On The Ori­gins of ‘Ku Klux Kul­ture’

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Raphael Ma­garik


By Felix Har­court Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 272 Pages, $45

The “alt-right” is alarm­ing, partly be­cause it is youth­ful. Amer­i­can con­ser­vatism of­ten presents it­self stodg­ily: mid­dleaged men wear­ing bow ties or af­fect­ing English ac­cents; clean­shaven pas­tors (also men) de­liv­er­ing clean, safe ser­mons; stiff, suited mil­i­tary men frown­ing se­verely. For pro­gres­sives, there is a com­fort in such an old-fash­ioned aes­thetic. The right may own the banks, the churches, the army, we qui­etly think to our­selves with a cer­tain self-sat­is­fac­tion, but that power is purely ves­ti­gial, nos­tal­gic, a left­over tra­di­tion. We pro­gres­sives own the fu­ture: the arts, the me­dia, the acad­emy, all that is new and dy­namic in Amer­i­can cul­ture. But be­cause Milo Yiannopou­los and Pepe the Frog are so sopho­moric, they un­der­mine that con­fi­dence. The Twit­ter mobs of Gamer­gaters are fright­en­ing be­cause they are child­ish. Their ease with tech­nol­ogy, their rash­ness and vul­gar­ity, and their im­ma­ture act­ing-out sug­gest the emer­gence of a right-wing youth cul­ture, a con­ser­vatism no longer re­treat­ing from pop­u­lar cul­ture.

But in “Ku Klux Kul­ture: Amer­ica and the Klan in the 1920s,” Felix Har­court ar­gues that the di­chotomy be­tween

right-wing re­ac­tion and pop­u­lar, mod­ern cul­ture never re­ally ex­isted. The KKK of the 1920s, in his telling, was quite a bit like to­day’s “alt-right.” Ul­tra-mod­ern, it em­braced in prac­tice (if not al­ways in rhetoric) the new tech­no­log­i­cal and cul­tural forms of the day: news­pa­pers, film and ra­dio, pulp fic­tion, pub­lic sports and even jazz. The KKK is of­ten por­trayed, per­haps most fa­mously, in Richard Hof­s­tadter’s Harper’s es­say, “The Para­noid Style in Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics,” as an atavis­tic rear­guard, an ig­no­rant fringe fight­ing a los­ing war against mod­ern, ur­ban life. Har­court ar­gues that the in­ter­war KKK was far closer to the cen­ter of Amer­i­can cul­ture than we usu­ally like to ad­mit. By broad­en­ing his fo­cus from the KKK’s mem­bers to what Har­court calls the “Klan­nish” move­ment sur­round­ing it, he shows how the KKK pre­sented a mod­er­ate, pos­i­tive im­age to a broad au­di­ence, how it ap­pealed, through arts, mu­sic and let­ters, to mil­lions of Amer­i­cans who would never have dreamed of don­ning a white sheet. He shows how it left an in­deli­ble im­print on 1920s art and cul­ture, in­clud­ing works we still en­joy to­day.

This ar­gu­ment should, per­haps, be un­sur­pris­ing. The 1920s re­vival of the KKK, af­ter all, grew di­rectly from the new­est tech­nol­ogy and cul­tural medium around: film. When, in 1915, the KKK burned a cross on Stone Moun­tain, in Ge­or­gia, the or­ga­ni­za­tion was all but de­funct. To at­tract sup­port, “Im­pe­rial Wiz­ard” Wil­liam Joseph Sim­mons was bank­ing cor­rectly on the run­away suc­cess of D.W. Grif­fith’s racist cin­e­matic epic, “The Birth of a Na­tion,” which val­orized the Re­con­struc­tion-era KKK. Ac­cord­ing to one es­ti­mate, more than 100 mil­lion peo­ple watched Grif­fith’s movie over the next decade. The in­ter­war KKK was, in a sense, a new me­dia pro­duc­tion.

Yet two pow­er­ful his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives have ob­scured the KKK’s re­la­tion to pop­u­lar cul­ture. On the one hand, the KKK it­self ob­vi­ously em­pha­sized its cul­tural con­ser­vatism. In copy­ing the KKK of the 1870s, KKK lead­ers grounded them­selves in tra­di­tion and nos­tal­gia. And of­fi­cially they op­posed much pop­u­lar cul­ture as deca­dent, racially or re­li­gious sus­pi­cious, and im­moral. The KKK burned books it deemed, as one KKK news­pa­per wrote, “filthy fic­tion” (though the KKK shared this pu­ri­tanism, Har­court points out, with “The Sal­va­tion Army, The Knights of Colum­bus, the Y.M.C.A and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise”). And it de­cried jazz as too Jewish and protested dance halls (though here, too, it found an un­likely ally in the satirist H L. Mencken, who com­pared jazz to the “sound of riv­et­ing” and called its lis­ten­ers “tone-deaf”).

More­over, on the other side of the cul­ture war, Har­court writes, mid­cen­tury his­to­ries have be­queathed to us a “com­fort­ing pop­u­lar myth about the abil­ity of Amer­i­can cul­tural he­roes to de­feat the evils of the Klan.” His­to­ri­ans like to imag­ine the forces of progress — cul­tural elites, news­pa­pers, new me­dia like ra­dio and film — as uni­formly ar­rayed against the KKK. In this telling, the 1920s KKK was ves­ti­gial and out-of-date, our na­tional equiv­a­lent of an em­bar­rass­ingly racist grand­fa­ther who can be tol­er­ated be­cause he can be ig­nored.

Against the pres­sure of the KKK’s self-con­cep­tion and the lib­eral his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tion, Har­court mar­shals an im­pres­sive ar­ray of ev­i­dence that the KKK was in fact cen­tral to 1920s Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture. Each chap­ter of his book sur­veys a dif­fer­ent cul­tural field. For in­stance, while some news­pa­pers in the 1920s did pub­lish “ex­posés” of the Klan, these were of­ten pitched as po­lit­i­cally neu­tral looks in­side the sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic, mys­te­ri­ous world of a se­cret or­ga­ni­za­tion, stu­diously avoid­ing tak­ing a stand. And for good rea­son. The KKK or­ga­nized suc­cess­ful boy­cotts of news­pa­pers that at­tacked it, and strate­gi­cally ad­ver­tised in oth­ers, at once us­ing the pa­pers to le­git­imize it­self and can­nily giv­ing edi­tors fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives to be friendly. (In a bizarre twist, the KKK even re­tained the ser­vices of a prom­i­nent Jewish-run Chicago ad­ver­tis­ing agency.)

Fur­ther­more, the KKK it­self had nu­mer­ous news­pa­pers, which ini­tially emerged from lo­cal chap­ters. While they ran racist, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic editorials, these pa­pers

The KKK de­cried jazz as too Jewish and protested dance halls.

also reprinted news ar­ti­cles from wire ser­vices, ran sto­ries of lo­cal in­ter­est, and even ran cross­word puz­zles. The KKK used news­pa­pers to as­sert that it was nor­mal, main­stream and lawabid­ing, as well as to at­tract a broad read­er­ship of “Klan­nish” peo­ple — sym­pa­thize rs who were not mem­bers them­selves.

Nor was it just news­pa­pers: “Ku Klux Kul­ture” is full of sur­pris­ing, coun­ter­in­tu­itive links be­tween the KKK and pop­u­lar cul­ture. While the KKK of­fi­cially de­spised jazz as de­gen­er­ate black (and Jewish) mu­sic, in prac­tice, lo­cal KKK chap­ters had

elab­o­rate jazz bands that played KKK-themed par­o­dies of pop­u­lar songs (the 1923 hit “Yes! We Have No Ba­nanas,” for in­stance, be­came “Yes! The Klan Has No Catholics”), but also just poppy stan­dards like “Ain’t We Got Fun.” The bands per­formed to mass au­di­ences, and the point was pre­cisely to keep things light and breezy, pro­ject­ing an im­age of the KKK as all-Amer­i­can, whole­some fun. White su­prem­a­cist mu­sic was of­ten eerily ad­ja­cent to jazz clas­sics: Gen­nett Records recorded both early KKK phono­graph records and al­bums by Louis Arm­strong and Jelly Roll Morton. A chap­ter on sports con­tains sim­i­lar sur­prises: Fa­mous black boxer Jack John­son ap­par­ently spoke about his ca­reer to a KKK chap­ter, while KKK base­ball teams (com­mon in lo­cal leagues) plaued pea­ca­bly against black or Catholic teams.

Draw­ing to­gether ev­i­dence from mu­sic, film, sports, news­pa­pers and ra­dio, Har­court ar­gues that a mas­sive, Klan­nish pub­lic liked to imag­ine the or­ga­ni­za­tion as benev­o­lent and nor­mal (though a touch too ex­treme to join). These peo­ple en­gaged in the KKK not through mem­ber­ship but through a broader pop­u­lar cul­ture. In­deed, Har­court shows how the KKK’s col­lapse dur­ing the 1920s re­sulted in part from its suc­cess­ful cam­paign to cen­tral­ize the or­ga­ni­za­tion and rein in lo­cal chap­ters.

The Klan­nish “move­ment” didn’t want to an­swer to or­ga­ni­za­tion lead­er­ship. For in­stance, as KKK lead­ers saw the power of the news­pa­pers, they moved to take con­trol of lo­cal KKKaf­fil­i­ated pa­pers them­selves and to align their con­tent with the of­fi­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion. But cir­cu­la­tion rates dropped rapidly. Klan­nish folk were hap­pi­est when they en­coun­tered the KKK in an ide­al­ized, sac­cha­rine form — and not through the of­fi­cial chan­nels of the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“Ku Klux Kul­ture” is an im­pres­sive work of archival his­tory. Read­ing it, I found my­self re­peat­edly cha­grined to dis­cover that one or another cul­tural form of the pe­riod was KKK in­flected — even James Bond, Har­court shows, was mod­eled on a Klans­man bust­ing a “group of Jewish Bol­she­vik spies.” And it is clearly writ­ten — a quick read. That said, the book gets dull af­ter a while, since each chap­ter re­pro­duces Har­court’s ar­gu­ment for a dif­fer­ent sphere of cul­ture. You could shuf­fle the or­der of chap­ters with lit­tle dis­cernible ef­fect on the whole.

Still, the book is es­sen­tial read­ing, be­cause it shows that, rather than a rad­i­cal fringe group, the 1920s KKK was a cen­tral, well-re­spected part of white Protes­tant cul­ture. White Amer­i­cans need to re­mind our­selves over and over of how in­ti­mately white supremacy has pen­e­trated our daily lives, and of its lin­ger­ing traces in ex­actly the mod­ern pop­u­lar cul­ture we of­ten lazily imag­ine as pro­gres­sive, or at least neu­tral. More­over, the only ones truly con­demn­ing the KKK in the 1920s were black, Jewish and Catholic news­pa­pers — that is, op­pressed peo­ple who must have of­ten sounded shrill and ex­trem­ist them­selves. Lib­er­als to­day not only mis­tak­enly think that pop­u­lar cul­ture is in­her­ently pro­gres­sive; we also of­ten hope that mod­er­ate in­sti­tu­tions will pro­tect us from the “alt-right”: The New York Times, the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union and even, these days, the “lib­eral” FBI. But we can­not har­bor any il­lu­sions that the re­spon­si­ble cen­ter will pro­tect us from ex­trem­ism; the re­spon­si­ble cen­ter may well it­self be Klan­nish.

Raphael Ma­garik is a doc­toral can­di­date at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley.

Even James Bond was mod­eled on a Klans­man.


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