Shane Johnson: Breaking a Klan Legacy

|5 min read

“Every man in my family has been in the Klan as far back as you trace it. Now here’s a...

“Every man in my family has been in the Klan as far back as you trace it. Now here’s a whole new legacy.”

Shane Johnson was born in Shelbyville, Indiana, the son of the Imperial Nighthawk—the chief enforcer—of the Indiana White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. From the moment Shane was born, his father drilled in the doctrine, took him to cross burnings, and taught his son how to hate.

Everything was Klan, all the time. And so it became Shane’s life, too.

“They believe that everybody else is subhuman—that they don’t have a soul, and only white people do. When I talk about it now, it’s so stupid,” says Shane. “But at one point in time, it wasn’t to me. And it certainly wasn’t for my dad. We would have killed or died for it.”

On the first day of school, Shane refused to sit next to an African American classmate. His father was proud. When his history class studied the KKK, everyone turned and stared. Even the teacher felt uncomfortable, but Shane stayed the course. He accepted that he was just “the Klan kid.”

“If you threaten a kid with eternal damnation and hell…it’s a good way to get him to listen,” says Shane. “I listened to everything and did everything I was supposed to do. I had no friends.”

By his early 20s, Shane and his Klan brothers were repeatedly getting in trouble with the law. And suddenly, Shane’s father died. For the first time, he no longer enforced his son’s thoughts and actions. Shane was now free to doubt, to question.

After a drunken fight in a nearby town where the Klan attacked innocent locals, Shane woke up in jail and realized that if he continued on his path, he’d likely end up in prison.

Around this time, Shane also met Tiffany, the woman who opened his eyes to the world he had missed.

“She brought in questioning, and that’s what started it,” says Shane. “I started to realize that there was a flaw in my belief system.”

Shane began reading up on other belief systems and realized that “everybody has problems, and it’s so much easier if you can just blame those problems on something else. But it’s not the Jewish, African American, or Hispanic peoples’ fault that [we] didn’t finish high school and don’t have jobs.”

At age 22, Shane left the Ku Klux Klan for good.

But on his way out of town, Shane was jumped by his former Klansmen. They put him in the hospital for two weeks. Four years later, the KKK continues to threaten and attack Shane as a “race traitor.” He imagines that if his father were alive, “he’d be encouraging them to kill me, probably.”

Still, Shane says that leaving the Klan was “the best decision I ever made.” And with Tiffany and their newborn son Wyatt at home, Shane feels even more of a responsibility to speak out and strike a fresh path for his family—to create a new legacy.

But one thing holds Shane back: his tattoos. Much of his upper body is covered in hate-filled Klan ink, including multiple swastikas. The Klan gave him his first tattoos at just 12 years old. All of them were drawn by amateurs, often using melted-down chess pieces as ink.

Now, the tattoos are a lasting reminder of the past Shane wants to leave behind—and the shame from which he hopes to shield his son. Whenever he meets a new person or interviews for a job, the tattoos are the first thing they see. Shane can cover most of them with clothing, but the hateful symbols that climbed up his neck have resisted his best efforts.

That’s where Southside Tattoo came in.

Beth and Dave Cutlip of Southside Tattoo in Baltimore, MD, offer a special service to people like Shane. They cover up hateful and gang-related tattoos for free to help people leave the shameful vestiges of their pasts behind. To cover travel costs and other expenses for the people they help, the Cutlips started a GoFundMe.

When Shane heard about the Cutlips’ work, he reached out to see if they could help him with his fresh start, too. After reviewing his tattoos and hearing his story, they booked him a flight to Baltimore.

Over two sessions, Dave covered the anti-Semitic and white power relics of Shane’s past. Now, his neck bears a band of roses framing his son’s name.

“He’s going to see a direct effect instantly when he goes out,” says Beth. “Shane can go to a PTA meeting. Shane can have kids come to his house and spend the night, and their parents aren’t gonna say, ‘Oh, no. Your kid can’t play with my kid.’ It’s so much more than just covering up that tattoo.”

Shane couldn’t be happier. Finally, his appearance reflects the man he has chosen to be—instead of the one he was born. He calls the Cutlips his angels.

“It’s all about my son’s future. Every bit of it,” says Shane. “My dad taught me hate—nothing else. I just wanna teach my son love.”

The Cutlips continue to help people like Shane who choose love instead of hate. Now, they are raising money for tattoo removal laser equipment, which will allow them not just to cover up, but to erase the hate for good.