- Historic Sites
When White Hoods Were In Flower
In the 1920s, the Klan expanded by targeting Catholics, Jews, and foreigners as well as blacks. But eventually it collided with fundamental American values.
April 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 2
What made these astonishing successes possible? Was the whole country gripped by a fever of hatred? Yes and no. Racism and xenophobia actually were enjoying a favorable climate. The KKK’s rebirth in 1915 coincided with the success of The Birth of a Nation, which depicted the original Klan as a necessity to save Southern civilization from barbaric blacks egged on by Radical Republican plunderers. This was not much of an exaggeration of the “official” version of Reconstruction then embalmed in scholarly histories, but D. W. Griffith’s cinematic skills burned it into the popular mind.
At the same time, a wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe troubled “old stock” Americans. In 1924 the immigration laws were rewritten specifically to keep out such indigestible Catholic and Jewish hordes, as they were considered.
Then there was the experience of World War I, in which "100 percent Americanism” was enforced by vigilante groups and by the government, armed with Espionage and Sedition acts. Following that, the Bolshevik Revolution inaugurated a Red scare that brought a frantic search for “agitators” to arrest or deport.
All these forces predisposed potential Klan members to accept its exclusionary message without much analysis—and to overlook incidents of violence. But there was more. Thousands of fundamentalist Christians, beleaguered and bewildered by the Progressive Era victories of evolution and the social gospel—not to mention jazz, gin, and short skirts—saw the Klan as the savior of old-time religion. The KKK played to their anxiety by supporting Prohibition and the teaching of religion in the schools. Had the Moral Majority then been in existence, it might have absorbed some who instead became Klan followers.
It was the onrush of change, the shakeups brought by radio and film and the auto, that spooked so many Americans. My friend David Chalmers, author of Hooded Americanism, put it neatly to me by phone. “They couldn’t blame Henry Ford or Charles Steinmetz [the socialist engineering genius of the General Electric Company], but happily they found ‘the dago on the Tiber” instead.
In the 1920s the KKK expanded its base beyond Dixie and had far more national influence than is pleasant to think about.
But change could not be held back for long. In the mid-twenties the Klan’s strength dropped off dramatically, to forty-five thousand by 1930. There were many reasons. One was internal feuding among Klan leaders over control of the organization’s assets. Another was the exposure of Klan-led bombings, beatings, threats, and atrocities by courageous newspapers like the Indianapolis Times, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and the Columbus (Georgia) Enquirer-Sun. They resisted boycotts and other forms of pressure in the heart of the enemy’s country and told the truth. So did many courageous politicians who repudiated the votes of bigotry. Revelations that some Klan officials were given to liquor, loot, and lechery also defaced the “knightly” image. The biggest scandal of all sent Grand Dragon Stephenson to jail for the brutal rape of Madge Oberholtzer, a young state employee, who afterward committed suicide. Stephenson, outraged that the Indiana authorities did not set him above the law, avenged himself by squealing on his political puppets and ruining their subsequent careers.
And over time the second Klan was repudiated because it collided with the fundamental American values of inclusiveness and pluralism. The trouble is that it also expressed equally durable American attitudes: the ongoing quest for an unalloyed “Americanism,” the perverse pressure to conform to a single majority standard, and the tendency to substitute mob “justice” for the unsatisfying ambiguities of legal verdicts.
It seems that current historians, unencumbered by having lived through the period’s hostilities, are more inclined to explain than to condemn the Klan of the twenties. Most of its members, they suggest, were traditionbound outsiders to the emerging new urban money culture, more frightened than vicious. I am unpersuaded, even while acknowledging that “good” people can join “bad” associations out of understandable frustrations. But the Klan could not be separated from its hateful implications then, and the Klan spirit cannot be so separated now, however prettified, sanitized, and shorn of wacky costumes and titles. Scapegoating of “the other,” assurances that “we” must safeguard our system, our heritage, and our values from “them—these notions inevitably carry implications of violence and repression.
Yet under certain conditions they can become widespread, unless watched and guarded against. As the evidence presented shows, it has happened. Here. And not so long ago.