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Cross burning or cross lighting is a practice widely associated with the Ku Klux Klan. In the early twentieth century, the Klan burnt crosses on hillsides or near the homes of those they wished to intimidate.

File:Cross Lighting 2005.jpg

Ku Klux Klan members at a cross burning in 2005.

Sign of the Ku Klux Klan[]

The Reconstruction-era Klan did not burn crosses, but Thomas Dixon's 1902–1907 trilogy of novels portrayed a romanticized version of the Ku Klux Klan in which its members did burn crosses. Dixon may have based the idea on descriptions of the fiery cross in the writing of Sir Walter Scott, or on other literary or historical sources. The 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation was based on two of Dixon's novels. Birth of a Nation quotes Dixon's novel The Clansman as saying:

In olden times when the Chieftain of our people summoned the clan on an errand of life and death, the Fiery Cross, extinguished in sacrificial blood, was sent by swift courier from village to village… The ancient symbol of an unconquered race of men.

In 1915, the same year Birth of a Nation was released, Jewish-American Leo Frank was lynched. Two months after his lynching, the lynchers burnt a cross. William J. Simmons, who founded the new Ku Klux Klan later in the same year, burned a cross at the mountaintop founding ceremony. Many of the participants in Simmons's ceremony were the same men who had helped to lynch Frank.

Many Christians consider it sacrilege to burn or otherwise destroy a cross. Klan Christians, however, states that it is not destroying the cross, but "lighting" it, as a symbol of the members' faith.[1]

Scottish origins[]

In Scotland, the fiery cross, known as the Crann Tara, was used as a declaration of war. The sight of it commanded all clan members to rally to the defense of the area. On other occasions, a small burning cross would be carried from town to town. The most recent known use was in 1745, during the Jacobite Rising[2] and was subsequently described in the novels and poetry of Walter Scott.

Though some members of the Ku Klux Klan were descended from immigrants from Scotland, there is no evidence to suggest that their ancestors brought this tradition with them to America.

Recent cases[]

On 8 March 2000, a group of militant feminists in Montreal, Quebec, set burning crosses on the steps of a Roman Catholic church as a part of a wider ransacking of the building following an International Women's Day march. The event garnered no response from the Cabinet at the time.[3]

In 2007, Neal Chapman Coombs, of Hastings, Florida, was charged with knowingly and willfully intimidating and interfering with right to fair housing[4] by threat of force and the use of fire and pleaded guilty to a racially-motivated civil rights crime involving a cross burning to prevent the purchase of a house by an African-American family. Coombs was sentenced to 14 months in prison in January, 2007.[5] The United States Department of Justice believes that "cross burning remains a vicious symbol of hatred."[6]

On November 6, 2008, a Hardwick, NJ family who supported U.S. President Barack Obama's campaign found a charred wooden cross on their lawn, near burnt remnants of a "President Obama - Victory '08" banner which had been stolen from their yard.[7]

Legal position in the United States[]

In Virginia v. Black (2003), the United States Supreme Court ruled that a statute outlawing the public burning of a cross with intent to intimidate is Constitutional, but if the statute does not require an additional showing of the intent to intimidate outside the burning itself, then the statute cannot pass Constitutional muster.


  1. Ku Klux Klan - Knights of the KKK - Brotherhood of Klans KKK
  2. The Capital Scot.
  3. Gunter, Lorne (31 March 2001), "Real cross-burning ignored by Hedy Fry", National Post,, retrieved 2 October 2009 
  4. Title 42, U.S.C., Section 3631 Criminal Interference with Right to Fair Housing [1]
  5. "HASTINGS MAN PLEADS GUILTY TO CROSS BURNING"; U.S.Department of Justice Press Release; August 16, 2006 [2]
  6. "TWO MEN PLEAD GUILTY IN KENTUCKY CROSS BURNING CASE"; U.S. Department of Justice Press Release; September 2, 2004 [3]
  7. Cross burned on lawn of Obama supporters in Hardwick
  • Wade, Wyn Craig. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. New York: Simon and Schuster (1987).