Assess the importance of the Ku Klux Klan to US Politics and Society in the early twentieth century.



There have been at least three distinct versions of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in American history. The first, as described by the republican congress of the 1870s, was established by the former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee in 1866. It was a collection of night-riders, lawbreakers and terrorists whose structure might well have been unsystematised but whose purpose throughout the Deep South was to undermine African-American votes, rights, and equality by legal and extralegal means. This Klan was effectively suppressed by the Grant Administration, which turned federal troops against it, though ballot intimidation, lynching, and the exclusion of black people from civil society continued via other means. The Second Klan arose in the years before World War One, and was heavily influenced by nativist suspicion of Catholics, Jews and Hispanic minorities as well as African-Americans. The Klan’s third existence was as a congeries of putative ‘white rights’ groups that emerged in the 1960s and '70s from the campaigns to resist federal enforcement of Civil rights and then through the ashes of segregation. It exists today as a sort of league of resenters and haters with a defined appeal to the less educated and very poor.

It is important to define the different Klans because the substantial image most Americans, and some historians seem to hold of the whole KKK is that of the twenties’ Second Klan. This was the group of white-hooded vigilantes and racebaiters which stretched out of Atlanta, Georgia in 1915 and claimed a membership of some four million at its peak in 1925 (nearly 20% of the male voting population). It was also a Klan that terrorised Californian minorities as much as it did in Michigan, the Ohio Valley, and Northern New England.  

This twenties Klan was, as with many of the parallel fraternal societies that emerged during the bubble economy, itself a bubble business organisation, financing its own growth through the licensing and sale of costumes and chapters. Its appeal was to those of the new middle classes driven by peer image, social opinion and credit who had been traumatised by war and who felt threatened by immigrants of catholic, southern or eastern European, or Hispanic stock. It was noticeably anti-Semitic, and was also driven to support prohibitionist and populist anti-oligopoly causes, having been born in the maelstrom of the Leo Frank case and its aftermath.

Murders often promote small groups from the status of local or sectional concerns to the nexus of an insurgency that reflects social tensions; the way in which the Morgan case drove the anti-Mason movement, for instance, the impact of the Godfrey disappearance on the Popish plot in England in 1678, or the Nazi treatment of Horst Wessel spring to mind. In the Frank case, a rich Jewish capitalist Leo Frank, had been convicted by Georgian courts in a deeply flawed trial of the murder of a local girl, Mary Phagan. A ‘Friends of Mary Phagan’ group was organised, which took in prominent citizens and elites, and directed its rhetoric against the perceived ‘colonisation’ of the post-Civil War South by scalawags and carpet-baggers. This organisation was then boosted, or incardinined as Shakespeare’s MacBeth may have put it, by the extralegal lynching of Frank after his sentence of death had been commuted on the basis of the questionable procedure that had convicted him at trial. Shifting into a higher gear, the Friends of Phagan became the core of a renewed KKK by the autumn of 1915, Frank having been killed in August of that year.

However, the emergence of the Klan was also a process very much affected by the official endorsement of an history partly made in the cinema. In 1915, D.W.Griffith had adapted Thomas Dixon’s phenomenally successful KKK trilogy of books and plays into what became effectively the first ‘superhero’ film of the twentieth century. Birth of A Nation told a tale born of the second wave of historians of Reconstruction, in which a ‘noble’ white South fought for a lost cause, and then in defeat embraced a kind of community defence in the face of colonisation by a coalition of untutored blacks, northern interlopers, and devious white politicians.

Both Dixon’s and Griffith’s works played to the idea of ‘Redemption’ which had become popular just before the Spanish-American war saw the effective reunion of northern and southern soldiers in an US military effort. They created a perspective that validated anti-immigrant and racist fears. The 1905 plays (Dixon’s products) had in effect validated the Dunning school of historiography, which held that black suffrage, civic participation, and indeed the entire democratic process, had been a catastrophic mistake and that the conservative Democrats who had recast the South as a ‘segregated Dixie’ were essentially right.

However, the film, which emerged before the KKK did in February of 1915, went further, suggesting that costumed vigilantes could uphold an American form of justice, rather than a purely Southern one, by extralegal intervention. Its musical and cinematographic effects, as well as its powerful story, should not be gainsaid; in most places where it was shown, the movie was associated with a rise in racial conflict, and even riots. It was validated by Woodrow Wilson, himself an unreformed racist who had segregated the federal government, as ‘history writ by lightning’. As 1915 wore on, this outlook in essence joined to the anti-Frank effort to provide an organisation that covered Frank’s socially prominent murderers from direct intervention, and this in turn adapted quickly as a sort of money-making and franchising scheme to the bubble economy that the US was becoming because of federal reserve policy, and the Gibbs Budget, by 1917.

The Klan’s northern appeal was the consequence of two other principal factors; the Great Migration of African Americans to cities outside of the South, which itself was a consequence of the extension of railroads and cities in the period after 1910, and the business proseltysing of William J Simmons and Hiram Evans, who treated the Klan as a sort of ‘Bull Moose’ fraternity mixed with a supermarket. The KKK organisation favoured by the latter invested assets, paid organisers, and spent on advertising and marketing in a way that was later to mesh with religious models of mass marketing and postal fundraising to produce modern lobbies, charities and pressure groups.

That the KKK tended to reflect or reinforce the political outlooks of its members is important. The Bull Moose Progressive Party that had nominated Theodore Roosevelt twice for the presidency by 1916 was defined by protestant populism, prohibitionism, a concern for ‘anglo saxon’ manliness and a curious neurosis, which several historians have drawn attention to, about the feminisation of US society. It is no leap to note the huge overlap between the Progressive Party and the KKK. In fact, it is very tempting to see the Klan as the dark side of the Bull Moose Party added to the ongoing maleficence of the Southern Democrats—a sort of flipside of the populist, creationist forces that had first gathered around William Jennings Bryan in the late 1890s. Indeed, it is easier to see the Klan in this way than to see it as influencing the other two movements, both of which emerged and made a great impact before the second KKK was organised in 1915.

The new Klan, regardless of whether it reflected or created an agenda was seen as influential enough for significant numbers of politicians to flock to the cause. By 1924, its strength had grown to over 30% of the male voting population in Indiana, and the Klan was powerful enough to elect a Governor there. It became prominent in California, Ohio and Maine, with acknowledged representatives on the Anaheim City Council as well as within the government of Orange County. Endorsement by officials of the Klan, which was in the 1920s an organisation with public officers and private or hidden activities (as many were) was seen as essential to election in Alabama and Georgia, and Klan members effectively blocked Al Smith’s first bid for the presidency in 1924 by forcing the Democrat convention into deadlock and the nomination of a compromise candidate.  In 1925, 40000 members marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, and were met with no little applause. However, the two dominant models of Klan growth were still either of the Klan as the vehicle for a personal or local political network-essentially a cover—as had been the case in Georgia under Tom Watson from 1915, or the Klan as a superannuated lobby that established parties aligned themselves with or defined themselves against. In both cases, the Klan was secondary or oddly passive; reactive, and neither a catalyst nor an inspiration of anything.

Much of the Klan’s prominence reflected the fact that the Second KKK was seen as an acceptable engine for petit-bourgeois ambition. It was not, in that sense, the same as a political party or movement that truly captured a core of believers and then converted others. In fact, in the face of scandals and other fads, as well as the co-option of its agenda Republican and Democrat politicians, the Klan declined. The turning point seems to have been the trial of the Klan’s national northern leader, D.C.Stephenson, on charges of rape, cannibalism and murder. Stephenson was found guilty, and after being denied a pardon, revealed a structure of intimidation and bribery in Indiana which he and his fellow leaders had sponsored. This in turn met with a concerted effort across the southern states by the press, which was very noticeable in Alabama, to expose Klan influence. Klan defeats and exposures of lynching, riots and violence in which they had been involved followed, and were in turn marked by every more frantic attempts on the part of the organisation’s national leaders to assert their relevance as a civic group. This strategy in part involved claiming the credit for things which would have happened anyway, such as the victory of Herbert Hoover in the 1928 presidential election.

The Klan also found itself without a practical agenda once the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 began to severely limit immigration. The Act began with a restricted percentage rule of admission, which used the 1890 census to limit immigration numbers by allowing 2% of nationalities present in that year to enter in 1924; it continued by dropping the formula and imposing a nominal limit of 150000 from any one nationality present in 1920 that was introduced between 1927 and 29. The Johnson-Reed partnership demonstrated how the establishment was prepared to ‘de-fang’ the Klan, assuming that it had political teeth. Senator Reed was a Pennsylvania Republican, who pursued as the descendant of American pioneers a Republican agenda which would have been recognisable in the policies of, for instance, Henry Cabot Lodge. He provided respectability and the patina of establishment support to the idea that it was possible to believe that America should be an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ country without membership of the KKK. Representative Johnson was an Eugenicist and anti-Semite who had a similar appeal to former progressives and those seeking respectability, and who offered a Republican, rather than a Klan solution to their concerns. Though it removed a trump card from the Klan, the act also galvanised nativism against Al Smith, who succeeded in his quest for the presidential nomination in 1928 only to find himself already painted as ‘racially unworthy’. In all of this, the Klan was secondary, or reactive, or a malicious distraction, just as it had been in the passage and enforcement of Prohibition, to which its members seem to have been equally attached.

Some of the KKK leaders reacted by attempting to turn the movement into a social club. The most prominent of Klan names associated with this effort was Hiram Evans, a Texas dentist whose attempt to make the Klan a permanent political force had clearly failed by 1925. It was Evans, for instance, who had moved the KKK from Atlanta to Washington, and who had in 1923 presided over a gathering of almost a quarter of a million klansmen (his career was to end in a bribery scandal following turmoil in the rump organisation of the 1930s). In response to decline in the mid-twenties, Evans sought to turn the Klan into a campaigning organisation on very similar lines to the later ‘moral majority’ by embracing school reform issues, as well as support for the police. His problem in doing so, however, was that the actual body he led was associated by 1925 with crime, or riot, or racism in the public mind and that it was built on local concerns which had been held together by opposition to drink or to immigration only so long as the national parties were seen as soft on either.

The Klan had, by 1928, failed to align itself with other groups. It had sought and failed to gain influence over the Republican party, and instead found its clothes stolen by immigration reform. Herbert Hoover, whilst  being a registered Progressive, despised it, and Calvin Coolidge had taken personal umbrage at Klan opposition to his support for American participation in the World Court (which Coolidge had secured by convincing the Senate despite a Klan campaign). The organisation’s assets were highly exposed to the 1928-32 collapse, and its leadership at both State, and national, levels was riddled with scandals of the sort that energised the press and titillated the public. Most importantly, however, the Second Klan had, for most of its existence, been reactive, having emerged from the literature, filmography and business structures of the early twentieth century. It ran alongside a fairly uninterrupted white suppression of minority and African-American civil rights and voting that predated and succeeded it, and indeed found itself opposed by much more effective anti-lynching and black empowerment campaigns throughout the 1920s.


It is therefore fair to write that the second Klan was briefly well-supported, significant, but not really influential, though for a short time in 1920-25 it offered a lens through which the fears and aspirations of the urban American petty bourgeoisie was concerntrated. Compared to the NAACP, the Klan failed as a racial lobby. It failed to suppress the Harlem Renaissance or the growth of integrated and specifically black self-confidence in the ‘cultural peninsulae’ created by the merger of Southern African-American culture with Midwestern and northern themes in Detroit, Kansas City, Philadephia, Chicago and Los Angeles, and it was undermined by scandal, by a revolt against racist riots and lynchings, and by the New Deal. In many areas, it ran up against the rock of entrenched local Catholicism, which the Klan was unable to undermine or to supplant politically. It was in a sense the first great business failure of the bubble, because of the methods which had been used to organise it, and one of the first movements produced by the technology of modern printing and film. This was because it proved incapable of allying with others, of reforming or regenerating itself, or of sustaining growth driven by single issue politics and localised populism. It would also be pleasing to the educated mind to believe that the Klan collapsed because it was both malicious and ridiculous, but unfortunately, neither history or politics work like that.

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