Commentary Magazine

An Anatomy of the Klan

The largest and most successful radical rightist organizations in American history—those which use extremist tactics in an effort to restore the privileges of declining social strata—have been the groups which have operated under the name, Ku Klux Klan. The first Klan, formed the day before Christmas in 1865, played a major role in restoring white supremacy to the South by intimidating the freed Negro slaves and their white supporters. The second, founded in 1915, is credited by most authorities with securing six million members at its high point in 1923-24, and with influencing or controlling the election of governors, legislators, and Congressmen in many states, Southern and non-Southern alike. The third Klan—or more accurately, set of Klans—formed since World War II, has not had the success of its predecessors, in part because of better-financed competition from other groups on the Right, but it does play a role in many Southern towns today. The various Klans, then, clearly constitute an important American political phenomenon, yet little is known about them and their supporters. The comparatively minuscule American Communist party has inspired many more scholarly efforts.

The fact that 1965 is the centennial year of the original Ku Klux Klan seems to have resulted in a new burst of writing. Three books have appeared in rapid succession, dealing with different aspects of the history of the various Klans.1 Two of them, those by David Chalmers and William Randel, purport in their titles to cover the entire century. In fact, however, three-quarters of the Randel volume is devoted to the first Klan, while the Chalmers study deals almost entirely with the second one. The third book by Charles Alexander reports in depth on the second Klan in four Southwestern states. Although Chalmers and Alexander also deal with the “third” Klan (the national organization of the second was formally dissolved in 1944), their treatment is somewhat cursory.

These three books contain much information, but they fail to unearth the data which would enable us to understand how six million people came to join an organization (the second Klan) in which men dressed up in bedsheets to frighten or even beat up other Americans. Who were these six million?

The first Klan which emerged after the Civil War is relatively easy to understand, although Professor Randel has unfortunately not written a good book about it, being more concerned to discredit that Klan and its latter-day apologists than to shed new light on its operation. Basically, the first Klan was a conspiracy of the leadership of the white South to destroy the political power of the freed Negro slaves, the Republicans, and the various groups of Northern whites who sought to improve the situation of the Negro. It succeeded in its task, intimidating many of the illiterate former slaves and frightening many of the whites who sought to help the Negro. Having finished that job, it dissolved. The “best elements” did not want to encourage lawlessness, once “law and order” had been restored.


The fact that it was necessary for the first Klan to come into existence should be regarded as an inverse tribute to the real efforts of many whites to change the Southern social structure after the Civil War. A genuine attempt was made to educate the freedmen, to give them the vote, to make them the base of a popularly-elected government. No such efforts were made in other former slaveholding societies, like Brazil or the British West Indies, which is one of the reasons why greater racial tensions and violence developed in the United States. In Brazil, for example, slaves were finally freed in 1888; they were not, however, given the vote, education, or economic assistance. The suffrage in Brazil, as in many other racially heterogeneous Latin American nations, has remained restricted to literates—a requirement which still serves to bar half of Brazil's total population, and close to 90 per cent of its Negroes, from the polls. Where the “inferior” race is held down by its depressed environment, where little is done to change such conditions, there is no need for a Ku Klux Klan, or overt racism. In the United States, as soon as the Northern Republicans dropped their support of the Negro and acquiesced in the restored rule of the Southern Bourbons, the Klan disappeared. (New and equally successful efforts to repress the Southern Negro re-emerged politically in the 1890's when the Populists attempted to appeal to Negroes.)

The first Klan was given an honored place in the mythology of the South in novels and histories written between the time of its dissolution and World War I. And the rise of the second Klan is in part a consequence of the influence of the mass media of the 20th century. There is general agreement that D. W. Griffith's motion picture, The Birth of a Nation, which appeared in 1915 and glorified the deeds of the early Klan, played a major role in preparing the way for, and perhaps even suggesting, revival of the organization. The KKK was reborn in 1915 as a fraternal order emphasizing “100 per cent Americanism and the supremacy of the Caucasian race.”

Following U.S. entry into the war, the Klan turned into a private secret service group spying on radicals and others of dubious patriotism. Afterward it broadened its scope and emerged as a general vigilante organization seeking to repress groups and activities which failed to fit in with its concept of 100 per cent Americanism—Negroes, Jews, Catholics, Orientals, foreigners, and those who violated traditional morality through their behavior on the Sabbath, extramarital sex, drinking, etc.

Although the Klan recruited thousands of members during the war, its real period of growth dates from 1920, when its public relations and recruitment activities were taken over by two professional publicists, Edward Young Clarke and Mrs. Elizabeth Tyler. They found that “the minute we said ‘Ku Klux,’ editors from all over the United States began literally pressing us for publicity.” One year later, the Klan could boast of 100,000 members, mainly in the South. It was led into its next spurt of massive growth by critical publicity. The New York World ran a continuing expose of the activities of the Klan in September and October 1921, which was syndicated to papers in eighteen cities across the country. The description of Klan financial manipulations and illegal violence, far from hurting it, resulted in fantastic growth in all sections of the country.


Thus far, the story of the two Klans is clear. From here on out, however, we are in an area of speculation and doubt. Why did the Klan grow as rapidly as it did between 1920 and 1924? Who exactly were its supporters? What was its principal source of attraction—its racial bigotry? white supremacy? anti-Catholicism? anti-Semitism? Or were its members primarily concerned with repressing immorality, sexual freedom, license of any kind? Was the Klan wholly “rightist,” or did it appeal to discontents of varying ideological persuasions? If the recent books on the Klan do not give valid and reliable answers to these questions, they also do not shed much light on why the Klan declined so rapidly after 1924. Nor do the available data tell much about the differential character of the decline—i.e., who dropped out first, and where.

In an ultimate sense, of course, questions such as these can never be “answered,” especially given the secrecy with which the Klan operated. But from existing unanalyzed materials, some matters can be treated in greater depth. Thus, none of the students of the Klan has actually examined the data from primary contests and general elections in which Klan and anti-Klan candidates opposed each other. What, for example, was the composition of the 25 per cent of the Kansas electorate who voted for William Allen White for governor on a third-party anti-Klan ticket, when both major party candidates endorsed the Klan? There were many Grand Jury investigations of Klan violence, as well as indictments of some of those involved. Who were these people? Many ministers were publicly active as Klan supporters. Where were their churches located, what kind of parishioners did they have?


The generally accepted explanations of the rise and fall of the second Klan do, of course, make a logical case. According to these explanations, the growth of the Klan reflected two basic processes. From a long-term secular point of view, it was part of a general movement within 19th-century American Protestantism toward the taking on of a nativist, anti-Catholic, prohibitionist, fundamentalist cast. This movement reached the peak of its political strength immediately after World War I, precisely at a point when the groups from which it drew its support had lost, or were clearly about to lose, their majority status. The census of 1920 indicated that urban dwellers were a majority for the first time in American history; Catholics, Jews, and others of non-Anglo-Saxon Protestant background were becoming important in politics, communications, and industry. American participation in World War I had involved the nation in an emotional binge emphasizing 100 per cent Americanism, and placing the onus of suspicion on those of foreign origin. Radicalism—in the form of Socialism and Communism—was also viewed with suspicion first for opposing the war, and then for its links with the Bolshevik menace. Returned Negro war veterans were demanding their rights. The changes brought about by war—the new mobility, industrial and urban growth—particularly as they affected public morality and behavior, disturbed those committed to the traditional verities of the provincial small-town and the rural, evangelical Protestant middle class. Support of the Klan was a way of resisting their loss of influence and status.

Perhaps the most interesting fact about Klan activity is that most of its vigilante violence was directed not against Negroes, Jews, Catholics, or the foreign-born, but rather against those involved in “immoral” activities: adulterers, patrons of prostitutes, drunks, bootleggers, and the like. As Alexander puts it, the “distinctive quality of the Klan . . . was its motivation, which lay not so much in racism and nativism as in moral authoritarianism. . . . The Klan was, more than anything else, an instrument for restoring law and order and Victorian morality. . . .”


The elements of Klan support seem to have varied in different parts of the country, and even from one community to another in the same state. Alexander reports a correlation between the rapidity of growth of Southwestern cities and the presence of strong Klan chapters—a fact which suggests that the Klan recruited from among those who reacted negatively to the social strains of rapid growth, change in class relations, etc. (another possibility is that it drew its support from recent migrants from smaller communities). Most authorities insist that the Klan found backing in all strata, including the professions, and that if its support is to be labeled in “class” terms, it can only be described as the broad middle class.

Yet there is some evidence to the contrary. Reports on elections in Kansas, particularly in William Allen White's home city of Emporia, suggest that Klan candidates were disproportionately strong in working-class districts. More interesting is the fact that a study of the Midwest Klan indicates that “an impressive number of Milwaukee's Socialists also crossed the portals” of the Klan. A successful Socialist candidate for the Wisconsin Supreme Court was an avowed member and supporter of the Klan; he replied to the Socialists who attacked him for this by citing the large number of other Socialists in the Klan. Working-class and Socialist voters backed the Klan in spite of its open antipathy to trade unions and liberal political causes. Presumably, the main motivation for Klan support in the Midwest was anti-Catholicism. And if one is to believe the testimony of Hiram Evans, the Grand Wizard of the Klan in the 20's, the bulk of its membership came from less well-to-do people, particularly farmers. He wrote in 1926:

We are a movement of plain people, very weak in the matter of culture, intellectual support, and trained leadership. . . . This is undoubtedly a weakness. It lays us open to the charge of being “hicks” and “rubes” and “drivers of second-hand Fords.” We admit it.

Yet these scanty indicators that the mass base of the Klan lay with the poor and ignorant must be placed against the reports that the Klan had six million members at a time when the total eligible electorate (adult citizens) of the United States was about 59 million, and the number voting in a Presidential election (that of 1924) was under 30 million. If one accepts this common estimate of six million membership and deducts from the total of 59 million citizens of voting age the approximately one-third who were Catholics, Jews, and Negroes (and hence ineligible for Klan membership), and the female half of the population, it would appear that one out of three or four white Protestant men belonged to the hooded order. Even if one were to cut the estimate of Klan membership in half, the proportion of WASP membership would still be incredible. And the record clearly shows that for some period at least, a large number of these came from among the leading citizens of non-metropolitan communities.


The question of why an organization as powerful as the Klan should have declined when it clearly appealed to some widespread and deeply felt need, and when it held a great deal of political power, is almost as difficult to answer as the question of why it grew. One partial answer given by its chroniclers is that the issues which concerned the Klan seemed to have been settled in its favor or to have lost saliency. The passage of the immigration-restriction and quota legislation of 1924 represented the final triumph of the Protestant nativist crusade; in the South, legislation outlawing the teaching of evolution meant victory for the fundamentalists; prohibition was firmly in the saddle, enforced by federal agents; the fears that Negro war veterans would upset the status quo vanished; and as World War I receded into memory, the emphasis on 100 per cent Americanism and alien plots declined.

Thus, for a brief moment, the white Protestant provincial American could believe himself back in control of his country. Presumably, the decline of the threats to white Protestant moral supremacy also facilitated the growth of revulsion among the more well-to-do supporters of the Klan against continued violence and vigilanteism. Various reports indicate that leading citizens who had backed the Klan or remained silent now turned openly against it for its violations of “law and order.” And the Klan leaders themselves contributed to the growth of such moral revulsion. Exposes of sexual immorality and outright financial defalcations by leading Klansmen resulted in mass withdrawals from the Klan.

These reasons are all plausible, and perhaps correct. Yet a strong case can be made against them. It should be recalled that in 1920-21—the beginning of the Klan's period of growth—the newspapers reported in detail on the immoral and crooked activities of major Klan figures. Moreover, although conservatism may have become the dominant political mood in 1924, a third party candidate, Robert La Follette, who had opposed American entry into World War I, ran for President with trade-union and Socialist party backing, and secured 16.6 per cent of the national vote. In that year, too, a second-generation Irish Catholic, Al Smith, sought the Democratic nomination for President, the first member of his faith to do so seriously within either of the major parties.

During the same period, stories concerning immorality and sex scandals in Hollywood filled the newspapers. The movies of the day contained fairly risqué scenes, including some nudity. Prohibition may have been dominant, but bootlegging was widespread. A recent historian of prohibition, Andrew Sinclair, concludes that it was effective only where the population sympathized with it, namely in the rural areas of the South and West. But in the cities of these regions—which were also major centers of Klan strength—speakeasies, bootleg liquor, and allied commercialized vices such as prostitution were prevalent. New York, Tammany Hall, wets, and Catholics supposedly represented much of what Klan supporters hated. Yet the nomination of Al Smith, who symbolized all of these, as the Democratic candidate for President in 1928, did not result in a Klan revival. The late 20's witnessed its continued political isolation and a decline in its membership rolls.


The Klan, of course, continued to exist through the 1930's, but it was a shadow of its earlier self. Perhaps the most interesting fact about it in this period was its emphasis on anti-labor and anti-Communist activities, and its alliances with different semi-fascist extremist groupings. The national organization founded in 1915 was officially dissolved in 1944 under pressure from the Division of Internal Revenue (it owed much more in back taxes than it could possibly hope to pay). Since World War II, there has been a variety of organizations calling themselves the Ku Klux Klan in various parts of the South. In large measure, they have been relatively weak, poor men's White Citizens' Councils, shunned by middle-class supporters of racism.

Why did the Klan rise and fall in the 1920's? Unfortunately, we do not know much more after reading the new books on the Klan than we did before, although they do make more readily available the record of its activities in most states. But regardless of how much more we learn about the Klan, the simple fact that only forty years ago a major segment of white Protestant America belonged to an organization which was explicitly nativist, anti-Negro, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic should haunt our dreams and our politics.


1 Hooded Americanism: The First Century of the Ku Klux Klan: 1865 to the Present, by David Chalmers, Doubleday, 420 pp., $5.95; The Ku Klux Klan: A Century of Infamy, by William Pierce Randel, Chilton Books, 300 pp., $5.95; and Ku Klux Klan in the Southwest by Charles Alexander, 1360 pp., $6.50.

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