The hateful history of the Ku Klux Klan

November 28, 2017

Scott McLemee reviews a new book that focuses on the prominence of the Ku Klux Klan throughout American social and political life during the 1920s. The review first appeared in two parts (part one and part two) at Inside Higher Ed.

SCHOLARSHIP ON the Ku Klux Klan long ago reached the stage of high granularity, with monographs focusing on the state and local level (there is a book-length study of the Klan in Utah, for example, and one focusing on El Paso, Texas) even to the point of scrutinizing the membership and activity of a single klavern, since the occasional stash of records and memorabilia will turn up in an archive in someone's attic.

The Klan's demographics have been analyzed. The legacy of Klan feminism has been unearthed, surely to great embarrassment in both camps standing to inherit it. As much of the history of the Klan in Canada has been chronicled as anyone is likely ever to need. No scholarship addresses the Klan in LGBT studies, to the best of my knowledge, but watch this space.

So The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (W.W. Norton and Company), by Linda Gordon, a professor of history at New York University, is a late addition to a very crowded shelf. The book makes its contribution chiefly as a work of synthesis; its endnotes point, for the most part, to earlier studies rather than primary sources. An overview of the subject is valuable, especially given the natural tendency of monographs to stress what distinguishes one region's KKK from others. Klansmen in Utah in the 1920s, for example, were non-Mormons who (big surprise) hated Mormons, who in El Paso were not an issue. Gordon bends the stick the other way, emphasizing broad patterns. And this has the effect of making the book more timely than even the headlines of this past August, following the far right's rally and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, would suggest.

The Ku Klux Klan demonstrates in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 1925
The Ku Klux Klan demonstrates in Washington, D.C. during the summer of 1925

REFERRING TO the KKK in the singular, as "the Klan," is both a convenience and somewhat misleading. Klan activity has gone through three distinct phases over the past 150 years--with so little continuity of personnel between them that we're really talking about three distinct organizations. They share certain symbols, rituals and hatreds, of course, deriving from the original group that took shape in the South during the early years of Reconstruction. This was a fraternity (its name deriving from the Greek kuklos, circle) devoted to terrorizing African American freedmen and anyone helping to secure their rights.

It was a relatively small and short-lived group. The second Klan emerged in the wake of D.W. Griffith's blockbuster Birth of a Nation (1915), which depicted the KKK as a valiant band of heroes. In adapting from Thomas Dixon Jr.'s novel and play, Griffith seems to have grasped that the material had great as well as dramatic potential. The robes and burning crosses of the original Klan were meant to terrify, but on screen they were spectacular. Furthermore, the spectacle reached an audience of millions across the entire country.

THE 20th-century Klan had a few lackluster years before it took off in the early 1920s, with an updated message of nativism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism and the need to preserve traditional family values from the influence of liberal elites. (Also, apparently, Mormons.) At its peak, the Klan claimed to have 4 to 6 million members or more--a figure only credible if it includes 4 or 5 million who signed up during a recruitment drive and then quit after a couple of meetings. If so, that would leave a million members, out of a population that the 1920 census determined to be 106 million. Up to 50,000 to 60,000 of them turned out in full regalia to march on Washington, first in 1925 and again the following year.

It was downhill from there. Scandals and clique warfare took their toll. By the onset of the Depression, the second Klan was effectively finished as an organization of national scope. The civil rights movement inspired a revival of sorts--though without anything like the second Klan's growth rate or public clout. Warnings of a new, revitalized KKK--one using the latest resources to spread its influence and menace--spring up every few years. David Duke managed to become a name known to everyone in America (except, it seems, Donald Trump). But every such development should be kept in perspective. A shared commitment to white supremacy only counts for so much given all the bad blood. The third KKK inherited the tendency to fragmentation evident by the late 1920s--intensified by each Klan's certainty that other Klans are full of FBI and ADL agents.

The mass movement depicted in The Second Coming of the KKK can be unnerving to study not for its hatreds but for its normality. Then, as now, liberals are liable to pathologize such a movement. But the political and cultural beliefs of Klansmen--that immigrants were stealing their jobs, for example, or that white Protestants were becoming almost powerless in "their own country"--were widespread enough to count as mainstream.

The Klan was wholeheartedly in favor of both Prohibition and women's suffrage. It encouraged church attendance; its hostility to science did not mean KKK members were anything but enthusiastic for the technology and commodities it enabled. Expressing the conviction that the pope was living secretly in the United States and would soon ascend a gold throne to proclaim himself the country's ruler might make some neighbors suspect you were crazy. Yet plenty who thought so might be worried by reports that the daughters of Irish immigrants were becoming schoolteachers in order to bring the public schools under Catholic influence.

At the same time, the Klan of the 1920s put enormous emphasis on civic-mindedness. It organized picnics and carnivals. There were Klan baseball teams, some of them semipro. "The Youngstown team challenged the Knights of Columbus," Gordon writes, "and the Klan played Wichita's 'crack colored team,' the Morovians (the Klan lost)...In Los Angeles, the Klan team played a three-game charity series against a B'nai B'rith team, and in 1927 in Washington, D.C., the Klan played against the Hebrew All-Stars..."

It is not the use of baseball bats one expects from the Klan. It all sounds dismayingly wholesome. At the same time, this was an organization, which, while focused on plenty of other racial grievances, also considered the relative merits of re-enslaving and exterminating Black people.

BACK IN August, while issuing his third and most vehement statement about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, Donald Trump waxed indignant at the media's failure to recognize "good people on both sides"--such as those ones who assembled at the University of Virginia campus on the evening of August 11, "protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee."

How he spotted the antiquarians in that crowd remains puzzling. Available footage suggests the whole thing to have been a re-enactment of selected scenes from Triumph of the Will. Not a lot of quiet dignity on display. It took a braying mass of genocidal thugs for Trump to discover his new calling as champion of historical preservation; his interest in the past derives entirely from its usefulness in mobilizing resentment.

The "good people" Trump invoked were thin on the ground during the demonstrations in Charlottesville, but Gordon's book is filled with literally millions of them: civic-minded and public-spirited Americans, sober and pious, given to organizing softball teams and charity fundraisers, who remembered a time before the country started going wrong and wanted to make it great again.

Any similarity between the Klan of the 1920s and the Trump mobilization is a long way from coincidental. As noted above, the original (Reconstruction-era) KKK was a relatively small, ad hoc terrorist group in the South--while the third-phase Klan (driven by hostility to the civil rights movement and its legacy) remains marginal and prone to fracturing. The Klan of the 1920s was a phenomenon of a completely different order. While appealing to racist sentiment, it was on the whole less obsessed with restraining African American progress (Plessy v. Ferguson had taken care of that) than with hostility to immigrants. And its millions of members and supporters, spread out across the entire country, gave the KKK considerable electoral muscle.

It "condemned the political class," writes Gordon, "even as it worked to elect its own politicians." In Klan ideology, "those responsible for the erosion of American values and the American way of life were not capitalists or men of significant wealth" but rather "cosmopolitan, highbrow, professional, well-educated, prosperous urbanites, who were often liberals." That does not mean the Klan itself was a purely rural or small-town movement. Drawing on the enormous body of Klan historiography, Gordon points out that up to half of the membership was urban, with almost a third of it living in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit; "in many states Klan per capita membership was larger in cities than in smaller places."

Nor did KKK hostility to educated elites keep it from setting up fraternities to recruit on campuses, while also establishing two Klan-run colleges. (The ill-fated Lanier University in Atlanta boasted a curriculum of "100 percent Americanism.") The KKK "gave one of its largest donations--$1,568 (worth $22,500 in 2016)--to the Reverend Bob Jones, to help him establish his conservative whites-only Bob Jones University."

LESS SURPRISINGLY, perhaps, the KKK tended to be on mutually supportive terms with the repressive state apparatus. In its own eyes, the Klan was a law unto itself; members referred to each other as "citizens," while everybody outside counted as "aliens." In some places, it exercised terror directly:

Oklahoma, Indiana, Kansas and southern Illinois--locations that were as much Southern as Northern--experienced a great deal of Klan violence: whippings, tar and featherings, and lynchings. In all four places, various degrees of racial segregation were in place, and Klan violence helped keep it in place.

Elsewhere, the Klan functioned as a sort of police auxiliary. The mayor of Portland, Oregon, deputized a Klan-approved citizens' brigade: its members "received guns, badges and the power to make arrests, but their names would remain secret." In addition, the Klan claimed that the police department itself contained 150 "citizens." Federal agents in Oakland, California, "incorporated a group of Klansmen into raids on Prohibition violators."

My impression from reading other studies is that it would be mistaken to assume that all or even most Klan members in this period were engaged in violent activity, and Gordon quotes one contemporary assessment that "probably nine-tenths of nothing but repeat [Klan] ritual, pass pious resolutions and go home." For many, I suppose, it was something to look forward to--a night out with the boys. Whatever the percentages, Klan members could and did regard themselves as law-abiding citizens. And the appalling truth is that it was, on the whole, perfectly reasonable for them to think so.

The dynamism of the second-era Klan came in part from its successful combination of violent hatred with the accepted forms and norms of legitimacy. It encouraged teetotaling, regular church attendance and a good-neighborly sense of community involvement. Anything allowing people to express malice with a good conscience has a certain built-in advantage when it comes to recruitment.

But something else stands out in Gordon's analysis that is not so clear from other accounts. The Klan was at war with the world around it; it wanted to return to some imagined sense of what the country had been before its unity was shattered by the Civil War and waves of immigration. But it also tried to create a world unto itself, and did so in decidedly 20th-century terms: through spectacle, mass communications and branding.

THE SECOND Klan came in the wake of a movie, Birth of a Nation, in which the vigilante group was reimagined (to use the preferred expression of this era of perpetual remakes) as a kind of nativist chivalric order. Mixed into the revived KKK's deadly serious ideology was a certain amount of D.W. Griffith cosplay. But it was not a movement springing up from below. The new Klan was, from the start, a business--albeit a fairly unimpressive one until its founder outsourced the promotional work to an enterprise called the Southern Publicity Association. With a contract giving its promoters "an astonishing 80 percent of any revenue [it] brought in from new recruits," the Klan grew exponentially.

Membership was not cheap, and the recycling of old bedsheets was deemed completely unacceptable. The $10 initiation fee did not cover the robes, which cost another $6.50. In addition, the Klansman paid "annual dues of about $5, and a yearly $1.80 tax to the national headquarters." Gordon estimates that joining "cost $23.30 for the first year (worth $318 in 2016)."

Economies of scale eventually drive down the cost of manufacturing the robes to $2 each, but the huge profit margin was further reinforced by a strict dress code. "The headgear and Klan insignia had to be just so," Gordon writes; they were designed "so that wives could not hand-sew them." This "made the members want the real, manufactured object." In addition, the member would need the handbook of rules and rituals known as the Kloran. Also available for purchase was "Klan water," obligatory for certain rituals. (The mimicry of a Catholic tradition by the rabidly anti-Catholic KKK is striking.)

Gordon quotes another historian's apt characterization of the Klan of the 1920s as "a hybrid of a social club and a multilevel marketing firm." The incentive for constant recruitment was built in. Retention seems to have been another matter:

According to one recent estimate, the Klan took in at least $25 million ($342 million in 2016 dollars) annually. This is likely an exaggeration, since as much as one-third of the members were in arrears, never paid or soon quit paying dues...A study of the Indiana Klan showed that few other than leaders stayed for long. In one town, of 1,067 listed as Klavern members, 61.5 percent had been suspended at least once for not paying dues.

The capital did accumulate, though, and with it there built up a large infrastructure. The Klan owned or controlled newspapers, magazines and radio stations. It "tried but failed to create its own banks so that its members could avoid using un-American ones." Also serving to build an imaginary wall between the KKK and the outside world were its rituals and private language. A Klonklave, or weekly meeting of a Klavern, might hear a from a visiting Klokard (lecturer), after which the Klabee (treasurer) would accept Klecktokens (initiation fees) from newcomers, who would be expected to learn the differences of rank and function between an exalted cyclops and a grand dragon.

All of this seems more ridiculous than strictly necessary. But Gordon makes the case for it as participatory role-playing. The hybrid of social club and multilevel marking firm was also a community theater of sort. And in combination with propaganda sources that "limited [Klan] members' exposure to information that might have challenged their fears," this created a sealed-off culture of grievances.

It worked, for a while. But the profiteering, corruption and mutual animosity of its leadership doomed the whole enterprise. Self-contained and self-centered, it disintegrated in time, collapsing from internal conflicts. For decades after that, nothing comparable took its place. Trump's campaign for the presidency emerged in 2015, of course, reviving much of the second Klan's mentality. If history is repeating itself, that may yet turn out to have a bright side.

First published at Inside Higher Ed (part one and part two).

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