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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.