Most of us who grow up in the United States learn a reassuring narrative of ever-expanding tolerance. Yes, the country’s birth was tainted with the original sin of slavery, but Lincoln freed the slaves, the Supreme Court desegregated schools, and we finally elected a black president. The Founding Fathers may have all been men, but in their wisdom they created a constitution that would later allow women to gain the vote. And now the legal definition of marriage has broadened to include gays and lesbians. We are, it appears, an increasingly inclusive nation.
But a parallel, much darker river runs through American history. The Know Nothing Party of the 1850s viciously attacked Catholics and immigrants. Eugenics enthusiasts of the early twentieth century warned about the nation’s gene pool being polluted by ex-slaves, the feeble minded, and newcomers of inferior races. In the 1930s, 16 million Americans regularly listened to the anti-Semitic radio rants of Father Charles E. Coughlin.
The most notorious of all the currents in this dark river has been the Ku Klux Klan. It flourished first in the South after the Civil War, lynching and terrorizing African-Americans who tried to vote, and then gradually disbanded in the early 1870s under pressure from the federal government. After a long spell of quiescence, it reemerged into national prominence in the 1920s, reaching an all-time peak membership in 1924—a year, incidentally, that saw the dedication of various Confederate memorials, including the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, whose planned removal was the pretext for the “Unite the Right” rally there in August. After another eclipse, the Klan roared back to life a third time in protest against the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Among other acts of violence, Klansmen took part in the murder of three voter registration workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964—James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.
All along, of course, even while sticking to rhetoric of tolerance and inclusion, politicians have made winks and nods toward that dark river of which the Klan is a part. Richard Nixon had his Southern Strategy. Running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan sent an unmistakable message by giving a speech about states’ rights near Philadelphia, Mississippi. George H.W. Bush used the notorious Willie Horton campaign commercial. And now suddenly, it’s no longer just winks and nods. Only when pressed by a reporter did Donald Trump in early 2016 reluctantly disavow the support of Klan leader David Duke. “David Duke endorsed me? O.K., all right. I disavow, O.K.?” Then as president he outraged people around the world by equating antiracist protesters with the unsavory brew of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Klan members who gathered at Charlottesville, declaring that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” One of the least fine among the right-wingers rammed his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing one and injuring many others. Once again, it seems, the Klan is elbowing its way back into American public life.
The first and third incarnations of the Klan—the cross-burning lynch mobs and the vigilantes who beat up and murdered civil rights workers in the 1960s—seem beyond the pale of today’s politics, at least for the moment. But the second Klan, the Klan of the 1920s, less violent but far more widespread, is a different story, and one that offers some chilling comparisons to the present day. It embodied the same racism at its core but served it up beneath a deceptively benign façade, in all-American patriotic colors.
In other ways as well, the Klan of the 1920s strongly echoes the world of Donald Trump. This Klan was a movement, but also a profit-making business. On economic issues, it took a few mildly populist stands. It was heavily supported by evangelicals. It was deeply hostile to science and trafficked in false assertions. And it was masterfully guided by a team of public relations advisers as skillful as any political consultants today.
Two new books give us a fresh look at this second period of the Klan. Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK is the wiser and deeper; Felix Harcourt’s Ku Klux Kulture offers some useful background information but then, reflecting its origin as a Ph.D. thesis, becomes an exhaustive survey of Klansmen’s appearances, variously as heroes or villains, in the era’s novels, movies, songs, plays, musicals, and more.
The KKK’s rebirth was spurred by D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. The most expensive and widely seen motion picture that had yet been made, it featured rampaging mobs of newly freed slaves in the post–Civil War South colluding with rapacious northern carpetbaggers. To the rescue comes the Ku Klux Klan, whose armed and mounted heroes lynch a black villain, save the honor of southern womanhood, and prevent the ominous prospect of blacks at the ballot box. “It is like teaching history with lightning,” said an admiring President Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist, who saw the film in the White House. Wilson’s comment underlines a point both Gordon and Harcourt make: the Klan of this era was no fringe group, for tens of millions of nonmembers agreed with its politics.
The founder of the reincarnated Klan in 1915 was an Atlanta physician named William Joseph Simmons, who five years later fell into the hands of two skilled public relations professionals, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke. They convinced him that for the Klan to gain members in other parts of the country, it had to add Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and big-city elites to its list of villains. Tyler and Clarke in effect ran the KKK for the next several years, a pair of Bannons to Simmons’s Trump.
Simmons signed a contract giving the two an amazing 80 percent of dues and other revenue gleaned from new recruits. They are believed to have reaped $850,000—worth more than $11 million today—in their first fifteen months on the job. The whole enterprise was organized on a commission basis: everyone from the recruiters, or Kleagles, up through higher officers (King Kleagles, Grand Goblins, and more) kept a percentage of the initiation fee ($10, the equivalent of $122 today) and monthly dues. The movement was a highly lucrative brand.
Tyler and Clarke polished Simmons’s speaking style and set up newspaper interviews for him, gave free Klan memberships to Protestant ministers, and assured prominent placement of their blizzard of press releases by buying tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of newspaper advertising. To appear respectable, they made these purchases through two well-known ad agencies, one of which had a Jewish CEO. Simmons, however, spent much of his share of the take on horse races, prizefights, and drink. Several rivals who lusted after the KKK’s lucrative income stream maneuvered him out of office with the help of Tyler and Clarke.
A plump, diminutive Texas dentist, Hiram Evans, became the new Imperial Wizard in 1922. He, in turn, his eye on Tyler and Clarke’s 80 percent of revenues, was able to force them out because of a scandal—the two were sexually involved but each was married to someone else. Linda Gordon gives Tyler major credit for the Klan’s success: “The organization might well have grown without this driven, bold, corrupt, and precociously entrepreneurial woman, but it would likely have been smaller.” About other women in the Klan, such as one group called Ladies of the Invisible Empire, Gordon dryly notes, “Readers…must rid themselves of notions that women’s politics are always kinder, gentler, and less racist than men’s.”
Significantly, the new Wizard moved the Klan’s headquarters to Washington, D.C. Membership skyrocketed, reaching an estimated four million by 1924. The revenue remained enormous: beyond dues, there were sales of Klan insurance, knives, trinkets, and garb. Those robes and pointed hoods were made to an exacting pattern, sold at a big markup, and, until his ouster, could only be purchased from a company owned by Clarke. The temptations of this fountain of money led to further rivalries and embezzlement, compounded by the conviction of several Klan leaders for various sordid offenses, most spectacularly the Indiana Grand Dragon for the rape and murder of a young woman who worked for him—a crime that left his bite marks all over her body. All of this made the Klan largely collapse by the end of the decade—but not before it had helped win an enormous legislative victory, and not before there occurred a curious episode involving the Trump family.
Before we get to that, however, there’s another odd parallel between the Klan of the 1920s and the present day, which has to do with the sheer value of getting attention in the media. Many newspapers campaigned against the KKK, and no less than five such exposés won Pulitzer Prizes. The first was for an excoriating series of stories in the New York World in 1921 that revealed secret Klan rituals and code words, gave the names of more than two hundred officials, and listed violent crimes committed by Klansmen. The heavily promoted articles ran for three weeks, were reprinted by seventeen newspapers throughout the country, and provoked a congressional investigation. But instead of crushing the organization, the exposé did the opposite; one historian estimates that the series increased Klan membership by more than a million. Some people even tried to join by filling out the blank membership application form the World had used to illustrate one story.
Being denounced by a liberal New York newspaper, it turned out, gave the Klan just the political imprimatur it needed, and spread the news of its rebirth across the nation. Imperial Wizard Evans exulted that the exposés had provided “fifty million dollars’ worth of free advertising.” People loved the idea of joining a fraternal organization with secret rites and extravagant titles that included judges, congressmen, and other prominent citizens, and that legitimized combat against the forces that seemed to be undermining traditional American life.
What were those forces? Movements heavy on ethnic hatred and imagined conspiracies flourish when rapid changes upset the social order and people feel their income or status threatened. In the heyday of European fascism, the threat came from the enormous job losses of the Great Depression, which in Germany followed the humiliating Versailles Treaty and ruinous inflation that wiped out savings. Among many of Trump’s supporters today, the threat comes from stagnating or declining wages and the rapid automation and globalization that makes people feel their jobs are ever less secure.
We don’t normally think of the heady, expanding American economy of the 1920s as a period of threat, but Gordon offers a broader cultural and feminist analysis. “The Klan supplied a way for members to confirm manliness,” she writes, in an era when many traditional male roles were disappearing. “As more men became white-collar workers, as more small businesses lost out to chains, as the political supremacy of Anglo-Saxons became contested, as more women reached for economic and political rights,” the Klan “organized the performances of masculinity and male bonding through uniforms, parades, rituals, secrecy, and hierarchical military ranks and titles.” She quotes an admonition from one Oregon chapter: “Remember when you come to lodge that this is not an old maid’s convention.” A man who by day might be an accountant or stationery salesman or have a wife who earned more than he did could, in his Klan robes, be a Kleagle or Klaliff or Exalted Cyclops by night.
Not all Klan members were men, of course, and the Klan was not the only organization that offered ceremonial dress and fancy titles: it’s telling that the first place Klan recruiters usually sought members was among Masons. But Gordon’s is a thoughtful explanation of the Klan’s appeal in the fast-urbanizing America of the 1920s, which was leaving behind an earlier nation based, in imagined memory, on self-sufficient yeoman farmers, proud blue-collar workers, and virtuous small-town businessmen, all of them going to the same white-steepled church on Sunday. It was a world in which men did traditionally manly work and women’s place was in the kitchen and bedroom. Even city-dwellers—perhaps especially city-dwellers—could feel this nostalgia. (Although, as with many idealized pasts, the reality was less ideal: many late-nineteenth-century farmers and small businessmen went bankrupt or deep into debt, casualties of a string of recessions and declining world commodity prices.)
All these feelings, of course, came on top of centuries of racism. And that hostility was surely exacerbated during the 1920s when the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South was well underway, making black faces visible to millions who had seldom or never seen them before.
Demagogic movements prey on such anxieties by identifying scapegoats. One of the revived Klan’s targets is familiar to us from today’s demagogues: immigrants. By 1890, the ships streaming past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island were bringing people from new places, mainly southern and eastern Europe: Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, especially in the Russian Empire, Polish and Italian Catholics, and a continuing flow of immigrants from Catholic Ireland. The Klan wanted these new arrivals cut off and such immigrants already here to be deported.
This paranoia toward immigrants blended easily with the hostility to Catholics and Jews that many Americans already shared. Henry Ford circulated the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion; Klan officials, early experts in fake news, concocted similar forgeries about Catholic plots to take bloody vengeance on all Protestants. To WASP Klan members, Catholics seemed threatening because Irish political machines had taken control of many cities in the Northeast and Midwest. The pope was suspect because his was an international empire, based outside the United States. To make things even more un-American, mass was conducted in Latin, and many Catholics and Jews spoke foreign languages at home. In an apparently populist gesture, the Klan advocated more spending on public schools and libraries, but this was interwoven with demands to ban parochial schools.
Jews, of course, had been convenient scapegoats for centuries, and their prominence in banking, in the eyes of the Klan and many others, meant that they surely had had a sinister hand in causing the financial panics that affected millions of Americans so painfully between 1890 and 1914. Furthermore, Jews were undermining American morals through their control of Hollywood, tempting people out of Protestant church pews and into movie theaters. The Klan was particularly enraged by a 1923 silent film, The Pilgrim, in which Charlie Chaplin appeared as a hypocritical minister. A stream of manufactured stories in Klan publications also accused Jews of masterminding the white slave trade. And if you should want proof that Jews could never be assimilated in America, it was right there in the Bible: Jonah emerged from his ordeal whole, indigestible even by the whale.
From Jewish bankers and movie moguls it was a short step to another set of Klan villains: big-city “elites” who tried to dictate to salt-of-the-earth true Americans how they should live. These elites were, according to one Klansman quoted by Gordon, “a cosmopolitan intelligentsia devoted to foreign creeds and ethnic identities…without moral standards.” Another wrote, “The Nordic American today is a stranger in…the land his fathers gave him.” And of course, every condemnation of the Klan by a big-city intellectual merely confirmed this feeling. The Klan also hated professional boxing (in the 1920s dominated by Jews and Catholics), jazz (blacks), and Broadway show tunes (Jews); Klan members attacked dance halls and were suspects in the burning down of a Maryland boxing arena. Another point of controversy, inflamed by the 1925 Scopes trial, was evolution, seen as a Jewish and highbrow conspiracy to undermine Christian doctrine; the Klan pushed for state laws against teaching it. On this issue, and on many others, evangelical churches were important KKK allies.
In the South, the revived Klan stuck to its traditional vigilantism: lynchings of black Americans continued, sometimes several dozen a year. And on occasion violence spread to the North: in 1925, for example, Klan members on horseback attacked the Omaha home of Reverend Earl Little, an organizer for Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement. Little wasn’t home, but his pregnant wife and three children were. The Klansmen galloped around the house with flaming torches and shattered all the windows. In Michigan, where the family moved after the baby was born, vigilantes burned their house to the ground. The baby grew up to become Malcolm X.
Most of the time, however, in the northern states where the 1920s Klan thrived—its highest per capita membership was in Indiana and Oregon—it presented a less violent face. In 1925 forty-six chartered trains brought some 30,000 Klansmen to the nation’s capital, where they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue (robes and hoods, but no masks) and held a rally at the Washington Monument. The next day they laid wreaths on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and on the grave of William Jennings Bryan, who had argued against evolution at the Scopes trial. You can see film of the march on YouTube, with the Capitol building in the background.
Following in the public relations tradition inaugurated by Tyler and Clarke, the Klan mixed its arcane midnight rituals with everything from Klambakes to a Klan summer resort to the Klan Haven orphanage in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It sponsored sports tournaments for all ages, Bible study groups, gun clubs, and children’s camps, and had its own auto-racing stadium in Denver. Baseball, the ultimate American small-town game, was the most popular Klan sport, and in Wichita in 1925, Klan players even took on, and lost to, a local semipro all-black team. One year later, in Washington, D.C., another Klan team played the Hebrew All-Stars. It was masterful PR: who could accuse such an organization of being prejudiced?
All of these activities ensured plentiful newspaper coverage: Klan parades, beauty contests, minstrel shows, picnics, and even midnight Klonklaves (to enhance the aura of mystery, photographers were kept at a distance). Like it or hate it, readers were hungry for such news, and the result, writes Harcourt, was that an “odd kind of legitimacy” was “tacitly bestowed on the Klan.” The newly launched Time put Imperial Wizard Evans on its cover in 1924. The Klan also had an extensive press of its own: the weekly Kourier published sixteen state editions and claimed a readership of 1.5 million—although such numbers were usually inflated. Sympathizers controlled two radio stations, both, incidentally, in New York City. Klan members were a significant enough demographic that businesses found it worthwhile to come up with names like Kountry Kitchen or Kwik Kar Wash or to merely advertise themselves as “100% American.”
The Klan of the 1920s went to great lengths to polish its image because its real mission, aside from lining the pockets of its leaders, was in electoral politics. And here it was highly influential. In 1924 the organization mobilized hundreds of Protestant clergymen across the country whose sermons helped deny the Democratic presidential nomination to New York Governor Al Smith, a Catholic and vocal Klan opponent. Twenty thousand people attended an anti-Smith cross-burning in New Jersey two weeks before the Democratic convention. And in 1928, when Smith did get nominated, Klan opposition doubtless added to the margin by which he lost the general election to Herbert Hoover.
In alliance with other groups, the Klan won major victories on the state level. One of its causes, for instance, was eugenics laws, which allowed the forcible sterilization of those of “defective stock”—who all too often turned out to be nonwhite. Some thirty states adopted such legislation. In Oregon, KKK member Kaspar K. Kubli (the Klan was so delighted by his initials that it exempted him from dues) was speaker of the house. “For ten years, 1922 to 1932,” writes Gordon, “the majority of all Oregon’s elected officials were Klansmen, and opposition was so weak that Klansmen ran against one another.” In the mid-1920s, the majority of representatives elected to Congress from Texas, Colorado, and Indiana were Klan members, as were two justices of the US Supreme Court. Texas Congressman Hatton Sumners, a member, used his position as chair of the House Judiciary Committee to try to block an anti-lynching law. Sixteen senators and eleven governors in all were Klansmen, divided almost equally between Democrats and Republicans. From Wilson through Hoover, no president disavowed the Klan.
In 1924 came the great triumph of the Klan and its allies: harsh new immigration limits that virtually excluded Asians from moving to the United States, sharply reduced the number of immigrants admitted, and set national quotas ensuring that the great majority of them would come from the British Isles or Germany. (The quotas were cleverly based on what the ethnic origins of the American population had been in 1890—before the height of immigration from southern and eastern Europe.) This law, the Johnson-Reed Act, was sponsored by Congressman Albert Johnson of Washington State, whom Gordon calls a Klansman. Others are less certain of his actual membership, but in any event he was ardently supported by the Klan, and the law bearing his name helped shape the country for forty years to come.)
Sometimes what doesn’t happen is revealing. If upheavals that threaten people’s jobs and status provide the classic fuel for movements like the KKK, then in the 1930s, when the Depression threw a quarter of the American labor force out of work and left hundreds of thousands living in shacks of scrap wood and tarpaper, why didn’t the Klan come back to life stronger than ever? One answer is that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, despite its shortcomings, was a far-reaching and impassioned attempt to address the nation’s economic woes and injustices head-on, with a boldness we’ve not seen since then. It gave people hope. Another answer is that although FDR made many compromises with southern Democrats to get his programs through Congress, he was no racist. The more outspoken Eleanor Roosevelt was a fervent proponent of anti-lynching laws and of full rights for black Americans. The tone set by the White House matters; it creates moral space for others to speak and act. Perhaps it’s no surprise that these were years when the Klan lay low.
In all three of its historical incarnations, the KKK had many allies, not all of whom wanted to dress up in pointed hoods and hold ceremonies at night. But such public actions always have an echo. “The Klan did not invent bigotry,” Linda Gordon writes, “…[but] making its open expression acceptable has significant additional impact.” Those burning crosses legitimated the expression of hatred, and exactly the same can be said of presidential tweets today.
She ends her book by writing, “The Klannish spirit—fearful, angry, gullible to sensationalist falsehoods, in thrall to demagogic leaders and abusive language, hostile to science and intellectuals, committed to the dream that everyone can be a success in business if they only try—lives on.” One intriguing episode links the Klan of ninety years ago to us now. On Memorial Day 1927, a march of some one thousand Klansmen through the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York, turned into a brawl with the police. Several people wearing Klan hoods, either marching in the parade or sympathizers cheering from the sidelines, were charged with disorderly conduct, and one with “refusing to disperse.” Although the charge against the latter was later dropped, his name was mentioned in several newspaper accounts of the fracas. Beneath the hood was Fred Trump, the father of Donald.*
This story first surfaced briefly some two years ago, but drew little attention since Donald Trump—who, characteristically, denied everything—was not yet the Republican presidential nominee. The most thorough account is Mike Pearl’s “All the Evidence We Could Find About Fred Trump’s Alleged Involvement with the KKK,” Vice, March 10, 2016. ↩