duke seized upon welfare discourse in order to argue for a eugenic social hierarchy. The imagined fiscal conservativism would protect white America first and foremost. He simply avoided explicit use of the word “eugenics” in 1977.

With the advent of assisted reproductive technology, eugenicists conceived of a new frontier in eugenic hierarchy that encouraged the reproduction of desirable groups. Yet again, William Shockley was at the forefront and in the headlines as he donated sperm “more than once” to the Repository for Germinal Choice, a privately-run California sperm bank intended to produce intelligent babies for “eugenics minded” people. Publicly, the Repository avoided fatalistic rhetoric about the future of American genetics. But in private, founder Robert Graham sought the support and approval of eugenicists such as Pioneer Fund director Richard Lynn and Eugenics Bulletin editor Marion van Court.1 In mainstream publications, Repository employees characterized their mission as “high achievement sperm banking”, though this linguistic costume was not enough to entice financial support after Graham’s death. Graham’s employees lamented this change as a waste and shame since “Shockley’s sperm was actually pretty good.”

While this cinematic depiction of David Duke fighting for “white identity” in Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman‘ is fiction, it represents a very real association between eugenics and the right. David Duke does cite William Shockley and today’s eugenicists still associate with the Ku Klux Klan. Eugenics and white supremacy never died, they have simply been woven into endeavors from eugenic sperm banks to alt-right rallies.  Sites such as VDARE survive to present eugenicists’ and white supremacists’ viewpoints on issues from immigration to eugenics and dysgenics as the new theories of the alt-right, and VDARE’s connections go as far as current White House advisors.

  1.  Richard Lynn, interview by Alexandra Fair, March 14 and 15 2018, interview, tapes in possession of author.
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Alexandra Fair

Alexandra Fair is a graduate student in history at Miami University. Her research interests include U.S. History, Reproductive Justice History, African American History and Women's History. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrakfair.