The controversy over the Confederate flag keeps threatening to devolve into a seminar in semiotics. What does the flag really symbolize—racism or “Southern heritage?” Should we be fighting over symbols or is that a diversion from real issues, like actual, institutional racism? “Quit looking at the symbols,” South Carolina State Representative John Graham Altman said in an earlier iteration of these debates in 1997. A Ku Klux Klan group's decision to schedule a rally in support of the flag flying at the state capitol has the merit of clarifying the debate.

The endorsement of the Klan not only underscores the long affiliation of the flag with racist terrorism; it also makes plain why debates about symbols have real-world consequences. Whatever else you want to say about the Ku Klux Klan, it has always been an organization that appreciates the uses of rituals and symbols in politics. Moreover, the Klan has been adept at using the public display of symbols to assert its will on those it has sought to cow. As historian Nancy MacLean noted in her 1994 book Behind the Mask of Chivalry, that Klan has been "conscious of the power of symbol and the allure of ritual.” To support this point, MacLean quoted a Klan document from the 1920s which argued that “the people want and need faith and symbolism.”

From its first creation in 1865 as a vigilante organization that used terror to beat back the political activities of newly freed slaves, the Klan has been all about rituals and public displays as instruments. The oaths and masks deployed by the Klan were political theater that carried a message of intimidation.

When the Second Klan was formed in 1915, it not only looked back to the ritualized violence of the first Klan but elaborated the theatrical elements of politics to make it a success in the modern age. The Second Klan floundered in its early years under William Joseph Simmons, but in 1920 he made the fateful decision to hire a public relations firm, the Southern Publicity Association. Mary Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clark, whom MacLean describes as masters of “the modern art of propaganda,” launched a brilliant campaign which emphasized the similarity of the Klan to such ritual-heavy fraternal organizations as the Elks and the Masons. To further this goal, Simmons created an elaborate system of degrees and titles within the organization:  such as Klaliff (vice president), Kligrapp (secretary) and Klarogo (inner guard). As MacLean notes, the Second Klan shared with other far-right movements of that era an awareness of the value of “liturgical rituals, and on public displays of power.” The publicity campaign of Southern Publicity Association was such a success that by 1921 the Klan had more than a million members. 

Because of the Second Klan's strong belief in the political value of symbolism and theater, the organization used the most popular film of the era—D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915)—to promote its vision of the world. MacLean writes:

In this racist epic of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the restoration of white rule, Griffith harnessed all the emotive power of modern film-making technique to convince viewers that black men were beasts and white vigilantes were the saviors of American civilization. Given the right to vote and hold office, the film averred, African-American men dragged society into chaos; worse, they used such power to stalk white women. Griffith left no doubt about how this fate had been averted. In the final, climactic scene, the hooded and robed members of the Ku Klux Klan rode in to save his young white heroine from rape, by castrating and lynching her black would-be assailant. Their act ended sectional fratricide among white men and gave birth to a reunited America. 

As Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof’s comments about black rapists should remind us, this toxic brew of racism and chivalry is still an essential part of white supremacy.

Birth of a Nation “proved a boon” for the Klan, which “routinely exploited showings of Birth of a Nation to enlist new members, for it sent the message the Klan wanted delivered,” Maclean notes. The Klan’s use of the film highlights the fact that the racist organization has always had a cultural agenda, part of which includes recuperating the Confederacy and its symbols. Nor are these symbols used merely for expressive purposes: They are displays of power, designed to intimidate African-Americans and others who the Klan hates. And when South Carolina hoists the Confederate flag at its capitol, that is one of the messages being sent, intentionally or not: white power. There is no escaping it.