The Alt-Right, Donald Trump, and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s: What We Can Learn

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Giant Klan rally in Washington.

The rise of the Alt-Right over the last two years and its ties to the political aspirations of Donald Trump left me wondering about earlier right-wing nativist organizing. Last week’s publication of a new book by historian Linda Gordon entitled The Second Coming of the KKK:THE KU KLUX KLAN OF THE 1920S AND THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION  has given me a lot of new information to think about the origins and impacts of far-right populism. Linda Gordon is a skilled historian who has twice won the Bancroft Prize for the best history book of the year. Her new book on the Ku Klux Klan of one hundred years ago is of the same excellent quality as those prize-winning works.

While all Americans have heard of the Ku Klux Klan, most don’t realize that the name has been used for three distinct manifestations of racism and hatred. The First Klan started a year after the Civil War ended. It was made up initially of Confederate veterans who resisted through violence the enfranchisement of African Americans. The First Klan functioned primarily as a paramilitary terrorist organization during the occupation of the former Confederate states by the United States army. It did not spread beyond the former slave states.

The Third Klan sprang up in the South following World War II in response to the growth of the Civil Rights movement. Like the nightriders of the First Klan, its members operated in secrecy and often disguised themselves. This “modern Klan” recruited primarily among less educated white Southerners. Today’s Alt-Right reflects these two Klan manifestations primarily in their bigotries.

The Second Klan, which arose shortly before the United States became embroiled in World War I and which had collapsed in scandal by 1930, was very different. It had millions of members, roughly half of whom lived outside of the old Confederacy. It helped elect governors and Congressmen, Future Supreme Court justices and at least one president were members.

While we think of the Klan as being primarily an anti-black group, the Second Klan put as much, if not more, emphasis on hatred of immigrants, Catholics, and Jews. According to Gordon, the Klan thrived on the politics of resentment, which it exploited and helped to build. All whom it apposed were depicted as a threat to “true Americanism.” Gordon writes:

To understand its strength we need to notice which groups it identified as enemies. By blaming immigrants and non-Protestants for stealing jobs and government from “true” Americans, it stayed away from criticism of those who wielded economic power. Devoted to a business ethic, revering the pursuit of profit as confirmation of individual independence and manliness, the Klan respected men of great wealth and considered their social position earned and deserved. Instead it blamed “elites,” typically presented as big-city liberal professionals, secular urbanites who promoted cosmopolitanism (and were thus insufficiently patriotic) and looked down on Klanspeople as stupid and/ or irrational and/ or out of step with modernity. This disrespect for the Klan only intensified its hostility and sense of righteousness.

Klan rhetoric trumpeted the declining place of white native-born Protestants, and particularly Evangelicals, in America. The Klan depicted Catholics and Jews as masters of the political arts who effectively shut “true Americans” out of government. The Klan bypassed the mainstream media of the day to get its message out that the long-dominant white Protestant majority was losing power in American society. Klan speakers and publications “deployed hyperbole and allegations of terrifying conspiracies to bring in more members and described themselves as part of a team committed to rescuing the country from its internal enemies,” according to Gordon.

Poster from 1915 advertising the Klan film Birth of a Nation.

The Second Klan was founded by physician Joseph Simmons after he saw the D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation in 1915. The film depicted the First Klan as the heroic defenders of whiteness against pollution by African Americans. Although Simmons would base some of the new Klan’s methods and tactics on those of the Klan of fifty years earlier, his Klan was thoroughly modern in its use of the latest communications technology.

In his first published invitation for white Protestant men to join the KKK, Simmons advertised that the Klan was a “A Classy Order of the Highest Class.” When initial recruitment lagged, he distributed a photo of Klansmen in a parade. It turned out that most of the hooded men were in fact blacks who had been hired by Simmons to march literally undercover to convince the public that his support was greater than it really was. He also created a Klan university where young Klansmen could learn the secrets of organization, but this turned into a pricey failure that ended up in bankruptcy court.

The Klan really only took off, though, when Simmons hired Public Relations woman Elizabeth Tyler to run Klan recruiting. Tyler helped to revolutionize the organization into the defender of “traditional values” and promoter of prohibition and sexual morality. Tyler spread the idea that jazz music, alcoholism, and sexual licentiousness were spreading in America because of the influence of the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews. She made a fortune off of commissions she earned from the initiation fees every new Klan member paid. She fell from the heights of power only when she was caught having an affair with a married man while she was married to someone else. The fact that she also was in illegal possession of whiskey only added to the hypocrisy.  She was not the only Klan leader to be hoist on his or her own petard, as we will see later.

The Klan sometimes portrayed itself as a respectable middle class fraternity. Other times it harked back to the violence of the nightriders of the First Klan who terrorized black communities.

While the old Klan had been organized in the 1860s to oppose what it branded as “Negro Supremacy (i.e. Black voting rights),” mere racism could no longer be the organizing principle for the KKK in the 1920s. Blacks were only a small presence in the North and had been effectively disenfranchised in the South. Few Americans saw African Americans, then reduced to what appeared to be permanent subservience, as a serious threat to white supremacy. Instead, the Klan effectively convinced millions of Americans that the seemingly endless immigration of Catholic, Jewish, and Eastern Orthodox had brought American democracy to the brink of ruin. Ending immigration from all but England and Scotland became its leading cause.

As the Klan grew, the huge profits it brought in led to constant quarrels among leaders. Those at the top levels could make over a million dollars a year in 2017 money. Although these leaders might seem to be little more than entrepreneurs of hate, looking out for the main chance, they could also be extremely violent. Hiram Evans, for example, was a dentist who became Grand Wizard in 1922. Two years earlier he had organized a “Black Squad” in Dallas that had tortured and killed at least one black man. The killing was an underground activity. Above-ground Hiram Evans claimed the Klan was a respectable fraternal organization.

Klan women at a Long Island ceremony in 1924.

David Stephenson was the protégé of Evans. Like many Klan leaders he invented a resume that had no basis in his actual qualifications. He liked to boast that “I’ve got the biggest brains” to other Klansmen. He made a name for himself by turning Indiana into the Northern state with the largest Klan membership. Although the state had few Catholics or African Americans and almost no Jews, he convinced one-in-four white Protestant men to join there. He depicted himself as an iconic right-living middle class “100% American,” all the while using his Klan earning to buy a mansion, a yacht, and enough Prohibition booze to pickle his liver.

The Second Klan was joined by many Americans who seemed to embrace its contradictions. It supported the Prohibition of alcohol even though many of its local Klaverns served liquor at meetings. It described immigrants as an imported criminal class at the same time that it engaged in illegal acts of its own. For the Klansmen, sexual transgressions were a characteristic of Catholics, blacks and Jews, but many Klansmen used their positions to extort sex from women.

The Klan thrived on the creation of fake news. Klan leaders created a whole series of false “facts” to impugn the organizations enemies. Catholics, for example, were said to have taken over the United States army and most police departments. According to the Klan, Irish and Italian immigrants were ordered to immigrate to the United States by the Pope and they would soon establish Catholic Canon Law in place of the Constitution.

A minister in Oregon welcoming the Klan and its women’s auxiliary to his church.

Fear was not the group’s only weapon. The Klan used a series of ostentatious donations to win friends and influence people. For example, a struggling Evangelical preacher hard-pressed to pay the mortgage on his little church might see costumed Klansmen arrive during services carrying bags of money as a donation. He would then pray for the Klan with his whole congregation. Gordon says that the Klan targeted Fundamentalist and Evangelical clergy as allies because they were almost always short of cash and their approval legitimized the Klan in the eyes of their congregations.  Eventually, Gordon writes, Protestant ministers would be the most overrepresented occupational group in the Klan.

Women also formed an important Klan constituency. The Women’s KKK and other groups of female Ku Kluxers were only about a fifth of the total number of those involved with the Klan, but with 500,000 members, they were one of the largest women’s groups in 1920s America. They formed Tri-K Clubs for teenage girls to initiate them into the KKK’s way of thinking as well as Klan groups for children.

The Klan depicted itself as a bastion of family fun.

The Klanswomen carved out a place for their gender within the male dominated organization. When a male Klan leader tried to control one group, they physically assaulted him! They brought in speakers like future Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger to speak about issues of importance to women like birth control and eugenics.

These women were dedicated. A leading force in the women’s Klan was Daisy Douglas, a fiery Quaker. She rose to the position of Imperial Empress in the women’s movement and wrote that the KKK was “the soul of America.” She fought alongside her sisters to make sure that the newly enfranchised women voted to oust Catholics and Jews from school boards and demand that schools hire only white Protestants to teach.

While the Klan was strong throughout the South, its state organizations in Indiana and Oregon were important power centers in the North and West. In Oregon, the Klan targeted Japanese farmers and Catholics. Even though less than 1% of people in Oregon were Japanese, the Klan worked for legislation to bar them from owning land in the state. The small size of the “threat” did not make it less useful for mobilizing the prejudices of the native-born.

The Klan found anti-Catholicism an even more effective rallying cry in Oregon. Gordon describes the Klan roadshow that was taken from town to town across the state:

after rounding up some Masons and other fraternal members, recruiters would arrange a public lecture by an “escaped nun”; distribute anti-Catholic pamphlets, slipped into cars and under doors; put on a lecture by a fire-and-brimstone evangelist; and persuade some ministers to endorse the Klan in sermons.

The excited crowds at the Klan’s town-halls weren’t coming for facts or policy. They were there for the emotional lift of being told that their efforts could save America from the threat of elites, politicians, and foreigners. They wanted to restore the greatness of America.

In the second part of this review, I will look at what the Klan achieved, how close to power it came, how immigrants fought back, and how the Klan fell.


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