David Cunningham

​Professor of Sociology
PhD, University of North Carolina
research interests:
  • Causes and Consequences of Racial Violence
  • Organized White Supremacy, Historically and Today
  • Social Movements
  • Political Violence

contact info:

mailing address:

  • WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
  • CB 1112
  • ONE BROOKINGS DR.
  • ST. LOUIS, MO 63130-4899
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​Professor Cunningham’s research is focused on the scope, organization and legacy of racial contention. His past work centers on the Ku Klux Klan, in particular the complex roles that the klan played in various communities throughout the 1960s and the enduring impacts of KKK activity on contemporary voting patterns and crime rates.

Cunningham joined Washington University in the fall of 2015 from his previous appointment as Professor of Sociology and department chair at Brandeis University. His current research, focused on the scope, organization, and legacy of racial contention, is supported by the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.  Professor Cunningham's past work centers on the Ku Klux Klan, in particular the complex roles that the klan played in various communities throughout the 1960s and the enduring impacts of KKK activity on contemporary voting patterns and crime rates.  His recent book Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan (Oxford University Press, 2013) has been featured on NPR's Fresh Air, CBS News, the Miller Center Forum, and in a PBS American Experience documentary film.  An ongoing project examines the organization and enforcement of segregation under Jim Crow, as well as how related historical patterns continue to matter today.  A recipient of Brandeis University's Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer '69 and Joseph Neubauer Prize for Excellence in Teaching and Mentoring, Professor Cunningham has directed a number of intensive field-based programs on the causes and consequences of social conflict.

Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan

Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan

In the 1960s, on the heels of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and in the midst of the growing Civil Rights Movement, Ku Klux Klan activity boomed, reaching an intensity not seen since the 1920s, when the KKK boasted over 4 million members. Most surprisingly, the state with the largest Klan membership-more than the rest of the South combined-was North Carolina, a supposed bastion of southern-style progressivism. 

Klansville, U.S.A. is the first substantial history of the civil rights-era KKK's astounding rise and fall, focusing on the under-explored case of the United Klans of America (UKA) in North Carolina. Why the UKA flourished in the Tar Heel state presents a fascinating puzzle and a window into the complex appeal of the Klan as a whole. Drawing on a range of new archival sources and interviews with Klan members, including state and national leaders, the book uncovers the complex logic of KKK activity. David Cunningham demonstrates that the Klan organized most successfully where whites perceived civil rights reforms to be a significant threat to their status, where mainstream outlets for segregationist resistance were lacking, and where the policing of the Klan's activities was lax. Moreover, by connecting the Klan to the more mainstream segregationist and anti-communist groups across the South, Cunningham provides valuable insight into southern conservatism, its resistance to civil rights, and the region's subsequent dramatic shift to the Republican Party.

There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence

There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence

Using over twelve thousand previously classified documents made available through the Freedom of Information Act, David Cunningham uncovers the riveting inside story of the FBI's attempts to neutralize political targets on both the Right and the Left during the 1960s. Examining the FBI's infamous counterintelligence programs (COINTELPROs) against suspected communists, civil rights and black power advocates, Klan adherents, and antiwar activists, he questions whether such actions were aberrations or are evidence of the bureau's ongoing mission to restrict citizens' right to engage in legal forms of political dissent. At a time of heightened concerns about domestic security, with the FBI's license to spy on U.S. citizens expanded to a historic degree, the question becomes an urgent one. This book supplies readers with insights and information vital to a meaningful assessment of the current situation. 

There's Something Happening Here looks inside the FBI's COINTELPROs against white hate groups and the New Left to explore how agents dealt with the hundreds of individuals and organizations labeled as subversive threats. Rather than reducing these activities to a product of the idiosyncratic concerns of longtime director J. Edgar Hoover, Cunningham focuses on the complex organizational dynamics that generated literally thousands of COINTELPRO actions. His account shows how--and why--the inner workings of the programs led to outcomes that often seemed to lack any overriding logic; it also examines the impact the bureau's massive campaign of repression had on its targets. The lessons of this era have considerable relevance today, and Cunningham extends his analysis to the FBI's often controversial recent actions to map the influence of the COINTELPRO legacy on contemporary debates over national security and civil liberties.