“Back of the writhing, yelling, cruel-eyed demons who break, destroy, maim and lynch and burn at the stake is a knot, large or small, of normal human beings and these human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something.” W. E. B. DuBois
This book is about the most powerful movement of the far right that America has yet produced: the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s.
The story it tells is disturbing. For it has to explain, among other things, how it was that sane, ordinary men came to believe that Catholics were stockpiling weapons to take over the country, that a cabal of Jewish bankers controlled world affairs, and that white people must ready themselves for an imminent race war with people of color.
By mid-decade, well over a million, perhaps as many as five million, white, native-born, Protestant men had paid their dues and pledged their loyalty to the order’s leaders and its program. The Ku Klux Klan of that decade recruited more members and amassed more power in communities throughout the United States than any Klan before or since.
Since its first incarnation after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan has occupied an enduring place in American politics. Like the proverbial phoenix, the Klan has died in one setting, only to be reborn in another. The key themes of Duke’s recent campaigns in fact echoed the appeals of the second Klan: a form of populism that combined hostility to established élites with dedication to white supremacy, support for conservative family values, enthusiasm for “old-time religion,” and antipathy to welfare recipients, trade unionists, immigrants, liberals, and leftists.
Understanding the drawing power of such themes in the past can help us see why they still pull in our own time.
One has to give up the notion of the essential otherness of the kind of men attracted to it. In the 1920s at least, Klan members were not the deranged outcasts of popular imagination. A score of historians have now painstakingly researched the membership and activities of Klan chapters in localities across the nation. And they have found that most often the men who donned the order’s robes and assembled beneath its flaming crosses were, as one contemporary put it, “if not the ‘best people ,’ at least the next best . . . the good, solid middle -class citizens.
Not only did the Klan draw from the broad middle of the nation’s class structure, but it most commonly mobilized support through campaigns waged on the prosaic theme of upholding community moral standards.
Without attention to how notions of proper manhood, womanhood, and parenting infused Klan thought and action, no analysis would be complete. For the Klan’s conservative ideology was a deeply gendered phenomenon. Klansmen could not discuss issues of race, class, or state power apart from their understanding of manhood, womanhood, and sexual decorum.
This fusion of private and public imparted to Klan prejudices much of their peculiar force. Yet, as the classic example of the plantation mistress and the female slave illustrates, and as black feminists have argued most eloquently, it is impossible to understand ideas about gender or the sexual politics they inform without attention to their class and race moorings.
The Klan’s hostility to such things as teenage sexuality and birth control both emerged from and contributed to the racism, anti-Catholicism, and opposition to labor struggle it is conventionally and rightly known for.
So many scholars of the second Klan seem to assume that church-going, civic minded middle-class men would never have espoused the views or conducted the deeds the Klan is commonly associated with.
It was at once mainstream and extreme, hostile to big business and antagonistic to industrial unions, anti-élitist and hateful of blacks and immigrants, pro-law and order and prone to extralegal violence.
This study aims to demonstrate the basic consistency of their motives and positions. The source of that consistency was a world view and politics best characterized, in my view, as reactionary populism. In it, the anti-élitism characteristic of populism joined with the commitment to enforce the subordination of whole groups of people.
The appeal of this politics was rooted deep within American society and culture : in the legions of middle-class white men who felt trapped between capital and labor and in the political culture they inherited from their forebears.
Fearful for the future, Klan leaders drew from the wellsprings of American politics to fashion an ideology that would enable them to hold on to their basic values, make sense of rapidly changing social relations, and fend off challenges to their power. They drew from classical liberalism their ideas about economics, and from republicanism their notions of citizenship and the commonwealth, in particular its long exclusion from the right to participate in political affairs of economic dependents, whether slaves, free women and children, or propertyless men.
The synthesis Klan leaders fashioned extended and modified, but by no means contradicted, values widely held in American society. It proved compelling enough to attract millions.
My emphasis is on how Klansmen understood their world, why they thought the way they did, and what moved them to action. Such an understanding can only be developed through a sustained examination of Klan ideology.
This work employs a local case study to anchor its analysis of the Klan’s ideology and practice nationwide. The site of the study is Clarke County , Georgia, home of the University of Georgia and, in the 1920s, of Athens Klan Number 5. Once described by W. E. B. Du Bois as the “Invisible Empire State,” Georgia was the birthplace and national headquarters of the second Klan.
In one respect the Athens Klan was unique in the South, and rare in the nation. Unlike most of their peers, its leaders failed to hide or destroy their chapter records. They left behind a rich cache of materials that found their way into the archives.
If white Southerners’ racism was less unusual than most white Northerners like to admit, other aspects of Southern life at the turn of the century were distinctive: the prevalence of sharecropping, tenant farming, disfranchisement, and lynching, to name but the most obvious. These regional traditions influenced the Klan’s development in the South. Their sway was most obvious in Southern Klansmen’s more frequent indulgence in vigilante violence and in the tacit consent, if not outright support, that violence gained from regional élites.
What proved most striking in the research for this study was less the differences between Southern Klansmen and their counterparts elsewhere than how much they all shared. The assumption of Southern distinctiveness with which the author embarked on this project gradually had to be shed in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.
In their basic values, as in their targets, the area of agreement between Klansmen in different parts of the country proved wide. Where they diverged, the differences tended to be of degree, not character, or in focus or tactics, not principles. In key ways, in fact, like the election of the Southerner Woodrow Wilson to the presidency not long before, the Klan of this era was both effect and cause of the reconciliation of North and South.
The expanding powers of the federal government and the changes in the structure of power at all levels of the state affected citizens in every area. The plight of agriculture in the 1920s ruined farmers in the Midwest and West as well as the South. The powerful image of the “New Negro” resonated among racists nationwide as Southern blacks moved north in record numbers, while Harlem’s radicalism filtered outward. And the youthful pioneers of modern morality drank, danced, drove, and necked from one end of the country to the other. So it is not surprising that white men around the country rallied to Klan appeals with common core elements.
The goal of this study, then, is to situate Klan members in the world of their day, to take seriously what they did, and to listen carefully to what they said. In this way, we can learn a great deal about what made them tick.
BEHIND THE MASK OF CHIVALRY. The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan – Nancy MaClean.
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