The Ku Klux Klan, which originated in the American South after the Civil War, began as a secret society dedicated to maintaining white supremacy. Writing for History Extra, Linda Gordon explores the roots of the organisation, its explosion into a mass movement in the 1920s, and considers the political sway that the Klan held in early 20th-century America…
You don’t have to be an American to understand the renewed interest in the Ku Klux Klan. Today the Klan is only one small outfit among white nationalists, but for a century and a half it was the leading voice of bigotry in the US. Thus its history, particularly that of its 1920s avatar, can offer some insight into the current resurgence of the Klan and its kindred organisations. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the leading source of data on the ‘alt-Right’, lists dozens of organisations and ideologies, some of them with many chapters: National Socialists, Aryan Brotherhood, Christian Identity, Patriotic Front, White Boy Society, Sovereign Citizen, Posse Comitatus and many more. They all grow out of a long American tradition.
The KKK first arose in the southern states immediately after the Civil War (1861–5) – a secret, masked society dedicated to maintaining white supremacy, which entailed ensuring that newly emancipated African Americans would never be able to access political, civil or economic rights.
By 1877, the federal government had abdicated its responsibility to guarantee the rights of the freedpeople, which meant the Klan faced no effective opposition. The Klan of this era was a terrorist group in the precise meaning of that term: it used torture and murder (especially lynching), as well as economic coercion, not only to punish individuals who seemed to challenge white power but also to terrorise the whole black population. Much of its success rested on constructing fear. This was accomplished through a repetitive chorus of false allegations, typically about black male sexual aggression toward white women; these accusations drew white women into a fearfulness that then further legitimated white terrorism.
The few southern white elites who opposed the Klan typically justified inaction by arguing that it was a private, non-state organisation of poor, uneducated “white trash”, so police and courts were powerless to control it. That excuse was bogus: police and sheriffs colluded with and often joined the Klan, ensuring that it could operate with impunity. Those who justified inaction also claimed that the Klan robes, hoods, and masks made it impossible to identify Klan members. This too was not actually true: in most communities the identities of Klansmen were well known.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross, Baltimore, Maryland, 1923. It was claimed that the Klan robes, hoods, and masks made it impossible to identify Klan members, though Linda Gordon explains that in most communities the identities of Klansmen were well known. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
A second wave
The KKK remained confined to the South until the 1920s, when it exploded into a mass movement in the northern states. Spurred by the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which depicted savage, bestial African Americans intent on raping white women who were rescued by the heroic KKK, it amassed somewhere between 3 and 6 million members.
But this ‘second Klan’ was a different beast. Its success in regions where the black population was still very small (2.3% in the northeast, 0.9% in the west) resulted from an astute strategic move: while remaining as virulently racist as its ancestor, it aligned itself with “nativist” anti-immigrant campaigns and focused its demagogic bigotry on immigrants, Catholics and Jews. Adding them as subjects of loathing did not require a major revision of the first Klan’s ideology, because many of the new immigrants were not then considered ‘white’. To many white Americans, who of course descended from earlier immigrants, these newcomers – Jews, Italians, even the Irish – weren’t exactly ‘colored’ but not ‘white’ either; in the dominant American understanding of race, they became white over time, as they implanted themselves into the labour market and the political parties. Whiteness thus stood for an authentic Americanism, from which people of colour were permanently excluded.
A still from DW Griffith’s 1915 film ‘The Birth of a Nation’. Actors costumed in the regalia of the Ku Klux Klan chase down a white actor in blackface. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
In the 1920s, Klan bigotry was entirely mainstream and was probably shared by most white Protestant Americans. This 1920s KKK stood out only in the intensity and breadth of its fear-mongering. For example, many institutions at this time – including most elite universities – either excluded Jews or established Jewish quotas. Moreover, eugenics, which divided humans into inferior and superior categories, was accepted as good science and health policy by many academic experts and taught in most biology textbooks of the period – providing ‘scientific’ validation for bigotry.
Unlike the first Klan or most of today’s white nationalists, the 1920s KKK was also a religious organisation. It constituted an evangelical revival, and claimed to have 40,000 ministers among its members. Although this figure is almost certainly an exaggeration, itis certain that thousands of ministers lauded the Klan in their sermons. The Klan’s clerical fans included the first great radio evangelist, Robert Shuler; media celebrity Aimee Semple McPherson; and Bob Jones, founder of today’s conservative Bob Jones University.
Klan religiosity also showed in its denunciation of evolutionary theory and, of course, support for Prohibition. This too was racialized: evolution was ‘Jew science’, while in Klan analysis only Catholics drank and only Jews supplied the booze. Closely related was its anxiety about sex and gender matters. Its sensationalist, and fake, accounts of Catholic perversions were so detailed that they allowed Klan supporters to condemn but simultaneously enjoy a pornography.
Jews were even worse in the eyes of the Klan. They built Hollywood not to make money (although the Klan of course repeated the age-old libel that the Jews were dishonest, cut-throat merchants) but in a conspiracy to subvert the morals of pure white women: Klan literature included references to “Jew Movies urging sex vice” and “The poisonous flood of filthy Jewish suggestion, which has been paralyzing the moral sense of America’s children.” The Klan directed particular venom at Charlie Chaplin – the KKK called him a “vulgar Jewish” comedian (Chaplin was not Jewish but refused on principle to say so).
A political strategy
The Klan’s respectability, accepted by millions, depended in part on its claim to nonviolence. That claim was generally, but not completely, true – for episodic Klan vigilantism constituted an important part of its appeal. The Imperial Wizard “dogwhistled” about violence, emphasising abiding by the law to some audiences and hinting at vigilante opportunities to others.
But the major KKK strategy was electoral. Klan voters, mobilised by sophisticated get-out-the-vote campaigns, electedsome 16 US Senators, scores of Congressmen, 11 state governors, and thousands of state and local officials; these were politicians who ran openly as Klan supporters, on platforms promising to take back America from “aliens”. The Klan provides a vivid example of how social movements work together with electoral politics by threatening politicians and candidates with loss of votes.
A gathering of the Ku Klux Klan, 1923. The Klan provides a vivid example of how social movements work together with electoral politics by threatening politicians and candidates with loss of votes, says Linda Gordon. (Picture by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Two major national victories in 1924 exemplify the electoral power the organisation held. In May the Johnson-Reed immigration act installed the Klan’s hierarchy of ‘races’ into law (at the time race and ethnicity were not always distinguished). It set quotas on immigration, assigning large quotas to those the Klan called ‘Nordic’, eg English and Scandinavian, and tiny quotas to the undesirables, eg Eastern European, Italian and Greek. Congressman and Klan member Albert Johnson of Washington state, chair of the House Immigration Committee, shepherded the bill to victory (he also liked to brag about his participation in a 1907 mass vigilante action that drove the entire South Asian population out of Bellingham, Washington). This statute remained the law until 1965.
The Klan again demonstrated its political power a few months later at the Democratic Party convention. At its beginning, the leading candidate for the presidential nomination was New York governor Al Smith. But he was a Catholic. Despite lacking a popular alternative candidate, Klanspeople and their supporters managed to thwart his nomination, tying up the convention through 103 ballots and winning the nomination for the lacklustre John W Davis. A journalist referred to it as the “Klanbake”, referring both to the summer heat and the intensity of conflict. Davis was then defeated by Republican Calvin Coolidge.
John W Davis was voted the Democratic presidential nominee at the convention of 1924. A journalist referred to the convention as the “Klanbake”, referring both to the summer heat and the intensity of conflict as Klan members attempted to sway the voting process. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Of course millions of Americans, including white Protestants, opposed the Klan. But their disdainful criticisms depicted Klanspeople as uneducated, backward rural folk, unmodern and unsophisticated. The charge was both false and counter-productive: had they looked more carefully, they would have seen that most Klanspeople were educated, middle class, and by no means mainly rural – the organisation thrived in several big cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles, Portland. In fact the Klan was so respectable that joining was often a means of upward mobility, connecting recruits with high-status men. At the same time, this disdain only confirmed the Klan’s scorn for secular liberals, Europe-lovers (‘cosmopolitan’ was a regular code word for Jews) and people of impure moral behaviour.
By the end of the 1920s, the Klan had shrunk dramatically, from as many as 5 million members to a few hundred thousand. I wish the decline had resulted from energetic opposition, but that was not the case. It withered from the inside: members resented the national headquarters’ steady demand for dues and other levies, corrupt leaders were caught drinking and embezzling, and one Grand Goblin was convicted of a murder so vicious that it evoked national media attention. The decline did not, however, mean that Klan ideas died out. Illustrating the fungibility of bigotry, some Klanspeople became supporters of the 1930s incendiary radio preacher Charles Coughlin, who was Catholic. Others joined Nazi groups. Demagoguery needs enemies, and can be flexible in identifying them.
Today we are witnessing a revival of most of the Klan’s values, and at their core is the contention that one racial/ethnic group is the authentic essence of the nation; white nationalism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and hostility to immigrants all rest on this premise. The energy of these hatreds derives from fear, and the fear rests on conspiracy theories – many of them as outrageous as those of the Klan.