Historians argue that several versions of the group known as the Ku Klux Klan or KKK have existed since its inception after the Civil War. But, what makes the Klan of the 1920s different from the others? Linda Gordon, the winner of two Bancroft Prizes and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, writes in The Second Coming of the KKK The Ku Klux Klan: of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition that the KKK of the 1920s expanded its mission to include anti-Black racism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Semitism, electing legislators and representatives in government, and were hyper-visible. “By legitimizing and intensifying bigotry, and insisting that only white Protestants could be “true Americans,” a revived and mainstream Klan in the 1920s left a troubling legacy that demands a reexamination today.” With more than a million members at its peak, the Second coming of the KKK was expansive, to say the least.
This episode of 15 Minute History was mixed and mastered by Alejandra Arrazola, Karoline Pfeil, and Morgan Honaker.
- Linda GordonProfessor Emerita of History at New York University
- Alina ScottPhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin
I want to jump right in and talk about the origins of the clan or the KKK. Where do we see these groups first pop up and what are their initial goals?
Most Americans are most familiar with the first Klux Klan, which arose immediately after the civil war. First of all, it was a terrorist organization in the literal sense of terrorism and that is, it conducted something like 4000 Lynch’s over more than half a century. The purpose of these lynchings was of course to go after particular African Americans who dared to challenge some aspect of white supremacy, but more importantly terrorists because its purpose was to intimidate the entire African american population. Out of any kind of resistance historians speak of four clans. That was the first, the second one, which is what I wrote about was this mass movement in the twenties. And I’ll get back to that. But let me just say that the third clan arose in opposition to the civil rights movement. Although here we get a really important issue that the clan itself was a small organization, but its major representation was an organization called the white citizens Councils. Then the fourth clan is what we have today. But once again, the actual clan Is relatively just one of many white nationalist groups. But what I wanted to look at was the second plan because it’s the only one that was really a mass movement. We are talking 3-6 million members.
So early forms of the clan were built on this anti black racism and intimidating black people. But after Reconstruction, in the second Klan that you talk about in your book, it also includes anti Catholicism, anti Semitism and is painted as this pro american movement. So what do you think are some of the major differences between the first clan that historians love to talk about and the second clan that you write about?
A good question. First of all, I think one of the things that shows is that bigotry Can be very flexible about who it targets. I use the term bigotry rather than racism because when you talk about being against Catholics and Jews, most people would think of that as religious prejudice rather than racial, although to many people in the 1920s, not only were the jews a different race, but even many of the Catholics who were italian or something also, so that the terms are fuzzy. But I think the really most important difference besides size is that the 19 twenties clan figured out to do. It’s hugely bigoted campaign through legal means, primarily. It’s not that there was no violence there was, but they were a powerful electoral force. And I think that tells us something about, about american racism in general. Because unfortunately, it seemed to me in studying this, that while the plan was the most activists, the most virulent, the most off the wall in their races talk that it is quite possible that a majority of white protestant americans in that period actually agreed with those racial and bigoted Views. But let me just as a quick index of the success of the planet, elected 11 governors, something like 65 Congress people. And I’m not and those are people who ran either explicitly as Klansmen or as clams supporters. And then beyond that, hundreds, possibly thousands of local county city state officials. This was a hugely powerful force in the United States in the 1920s
Something that really fascinated me from your book that it wasn’t relegated to the south. There were people who were participating in the clan or um supported ideas reported by the clan in the north or above. The mason Dixon line. Can you talk about how that was, especially with this perception that clans people are only in the South,
Right. It really was a different beast, although it claimed that it was just continuing. But you see, I think their initial idea Was in their vicious way brilliant. Which is, we have to remember that in 1920, in the early 1920s, very few african americans lived in the north and if they had tried to build a movement specifically on anti black racism, they wouldn’t have had the kind of traction in the north. But on the other hand, anti Semitism, anti Catholicism was widespread. Plus there was also another west Coast version in which the clan went after. Asian americans were talking chinese americans, Japanese americans, filipino americans. And then when you go further south into California, in California by the 19 twenties, the majority of the labor force that were the farm workers in this vast California agricultural valleys, the majority of the more either mexicans or mexican americans. So one of the things you see is how this impulsive bigotry can be totally flexible and you go after whoever in the locality in which you’re working, who are the right people to sort of target and victimize. I think of it similarly to the rather sudden uptick in anti asian bigotry today.
There’s also this connection to between americanness and pro whiteness that that I think comes up in the ideology as well and in their propaganda, at least, can you talk about this strategy, this pro american model of whether it was for recruiting or pushing legislative agenda? What was this for? And did it work?
You know, patriotism, which is what I call it, is really almost the heart of their success because they would Wrap anyone of their racial or bigoted ideas in the American flag going a little bit beyond the Clan. I’m now doing some research about the 1930s, American fascist movements and there’s a remarkable similarity. I noticed the Klan had a slogan clan was essentially a white evangelical movement and their slogan was if jesus was alive today, he would be a Klansman. Well, I then discovered in one of the very large american fascist groups, the slogan, If George Washington were alive today, he would be a fascist. So what you see is the tremendous flexibility in the meanings of patriotism, the twenties clan. Some of its favourite phrases were are you 100% american? Are you a true american? That means not only are you a white protestant, but also are you in sympathy with the idea that all of these people of colour and immigrants are really undercutting the strength of the country and they had a deep seated belief that diversity in itself would weaken our country and only a country that was homogeneous, could be really strong.
Can you speak to some of their legislative goals and how this idea about patriotism translated to kind of concrete legislation?
Sure, the biggest was actually a federal piece of legislation. And I don’t want to say that the plan was the only people responsible for it. As I said before, I think lots of people agreed with the clams ideas, but this was the 1924 Immigration restriction Act. It was the first universal federal Immigration restriction act. There have been specific acts against specifically against Asians, but in this 1924 act, most people watching it saw the plan as a major force, and it also was the force, literally because a Klan member by the name of Albert johnson, who was a congressman from the state of Washington, was also the chair of the Ways and means committee who shepherded this bill through the Congress and this bill set up quotas for every group that would be allowed to immigrate with big quotas given to what the Klan would call nordic, meaning white protestant groups like from England or Germany. By contrast, for example, the whole entire quota for most of sub Saharan africa was 100. Whereas the quota from England and Germany was in the vicinity of 50,000. So you haven’t a law that has really been, is in really enacting the clans hierarchy of who are the desirable and who are the undesirable peoples. The clan also did some local legislation. They worked so terribly effective. They tried to ban catholic schools and the law, they introduced this bill in many state legislatures, it only passed in Oregon, it was overturned by the Supreme Court. Although the reason it was overturned was not on the grounds that it was discriminatory, it was on the grounds that the existing catholic schools were property and this law was taking away property, classic sense of who, what has greater power in the U. S. Property rights over human rights. But you know, I think the major impact of the Klan was not legislative, it was normalizing and making respectable a certain kind of racist discourse and that effect lasted a long long time.
So you said at their peak, millions of Americans were either a part of the Clan as an organization or somewhat aligned with their beliefs. Can you talk about how people encountered the Klan? How in the 1920s, how did most people see the Klan? Was it through leadership roles Or day to day? How did people experience the clan in the 1920s?
The first thing you need to understand is that this Klan was not secret. The purpose of these uniforms and these hoods was not to keep people from knowing who was a member of the Klan. People were proud to be members of the Klan. The Klan advertised openly in newspapers saying, come to find out about the Klan. Come to meetings the Klan had claimed, I never believe their numbers because they’re always exaggerating what they claimed That they had 40,000 ministers and we know that they have many ministers who sermonize in favor of the Clan, even urged people to join the Klan. But they were also a really state of the art propaganda operation. First of all, it was probably to the best of my knowledge, the first social movement ever To hire a public relations firm to promote them. Secondly, they operated something like 150 print Publications and they own two radio stations. They even tried to make a film company to compete with Hollywood, but that didn’t work for very many reasons. But they also like to stage these spectacular public rallies, usually on July four because these are patriotic and they, you know, they’re surrounded by american flags and these were like very large country fairs in which county fairs in which you have rides and games and contests. And then the clans at the night came, they would like these crosses 50 ft high. I read one thing that claimed they had an 80 ft high cross again, I always take these numbers with great assault because they’re always exaggerating, but it was kind of a thrill. They also had a lot of money. That’s another story. But they like to have their bigwigs arrive at one of these outdoor events By airplane and you’ve got to picture this here. You have sometimes 20 30,000 people gathered who are seeing an airplane for the first time and this small airplane flies in and you know, it’s, it’s all entertainment. It’s mass entertainment, but it had a double purpose. It made the Klan innocuous, it made the Klan seem super american, super friendly toward communities and it had the effect of making people think, wow, I should join this organization. This is an organization that, you know, it’s a bandwagon effect. So many people are doing this, I’m going to do it too. And also it’s, you know, it’s innocent, it’s not doing anything bad, at least. That’s the humans they tried to project.
So I want to talk about the chapter called KKK feminism. What role did women play in the Klan, this organization that’s painted as a mostly male organization?
There was a women who cooks clan was something like 1.5 million members. And you know, I knew when I wrote it and it was true after it was published, this is the chapter I was going to get the most flak about because I think there are still a lot of people who think that women and feminists are less racist, are nicer are etcetera, etcetera. And so for a lot of people this was like, how can you call this feminism? Well, not everyone would agree with me, but I want to argue that we as progressive people or people on the left, we don’t have a right to own that name. And that anyone who, for example thinks that women should have more rights, that women should have access to public positions, that you have to call that feminist. It’s not my kind of feminism, but it is there. But also I wanted to do this chapter because it points to a contradiction in conservative women’s movements that we still seeing in my earlier years. It was represented a lot by a woman called Phyllis schlafly, who was a major, major right wing person. And that is that if you ask these women what they thought the role of women should be, they would say, oh of course women are destined to be mothers to be housewives, to take care of the family, take care of the men, etcetera. But in practice, when they get into being able to engage in these kind of aggressive politics, they really like it and it turns them on and they become very active and even resistant to the men. An example when the women’s ku Klux Klan’s were created, a lot of the male leaders thought that they should have the right to appoint who would be the women leaders of these local groups and in a number of cases the women said, hey, wait a minute, we’re going to choose our own leader. There was also money, money was just the whole thing was very corrupt and it won’t go into it, but you had to pay these dues and the male clan wanted all the dues from the women’s clans to go up to headquarters run by the men and in a lot of cases you had these women’s chapter saying no, we’re keeping this money, we’re going to use decide ourselves what to do with this money. So you have this interesting contradiction. And I’ve always been more interested in contradictions than in things that are simple.
So at their peak, millions of americans were enrolled in the clan. They claim to have chapters in every single state and every everybody encountered the Klan at least kind of at the national level and through films like birth of a nation. So I wonder from your perspective, what are some of the lasting impact of, of this iteration of the clan?
Well, you know, I think it’s what you might call normalization or respectable ization of bigotry that it becomes really something, you know, people have often said, well you know, why is the clown different from other people? Because a lot of people have these private racism’s and anti Semitism. And my response to that is it does make a difference because when you whisper your racism that implies that there’s something that you feel is not quite right about it and that’s why you’re whispering it when you are shouting it from the rooftops. That is a very, very different message. Another long term impact actually has to do with political dissent. You know, the clans, people like to identify themselves by saying they are the 100% americans or true americans and they believe that people of color jews Catholics can never be really patriotic americans, but this kind of language, the 100% american was new in the twenties. And what’s really striking is how in the fifties, during the Mccarthyist period, they took that term and reversed it and developed the Sherm un american, which all of a sudden, people who didn’t have the right ideas, It could be described as an American. I’ve often thought about the fact that before, that if you had said someone an American, you might have thought, well, they’re French or their German, but that’s not what an American came to me in the 1950s, it meant that you really were a danger that you didn’t belong here, that you could not be a patriotic american because your ideas did not match the official ideas. So that’s another place where I see a long term connection. And I just had one more thing. I know there’s not much time here, but the line from the clan to the 19 thirties, american fascist movements, which they were more than 100 American fascist groups in the 1930s. And one of the things that’s really bizarre is that groups like to claim that they were super patriotic even as they were talking about what great leaders Hitler was and Mussolini. And even as I mentioned for even saying we should be a fascist country. And so patriotism is a very, very flexible idea and can be used in a lot of different ways.
I’m really interested in the decline of the clan so they remain present and are still an actual organization, but they don’t maintain the same numbers and definitely not the same social, I guess, power, but why did the Klan decline so quickly?
The main reason was financial corruption. We’re talking huge amounts of money, you know, the initiation fee of $10 and that’s just the negotiation not counting Duje. That’s worth about $130 today. This is not an organization of poor or working class people. This is definitely a middle class and sometimes even some very wealthy people belong to the class with that kind of money floating around. There was unbelievable amounts of corruption. And as members of the local chapters began to feel that you know, they were faking says, what am I paying this money for? They became disaffected. And so you know, even though I said the Klan had somewhere between three and six million people, they didn’t necessarily have that many people all at one time because there was a lot of turnover because people would join and then they would get disheartened. There were also, however, some major scandals, not only of corruption but of violence which I can’t go into, but the most famous one which was the most gruesome was when the grand goblin as he was called of indiana, they had all these great titles. There was violence in the clan. It wasn’t the main thing, but a lot of Klansmen were involved and not one of them were ever convicted until this guy, David Stevenson actually who was really I think sick, but he kidnapped, he tortured, he raped and then murdered his assistant. And this became national news and I don’t want to go into it. But the details of the torture are so gory that I don’t want to repeat it. And you’re obviously dealing with a guy who is unhinged and yet he is the head of the incidentally most powerful state plan of all the plans in America. But you know, as as soon as I said that I thought, well today we’re getting used to politicians who are onions. So, but I think for a lot of plants people, this was the last straw. This kind of And of course this is a white evangelical thing. These people are not supposed to be having sex with anyone that they’re not married to. And this guy was just following women around all the time. So I think that contributed and true by the later in the 1950s. Oh, it just tracked so much. It was from from the millions down to an estimated 350,000. They have done their work. They had really normalized and popularized their bigotry.