The Second Coming of the KKK; The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s

The Second Coming of the KKK; The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition by Linda Gordon. Liveright, 2017.

Linda Gordon relates the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s to other contemporary movements. The earliest Klan organization followed the end of the Civil War. But she suggests various other “ancestors”. Nativism, one of them, is a political movement that promoted the interests of native inhabitants against more recent immigrants. Populism, another ancestor, advocates the rights and power of the “people” in their struggle against a privileged elite. She also associates this second version of the KKK with the fascist movements in the interwar period, particularly the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain. Membership in the Klan was secret, but organizational claims ranged from three to six million.

The Klan had much in common with the other fraternal organizations of the time: the Masons, the American Legion, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Columbus, among others. These fraternal orders were most active in the early 1920s following the Great War. However, they began to lose favor in the latter part of the ‘20s.

The organization had the blessing of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist religious movements, although that was less so after a series of scandals, financial and sexual, involving the Klan’s leadership. The 1920s were also the years of the temperance movement. Klanners could be on both sides of Prohibition after the constitutional amendment was passed in 1920.

The founder of this “second coming” of the KKK was William Simmons, a preacher and retired army colonel, who was in it primarily for the money. He was also inspired by Thomas Dixon’s popular novels, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan and The Leopard’s Spots (1905) and D.W. Griffin’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Simmons employed recruiters who got a cut of the membership fee.

There were local organizations that were associated with the KKK by what we would today call franchises and they earned money for the organization through the sale of paraphernalia. This amounted to a substantial revenue stream that helped sponsor many of the Klan’s activities: involvement in parades, picnics, fireworks, and airplane stunts.

Cross burnings were often incorporated into their secret rituals. The robes and masks associated with the KKK were aimed at intimidation of minority groups and particularly African-Americans.

It is often assumed that the members were drawn mostly from small towns and farming communities in the Mid-West and South. But Gordon suggests that the Klan was drawing its enthusiasts from city populations as well. Klansmen were able to fill Madison Square Garden in New York City on several occasions. Membership in the Klan was secret, but organizational claims ranged from three to six million. Surprisingly, Oregon had the largest percentage of KKK membership relative to its population, followed by Indiana. The 1920s Klan was moving north and west.

There were Klan women as well. They, like their menfolk, were concerned with preserving “American values,” which involved them with Anti-Semitism and Anti-Catholic activities.

The members were racist and kept that throughout the second and into the “third coming,” responding to the Civil Rights movement. This was a much smaller phenomenon, though at times it out-matched the Second Klan in fervor.

The second Ku Klux Klan claimed several “accomplishments.” Troubled with the high levels of immigration in the early 1920s, they supported nation-wide immigration restrictions and campaigned for the Chinese and Japanese exclusion on the West Coast. Also while they liked their parades and their cross burnings, they largely avoided street violence. The author maintains that the KKK provided male spaces where they could revert back to being soldier/warriors. Gordon is reminded of the traditional gathering amongst German-Americans – herrenabend – or “stag parties.”

Florida had its share of KKK activities. Some of that was aimed at Cuban-Americans working in Florida’s cigar industry and men working in the turpentine and lumber industries. In January 1923, a band of whites in Levy County “took justice into their own hands” and lynched several Negroes accused of having raped and robbed a white woman in the small town of Rosewood.

The sheriff of Levy County raised a posse and began an investigation. Men arrived from Cedar Key and surrounding towns to help in the search for the black male who was alleged to have raped the white woman. Some of these vigilantes were deputized, and dogs were brought in to help with the search. The alleged rapist was found, tortured, shot, and lynched. African-American homes in Rosewood were then torched.

Just previous to this incident the Klan had held a rally of over one hundred hooded Klansmen fifty miles away in Gainesville under a burning cross.

Gordon makes the point that most KKK members were drawn from the respectable class or sought to be viewed as middle class. Like  those who joined other fraternal organizations. The poor, tucked away in the Florida backwoods, could not afford the entrance fees.

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