The most notorious white supremacist organization in American history, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), has assumed various forms over time. The original Klan was organized shortly after the end of the Civil War and engaged in violent activities against African Americans and white Republicans in the South. Four decades later, however, a second Klan, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, would appear and evolve into a mass social and political movement that attracted the support of millions of Americans during the 1920s.
The establishment and success of the second Klan largely resulted from a shift in popular attitudes concerning the original KKK. Although the first Klan had been, by any standard, a lawless terrorist organization, the passage of time had imbued it with a romantic aura that appealed to the racist sensibilities of many white Americans in the early twentieth century. The Klan—s improved public image was well shown by the remarkable popularity of Thomas Dixon’s novels, The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), both of which presented the KKK as intrepid freedom fighters arrayed against the sinister elements that imperiled Anglo-Saxon civilization. This assessment received academic endorsement from influential scholars who emphasized the alleged mistreatment of white southerners by the Radical Republicans and their black allies during Reconstruction. As historian and future president Woodrow Wilson emphasized, the “white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation” (Wilson 1902, p. 58) to take up arms against those who threatened their way of life.
In 1914, the famous movie director David Wark (D.W.) Griffith purchased the film rights to The Clansman and began work on his cinematic epic The Birth of a Nation. For nearly two decades after its release in 1915, the film remained immensely popular. Never before had the public been exposed to cinematography in a way that so successfully stirred emotions and reinforced racial prejudices. Moreover, many viewers were convinced that the film was not a mere exercise in fiction. Having muted many of the excesses found in Dixon’s novel, Griffith argued that The Birth of a Nation was solidly grounded in historical fact. As the New York Times would favorably note in 1916, Americans in all parts of the country were “being taught to idealize the Klan.”
The vogue of the Klan created by the popularity of The Birth of a Nation presented an opportunity for a revival of the secret organization. For several years, William J. Simmons, a former Methodist circuit rider and recruiter for men’s fraternal societies in Atlanta, had considered starting a new Klan, composing an elaborate ritual and designing the masked costume that would become so well known. In the fall of 1915, shortly before the Atlanta premiere of The Birth of a Nation, Simmons, who assumed the title Imperial Wizard, began recruiting members for the new KKK, which he would formally incorporate in the state of Georgia as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Public acknowledgement of the hooded order’s revival came on Thanksgiving night of that year, as Simmons and fifteen other Klansmen burned a cross at the summit of nearby Stone Mountain.
The new Klan was at first a mere shadow of its predecessor. Though founded on the principles of “100 percent Americanism” and a militant defense of Protestantism and white supremacy, the group was a fairly typical men’s fraternity that concentrated on Masonic-style rituals and the selling of group-rate insurance. American entry into World War I encouraged the Klan to assume a more active role, as its members engaged in the harassment of those they perceived to be enemy aliens and draft evaders, but the KKK’s membership remained small, consisting of only a handful of klaverns (local Klan chapters) in Georgia and Alabama. Imperial Wizard Simmons’s mediocre leadership skills and chronic financial problems hindered recruiting, and it appeared that the second Klan would probably soon fade away.
Desperate to breathe new life into his organization, Simmons in 1920 turned to the Southern Publicity Association, a small public relations firm owned by Edward Young Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler. Skilled salespeople, Clarke and Tyler quickly recognized the Klan’s potential for growth, especially if the group more forcefully emphasized its defense of white Protestant Americans against the alleged threat posed by blacks, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. The early 1920s was an unsettled period still afflicted with the superpatriotism and intolerant zeal of the war years, and longstanding traditions of racism, nativism, and religious bigotry could easily be exploited. Clarke and Tyler also took important steps to improve the Klan’s finances and recruiting practices, employing more than a thousand paid recruiters (kleagles) who surreptitiously went from community to community spreading the KKK’s message.
Working on commission, kleagles tailored their sales pitch to attract as many recruits as possible. In many instances the KKK’s intolerant stance on race and religion was openly emphasized, but recruiters also stressed the hooded order’s potential for improving law enforcement, maintaining traditional moral values, and holding corrupt political officials to account. Much of the Klan’s early recruiting was done in established men’s organizations like the Masons and the Odd Fellows, the kleagles touting the Klan’s rich fraternal life and the possibility for making new sales contacts. Thus, while racial and religious intolerance clearly served as the organization’s main drawing card, this bigotry was interwoven with a variety of other appeals.
By the summer of 1921 the Klan’s improved solicitation procedures began to yield remarkable results, especially in the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, where tens of thousands of new Klansmen entered the fold. In this region, anger over poor law enforcement and a perceived collapse in traditional social morality sustained the organization, with many Klansmen resorting to violent vigilantism. In Texas alone in 1921 there were hundreds of beatings, whippings, and other types of assaults, with both whites and African Americans being targeted. Although the authorities often tried to suppress this violence, it proved difficult to prosecute Klansmen because of the group’s tight secrecy and because Klan members on grand juries and in police departments protected their own.
The outbreak of Klan-associated violence in 1921 was extensively detailed in the national press and placed pressure on federal officials to address what appeared to be a deteriorating situation. Shortly after the Joseph Pulitzer—owned New York World presented a widely distributed exposé of the Klan that portrayed the group as being inherently lawless, financially corrupt, and violent, the United States House Rules Committee held hearings in October 1921 to determine whether there was a need for governmental action. Despite the best efforts of the KKK’s critics, little concrete information came to light, and many Americans concluded that the hooded order had been exonerated of any wrongdoing. As a result, Klan recruiting soared as never before in the months right after the hearings.
As early as 1920, the Klan had dispatched kleagles to communities outside the South, and by 1922, assisted by the abundance of free publicity resulting from the congressional hearings, their recruiting efforts began to garner impressive results. Several factors contributed to the KKK’s expansion to regions where the hooded order had never previously existed. First, and most importantly, the powerful strains of racism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and nativism that the Klan exploited were not exclusive to the South. When Klan representatives arrived in the North, Midwest, and West and stressed the need for native-born white Protestants to remain ascendant in America, they found a receptive audience, especially at a time of growing anti-immigration sentiment and anxiety over the increased northward migration of African Americans. Secondly, Americans across the nation, just like southerners, had embraced the romantic and positive image of the Klan presented in The Birth of a Nation, and were eager to participate in what appeared to be a novel and exciting movement that stood for admirable values. And thirdly, widespread concerns over rapid social change, a breakdown of effective law enforcement, and political corruption had created a sense among many white Protestant men that some type of forceful action had to be taken to protect their families and communities. Through the Klan, the kleagles stressed, true Americans could band together and oppose the dangerous trends of the times.
From 1922 to 1925, the Klan evolved into a true mass movement, recruiting approximately 5 million men and hundreds of thousands of women, who were organized into the Kamelia and the Women of the Klan, the KKK’s two female auxiliaries. In the South, the hooded order encountered the greatest success in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Texas, the latter state’s membership exceeding 200,000. New York and Pennsylvania together had nearly half a million members, with hundreds of thousands more in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. In Indiana, fully one-fourth of all American-born white Protestant men joined the Klan. In the West, Colorado and Oregon became bastions of pro-Klan sentiment. During this heady period of growth, it seemed that the Klan could very likely become an enduring force in American life.
The Klan’s opponents were quick to characterize the hooded order as a movement of fanatical, poorly educated, and economically insecure individuals from the declining villages and small towns of rural America. This, however, was an inaccurate and biased assessment. More than half of all Klansmen resided in urban areas, often large cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Dallas, and the KKK’s most prominent leaders were longtime urban residents. Moreover, Klan membership rolls and other official documents reveal that Klansmen were, compared to the overall white male population, significantly above average in terms of socioeconomic standing, being overrepresented in the professions and other prestigious forms of employment. Klansmen typically belonged to mainstream Protestant churches (not small fundamentalist denominations, as was routinely claimed) and were often young family men looking to improve their communities and advance their careers. Nonetheless, these men had willingly joined a secret society that, as numerous undercover reports of Klan activities confirm, lied, conspired, broke the law, and wallowed in the vilest forms of bigotry. That Klan members were otherwise respectable and successful citizens provides strong evidence, therefore, that racism and religious intolerance were not confined to the fringes of society in the 1920s. These dark impulses, to a significant extent, also afflicted the social and economic mainstream.
Its phenomenal growth notwithstanding, the Klan found itself beset by internal problems in the fall of 1922. Angered by a morals scandal involving Edward Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler, and displeased by Imperial Wizard Simmons’s continued weak leadership, a small group of Klan officials in the group’s Atlanta headquarters succeeded in removing Simmons from his post and replacing him with Hiram W. Evans, a dentist from Texas who had previously served as Exalted Cyclops (klavern president) of the Dallas Klan. Soon afterward, Clarke and Tyler ceased their affiliation with the KKK, but Simmons launched a series of lawsuits that kept the Klan in legal turmoil until a final financial settlement was reached in 1924. This internecine squabbling divided the Klan for a period into pro-Simmons and pro-Evans factions, and did little to inspire confidence among the group’s rank and file.
The rise of Evans meant that the Klan would become more involved in politics. The new imperial wizard, in contrast to his predecessor, possessed an ability for long-range planning, and it was his hope to turn the Klan into a powerful political machine. Secretly determining which candidates to support and then using Klan votes as a decisive bloc at polling time, the KKK, working within both the Republican and Democratic parties, became an important factor in state politics in Texas, Oregon, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Colorado, and Indiana from 1922 to 1927. One of the hooded order’s first political successes took place in Imperial Wizard Evans’s home state of Texas, where in 1922 the Klan’s candidate, Earle B. Mayfield, defeated former governor James Ferguson for the Democratic nomination for United States senator. Obscuring his connection to the KKK and stressing Ferguson’s past record of corruption and opposition to prohibition and moral reform, Mayfield attracted the support of many non-Klan voters who were unhappy with established politicians and the general direction of American society. Klan leaders such as John Galen Locke in Colorado and David C. (D. C.) Stephenson in Indiana used a similar approach: They built powerful political organizations by exploiting widespread resentment toward what was perceived to be the corrupt and undemocratic policies of government officials and business elites. The general thrust of the KKK’s political efforts, therefore, was populist in nature, the secret order posing as the champion of ordinary citizens who wanted to take back control of their country and revitalize it in accordance with the traditional values of native-white Protestantism. This approach was so successful, and intimidating, that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats were willing to denounce the Klan at their national conventions in 1924.
While the Klan’s successes in state and national politics were impressive, the organization’s political clout was most profoundly felt at the local level. Although on paper the Klan appeared to possess a tightly organized hierarchy, local klaverns operated with considerable independence and modified their programs according to local circumstances. In some communities, like Detroit, the hooded order stressed the alleged peril of African American migration and pressed for segregation in the public schools. In El Paso, Texas, the Klan exploited anger over an inadequately funded public school system, while Klansmen in Denver focused on government corruption and an alleged breakdown in law enforcement. In much the same way that kleagles adapted their sales pitch to attract as many recruits as possible, Klan leaders opportunistically shaped their political programs in the context of the local grassroots issues that could be most successfully exploited. Imperial Wizard Evans openly encouraged this approach, urging that Klansmen not “put into effect any set program, for there are different needs in the various localities.” But while the emphasis of Klan political activism varied from community to community, the organization’ overall agenda remained clear: the maintenance of native-white Protestant dominance, stricter enforcement of the law (especially Prohibition), and the defense of traditional social and cultural values.
Ultimately, the Klan’s entry into politics accomplished little. Despite scores of victories in state and local elections from 1922 to 1927, the hooded order and its allies routinely failed to implement measures that successfully addressed popular concerns over law enforcement, moral issues, public education, and other grassroots issues. Moreover, Klan-backed officials often proved to be just as inept and corrupt as their predecessors. One of the KKK’s few legislative successes came in Oregon, where the Klan helped
secure passage of a bill that required all children age eight to sixteen to attend the public schools, a measure that effectively outlawed parochial education. This law was invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925, eighteen months before it was scheduled to take effect.
Increasingly in the mid-1920s, the Klan itself became a political issue. The group’s hooded secrecy, its use of anonymous messages and cross-burnings to intimidate opponents, and its use of violence and the threat of violence appeared to many citizens to be inherently un-American and a violation of the principles of free and open government. While the Klan had originally seemed a promising means of reordering American society in accordance with white Protestant values, its deficiencies now clearly seemed to outweigh its virtues.
From 1925 on, the Klan experienced a steep decline in both membership and influence. The romantic allure that had first sustained the organization had faded away, and open bickering among Klan leaders continued to undermine recruiting efforts. The successful prosecution of Indiana Klan leader D. C. Stephenson for the second-degree murder of a young woman in 1925 further tarnished the KKK’s reputation and convinced the Klan’s opponents to redouble their efforts to undermine the hooded order. By then, a number of states had passed laws prohibiting the wearing of masks in public, and New York had enacted the Walker Law, which required all secret oath-bound societies to file a list of their membership with the state. At the same time, a variety of anti-Klan organizations, such as the Chicago-based American Unity League, hired undercover informers who acquired Klan membership lists, which were subsequently revealed to the public. In Buffalo, New York, the city’s Roman Catholic mayor had an agent break into the local Klan’s business office and steal the group’s membership records, which were then put on public display and published in pamphlet form. These roughshod tactics proved very effective. Unmasked and exposed, the KKK was no longer the intimidating political and social force it had once been, and members began to depart in droves.
Despite the best efforts of Imperial Wizard Evans, who had moved the Klan’s headquarters to Washington, DC, the hooded order’s membership steadily dwindled. Even the selection of New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, a Roman Catholic, as the Democratic nominee for president in 1928 was not enough to revive the organization’s fortunes, with the result that active Klansmen numbered only 30,000 by 1930. Over the next decade, most klaverns focused on fraternal activities, but occasionally the Klan would publicly denounce labor activists, Communists, and New Deal legislation. In 1939, Evans stepped down as imperial wizard and was replaced by James Colescott, a longtime Klan organizer and former veterinarian from Terre Haute, Indiana. Colescott proved to be an uninspiring leader, and he was unable to restore the Klan to health. He also faced a serious challenge to his leadership when a number of northern klaverns developed a close relationship with the pro-Nazi German American Bund, an alliance opposed by southern Klansmen. The Klan’s flirtation with the Bund and its continuing criticism of the government after American entry into World War II attracted the attention of federal authorities, who in 1944 belatedly presented the KKK with a huge tax bill for money the group had earned during its heyday in the 1920s. Unable to pay the bill, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan liquidated its few assets and formally disbanded.
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