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When White Hoods Were In Flower

June 2024
5min read

In the 1920s, the Klan expanded by targeting Catholics, Jews, and foreigners as well as blacks. But eventually it collided with fundamental American values.


This month’s historical reflections are inspired by the presidential candidacy of David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, whose elevation to at least marginal respectability reminds me uncomfortably of a time when the Klan was functioning openly and aboveground and was a very palpable force in American politics.

The “original” Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the “invisible empire” of hooded nightriders immortalized in The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, got its start in 1866 in the defeated former Confederacy. Whatever its exact origins, its purpose soon became to drive freed blacks and their Northern allies away from the polling places and back into a state of economic and political subservience. It “persuaded” by fires, floggings, and lynchings. Forget the romantic mush; it was an outlawed terrorist organization, designed to undo Reconstruction. And with its help, Reconstruction was undone. But so, by 1872, was the Klan. However, in 1915 it underwent a second ten-to fifteen-year incarnation, of which more in a moment. That is the main story here.

During the 1950s a third, “new” Klan —or perhaps several successive new Klans—emerged, in reaction to the legal dismantling of Jim Crow, sometimes called the Second Reconstruction. Like the original KKK, the groups functioned in the South, and they were responsible for bombings and the gunshot murders of at least five civil rights workers. Post-1970 Klans have had a large, changing, Cold War-influenced list of enemies, allies, and strategies. All have led a furtive existence under legal surveillance and almost universal repudiation.

But it wasn’t so with that “middle” Klan that lived in the atmosphere of World War I and the 1920s. That one targeted Catholics, Jews, and foreigners as well as blacks. In so doing, it expanded its base beyond Dixie and had more national influence than is pleasant to think about.

The evidence? How about a parade of forty thousand robed and proud-of-it Klansmen down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.? Or a state—Indiana—whose KKK “Grand Dragon” held a political IOU—one of many—from the mayor of Indianapolis promising to appoint no person to the Board of Public Works without his endorsement? Or a Democratic National Convention of 1924 that split down the middle of a vote to condemn the Klan by name, with just over half the delegates refusing?

This new Klan was the creation of Alabama-born “Colonel” William J. Simmons, who resuscitated fading memories of the original Knights in a Thanksgiving Day cross-burning ceremony atop Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 1915. Its credo not only pledged members to be “true to the faithful maintenance of White Supremacy” but restricted the membership to “native born American citizens who believe in the tenets of the Christian religion and owe no any foreign Government, nation, political institution, sect, people or person.” The “person” was the Pope, and the new KKK tapped into a long-standing tradition of nativism that went back at least as far as the American or Know-Nothing party of the 1850s, which flared transiently in the cloudy political skies just before the Civil War.

Simmons kept and improved on the primal Klan’s ritual mumbo jumbo, including secret initiations and an array of officeholders with titles like Imperial Wizard, Exalted Cyclopes, and Grand Goblin. He struck an alliance with a publicist named Edward Clarke who helped devise a deft recruiting scheme. Recruiters called Kleagles signed up members for local chapters (Klaverns) at ten dollars a head. The Kleagle kept four dollars; one dollar went to the state’s King Kleagle, fifty cents to the Grand Goblin, and so on up the chain of command, with two dollars to Simmons himself.

For many native-born, white, Gentile Americans, joiners by nature, the new Klan became a special lodge, like the Elks, the Rotarians, or Woodmen of the World, for which Simmons had been a field organizer. There were four million Klansmen by 1924, according to some estimates, in a population that turned out only about thirty million voters in that year’s presidential election. So it became prudent for some politicians, President Harding included, to join the KKK or at least seek its support. According to Wyn C. Wade, author of The Fiery Cross, one of the latest books on the Klan, the number of municipal officials elected nationwide by Klan votes has yet to be counted. The organization likewise had input in the choice of more than a dozen senators and eleven governors.

The Klan’s greatest victories were in Indiana, whose Grand Dragon, purple-robed David C. Stephenson, was a gifted publicist who organized a women’s auxiliary and staged barbecues and picnics, which he visited by dropping from the sky in an airplane with gilded wings. He made enough on the regalia and literature concessions to live in princely style, with lots of clandestine booze and women available. And he endorsed a slate of state candidates that swept Indiana’s Republican Convention in 1924 and followed Calvin Coolidge to victory in the fall. Stephenson’s dreams of the future for himself included a Senate seat and perhaps even the White House.

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.

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