Beyond Hate: A Conversation with a Reformed, Former KKK Member

By: Ahmad Graves-El

Follow Local News interviewed former KKK leader Joe Bednarsky, who has been reformed from the hate group for 10 years and now is a chaplain whose motto is “In Grace there is No Race.” |  Jeff Schwachter

Chaplain Joe Bednarsky was once the head of the Ku Klux Klan; today he preaches love over hate for all out a South Jersey church.

There are some people in this world who change for the better and there are some who change for the worse. Some people never seem to change at all. Then there are those people whose change is so drastic and dramatic that it can completely boggle the mind.

Chaplain Joseph V. Bednarsky, Jr., 49, of Millville, is a God-fearing, loving man who ministers to many struggling local citizens in the hopes he can help save their souls. He also volunteers at a Millville soup kitchen five days a week.

Yet, for nearly half his life, he lived in a world where true love didn’t exist. He lived in a world where espousing hate is the supreme order of the day.

For approximately 20 years, Bednarsky, Jr., a tower of a man at 6’6″ tall and around 300 pounds, was a prominent and proud representative of one of the most hateful and feared terror organizations in the history of the United States, the Ku Klux Klan. He has led and participated in numerous KKK rallies across the country. He’s had numerous fist-fights and all-out brawls with people just because he didn’t like the color of their skin, and has had a hand in attempting to put dread in the hearts of people by having crosses burned in their yards. 

And now, he is a bodyguard and a security guard for an African-American pastor in the city of Millville. 

How does a man who once so despised a portion of the world’s citizens because of melanin in their skin, become a man now accepted and appreciated by just about everyone he comes in contact with—no matter what race, color or creed?

“On a hot summer night in July 2005, I was watching the 700 Club. I was watching Pat [Robertson],” said Bednarsky, Jr. “[And Robertson]  says, ‘There’s a Klan leader out there [and] he’s going to be indicted. He’s not happy with his life. He’s probably going to go to prison for the rest of his life, or end up dead.’ He was talking to me.”

For Bednarsky, this “supernatural encounter” immediately erased the enmity and anger he held in his heart for others, as well as for himself.

“That night when I gave my heart to Jesus, God healed me instantly and took the hatred away that I had towards other people of other cultures and races,” said Bednarsky.

His anger toward people who didn’t look like him began when he was just 14 years old. 

“I grew up in the projects,” recalled Bednarsky. The “projects” he is referring to is the Wade East Apartment complex located in Millville. “[There were] two [African-American] boys that I grew up with and we would fight every day when we got off the bus. That fueled my anger.”

Around that same time, Bednarsky was getting interested in photography. His parents—his father worked at a local glass company and his mother was a homemaker—bought him a 35 mm camera. He became intrigued by an individual who “had a confederate flag down the street [from] where he lived.”

“I approached this gentleman and asked him if I could take a picture of this flag, because I was fascinated with American history,” said Bednarsky. “I thought it was unique, it stood out. I said, ‘Why would there be a confederate flag in New Jersey down the street from me?’ ”

He would soon discover that the man was a member of the KKK.

“He had children that were my age, so I became friends with them,” explained Bednarsky. “They kind of took me in. I didn’t have a close relationship with my father, so I spent a lot of time with this family.”

There, the indoctrination of Bednarsky into the hate culture of the racist organization of the KKK began in earnest.

“They started to feed me literature about the Klan, its history, about what it was about,” said Bednarsky. “Part of the brainwashing process is that you can be proud of your race [and that we cultivate] a family atmosphere.”

For the next four years, Bednarsky said he absorbed as much as he could regarding the “patriotic” history of the Klan. Subsequently, when he turned 18 years old, he became a full-fledged member of the Ku Klux Klan—after filling out an application, he noted with amusement.

Upon reflection, Bednarsky can see that his young mind was being masterfully manipulated by the members of this group who are adept at preying on people who may feel like they are not receiving the attention they desire. “That’s a process that happens in all the gangs,” according to the chaplain.

“These children are looking for a sense of belonging,” explained Bednarsky. “So they join these gangs like the Crips and Bloods and Latin Kings and MS 13.” And apparently the Ku Klux Klan as well.

This “sense of belonging” as a member of the Klan emboldened Bednarsky, so much so that he eventually became a leader of his own “gang”—the Confederate Knights, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He and his cohorts mercilessly perpetrated vicious acts on people who were opposed to their nativistic and nationalistic ideologies, which he now regrets.

“I have to live my life knowing that I … ordered people to get hurt physically and [had] crosses burned on people’s lawns,” said Bednarsky. “I can’t believe that I was that person at one time, but I have to live the rest of my life knowing that I hurt people.”

While Bednarsky, Jr. was a card-carrying member of the KKK, he also had several run-ins with members of other Klan factions. In 1990, he butted heads with the New Jersey Grand Dragon, at the time—a Grand Dragon is a high-ranking member of the Klan—of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, for “not running things the way they were supposed to.”

This led the Grand Dragon to put a hit out on Bednarsky and one of his comrades. According to an article written by Thomas Martello of the Associated Press, the Grand Dragon was “indicted in [an] alleged plot to murder ex-group members.”

“You think I would have learned my lesson and not pursued the direction I was going,” said Bednarsky, who is sharing his story to let people know how violent the Klan is “that they would turn on their own people.”

During his time as a member of the Confederate Knights, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Bednarsky gradually climbed the ladder to reach the highest levels of leadership one can attain in the organization. He became a state Grand Dragon and ultimately became the national Imperial Wizard. 

Bednarsky rubbed elbows with many racist people, he recalled, including lawmakers and other high-ranking public officials, who, unbeknownst to the general public, were flag waving Klan members, said Bednarsky.

“What you have to realize is that the Klan [is] a secret organization. Without saying too much, there were [prominent people in high positions] in Cumberland County that were members of the Klan,” said Bednarsky. “Our power was our secrecy … people not knowing who we were.”

Bednarsky believes that, in 2018, there are about 5,000 members of the Klan in the tri-state area.

After the “supernatural encounter” Bednarsky said he experienced while watching the 700 Club, he saw it as a sign from God that it was time for him to leave the Klan. “The Bible says that we are all created in the image of God,” said Bednarsky, now known as Chaplain Joe.

Before he left the Klan, however, Bednarsky made some decisions that left many of his peers at the time confused. 

Although he was “saved” in 2005, he admitted that he “backslid” and turned his back on God in 2006 and was still a member of the Klan. He was still a Grand Dragon and was “encouraged” by fellow members to run for the national seat that opened up because “the Imperial Wizard passed away.” 

He won the seat and from September 2006 to  March 2007 he was officially the highest ranking official of the national chapter of the Confederate Knights, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

But instead of using his new powers to continue promoting hate, Bednarsky used them in an awe-inspiring way to bring the operations of this faction of the Klan to an end.

“What the devil intended for bad, God used for good because with that power—it gave me power to shut down all operations in the 18 states that we were operating in and the 20,000 members that we had,” said Bednarsky. 

Bednarsky felt that it was up to him to show his members that they were not living righteously by the words of the Bible and it was time for them to change. “God used me to show them that this isn’t the life we should be living,” he said.

And echoing the words of Robertson, he told his members, “We’re either going to end up dead or end up in prison. Something’s going to happen to us and it ain’t good.”

Chaplain Joe began writing letters of apology to the leaders of multiple cities, including Millville and Hammonton, where his members had once caused chaos and confusion.

He sent letters to the citizens and officials of Deerfield Township, apologizing for leaving Klan fliers at the 2006 Deerfield Harvest Festival and for “ever wanting to bring the Ku Klux Klan to their town.” 

On March 27, 2007, Bednarsky officially resigned from his position as Imperial Wizard of the Confederate Knights, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and began his new life spreading the word of God to anyone and everyone who would listen. His transition from hating to loving was no easy task.

According to Bednarsky, you don’t go to bed being a racist one night and then wake up the next morning singing “Kumbaya” to everyone. He had to “learn how to adapt and co-exist,” with people he previously hated, he said.

For almost 10 years Chaplain Joe has done his best to repent for his past duplicitous actions by going out of his way to help people in need. 

His acts of kindness have been witnessed by many people in the Cumberland County area, especially those at the Bethel AME Church, where Charles E. Wilkins is pastor.

“People were not very trusting of him, so needless to say people didn’t get the warm and fuzzies about him serving them a meal,” said Wilkins, when describing people’s reactions to Bednarsky when he first began working at the church.

But now, Chaplain Joe has proven his worth and is a valuable presence and respected member of the Bethel AME Church community. “Anybody that ever has questions or needs something, it doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from, Joe is willing to help,” said Patricia Camp, of Millville, and a volunteer at the soup kitchen, which runs Tuesdays through Fridays from noon-2 p.m.

“I’ve seen him get up in the middle of the night and take a family someplace to get shelter,” said Wilkins. “I’ve seen him fill his car up with groceries and go to the projects and give out food. “He’s become more than a friend to me,” continued Wilkins. “He’s become a brother.”

“If I had to take a bullet to save his life I would do that,” said Bednarsky of Wilkins. “Because I love him.”

Not surprisingly, many of his former fellow Klan members loathe Bednarsky’s new life.

“The fact that I go to an African-American church and I’m a bodyguard and security for a black man [really] burns them up,” he said. “They can’t comprehend it. They have so much hatred [that] they don’t see we all bleed the same color blood.”

Wilkins also believes that Chaplain Joe is a prime example of the love God has for every human being on this earth and that there is hope for us all.

“If God can change Joe, God can change anyone,” said Wilkins.

 “[Don’t] make the same mistake that I made by spending over 20 years of your life wasted on a cause that’s going nowhere,” said Bednarsky when asked what advice he would give to anyone thinking of joining a hate group such as the KKK. “Hatred is not good. We should love everyone.”