The Klan Rides Again

Making the Invisible Empire Visible
The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s

The Ku Klux Klan is, as one historian has put it, "America's recurring nightmare"--a repeated challenge to American ideals of tolerance that has had extraordinary influence in three different periods in our history. The first came immediately after the end of the Civil War; this first Klan mobilized white Southerners who instigated a reign of terror against black Americans (and white Republicans) in an ultimately successful effort to re-establish white supremacy in the South. In the 1950s and 1960s, the "invisible empire," as the Klan called itself, returned to the South in a desperate--and now ultimately unsuccessful--effort to block the Civil Rights movement from finally winning formal equality for black Americans.

Although these two racist and Southern Klans shape our popular images of the KKK, the era in which the Klan attracted its largest membership was the 1920s. And, interestingly, the 1920s Klan was not centered in the South, nor was its ideology as single-mindedly focused on race. Nevertheless, the initial impetus was both Southern and racist. It was revived in the aftermath of D. W. Griffith's wildly popular 1915 silent film, Birth of the Nation, which presented the late nineteenth-century Klan in a heroic light, and the man who got it started was William Simmons, a former Methodist minister from Georgia. But when the real growth came in the 1920s, the Klan spread well beyond the South. More than three million Americans joined; many of them were urban residents and it won political power in such non-Southern states as Indiana, Oklahoma, and Oregon. In this period, its public statements were more likely to attack Jews, Catholics, and immigrants than African Americans.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the great size and influence of the 1920s Klan, historians have not been able to agree on its central values and its larger significance. The traditional interpretation, as historian Leonard J. Moore writes, sees the 1920s Klan as "the story of a backward segment of American society, one trapped by economic insecurity, dying small-town ways, and an inability to adjust psychologically to the 'modern age' which seemed to emerge so clearly in the decade before the Great Depression." In different ways, this interpretation of the 1920s Klan as backward looking, irrational, and a reflection of "status anxiety"is echoed in the work of many prominent historians of the 1950s, including Richard Hofstadter, John Higham, William Leuchtenberg, and John D. Hicks.

Moore himself, who is the author of a study of the Klan in Indiana, favors a different interpretation, which depicts the 1920s Klan in "populist" terms. He and some other recent historians (including Robert Alan Goldberg and Shawn Lay) have argued that "the Klan served different purposes in different communities, but that in general, it represented mainstream social and political concerns, not those of a disaffected fringe group. Prohibition enforcement, crime, and a variety of other community issues seemed most responsible for the Klan's great popularity in these states and communities." Without excusing the racism and nativism of 1920s Klansmen, historians like Moore want to downplay the centrality of ethnic and racial bias to Klan activities and to present the men and women of the Klan as more ordinary representatives of their time. "The Klan," Moore concludes, "appears to have acted as a kind of interest group for the average white Protestant who believed that his values should be dominant in American society. . . . The Klan became a means through which average citizens could resist elite political domination and attempt to make local and even state governments more responsive to popular interests." [353]

Populists? Reactionaries? Racists? Nativists? Extremists? Which interpretation is right? This excursion allows you to consider a range of different documents from the period and reach your own conclusions about the nature and significance of the 1920s Klan. The Klansman's Manual, the first document included here, provides some support for both interpretations of the Klan. On the one hand, this 1925 manual, which all members were supposed to study and learn, is reminiscent of other fraternal organization such as the Masons or Odd Fellows with their elaborate rituals, symbols, titles, and secret handshakes. (The sale of Klan regalia and the collection of membership dues made some Klan leaders wealthy.) On the other hand, the manual equally reflects a deepseated commitment to racism and nativism. The document casually mixes together a dedication to protecting "children, the disabled, and other helpless ones" and to upholding "the God-given supremacy of the white race."

The second document--some excerpts from a weekly Klan bulletin, The Imperial Nighthawk--even more forcefully suggests the seeming "normality" of the Klan. These chatty notes suggest that Klan membership in many communities was quite respectable with members donating flags to schools and carrying fiery crosses of roses to local funerals. Note also their use of modern advertising techniques--searchlights illuminating a white-robed horseman and an airplane bearing a fiery cross--as well their description of a Missouri Klan chapter as "a very progressive organization." Yet, the final sentence indicates that not all Americans viewed the Klan in quite so benevolent terms.

It was long believed that Klansmen were more likely to come from fundamentalist and evangelical Protestant churches, but statistical studies do not bear this out. Historian Leonard Moore compared the religious affiliations of Klansmen from Richmond, Indiana with that industrial city as a whole and concludes that it appealed "across denominational lines." Fundamentalist churches were not important in the city or in the Klan, and the organization even appealed to Richmond's Quakers. Other studies bear out these conclusions about the breadth of the Klan's support. But that conclusion must always be qualified--the Klan appealed to a cross-section of white Protestants, not a cross-section of all Americans.

Given that the Klan often reflected a cross-section of the community, its members were often deeply embedded in the local power structure. In Atlanta, Georgia, the Klan pervaded the political and legal system--Klansmen filled prominent positions in the police, the courts, and the city government. Newspapers sanctioned their activities and important local businesses like Coca-Cola advertised in their publication. In this interview, Harold Sheats, the former City Attorney of East Point, a town outside Atlanta explains, that he joined the Klan when he realized that many other city officials were already members.

An explicit version of the anti-immigrant and racist ideology of the Klan is in this speech, which is probably delivered by Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans.

"Our unity is threatened by hordes of immigrants . . . who bring foreign ideas and ideals into our land," he intones. "Two things must be done: first, we must stop influx of foreigners; second, we must through education, bring all people to common program of acting and thinking."

Is there anyway to reconcile these different conflicting portraits of the Klan? In a recent study of the Klan in Georgia, Nancy MacLean offers one possibility. She argues against what she sees as "false polarities, which have dominated thinking about the Klan." Instead, she finds a "basic consistency" in a world view she calls "reactionary populism," which combined "the anti-elitism characteristic of populism" with "the commitment to enforce the subordination of whole groups of people." The Klan, she writes, "was at once mainstream and extreme, hostile to big business and to industrial unions, anti-elitist and hateful of blacks and immigrants, pro-law and order and prone to extralegal violence. If scholars have viewed these attributes as incompatible, Klansmen themselves did not."

A. "A Real Brotherhood" for "Eternal Maintenance of White Supremacy:" The Klansman Manual
These excerpts from a 1925 edition of the Klansman's Manual reflects some of the basic principles and organizing devices of the 1920s Klan. B. "A Very Progressive Organization?" Notes from a Klan Newspaper
These excerpts from The Imperial Nighthawk of June 13, 1923 emphasize the ways that the Klan saw itself as a social club that played an "ordinary role" in different communities--contributing flags to local schools, for example. Yet the last sentence suggests that not every member of these communities viewed them so positively.
E. Why I Joined the Klan: The Confessions of A Georgia Klansman
In this interview, Harold Sheats, the city Attorney of a town adjacent to Atlanta, explains how he came to join the Klan after learning that many other city officials also belonged.
H. "Stop the Influx of Foreigners:" A Klan Leader Speaks
In this speech, which is probably delivered by Klan leader Wesley Hiram Evans, the Klan's anti-immigrant ideology is fully on display.
I. Why I Quit the Klan: An Encounter with Imperial Wizard Wesley Hiram Evans
In this interview, Harold Sheats, former City Attorney, in a town near Atlanta, describes a meeting with Klan leader Wesley Hiram Evans. The Imperial Wizard's use of the organization for his personal profit and his overt rejection of democracy finally led Sheats to quit the Klan.
For more reading on the Klan in the 1920s, see Leonard J. Moore, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 (1991); Shawn Lay, ed., The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s (1992); Stanley Coben, Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America (1991); Kathleen Blee, Women of the Klan: Race and Gender in the 1920s (1991); Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (1994).