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When People Thought the KKK Was Respectable and Civic Minded

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Linda Gordon, the renowned social historian, has written a terrifying book about the 1920’s Ku Klux Klan. The book is called The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920’s and the American Political Tradition. (Liveright, 2017)


Spoiler Alert: What is scary are the similarities between the 1920’s Ku Klux Klan and social movements that are active in the United States today.


The Ku Klux Klan had three waves: one immediately after the Civil War, one in the 1920’s and one during the Civil Rights Era. The stereotype of the Ku Klux Klan as being violent, Southern and overwhelmingly anti-Black is not inaccurate. The traditional view captures the way the KKK operated in the first and third period.


The 1920’s Ku Klux Klan was different. It was Northern. It was respectable. It was successful. It was large. It attained political power in broad swathes of the country. Although the Klan continued to wear masks, and have its “secret” rituals, most of its activities were public and fully open. There were community parades. There were community picnics. There were baseball games between the Klan and other teams – including other teams that were black. Members of the Klan would come to local churches as invited guests to do recruiting. Klan members would run for political office citing their Klan membership as evidence of community service and public-mindedness. In this respect, they were no different from any other fraternal organization, such as the Elks or the Freemasons – except for the fact that they were the Klan. This of course meant they were still an organization dedicated to White Supremacy and Protestant Supremacy. Blacks, Jews and Catholics were to be absolutely crushed.


The widespread popular acceptance of the Klan, the Klan’s large membership and its broad access to political power made the 1920’s Ku Klux Klan the most successful of any of the manifestations of that organization. What brought the KKK out of the shadows and made it the voice of mainstream respectable white racism?


Gordon argues that the 1920’s KKK got its start as a profit making activity. Joining the KKK required both an initiation fee and membership dues. The organizers created a force of salesman/leaders who were encouraged to recruit as many people as possible to the KKK in return for keeping a percentage of the fees and dues for themselves. The rest of the funds were sent to National Headquarters. An additional profit center was Klan paraphernalia. Only official Klan costumes could be worn at KKK meetings. A member could not have his wife or mother improvise an outfit out of a bedsheet. Klan outfits were elaborately tailored – and four separate pieces were required. Moving up in rank in the organization required fancier and more impressive gear. Clothing sales were a major profit center for the organization. Go-getters and salesmen joined the organization explicitly for the commissions that were offered. There was nothing “under-the-table” or “clandestine” about the Klan’s marketing efforts. It was no different from being a Fuller Brush salesman.


The mercantile basis of the second coming of the Klan shifted the movement from the Rural South to the Urban North. There was a larger middle class that would respond to potential sales jobs. There was also a larger market for organizations that required disposable income for full participation.


Moving the Klan to the North had consequences however. In the 1920’s, most Blacks lived in the South rather than the North. The Great Migration Northward of the 1940’s and 1950’s had not happened yet. Blacks moved in large numbers to Northern cities such as New York, Detroit and Chicago after the mechanization of cotton in the South. The use of machinery rather than stoop labor for cotton picking eliminated the largest source of employment for African Americans. (It also eliminated the economic incentive for plantation owners to bind African Americans to the land with debt peonage or vagrancy laws.) In the 1920’s however, none of that had happened yet. So the average white citizen of Indianapolis or Portland or New Jersey did not see many African Americans in their cities and were not especially threatened by blacks. Northern cities did have Italians. Italians were very much perceived to be a threat. Some Eastern cities also had Jews. The KKK continued to be white supremacist. But marketing required that the Klan “broaden its appeal” by considering a wider range of threats to “Real Americans”. In practice, anti-Catholicism, anti-Italian-immigrant and anti-big-city-banker-Jew became the dominant Klan concern.


How successful was the 1920’s Klan? It had over 50,000 members in Chicago, 38,000 in Indianapolis, 35,000 in Philadelphia and another 35,000 in Detroit. It elected sixteen senators, over 50 congressmen and 11 governors. It had high ranking officials in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Within the Democratic party, it was able to throw the 1924 Democratic National Convention into deadlock by organizing all-out resistance to the party’s presumptive nominee, Catholic Al Smith. Washington State Klansman Albert Johnson served as Chair of the House Immigration Committee. Texas Klansman Hatton Summers led the House Judiciary Committee, where he consistently opposed attempts to regulate lynching.


Was the 1920’s Klan similar at all to today’s Q-Anon or white nationalist movement?

  1. The movement was created by sincere racists – who also personally profited from their activity. Large amounts of funds were transferred from the conservative membership as a whole to a set of financial operators in charge of the whole movement.

  2. There was an emphasis on the cultural superiority of “pure” Americans. Recent immigrants and dark-skinned people were not pure.

  3. There were strong ties to evangelical Christian organizations.

  4. There was hostility to new non-Christian scientific findings. In those days, the theory of evolution was particularly problematic.

  5. There was concern about overly sexualized popular entertainment. Hollywood, popular music and “the media” were viewed with suspicion.

  6. There was concern about East and West Coast intellectuals who favored “foreign interests” rather than those of real Americans.

  7. Klan members restricted their exposure to non-Klan media which were perceived as bias. They got their news from news outlets controlled by the Klan.

  8. Although Klan members were suspicious of anti-religious science, they loved high technology.

  9. They favored conservative gender roles. The proper place for women was in the home – and their proper occupation was motherhood.

  10. There was substantial participation by women in Klan organizations – usually in auxiliary branches. The women in these branches were conservative, religious, but ready to rumble. Gordon provides wonderful stories of crowds of Klan women beating up white men they didn’t like – generally pushy men within the Klan organization. Women’s Klan auxiliaries represented a new form of organized racist feminism. White religious women were to be the saviors of America. Blacks, immigrants and immoral men were the enemies of decency.

  11. There were large gatherings to hear charismatic speakers.

  12. There was substantial concern about rising crime, and the need for Klan members to take self-defense into their own hands.


Now not all of those features would mean that a modern social movement is an exact replica of the Klan. Many movements, for example, have large gatherings to hear charismatic speakers. But the entire constellation of features presented by the 1920’s Ku Klux Klan does seem reminiscent of other more contemporary social formations.


We inform. You decide.

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