Adam Hochschild

The Sec­ond Com­ing of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the Amer­i­can Po­lit­i­cal Tra­di­tion by Linda Gor­don Ku Klux Kul­ture: Amer­ica and the Klan in the 1920s by Felix Har­court

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Adam Hochschild

The Sec­ond Com­ing of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the Amer­i­can Po­lit­i­cal Tra­di­tion by Linda Gor­don.

Liveright, 272 pp., $27.95

Ku Klux Kul­ture:

Amer­ica and the Klan in the 1920s by Felix Har­court.

Univer­sity of Chicago Press,

272 pp., $45.00

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 bigc­ity 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 fas­tur­ban­iz­ing Amer­ica of the 1920s, which was leav­ing be­hind an ear­lier na­tion based, in imag­ined mem­ory, on self­suf­fi­cient yeoman farm­ers, proud bluecol­lar 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

Ku Klux Klan pa­raders, Mun­cie, In­di­ana, 1922

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