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by Dusty Sklar
Discussed in this essay: The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, by Linda Gordon. Liveright, 2017, 288 pages.
THE KU KLUX KLAN, America’s best-known racist society, has had three major phases of life since its founding right after the Civil War in 1866. It functioned, first, to reverse the achievements of Reconstruction, claiming that white women and white power were jeopardized by the enfranchisement of ex-slaves. Lynchings of black men became a common occurrence, with considerable white approval and police collusion, and terrorism served as the Klan’s major weapon.
The second Ku Klux Klan, the main focus of The Second Coming of the KKK, by New York University history professor Linda Gordon, was catalyzed by two events. D. W. Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation, distributed in 1915, showed KKK members coming to the rescue of white women who were in danger of being raped by newly freed slaves who were being manipulated by Northern carpetbaggers. The film was a sensation and was shown at the White House in March, 1915, to President Woodrow Wilson. “It is like writing history with lightning,” Wilson proclaimed. “And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” (Below, see a clip from Griffith’s film, in which the KKK comes to the rescue.)
In August of that year came the lynching in Marietta, Georgia of Leo Frank, an Atlanta businessman who had been falsely convicted of the rape and murder of a young woman named Mary Phagan. A short time after the lynching, thirty-three members of “The Knights of Mary Phagan” gathered near Atlanta and formed the new Ku Klux Klan of Georgia. (The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, longtime foes of the Klan, also grew out of the Leo Frank case.)
Contrary to the popular belief that Klan people were small town hicks, a study of nine cities between 1915 and 1930 showed that 50 percent of active Klanspeople in this second period of Klan activity lived in cities. After World War I, the KKK spread to northern states, particularly Oregon and Illinois and expanded its enemies list to include Catholics, Jews, big-city-dwellers, and immigrants. The Klan warned that these “degenerative” forces were tempting the rest of America with sex, alcohol, and jazz, and that there were secret Catholic and Jewish schemes to take over the United States. Only evangelical Anglo-Saxon Protestants could save America. (“Nordic” was their favorite term for whites.).
Eventually the KKK boasted up to six million members, according to Linda Gordon, and was actually stronger in the North than in the South. They were no longer a secret group: They published ads in newspapers to recruit new members, elected hundreds of their members to public office, and owned or controlled about 150 magazines or newspapers, as well as two colleges. The Klan also made movies — among them The Traitor Within and The Toll of Justice (advertised as “the film every red-blooded American should see”), both released in 1923 — and succeeded at getting films by Charlie Chaplin and others featuring Pola Negri censored in several states.
As Gordon makes clear, the KKK was embraced by millions who were not members, possibly even a majority of Americans. Many elites and intellectuals also shared their outlook. By 1920, for example, Henry Ford had circulated half a million copies of the fraudulent, antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and had gone on to publish a 91-article series in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, entitled “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.“A book published in 1916, The Passing of the Great Race, by Madison Grant, a Columbia- and Yale-educated lawyer and conservationist, championed “scientific” racism in regard to the new non-“Nordic” immigrants, and suggested that those “unfavorable races” be kept segregated in ghettos. President Wilson and many members of his administration similarly expressed racist and antisemitic views.
Quotas were established regarding the acceptance of Jewish applicants to American colleges and universities: Between 1920 and 1940, for example, Columbia’s medical school went from accepting 47 percent to 6 percent. Congressional debate on the immigration-restriction bills of the 1920s spoke of the deplorable “fact” that 80 to 90 percent of the “undesirables” were Jews. As H. L. Mencken observed, “If the Klan is against the Jews, so are . . . three-quarters of the good clubs.”
OF COURSE, in the 1920s, eugenics was accepted as science, and the Klan’s racist views were entirely in keeping with much of the country. Yet by 1927, membership had declined from several million to about 350,000. Internal corruption, power struggles, hypocrisy, and scandals became harder and harder to overlook. Still, the KKK had already triumphed in a number of ways. In thirty states, eugenics laws provided for forcible sterilization of people who were deemed of “defective stock’ -- usually the poor and people of color. Immigration restrictions were in place, with the hierarchy of “desirable and undesirable races” radically restricting admission for some of the world’s people most in need of sanctuary, including Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia.
The KKK then made a major comeback in the South (and in pockets of the North) during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, which it terrorized with bombings, assassinations, and lynchings while seeking to forestall the end of racial segregation.
While the Ku Klux Klan is weak and largely irrelevant today, the “Klannish spirit,” Gordon writes, “—fearful, angry, gullible to falsehoods, in thrall to demagogic leaders and abusive language, hostile to science and intellectuals, committed to the dream that everyone can be a success if they only try — lives on.”
Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.