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The KKK’s Attempt to Define America

Two new books explain how the Klan gained so much power in the 1920s.

Topical Press Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Scholars and journalists who study the right walk a tightrope. Ignore the existence of white supremacy and rightwing populism in America, and you will fail to understand a significant portion of the voting population. But get too close up to the subject, and you risk painting too sympathetic a portrait of groups that promote hate. If you want to know how difficult it can be, just ask Richard Fausset, the New York Times reporter who, in November, faced intense blowback after writing a profile of a white supremacist that many readers felt “normalized” the alt-right. 

Liveright, 288pp, $27.95

This is far from a new problem. In the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan re-emerged with as many as six million members nationwide, scholars and journalists at the time did not grasp its reach or scope. They tended to portray the average Klansman as an uneducated provincial. As the Dartmouth sociologist John Moffat Mecklin wrote in 1924, the average Klan supporter was a “more or less ignorant” backwoodsman, “prone to accept uncritically all forms of half-baked radicalism.” It was not until the 1960s that scholars began to trace how the Klan had won such a wide base of support among a much wider range of Americans. Two new books—Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK and Felix Harcourt’s Ku Klux Kulture—emphasize that the Klan of the 1920s was not a “fringe” group, but a popular, mainstream movement whose bigotry was so appealing precisely because its leaders recast it in a way many Americans found palatable. In their desire to condemn racism, earlier writers had failed to understand how it operates.            

Gordon, a professor at NYU and one of America’s most accomplished historians, has written The Second Coming of the KKK as an explicit political parable: Understanding the Klan of the 1920s can help us understand the rightwing populism of today. Unlike the original Klan that took root in the South shortly after the Civil War, the so-called “second Klan” of the 1920s, she shows, deemphasized lynching and secrecy, and though they continued to be extremely racist, did not always put anti-black racism front and center. Instead, it hosted parades and picnics, and spoke to the fears of individual communities, particularly in the Midwest and West. In fast-growing cities like Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon and Muncie, Indiana, new immigrant groups—Eastern European Jews, Irish and Italian Catholics, Japanese—bore the brunt of the group’s racism. This was not because the Klan suddenly embraced black Americans, she argues, but because many of these cities lacked a sizable black population.

To varying degrees, Klan leaders blamed these new immigrants for problems that many Americans identified as the major problems of their time: immigration, political corruption, urban crime. Its leaders accused Jews of promoting socialism and polluting the nation’s morals with “Jew Movies urging sex vice.” They blamed Catholics for widespread political corruption and blamed Japanese-Americans for stealing jobs. Through a sophisticated PR operation, they created a sense that the entire nation was under siege—a campaign Gordon likens to “fake news.” But ultimately, she writes, the key to the second Klan’s appeal was to make its members feel that it was not motivated by racism, resentment or a false sense of victimhood. “The core of the Klan myth lay in the notion,” she writes, “that it represented the defense and manifestation of America’s true character.” Its members presented themselves not as bigots, but as patriots.

Gordon does not claim that the second Klan got rid of its racism. Rather, in the 1920s it broadened its racism to include other groups it deemed “un-American,” and adapted it to the particular historical moment. As women became more involved in politics—as many as one in six Klan members were women—Klan leaders folded its racism into issues they thought women would be interested in. Many women believed the group’s false allegations that Catholic priests were secretly treating nuns as sex slaves. Others saw the decade’s new “flapper” woman, dancing in jazz halls and flirting with men—black men especially—as tantamount to prostitution.

Moreover, the group infused a broader women’s campaign with racism: birth control. Conservative women and men alike were unmoved by the notion that legalizing contraception would help women achieve greater control over their lives. The Klan argued instead that legalizing birth control could be used to prevent “the enormous birth rate of the Negro population,” as one Klan campaign put it. Gordon does not credit the Klan with the legalization of contraception, but she does show how they enlarged its appeal by adding a racist argument in its favor, one that many privately agreed with even if few were so bold to admit publicly. More to the point, she deftly illustrates how racism seeped into a seemingly unrelated political issue, then became institutionalized.

If The Second Coming of the KKK is mainly a story of how the Klan rebranded itself to the public, then Harcourt’s Ku Klux Kulture is its opposite: a story of how the public responded to the Klan. It’s a superb piece of scholarship, and not least because it forces us to rethink how the Klan became so popular. Harcourt’s central claim is that the group’s appeal resulted not only from its own makeover, but from the sheer level of attention it was able to attract. Tabloids covered the group incessantly; pulp novelists made hooded Klansmen central characters in works of fiction; newspapers reported on its youth basketball and baseball teams. Its leader Hiram Evans appeared on the cover of Time. Even when the Klan was condemned, which was often, Harcourt argues that the public was forced to debate the group’s merits. More often than not, many found themselves denouncing the group while awkwardly defending its values. In the process, the Klan’s particular brand of racism became “sanitized and normalized.”            

University of Chicago Press, 272pp., $45.00

Harcourt, a professor of history at Austin College, is particularly good at showing how anti-Klan cultural productions helped legitimatize the Klan’s views. In 1924, Eugene O’Neill wrote a play about an interracial couple titled All God’s Chillun Got Wings, which in part attacked the Klan’s racism. It depicted a successful black lawyer married to an insecure white woman who, jealous of her husband’s success, slowly goes insane. The Klan drew attention to the play by publishing articles that denounced it as “nauseating and disgusting.” The Long Island Klan threatened to bomb a theater about to stage it. National media coverage spread rapidly, and in no time it was clear that many Americans actually shared the Klan’s disgust. A Princeton professor, the Salvation Army, Klan members—all found themselves denouncing the play’s racial politics. (Meanwhile, O’Neill got some satisfaction from it all. He mailed back a death threat with a personal note on the letter: “Go fuck yourself.”) 

O’Neill was high-brow, but more influential were the stories sold and consumed in middle-brow, mass culture. In 1923, the pulp magazine Black Mask boosted its sales with an entire series about the Klan. Yet none of the stories condemned the group, and most merely used them to add a “touch of spice,” as one writer put it. The emerging film industry of the 1920s also used the Klan for entertainment value. Take the forgotten film The Face at Your Window (1920), partly financed by the government. The film’s chief villain was a Bolshevik labor organizer who tried to get factory workers to go on strike. Tensions were soothed only after the American Legion, a veteran’s group, was called in to broker a deal. It was a neat celebration of military service and capitalism, both working together to defeat “foreign” socialism. But here was the thing: the American Legion appeared in uniforms strikingly similar to Klan regalia. The Klan had no part in making the film, but it quickly staged screenings across the country, writing that it was “of wonderful value to us.”  The Klan and the broader culture were gleefully feeding off of each other.

Scholars have sometimes written the second Klan’s history as a rise-and-fall story. From a peak membership of perhaps six million in 1924, its numbers dropped to about 350,000 three years later. The immediate cause was a series of sex scandals, embezzlements, and murders orchestrated by its highest leaders. But Gordon and Harcourt both ask us to reconsider that narrative. Scandal didn’t thin the group’s ranks, they argue, so much as success did. The Klan so thoroughly baked its all-encompassing racism into mainstream society that it had nothing else to do. It played a pivotal role in the Immigration Act of 1924, which drastically cut the number of Jewish immigrants, and excluded Asian immigrants entirely. It’s lobbying on behalf of eugenics led to sterilization laws in thirty states, which disproportionately targeted poor and black women. And at the local level, the Klan got school districts throughout the country to prohibit any textbook that “speaks slightly of the founders.” 

But perhaps most significantly, the Klan helped redefine what it meant to be patriotic. Supporting unions made you a shill for socialism. Defending the rights of immigrants or black people made you a sell-out. Meanwhile, fairly common symbols of patriotism, like honoring veterans and respecting the flag, took on unmistakably racist overtones. You could not critique the government’s military policy or refuse to sing the national anthem without being seen as “un-American.”  It would be foolish to claim that the Klan entirely succeeded. Too many other Americans have fought too hard to make sure that patriotism could be embodied by another set of actions—not least the right to protest. But understanding the second Klan’s success at combining racism with the symbols of democracy helps explain why, when the “Star Spangled Banner” blares before kick-off and the military jets fly overhead, so many Americans today would rather take a knee.