100% American?

 

Linda Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK:

The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (Livernight Publishing)

            The Ku Klux Klan, today a symbol of American bigotry, intolerance, and domestic terrorism at its most primitive, had three distinct iterations in United States history.  The original Klan arose in the American South in the late 1860s, in the aftermath of the American Civil War; it was a secret society that utilized intimidation, violence, assassination and other forms of terror to reestablish white supremacy and thwart efforts of recently freed African-American slaves to exercise basic rights.  This iteration of the Klan faded during the following decade, but not before helping to cement the regime of rigid racial segregation that prevailed in the American South for the remainder of the century and beyond.  Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan resurfaced in the South, again as an organization relying upon violence and intimidation to perpetuate white supremacy and rigid racial segregation, this time in the face of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the era. 

         The Ku Klux Klan, today a symbol of American bigotry, intolerance, and domestic terrorism at its most primitive, had three distinct iterations in United States history.  The original Klan arose in the American South in the late 1860s, in the aftermath of the American Civil War; it was a secret society that utilized intimidation, violence, assassination and other forms of terror to reestablish white supremacy and thwart efforts of recently freed African-American slaves to exercise basic rights.  This iteration of the Klan faded during the following decade, but not before helping to cement the regime of rigid racial segregation that prevailed in the American South for the remainder of the century and beyond.  Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan resurfaced in the South, again as an organization relying upon violence and intimidation to perpetuate white supremacy and rigid racial segregation, this time in the face of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the era. 

          In between was the Klan’s second iteration, emerging in the post-World War I 1920s and the subject of Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition.  Gordon, a prominent American feminist and historian, portrays the 1920s Klan as significantly more complex than its first and third iterations.  Although bigotry and intolerance were still at the heart of the 1920s Klan, it directed its animosity not only at African-Americans but also at Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.  Gordon considers the second Klan to be a reaction to the supposed licentiousness of the “Roaring Twenties” and the rapidly changing social mores of the decade.   With a central mission of purging the country of elements deemed insufficiently “American,” the Klan in the 1920s sought to preserve or restore white Protestant control of American society, which it saw slipping away.

            As the reference to the “American Political Tradition” in the sub-title suggests, much of Gordon’s interpretation consists of an elaboration upon how six distinct American “traditions” came together to give rise to the Klan’s rebirth after World War I: racism, nativism, temperance, fraternalism, Christian evangelicalism, and populism.  She also includes a final section on how, despite ostensible similarities, the Klan differed from the European fascism that came to power in Italy and was bubbling in Germany in the same time frame.  Although it shared with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany a vision for the future based on “racialized nationalism,” the Klan’s nationalism melded racism and ethnic bigotry with evangelical Protestant morality.  The second Klan thus turned its enemies into sinners in a manner that set it apart not only from European fascism but also from the first and third Klan iterations.

            The 1920s Klan was anything but a secretive organization.  It elected hundreds of its members to public office, controlled newspapers and magazines, and boasted of six million members nationally.  It was a fraternal organization with innovative recruitment methods and a decentralized organizational structure, only marginally different from the Rotarians and the Masons.  Whereas the Klan in its first and third iterations was a distinctly southern organization, the 1920s Klan flourished in northern and western states as well as the American South; it was particularly strong in Indiana and Oregon. 

            In Gordon’s interpretation, the Klan in the 1920s further differentiated itself from its first and third iterations by engaging only rarely in what she terms “vigilantism” — overt intimidation and violence.  Readers expecting a gruesome recitation of middle-of-the-night lynchings, the Klan’s trademark form of domestic terrorism, are likely to be disappointed by this volume.  She rarely mentions the term “lynching.”  The primary incident of overt intimidation she highlights is one already familiar to many readers: the Klan’s nighttime assault in 1925 on the Omaha, Nebraska, house of the family of Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X.  Klansmen on horseback surrounded the Little house, shattered the windows and forced the family to flee Omaha.  The assault, Gordon indicates, was “typical of the northern Klan’s vigilantism – usually stopping short of murder or physical assault, but nevertheless communicating a credible threat of violence to Klan enemies.  The vast majority of Klanspeople never participated in this vigilantism” (p.94).  

            But what about vigilantism in the South?  Gordon hints at several points that murder and physical violence may have been more extensive in southern states than in the North and West (e.g., vigilantism was the Klan’s “core function” in the South, whereas Klan organizations in the North and West “rarely” engaged in violent attacks; p.206).  But she barely treats the American South, focusing almost exclusively on northern and western states, thereby leaving readers with the sense that they may not have received a full account of the vigilantism of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, and that a book which delved more deeply into the 1920s Klan in southern states might have been altogether different from this account.

            At least in northern and western states, Gordon argues, the Klan’s views were not out of step with most white American Protestants, the majority group in the United States in the 1920s.  “Never an aberration” in its prejudices, the second iteration of the Klan was, “just as it claimed, ‘100% American’” (p.36).  But in enunciating values with which a majority of white American Protestants of the 1920s probably agreed, the Klan:

whirled these ideas into greater intensity.  The Klan argued that the nation itself was threatened.  Then it declared itself a band of warriors determined to thwart that threat.  In the military metaphors that filled Klan rhetoric, it had been directed by God – a Protestant God, of course – to lead an army of right-minded people to defeat the nation’s internal enemies (p.36). 

* * *

            Antagonism to diversity, a “form of pollution, uncleanliness,” is key to understanding the Klan in the 1920s.  “Fear of heterogeneity” underlay its “extreme nationalism and isolationism; Klanspeople saw little to admire in any foreign culture” (p.58).  The Klan viewed Catholics as threats because their religion was global, making Catholics subservient to Rome and disloyal to America  —  “underground warriors for their foreign masters” (p.45).  The Klan charged Catholics with what amounts to “unfair competition,” alleging that emissaries of the Pope in Rome had helped Catholics “take over police forces, newspapers, and big-city governments” (p.203). 

            Jews were guilty of a different kind of foreign allegiance, to a “secular international cabal of financiers who planned to take over the American economy through its financial institutions” and establish a “government within our government” (p.49).  Jews did not produce anything; they were mere financial middlemen who contributed no economic value to the United States.  The Klan blamed the Jews for the decline in morality, for women’s immodest dress, and for the debasement of the culture coming from Hollywood.   But, “in one remarkable silence about the Jews,”  Klan discourse “did not often employ the reverse side of classic anti-Semitism: that these dishonest merchant capitalists were also Communists” (p.49).  

            Among immigrants, the Klan targeted in particular Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese and East Asians, along with Southern and Eastern Europeans (which of course included many Catholics and Jews).  Exempted were what it termed “Nordic” immigrants, generally Protestants from Germany, the Scandinavian countries and the British Isles.  The Klan argued “not only for an end to the immigration of non-‘Nordics’ but also for deporting those already here.  The date of their immigration, their longevity in the United States, mattered not” (p.27).  No matter how long such immigrants remained in the country, they could never become fully American.

            With rites based on Bible readings and prayer, the second Klan’s religiosity “might suggest that it functioned as a Protestant denomination.”  But the Klan was “not a denomination,” Gordon writes.  It sought to “incorporate existing Protestant churches, not replace them, and to put evangelism at their core.  It was in many ways a pan-Protestant evangelical movement, that is, an attempt to unite evangelical Protestants across their separate denominations” (p.88).  The Klan relied heavily upon evangelical ministers for recruitment, a mobilization that “foreshadowed – and probably helped generate – the entry of Christian Right preachers into conservative politics fifty years later” (p.90).  The 1920s “may have been the first time that bigotry became a major theme among [evangelical Protestant] preachers” (p.91).   

            The Klan joined enthusiastically with evangelical Protestants to support Prohibition, the anti-alcohol movement that succeeded in enshrining temperance into the American constitution in the form of the constitution’s 18th amendment.  For a full 14 years, from 1919 to 1933, the Klan theoretically had constitutional sanction for its vision of a world without alcoholic beverages.  Defense of Prohibition was universal among the Klan’s diverse chapters, and in Gordon’s view was “arguably responsible for the fact that many relatively tolerant citizens shrugged off its racist rhetoric” (p.95).  Supporting Prohibition, the Klan blamed its enemies for violations.  In Klannish imagination, “Catholics did the drinking and Jewish bootleggers supplied them” (p.58).

            The Klan also joined with many women’s groups in supporting Prohibition.  Klanswomen formed a parallel organization, Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK), which Gordon finds close in outlook and approach to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the major groups backing the 18th amendment.  The WKKK supported woman’s suffrage – for white, Protestant women.  Klanswomen also supported women’s employment and even called for women’s economic independence.  Although outnumbered about 6 to 1 in the Klan, women contributed a new argument to the cause: that women’s emergence as active citizens would help purify the country, bringing “family values” back into the nation’s governance.  Women engaged in charitable work on behalf of the Klan, raised money for orphanages, schools and individual needy families, and placed Protestant bibles in the schools.  Women often led youth divisions of the Klan.  Without women’s long hours invested in Klan activties, Gordon argues, the second Klan “could not have become such a mass movement” (p.129). 

            But, in an organization based on male hierarchy which played specifically to white Protestant males’ anxiety over loss of privileged status in the new and unsettling post-World War I years, many women rose to national prominence as leaders of the Klan’s second coming.  Perhaps the most striking characteristic of such women was their “entrepreneurship,” which involved “both ambition and skill, both principle and profit . . . Experienced at organizing large events, state-of-the-art in managing money, unafraid to attract publicity, they were thoroughly modern women” (p.122-23).  Gordon seems unsure how to present these strong, assertive women who freely embraced the Klan creed of bigotry and intolerance.   The Klanswomen’s activism “requires a more capacious understanding of feminism,” she writes.  Their “combination of feminism and bigotry may be disturbing to today’s feminists, but it is important to feminism’s history.  There is nothing about a generic commitment to sex equality that inevitably includes a commitment to equalities across racial, ethnic, religious or class lines” (p.123).  At another point, she admonishes readers to “rid themselves of notions that women’s politics are always kinder, gentler, and less racist than men’s” (p.110).

            In its economic values, the Klan was wholly conservative.  It was devoted to the business ethic and revered men of great wealth, with its economic complaints invariably taking the form of “racial and religious prejudices”  (p.203).  The Klan sought to implement its vision of a white Protestant America “without fundamental changes to the political rules of American democracy.  The KKK was a political machine and a social movement, not an insurrectionary vanguard” (p.208).   What made the Ku Klux Klan so successful in the early 1920s was an aggressive, state-of-the-art approach to recruiting:

Far from rejecting commercialization and the technology it brought, such as radio, the Klan’s system was entirely up-to-date, even pioneering, in its methods of selling.  From its start, the second Klan used what might be called the social media of its time.  These methods – a professional PR firm, financial incentives to recruit, advertisements in the mass media, and high-tech spectacular pageants – produced phenomenal growth for several years (p.63).

            The Klan in its second iteration faded quickly, beginning around 1925.  By 1927 Klan membership had shrunk to about 350,000.  Several highly publicized scandals and cases of criminal embezzlement among Klan leaders, exposing its leaders’ crimes, hypocrisy, and misbehavior, induced the Klan’s precipitous fall in the latter portion of the 1920s, along with the “profiteering” of Klan leaders — “gouging members through dues and the sale of Klan paraphernalia” (p.191).  Power struggles among leaders produced splits and even rival Klans under different names.  Rank-and-file resentment transformed the Klan’s already high turnover into “mass shrinkage as millions of members either failed to pay dues or formally withdrew” (p.191). 

            But the longest-term force behind the Klan’s decline may have been the increasing integration of Catholics and Jews into American society.  The “allegedly inassimilable Jews assimilated and influenced the culture, both high-brow and low-brow.  The alleged vassals of the pope began to behave like other immigrants, firm in their allegiance to America” (p.197).   By contrast, the Klan “never gave up its hatred for people of color.  As African-Americans moved northward and westward, as more Latin American and East Asian immigrants arrived, the latter-day Klan shifted toward a simpler, purer racial system, with two categories: white and not white” (p.197-98).

* * *

            Despite its precipitous decline, the Ku Klux Klan in its second iteration triumphed in many respects.  The biggest tangible Klan victory was in legislation restricting immigration.  Although the Klan was not solely responsible, its propaganda “surely strengthened racialized anti-immigrant sentiment both in Congress and among the voters” (p.195).  Less tangibly, the Klan “influenced the public conversation, the universe of tolerable discourse” (p.195).  The second Klan “spread, strengthened, and radicalized preexisting nativist and racist sentiments among the white population.  In reactivating these older animosities it also re-legitimated them.  However reprehensible hidden bigotry might be, making its open expression acceptable has significant additional impact” (p.195).   In this sense, Gordon’s compact and captivating interpretation serves as a reminder that the Klan remains a presence still to be reckoned with today, nearly a century after its second coming. 

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

January 28, 2019

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11 Comments

Filed under United States History

11 responses to “100% American?

  1. To all readers

    This version of my review of Linda Gordon’s book on the KKK, published earlier today, omitted the first paragraph, for reasons I am at a loss to understand. The first paragraph reads as follows:

    The Ku Klux Klan, today a symbol of American bigotry, intolerance, and domestic terrorism at its most primitive, had three distinct iterations in United States history. The original Klan arose in the American South in the late 1860s, in the aftermath of the American Civil War; it was a secret society that utilized intimidation, violence, assassination and other forms of terror to reestablish white supremacy and thwart efforts of recently freed African-American slaves to exercise basic rights. This iteration of the Klan faded during the following decade, but not before helping to cement the regime of rigid racial segregation that prevailed in the American South for the remainder of the century and beyond. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan resurfaced in the South, again as an organization relying upon violence and intimidation to perpetuate white supremacy and rigid racial segregation, this time in the face of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the era.

    I would be very grateful if you could mentally cut and paste this initial paragraph into your reading of the review, while I try to figure out what went wrong. Thanks!
    EndFragment

  2. David Gross

    Tom, thanks for the interesting information. How strange that the organization would attract so many millions of members for such a short time in the 1920s. I’m curious why the KKK kept being revived, only to fade away again. I think the KKK might be gone for good now, replaced by equally repellent organizations that don’t involve silly costumes. Sadly, the kind of racism espoused by the KKK seems positively mainstream among a large segment of our population today.

  3. Thanks, Dave. Gordon doesn’t really offer a reason why the Klan on two separate occasions faded, only to be revived several decades later, only that these reiterations occurred. But that raises one point I could have mentioned in the review: Gordon makes very clear in her introduction that she is bothered by the parallels between the Klan world view of the 1920s and the widespread acceptance of similar views today. In fact, this is what she says motivated her to write this book. She certainly leaves open the possibility that we have not seen the last iteration of the Klan, with or without the funny hats and silly robes.

  4. Chanh X. Nguyen

    Loss of identity is a recurrent fear among most communities but the fear is most of the time unjustified. Identity runs much deeper than is generally thought and it is not contingent on peripheral considerations; it does not get lost easily.

    • Thanks, Chanh. Here’s how I see it: Identity takes many forms — e.g., race, religion, ethnic group, nationality profession, hobby (fisherman or hunter), gender, sexual preference, and on and on and on. They are how we define ourselves, for better or worse. These and I think all other forms of identity become problematic only when we consider our identity the “right” one, and the other ones “wrong” or “inferior.” It’s when identity derives its meaning from the “other,” those not of that identity, that the notion becomes harmful.

      • Chanh X. Nguyen

        Tom, you are right indeed. Owing to the lack of precise criteria for defining a community’s identity the notion too often serves an alibi for unlawful or unfair practices.

  5. Robert Grycan

    Thanks for the review Tom. I’m constantly amazed at the aberrations that are possible in the human condition. The parallels are obvious in our current state.

    • Thanks, Bob, let’s hope it’s a question of “aberrations;” but one of Gordon’s central points is that there was little if anything that was really aberrational about the 1920s Klan — they were very much in keeping with the times.

  6. Robert Grycan

    I got this article from Larry Schoenberg, the son of Arnold Schoenberg, who is mentioned in the article. I have been to concerts of Schoenberg music and it is somewhat difficult to understand as it’s atonality is foreign to me. However, some of the avant garde jazz is also atonal. Schoenberg is played all the time by world symphonies and there are melodic pieces he has written. In any case the discussion here is quite interesting as it relates to the current rise of the AI movement.

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