He Once Helped People Join The KKK. Now He Helps Them Escape
After 19 years in the Klan, Scott Shepherd is speaking out.
It takes courage to admit you’re wrong. When you’re a member of the Ku Klux Klan, it takes every ounce you’ve got.
It took Scott Shepherd years to do it. He joined the Klan in Indianola, Mississippi in 1975, when he was just 16 years old.
“Indy,” as it’s known to locals, is a place of contradictions. The town is home to BB King and to the White Citizens Councils, a white segregationist organization founded in the 1950s to oppose the racial integration of public schools.
Shepherd says he didn’t grow up in a racist family. He and his siblings were even raised by a black caretaker named Becky Hawkins, who had worked for Shepherd’s grandmother and raised his mother.
Shepherd with Becky, the woman who raised him.
But his father was an alcoholic, and Shepherd grew up an angry dude. “I didn’t like myself and I didn’t like anyone else, really. I was looking for a place to fit in, to fill a void within myself,” he tells dose by phone from his home in Memphis.
The South in the 60s and 70s was a violent place. Change was happening fast — the Supreme Court had recently commanded all public schools to integrate — but not everyone was ready to accept it.
“At the time, there were marches, there were the Freedom Riders, there was a lot of racial conflict going on,” Shepherd says. “And racism was all around me.”
As an angry teenager, Shepherd wanted somewhere to channel his rage.
First he tried to contact the Mafia, then the Irish Republican Army. But in the Deep South during the 1960s and 70s, the KKK was the low-hanging fruit.
“The Ku Klux Klan was right there at my back door, and that’s what I latched on to. I’ve always said, if ISIS was around, I could have latched onto ISIS,” Shepherd says.
At age 16, Shepherd looked up the address of the “Imperial Wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, the group’s national leader. “His address was right there in the phone book,” Shepherd says. Denham Springs, Louisiana, it said. Not far from where Shepherd’s older sister lived in Baton Rouge.
Watch: Shepherd tells his story to Morning Dose TV.
The next time he and his mother took a trip to visit his older sister, Shepherd took the opportunity to pay a visit to the Imperial Wizard, too. “I kept going by the office and finally went to man’s house and introduced myself to him.”
After that, he began going to Klan rallies. His first was an assembly in Tupelo, Mississippi, where he met more of the organization’s leaders. From there, things snowballed. Shepherd became more and more active. He started planning events, recruiting new members.
When he graduated high school, Shepherd moved from Indianola to Memphis to enroll in college. But higher learning didn’t do much to open Shepherd’s mind. He stayed very active in the Klan through his college years, slowly rising through the ranks until he was promoted, at age 19, to “Grand Wizard” of the state of Tennessee — the KKK equivalent of state governor.
After graduating college, Shepherd got married, had a daughter. He started working for funeral homes in and around Memphis, as a director and embalmer. He and his wife got divorced, he remarried and had a pair of twin boys. All this time, despite the disapproval of both his spouses, Shepherd continued participating in Klan activities. He went to marches, planned rallies, did TV appearances. He was even friends with David Duke.
But his success in the KKK brought failures elsewhere in his life, especially in his personal relationships.
“I disowned my entire family,” he says. “I lost a relationship with my younger sister for 10 years. I lost complete contact with my daughter.”
Shepherd was in the KKK for 15 years before a series of events gave him the courage to renounce his racist life.
The first event was getting arrested. The year was 1990. Shepherd was 31, living in Nashville. At the time, he said, the FBI was watching him, because they suspected he’d been involved in a series of fatal mail bombings of judges and lawyers in Georgia and Alabama. (He was not involved. He says he never engaged in violence during his time in the Klan.)
Shepherd with Daryl Davis, a musician and activist who befriends KKK members.
But that night, he’d had a few drinks at a restaurant. He was driving home when “an ocean of blue lights” appeared in his rearview mirror. The police pulled him over and found some weed and an illegal gun in his car.
A court sent Shepherd to rehab in Mississippi. He thought it’d be a quick fix.
“I figured I’d go to the treatment center, take the paperwork to the judge, get the charges dropped and go on with my racist life,” he says.
But things didn’t go that way.
In rehab, Shepherd was forced to sit down with people of different races, religions and sexual preferences. “I got to know these people, sharing intimate details of our lives. And I found out they weren’t any different than I was. Here I was, being treated with respect and love by the same people I was espousing racial hatred to.”
That was where the seed was planted.
When he got out of rehab, Shepherd moved back to Memphis, but stopped communicating with his old colleagues in the Klan. Actually, he stopped communicating with pretty much everyone.
“I totally withdrew from society,” he says. “I went into seclusion for a long time, I mean, for years. Because I was ashamed of what I’d done.”
Still, he couldn’t bring himself to publicly denounce the KKK. People got beaten up or even killed for stuff like that.
The years passed. The 90s became the 2000s. A breast cancer diagnosis landed Shepherd’s older sister in the hospital. “She was on her deathbed down in Baton Rouge, and I was sitting in the room with her, and we were talking and she asked me, ‘Do you regret the things you’ve done in your life?’” Shepherd says.
“And I told her, yes, I regret it all. She said, ‘You can take what you’ve done, and help other people who are involved in the white supremacy movement. You can help them get out.”
Shepherd’s sister died of breast cancer a few days later.
Spent Sunday at Mt. Beulah Baptist Church in Indianola, MS. with Rebecca Scott Hawkins for her 103rd Birthday!Happy Birthday Becky! pic.twitter.com/GMrFbNSDRG
— Scott Shepherd (@ReformedRacist) October 3, 2017
Five years passed. In 2010, stomach ulcers put Shepherd in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Jackson, Mississippi. Shepherd thinks the ulcers were caused by the hate he was feeling. “I have no doubt those ulcers were the result of the anger and hatred that I kept inside myself all those years,” he says.
Shepherd’s ulcers were so bad, doctors had to remove three-quarters of his stomach. The surgery caused his stomach to go into shock. “I started having complications, and I almost died,” he says. A hospital stay that was supposed to last a few days ended up lasting eight weeks.
“I had a lot of time to think. And I said, ‘I don’t wanna leave this world and have people think I’m the same person now that I was then,’” Shepherd recalls.
Miraculously, Shepherd survived. When he got out of the hospital, he made the decision, once and for all, to publicly renounce the Klan.
To do it, he created a blog. He named it, simply, “Scott Shepherd Reformed Racist Free At Last!” He was terrified to publish it, but once he did, the response was overwhelming. “I knew I was home then,” he says.
At the time, he got some death threats. He still gets them now and then. But despite the risks he faces, Shepherd refuses to conceal his identity. “I’m not going to hide in the curtains any longer. I have to live my life.” He adds that he believes God is protecting him from getting hurt.
Since coming out in 2010, Shepherd has devoted his life to doing what his older sister asked him to before she passed away: helping young people in white extremist movements get out. As a former KKK recruiter, he’s uniquely qualified for the task. “The Klan finds people that are troubled kids. Like street gangs do. They pat you on the back and say ‘We’ll be your family, we’ll take you in.’”
“When I get an opportunity to talk to these kids, I tell them first off, if you have trouble with your parents, go to someone you trust,” he says. “I try to guide them away from seeking out any kind of outside influence to people they don’t know. Because, see, once they get in, they have three options: they can end up in jail, they can wake up and get out of the group, hopefully, or they can die. And that is really the only three options they got.”
These days, Shepherd is an educator and public speaker. He lives in Memphis but travels frequently. He participates in documentaries to raise awareness about bigotry.
“I am doing whatever I can to help people,” he says. “In a way, I owe it.”
He’s apologized to people he hurt, like Becky, the woman of color who raised him, and to his younger sister and his daughter, both of whom he now has good relationships with. He even publicly apologized to the family of Martin Luther King.
Above, Shepherd apologizes to Dr. Bernice King, who is one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s children.
But these days, Shepherd’s goal is bigger than simply righting the wrongs of his own life. He’s on a mission to bring people together, to get them to talk to others from different walks of life, no matter how unpleasant it might be.
“The main thing is, communicate. Communicate! Sit down and talk with people from different walks of life. Talk to ’em and you’ll find out you got more in common with them than you know. People fear what they don’t know. And that is something you gotta break down, is that fear. You gotta sit down and know each other.”
“You may be beating your hands on the table and yelling at each other but that’s okay, you’re still sitting there talking and communicating. And before that conversation is over, you’ll find something you have in common. And you can focus on that and build from that.”