Thomas R. Pegram
One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2011
The Ku Klux Klan suffers from a positively radioactive reputation, even among fellow Rightists. During the infamous family dinner scene in American History X, at which Edward Norton’s Derek Vinyard assaults his sister and displays his swastika tattoo to the Jewish teacher dating his widowed mother, we get a good summation of the Klan as perceived by the modern Right. Derek’s sister refers to him as “Mr. KKK,” to which he replies, “I’m not a member of the fucking low rent, disorganized, redneck Ku Klux Klan. Pull your head out of your ass and look at who you’re dealing with.” Is this position justified? It is important that we first understand that there are three, arguably four, distinct eras of the Klan, each of which has very little (if any) connection to the other.
The First Klan, that of the Reconstruction South, was genuinely heroic. The decimated postbellum South was a veritable house of horrors, with black freedmen and soldiers pillaging, raping, and murdering whites with wild abandon. The white man was entirely disfranchised, the whilom Confederacy under brutal military rule; if you think that white Federal troopers protected white Southerners from the new black Republican voting pool, think again. A group of ex-Confederate officers, most of whom were pillars of their respective communities, including attorneys, physicians, and ministers, formed the Ku Klux Klan as an order of self-defense, to protect the innocent and defenseless women and children of the South from further depredation. The leaders of this nascent Invisible Empire approached General Robert E. Lee to serve as their Grand Wizard, but, in failing health, Lee pointed the men to his greatest surviving subordinate, Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Klan filled the vacuum of anarchy, and did their duty well, dissolving the order as soon as Southerners were able to regain political control over their states.
The Second Klan, the focus of this essay and of Thomas Pegram’s book, shared only its name, aura of secrecy, and robed and hooded regalia with the First Klan. On this last point, though, the white robes and hoods, along with the signature bright fiery cross, were not used by the Reconstruction Klan, and were instead elements of iconography that had been borrowed from D. W. Griffith’s seminal film, The Birth of a Nation, itself modeled after the illustrations used in its source material, Thomas Dixon’s excellent novel, The Clansman. As the second Imperial Wizard of the Second Klan, Hiram Evans, said: “The old Klan was liquidated when its work was finished. The new Klan has no essential connection with it.” In fact, the Second Klan cannot even be said to have had any substantial relation to the South, and, despite its national headquarters’ location in Atlanta, Georgia, was primarily a Northern and Midwestern phenomenon. On the night of Thanksgiving in 1915, after seeing The Birth of a Nation, the Alabaman William Simmons, the son of an original Klansman, led a small group of like-minded friends to climb atop Stone Mountain — long before the magnificent bas relief sculpture of President Davis and Generals Lee and Jackson was carved into its face — where they burned a cross and announced the reorganization of the Ku Klux Klan.
After this dramatic inauguration, however, the Second Klan stagnated. During the First World War, Simmons offered the services of his knights to the American Protective League, a loyalty enforcement group that intimidated suspected subversives and other individuals deemed to be unpatriotic. These Ku Kluxers were essentially only mildly active in a handful of cities in Georgia and Alabama, numbering no more than two thousand men. It was in the New Era, after the First World War, that the Second Klan became the national phenomenon that it is now remembered for, numbering, depending on the estimate, somewhere between four and six million.
In 1920, Simmons hired the Southern Publicity Association, a partnership of two professional marketing agents, to promote the Klan. Employing modern marketing and mass mobilization strategies, the Southern Publicity Association employed “kleagles,” or recruiters, to target Protestant churches and fraternal lodges like the Masons, Elks, Odd Fellows, and Red Men as likely sources for “kluxing,” or recruiting. Kleagles were paid four dollars out of every ten-dollar initiation fee, while Protestant ministers were offered free membership; by 1924, over thirty thousand Protestant ministers had taken the hood. Every Sunday, Klansmen would appear at churches to make a donation and thereby announce the presence of the local “klavern,” or chapter.
Sensational anti-Klan articles in the New York World in 1921 prompted the attention of Congress, and Simmons was summoned to Washington. A magnificent orator, the Imperial Wizard made his testimony a passionate advertisement for the Klan, protected from hostile questions by Georgia Representative William Upshaw. As Pegram puts it: “Denying all charges of violence, prejudice, or financial opportunism against his creation, Simmons dramatically collapsed in exhaustion as he called upon God ‘to forgive those who have persecuted the Klan.’ In some confusion, the House Rules Committee shut down its inquiry.”
The World’s anti-Klan campaign backfired spectacularly, “with many prospective knights mailing in membership blanks cut from the pages of the paper’s exposé.” By year’s end, the Klan had established a significant presence in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana, spreading to Kansas, Missouri, California, Ohio, and Illinois, with particularly powerful strongholds in Colorado, Indiana, and Oregon. The Invisible Empire further made inroads into Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, the upper Northeast, and the upper Midwest. Aside from these concentrated areas, the Second Klan occupied footholds in almost every state in the nation. August 8, 1925, marked perhaps the highwater mark of Klan power. For nearly four hours, a procession of almost fifty thousand robed, unhooded Klansmen paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D. C. Pegram describes “Klan bands and drill teams entertained the onlookers packed ‘four or five deep’ along the parade route while banners, flags, and flecks of red, yellow, and olive drab-colored hats and robes stood out amid the overwhelming flood of white regalia.”
By that time, though,
the community of the Klan was fatally damaged, but the critical blows had not come from the enemies of the hooded order, despite the energy and determination of their work against the Klan. Instead, rank-and-file Klansmen abandoned the Invisible Empire when local political failures, moral and financial scandals involving prominent Klan officers nationwide, and corrosive disputes within klaverns or between local Klans and the national headquarters in Atlanta — over finances, policy, and jurisdiction — destroyed the cohesiveness of the movement and its effectiveness as an instrument of moral regulation.
The political and moral failures of the Second Klan will be discussed in greater detail, but for now, it will suffice to state that the Klan simply burned itself out. Amid its sudden, precipitous fall, the organization hemorrhaged members; by 1930, according to some accounts, the Klan’s numbers had fallen from the height of several million to as few as forty thousand, with more and more dropping out until 1944, when Federal tax obligations forced the Invisible Empire to formally dissolve. The unified — though never fully centralized — Klan splintered into dozens of individual organizations that, as Pegram notes, “were more clearly. . . outside the shifting mainstream of American belief and behavior than had been the experience of the vast, troubled, and evanescent popular movement of the 1920s.”
This third, splintered era of the Ku Klux Klan spanned the end of the Second World War into the present day, though I argue that a Fourth Klan briefly existed during the decade of Southern Massive Resistance between Brown and the Civil Rights Act; the key factor setting this era of the Klan apart from the rest of the third era is its transitory temporal alignment with the Southern mainstream. Though the Klan was a more extreme manifestation of Southern Massive Resistance, the loose constellation of Southern Klan groups, while still nowhere near an approximation of the scale of the Second Klan, did function with at least the implicit support of the wider Southern community. In any case, we may firmly situate the Klan of 2020 within the third era, where it exists as a marginal, impotent, and ineffective — though not irredeemably lost — vehicle for white identity. In fact, we may learn much from the successes and failures of the Second Klan of the 1920s, using this knowledge to either revive a fourth or fifth Klan, depending on where one stands on my thesis, or to build a new populist white power organization.
What the Second Klan Did Right
It is important to understand that the Second Klan was fundamentally a middle-class phenomenon. Klansmen were, on the whole, more financially stable, better-educated, and more likely to be married than the general population, and claimed very few knights from either the highest or lowest economic strata. For a litany of reasons, this seems to be the case with the Dissident Right today, the same concept that Samuel Francis drew on in his predicting the appearance of the Middle-American Radical. Most Klansmen eschewed violence and largely ignored minority populations, focusing their efforts on civic activism to “enforce prohibition, improve public schools, demand better performance from elected officials, and even repair local infrastructure against the resistance of business elites and entrenched political rings. . . Klansmen resembled their White Protestant neighbors, except for the hooded knights’ greater engagement in civic organizations, community-building, elections, and public life in general.” The 1920s Klan was an “interest group for average White Protestants who believed that their values should be dominant in their community,” or, in other words, “a means through which average citizens could resist elite political domination and attempt to make local and even state governments more responsive to popular interests.”
The Second Klan was a product of its time, as all great populist social movements are. Though the United States of America was still controlled and peopled by whites, vastly outnumbering all of the alien groups, visionaries like T. Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant saw trouble on the horizon, much as Oswald Spengler did from Germany. The First Klan had been organized around a single issue: the protection of Southern women and children from two enemies, the rapacious Federal government (including its carpetbagger and scalawag handmaidens) and its black pets. The Second Klan, nearly half a century later, also functioned as a cleansing force; the difference, as Pegram explains, is that the revived Klan “built upon twentieth-century developments such as mass entertainment and leisure, patriotic voluntary associations, advertising and the go-go economic style of the 1920s. Moreover, the cultural balkanization of the urban, industrialized, pluralistic United States into a racialized, religious tribalism. . . produced a greater range of potential enemies for the new Klan to confront.”
The Southern Publicity Association, to which Simmons had surrendered his effective control over the Invisible Empire, built a movement “committed to the defense of tradition but rooted in the social context of the 1920s,” extolling the hooded order as a benevolent fraternal community “at a moment of labor unrest, racial tension, and anti-radical sentiment.” Though it seems incredibly short-sighted now, early twentieth-century White Protestant America was deeply suspicious of rising Roman Catholicism in public life; within the klaverns, doctrinal differences between Protestant denominations were subsumed into a united front of Protestantism against Catholicism. This anti-Catholicism was of coequal importance to the Klan as its white racial exclusivity; its driving program is best referred to as one-hundred-percent Americanism, Americanism being a particular brand of Protestantism. This cannot be overstated: The Second Klan was not merely white, but White Protestant. Indeed, America was a Protestant nation founded by Protestants, and so this manifestation of white nativism is no mystery. Given the significant strides that the Klan made against Catholics at the local community level, however, one is frustrated by the thought of what strides could have been made against the Jewish menace instead, then in the nascency of its conquest of white America.
Amid rising ethnic and religious pluralism, White Protestant politico-cultural supremacy “was increasingly challenged as Eastern and Southern European immigrants, blacks, Catholics, and Jews carved out pockets of political influence and cultural autonomy in public institutions such as political parties and in privately-created communities of neighborhoods, clubs, and associations. The Klan was a created community of its own, celebrating white native-born Protestant civilization within a fraternal framework, but it was also an aggressive counterforce to cultural pluralism.” The internationalist identity foisted upon the American nation by President Woodrow Wilson’s quest to “make the world safe for democracy” created a “great debate” over America’s place in the world. The Klan’s one-hundred-percent Americanism and its bitter resistance to American participation in the League of Nations and the World Court, Pegram notes, reflected “more widespread concerns that international engagement could threaten the nation’s autonomy.” This “great debate” was often framed in terms of protecting the inviolability of American institutions, which, as the proto-Klan of the War years demonstrated, “had its domestic analog in the quest for home-front loyalty.”
As American society, following Wilson’s lead, “reimagined the squalid imperial conflict of 1916 as the democratic crusade of 1917, issues of uneven wealth, corporate monopoly, urban infrastructure, and political corruption that had energized the Progressive Era gave way to a heightened concern with ‘hyphenated’ Americans, slackers, and other dissenters from national unity. . . The robust patriotism of the war years generated a lingering postwar suspicion of labor unionists, political radicals, recent immigrants, Southern black migrants, and other Americans then considered marginal.” In this respect, the 1920s Ku Klux Klan was an expression of the latent fears of the wider White Protestant community; for example, even an anti-Klan editorial warned that that the “alien ideas” of immigrants represented “disintegrating forces. . . organized to destroy the institutions on which the present strength and freedom of America rest.” Another agreed that Anglo-Saxons were on the path toward racial suicide, presciently mourning “our vanishing Americans,” while another journalistic investigation of the Klan expressed solidarity with the Klan’s proposition that “native-born citizens, trained in the National schools, sons and heirs of the men who built up the Nation, are on the whole better interpreters of National thought and purposes, and hence more fitted to rule the country, than are people of alien blood, tradition, and training.”
The greatest feature of the Second Klan was its communitarian ethos of civic service, embodied by its emphasis on fraternal fellowship, community-building, local government reform, and close attention to public schools, law enforcement, and moral behavior. The Klan was absolutely brilliant to understand the strategic importance of seizing and enforcing strict control over the public education system. The Invisible Empire shared much of its educational agenda with the Progressive Left, including compulsory school attendance and the establishment of a nearly omnipotent Federal Department of Education; Ku Klux leaders and rank-and-file knights alike “acted to implement better funding for public schools, including vocal support for local taxation and bond measures; agitated for physical improvements of public school buildings; supported better compensation for teachers; demanded more equitable distribution of school funding across lines of class and community size; advocated compulsory school attendance laws in jurisdictions that had resisted state educational development; and, in some communities, pressed for free textbooks.”
In stark contrast to conservative, rural Americans, the Klan wholeheartedly believed in statism with regards to the issue of public education, just as it advocated the concentration of Federal power over prohibition enforcement and immigration restriction. Although the Klan shared its short-term educational agenda with Progressive reformers, though, its devotion to a strong educational system was for entirely different purposes. Indeed, what the Klan hoped to achieve was a Rightist, White Protestant-driven long march through the institutions; if the order had been successful, the Jewish capture of the educational institutions might never have happened. As Pegram explains, “Klan leaders envisioned public schools as guarantors of native White Protestant cultural control over diverse ethnic folkways and Catholic institutional challenges.” Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans openly acknowledged, quite rightly, that White Protestant control over a strong educational system was “the one unfailing defense against every kind of alienism in America.” Here, we had educational Progressivism with Rightist sensibility, a grand reminder for us that Big Government is not necessarily a bad thing.
Just as the Klan formed children’s organizations “in order to surround young White Protestants with the cultural milieu of one-hundred-percent Americanism, so too did it intend to employ common schools as the ‘training school’ for ‘responsible citizenship’ that would expunge un-American allegiances from the national life.” One Protestant minister, speaking before the Second Imperial Klonvocation, the Klan’s national assembly, expressed the Klan’s goals well, complaining that “our schools have become a training ground of intellect and not a training ground of patriotism and character.” The Klan had great success in taking over local school boards across the nation, and vigorously policed course curricula, hiring decisions, and textbooks, demanding that public schools enforce the White Protestant values of Americanism. In one Ohio district, for example, eleven knights in full Klan regalia invaded a school board meeting to demand that “only real Americans” be permitted to work in public schools.
As we shall see, the Second Klan often hobbled itself by entertaining unrealistic, megalomaniacal ambitions; so, too, in the field of education, tentative efforts to influence universities and develop fully Klan-controlled institutions of higher learning failed. Though clusters of knights could be found on most of the large public university campuses among both students and faculty, the Klan was never able to establish itself in sufficient numbers. Its influence over university affairs was “quite rare and usually restricted to the hobbling of Catholic organizations on campus.” There were two admirable attempts at founding Klan universities. In 1921, the first Imperial Wizard, William Simmons, spent $150,000 to purchase the struggling Lanier University; with Georgia Grand Dragon Nathan Bedford Forrest III as business manager, the Klan made grand plans to establish Lanier as “a corrective to the irreligious and radical trends they perceived in current higher education.”
Promotional material for the planned university noted that “many of the textbooks and much of the teaching of the present in our schools are tainted with false science and unwholesome humanitarianism, leading ultimately to a corrupt and degenerate citizenship.” Forrest abhorred the fact that “most of our large universities now are turning out socialists, cynics, and atheists.” Lanier, Forrest continued, would serve “all real Americans who desire that their children shall receive instructions in the true history of their country in an institution where Americanism and the teaching of patriotism and loyalty to home and country are the predominant features.” Unfortunately, the school went bankrupt in 1922, and its main building, modeled on General Robert E. Lee’s Arlington manor, later became the site of Atlanta’s largest synagogue. Later, in the realm of Indiana, bombastic Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson acted to purchase the struggling Valparaiso University, but the second Imperial Wizard, Hiram Evans, was wary of further empowering his personal rival, led the national Klan to back out of the deal.
Klansmen were generally devoted to Christian charity, which underpinned all of their civic activism. The Klan operated an orphanage, called the Klanhaven, and collected money for Christmas decorations and needy families, visited sick fellow knights, decorated the graves and comforted the survivors of those who had died, and even helped fund a mother’s legal effort to regain custody of her children. These charitable actions, Pegram argues, shared a private and public function by “strengthening solidarity within the order but also expanding its visibility and legitimacy in the larger community.” We can learn much from this; we certainly employ the rhetoric of community, of heritage, of love for our people, yet how many of us actually make any tangible attempt to improve the lives of those we claim to love, to build our totally deracinated and ruined communities?
Though the Klan certainly provided for the needs of members in emotional, financial, or legal distress, most of the beneficiaries of Klan largesse were not even members. One Oregon klavern gave a ton of hay to an impoverished farmer who could no longer feed his cow. Klansmen near Houston, Texas, redeemed a widow’s lumber bill. Klansmen often organized and distributed food baskets to needy families; for Christmas 1922, the impressive Indiana Klan donated twelve truckfuls of food and clothing. Many klaverns also paid rent and mortgage interest for families in danger of losing their homes, and, in Oklahoma, a band of knights presented a “worthy widow” with a two-thousand-dollar bungalow. Klanswomen in Muskogee, Oklahoma, operated a day nursery, fixed chicken dinners for patients at the local veterans’ hospital, and contributed furnishings for the community indigent home. When Klansmen busted up a bootlegging operation in Mishawaka, Indiana, they discovered a teenaged prostitute who had sold herself to support her baby, whom she otherwise would have had to give up. Klanswomen found her and her child a home, and found her a job.
Despite the occasional hypocritical alcoholic, an overwhelming majority of Klan leaders and knights were fervently in favor of prohibition, seeing alcoholic vice as another form of alienism afflicting the White Protestant community. Klansmen regularly led raids against bootleggers and other prohibition violators, and klaverns routinely banished Klansmen who turned up to meetings drunk or were found to be participating in or benefitting from bootlegging. One of the few instances of Klan violence in the stronghold of Colorado involved Denver knights beating a Jewish attorney who had represented bootleggers. In oil, gas, and mining boomtowns in southern Arkansas, northern Louisiana, eastern Oklahoma, and East Texas, vices like bootlegging, illegal saloons, gambling, prostitution, and petty violence proliferated; the Klan functioned in these spaces as a “people’s police,” filling a crucial void.
As one Oklahoman assured Congress:
In the oil towns. . . where no schoolgirl is safe from this rough-and-tumble bootleg element, one “visit” and the town is almost a Sunday-school class. . . I have not seen a case, not a single one, that all the leading good people of town have not said, “It’s a good thing.” . . . The delay in our laws is a great protection to the criminal class, and the people, taxed to the limit, are tasking this method to put a stop to this cost on the town and country.”
In one Arkansas boomtown, Smackover, two hundred Klansmen attacked the vice districts, “routing some two thousand ‘undesirables’ amid flaming nightspots, gunfire, whippings, and applications of tar and feathers.” This sort of vigilantism was almost singularly reserved as a last resort where absolutely necessary; usually, the local klavern formed working agreements with sympathetic public officials, many of whom were themselves Klansmen. In cases of local and state corruption and collusion in bootlegging, the Klan had no issue cooperating with Federal agents. The Klan’s dedication to enforcing prohibition in the face of minimal law enforcement action was, as with all of its other aims, a grassroots response to “popular and heartfelt concerns that the requirements of the law, [in this case] the demands of constitutional prohibition, meet with compliance.”
The Second Klan fulfilled another of its roles extremely well, by providing a genuinely meaningful, cohesive community for its members, including the men’s Ku Klux Klan, the Women’s KKK, and the smattering of children’s Klan organizations. The fraternal aspect, then, was merely one aspect of Klan society, with its ritualized brotherhood and secret codes and handclasps. Beyond that, though, especially in the powerful Midwestern realms, Klan sociability took a highly public form, with extravagant picnics featuring hot-air balloon rides, displays of horsemanship, athletic contests, and speeches, as well as parades and concerts. These fun, family-centered events provided more than just entertainment, also functioning as physical manifestations of White Protestant identity. As Pegram observes:
Demands for proper law enforcement (potently symbolized by prohibition) and responsive government, defense of the public schools as White Protestants wished them to be, patriotic display and an identification of Americanism that corresponded with one’s own religious, racial, and ethnic background, and fidelity to an idealized family life and moral order…were additional public manifestations of the shared beliefs and values of Klansmen that strengthened bonds within the hooded order.
The Invisible Empire operated in plain sight as “a sponsor of community activities that ranged from lavish public events to Klan-themed family recreation and Klan recognition of personal milestones in the lives of knights.” Klan events — such as Klan weddings, christenings, teenaged auxiliaries, family picnics, athletic contests, parades, pageants, spelling bees, rodeos, circuses, and so on — drew Klansmen, their wives, their children, their extended families, and the White Protestant community at large. The Second Klan also embraced the vital utilization of spectacle in its community-building, starting, of course, with the bright fiery cross. Cross burnings “were the Klan’s most spectacular and entertaining public displays, accompaniments to the outdoor ‘naturalization’ ceremonies that inducted initiates into the order, reinforced the fraternal bonds among Klansmen, and. . . thrilled the often-large crowds of onlookers attending the events.” When new klaverns were created, a core group of robed and hooded Klansmen announced themselves with a spectacular nighttime cross burning, usually placed on an elevated hillside for maximum visibility. Many klaverns supplemented the fire with dynamite and small bombs, which “added color to the event and drew people onto the streets to witness the fiery display.”
In Monticello, Arkansas, Klansmen introduced the klavern with a parade of Model T Fords, carrying the hooded knights down the main street and around the courthouse before heading to a Klan barbecue and watermelon picnic and naturalization ceremony. At larger rallies, such as the 1924 naturalization extravaganza in Clanton, Alabama, Klan organizers used elaborate pyrotechnics, including “a rocket which spiraled upward toward the North Star, and released a parachute to which was attached a silken American flag.” At the July 4, 1923 “Klonklave at Kokomo,” made legendary by the arrival of D.C. Stephenson in a small airplane, over fifty thousand onlookers were treated to “boxing matches, pie-eating contests, a beautiful baby competition, a parade featuring Klansmen towering on twelve-foot stilts, and everywhere the extravagant display of American flags.” The Klan also became adept at the other form of spectacle: mass entertainment, the burgeoning technologies of radio, music, and film. The Klan not only arranged for screenings of The Birth of a Nation to attract members, but it also produced and distributed its own propaganda films, such as The Toll of Justice and The Traitor Within.
Yet another aspect of Klan community-building was Klannishness, the fostering of economic contacts between Klansmen in mutually beneficial business arrangements. In other words, good Klansmen were supposed to support one another’s business and hire each other for the provision of goods and services. In the Indiana realm, by far the best-organized realm thanks largely to the efforts of Grand Dragon Stephenson, official bulletin board directories connected Klansmen with each other, from architects, physicians, and veterinarians to contractors, plumbers, and electricians. The Klan also took great care to identify its enemies, the enemies of White Protestant America, organizing highly effective — if not devastating — boycotts against hostile businesses. More ambitious efforts to build banks and hospitals met with varying levels of success, but represented groundbreaking, laudable attempts at populist institution-building against unresponsive community elites.
By far the greatest lesson we may learn from the Second Klan is its stunning electoral and political success on the local community level, paired with its disastrous failure at the national level. We will focus here on the achievements of local klaverns, with the failures of the state and national Klans examined in the next section. As aforementioned, the Second Klan sought to inculcate its own long march through the institutions. Local klaverns understood that the greatest impact one can have on his people is possible at the local level, and developed highly effective community organizations to advance their own candidates for positions like mayor, sheriff, councilman, and superintendent. Just as local politics, from mayoral and sheriffs’ races to school board and prosecutorial races were their preoccupation, so too must they be our preoccupation. We can certainly dream of national restoration, but the more realistic course is to reconquer our land from the bottom up, seizing localities and forming autonomous enclaves that can eventually, with any fortune, unite into larger units.
That the Klan was so successful at the community level was a testament to its role as the vehicle for enacting the popular will against blind, deaf, ineffective, or malevolent elites. Kleagles tailored their recruiting appeals to fit the needs and concerns of each individual community. In some communities, the Invisible Empire was conjured to enforce prohibition and eradicate vice; in others, “elite resistance to road construction or upgrades to public schools became the issues around which klaverns took shape.” The Klan found fertile ground wherever there was White Protestant dissatisfaction with local or state government, and mastered the ability to channel that civic energy into electoral gains. Driven by the politics of public schools, law and order, and Christian morality, Klansmen were able to advance and elect slates of candidates across the nation.
This community-level electoral success was truly astounding, catapulting the Klan into a real force in American life for the few years of its peak between 1921 and 1925. While still nominally secret, Klan membership was in practice an open secret, including public officials, Protestant ministers, and enormous numbers of citizens both ordinary and prominent. In Monticello, Arkansas, for example, the Invisible Empire claimed as members the mayor, the city marshal, half the city council, the sheriff, the county school superintendent, the county clerk, the treasurer, the tax assessor, the coroner, and eleven of the fifteen male teachers and administrators at the local agricultural college. In Indiana, the Klan’s strongest realm by far, newspapers regularly advertised Klan events, and knights felt comfortable marching unhooded in public. As one former Klansman recalled, “Everyone was in the Klan.” Aside from its control over innumerable communities’ school policies, teacher appointments, law and moral enforcement, and public works departments, the Klan voted as a bloc to elect fellow knights and sympathizers to state legislatures and Governors’ mansions in Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and Oregon. Klan influence even reached Washington, D.C., with the election of hooded United States Senators in Texas and Colorado.
In Indiana, Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson assembled a well-oiled political machine that we truly must try to emulate. At his command, each klavern in the state maintained a political committee that investigated all candidates for local, county, and state office, determining aspirants’ ethnic background, religion, and fraternal associations, extending the same inquiries to the families of office-seekers; the klavern even kept records on candidates’ children, including the schools that they attended. They also recorded each candidate’s positions on key Klan issues, not the least of which was, of course, their position on the Invisible Empire. The klavern committees forwarded their data to state Klan officials, and slates of local, county, state, and national candidates were then drawn up and distributed to Klan members. Once the candidates had been screened and selected, the “military machine” organized the vote; these were the original “community organizers.”
Klan officials at the county, township, precinct, and block levels monitored support for Klan-backed candidates and helped direct the vote. Stephenson urged his officers to “diplomatically get such information to Protestant people in your county,” and knights distributed their electoral slates throughout White Protestant neighborhoods. In St. Joseph County, Klan leaders offered Protestant ministers honorary memberships, and, having gained access to the churches, placed their slates inside Sunday-school newsletters. On election eve, hooded knights fanned out to leave election editions of the Fiery Cross on the porch of each known Protestant voter. Ku Kluxers claimed to have distributed fifty thousand Klan slates overnight in South Bend alone. On election day, Pegram notes, “a nerve center serviced by a bank of telephones directed a fleet of two hundred automobiles to ferry Protestant voters to the polls while a band of Klanswomen volunteers stood at the ready to watch the children of ‘one-hundred-percent’ women while they voted.”
Where the Second Klan Went Wrong
Unfortunately, D.C. Stephenson’s Indiana machine was the exception. Elsewhere, the Klan did not operate so smoothly. The national Klan under the leadership of Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans was deluded, smitten with unrealistic visions of a Klan-controlled Congress and a hooded President. The national Ku Klux Klan thus lost sight of the forest for the trees, irredeemably compromising the civic communitarian ethos that had been wholly responsible for propelling the Second Klan to prominence. The Invisible Empire proved unable to reproduce its local success on the national or even state level, finding it much more difficult to control legislative bodies than to pack school boards and sheriffs’ offices. Part of this failure stemmed from the more practical inability to craft a workable legislative program.
At the state level, Pegram explains, “the promise of the Klan as an agent to restore White Protestant cultural values in public life was quickly tarnished.” Once elected to office, Klansmen and fellow-travelers “proved themselves to be incompetent amateurs easily outmaneuvered by veteran politicians. Moreover, Klan-backed candidates were no more trustworthy or upstanding as officeholders than their predecessors had been. They misbehaved, compromised on legislation, and ignored the demands of their constituents.” By the end of the 1925 legislative session,
the bright promise of mainstream political influence suggested by the Invisible Empire’s political thrusts in 1922 and 1923 turned to disappointment. Unlike the Ku Klux activists who shook up local communities by seizing control of school boards, law enforcement, and town councils, hooded legislators did not transform state governments into nodes of native-born White Protestant cultural assertiveness. Even in states considered Klan strongholds, legislatures failed to pass significant packages of Klan-approved laws. Instead, Klansmen politicians proved inept. . . even if eager to dole out patronage to hooded associates and indulge in fraternal power struggles.
The political ambitions of the Second Klan were exhausted and ruined during the 1924 Presidential election. At the Republican National Convention, the Party had planned to follow President Calvin Coolidge’s lead and remain totally silent on the Klan; the hotheaded editor of Indiana’s Klan newspaper, however, had other plans, demanding that the Republican Party select Senator James Watson as Coolidge’s running-mate. When Watson received the news, he cried: “My God, they have ruined me,” and disavowed the radioactive endorsement. Evans tried to walk back the endorsement but, somewhat uncharacteristically, bungled it. Had the Klan not attempted to be so assertive, this public relations disaster would never have occurred.
At the Democratic National Convention, tensions between pro- and anti-Klan delegates ran so high that many carried guns in their pockets. A minority attempted to pass a resolution to explicitly condemn the Klan, and, while it must be noted that the Invisible Empire was powerful enough to defeat this bid, the hooded victory was pyrrhic. The Democrats did pass a resolution condemning “any effort to arouse racial or religious dissension,” but the Klan having staved off a direct rebuke provoked a brawl on the convention floor and essentially destroyed the event, with police being called in to separate the warring factions. Imperial Wizard Evans portrayed the Democrats’ disarray as a triumph, yet, as Pegram remarks, “it was a strange victory to be censured, if not explicitly named, by formal statements from both political parties.”
Leaving aside the natural tension between secrecy and public advocacy, the problem with the attempted entry of the Second Klan into national politics was not in its ambitions, but rather in its naked tactlessness. Indeed, the Klan had to be political in nature, as its entire aim, and thus its entire appeal, was to craft and influence public policy along the lines of its planks. If the Klan could not deliver electoral gains, it could not achieve any lasting victories and thus would never have consolidated the power that its leaders and — more importantly — its members so desired. Political victory was the whole point of the order. With these disasters at both major political conventions, though, the Invisible Empire had thrown off its robe and permitted itself to be caught red-handed in the dirty act of striving for political power, shattering its mystique and thereby revealing itself to be far less formidable than the image that it had taken years to painstakingly cultivate.
Another significant factor in the fall of the Second Klan was the inescapable, inextricable connection that developed in the public mind between the Klan and violence. Though violence did indeed seem to follow the Klan, much of this was hyperinflated by sensational anti-Klan press coverage. Furthermore, a great amount, arguably a majority, of the violence that was attributed to the Klan was initiated by anti-Klan forces, much like the authorities-engineered violence in Charlottesville to smear, tar, and feather the contemporary Dissident Right. Catholics often appeared en masse to attack Klansmen at rallies, and full-scale anti-Klan riots broke out in Massachusetts and Ohio. In some cases, Klansmen were murdered; it didn’t matter that the Klan was rarely to blame for the violence, the public merely making the increasingly marginalized Klan synonymous with violence and disorder. To make matters worse than the reputational damage, anti-Klan violence also strained its members’ own loyalty and commitment to the hooded order.
On this note, we must again state that the Invisible Empire’s anti-Catholicism was incredibly short-sighted. Today, of course, the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism vanishes into the ether in the face of the apocalyptic nightmare that Jewish-led psycho-cultural warfare and immigration liberalism has created in our streets. Today, the issue is no longer White Protestant identity, but simply white identity. In the New Era of the early 1920s, however, there was no problem with Protestant chauvinism per se, and the papacy has indeed proven to be a pernicious influence; the issue is that anti-Catholicism consumed precious resources that would have been far better spent on combating burgeoning Jewish power. The 1920s may have been the last period in which this was possible, though the experience of Henry Ford does call this into question. Thus, Pegram makes the astute observation that the Americanism formulated and espoused by the Second Klan “defined whiteness too narrowly, failed to establish legitimate black threats to white supremacy that required measures beyond existing Jim Crow restrictions, and overplayed the xenophobic suspicion of American Catholics.”
Klan-initiated violence was rare, generally employed as a last resort. In any case, ample evidence does exist of violence perpetrated by the Klan. Contrary to popular opinion, however, the greatest share and brutality of the Invisible Empire’s violent vigilantism was not directed in any sustained pattern against blacks, Catholics, Jews, or immigrants, but rather against wayward White Protestants. In other words, the Second Klan devoted far more time to policing the morality of its own folk than to outsiders:
. . . Violations of anti-vice laws (mainly bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution) and transgressions against traditional moral standards (adultery, abdication of family responsibilities, defiance of parents, and sexual attachments across racial or ethnic lines) prompted intimidating visits from masked Klansmen, painful and humiliating punishment, and demands for reformed behavior or immediate departure from the community.
Pegram argues that the Klan’s introspective preoccupation with and intolerance for the moral failings of White Protestant community members was so much more likely to produce severe intervention because, as Klansmen endured alien attacks on normative White Protestant institutions, they increasingly feared “for the durability of their own cultural domination.” In other words, the Second Klan understood that only a strong, morally righteous community could withstand invasion, let alone combat and reassert supremacy over the alien. A people who have defeated themselves cannot defeat an enemy. One anti-Klan judge admitted that the knights stepped into police matters over which his office had no power, such as “the unfair but not criminal methods of slick crooks, the betrayals of women when more harm than good is done if the law is called in, the oppressions of moneylenders, [and] the laziness of men who let their children starve.” Where the churches refused to intervene, the Klan did not hesitate; as one Exalted Cyclops in Pennsylvania remarked: “They talked about morals in the churches, but if some young fellow got into trouble or some couple was about to get a divorce, the churches wouldn’t mess in it. We acted.”
Those who could not or would not “conform to the dictates of ideal family life were more likely to feel the sting of whips or the burning of hot tar applied by fearsome midnight assailants. Negligent parents, defiant children, and unfaithful spouses were common victims.” Pegram notes that one of the most vital elements of Ku Klux moral vigilantism was “the cultural sanction given to extralegal Klan methods by the White Protestant community…mistreated wives, worried parents, and desperate husbands implored the knights of the Invisible Empire to intervene on their behalf against family members or intimates who had acted badly.” Most of the time, Klansmen conferred with those who had been injured by cruel or irresponsible family members before launching their action. Knights protected White Protestant women from sexual exploitation while simultaneously regulating the sexual behavior of men and women, regularly patrolling lovers’ lanes. Klansmen who deserted or otherwise mistreated their families were banished, and hooded knights beat abusive husbands. In some towns, physicians suspected of carrying out infanticides were whipped, while in others, Klansmen stripped and beat White Protestant women whose sexual behavior “endangered the racial, ethnic, or religious integrity of Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture.” In Oklahoma, knights castrated a man who had committed incest against his daughter after he escaped conviction in court.
The major organizational issue that exposed the Second Klan to vulnerability was internal dissension; stated differently, petty egoism and power feuds brought the organization to its knees. Key to this issue was “the basic tension between the Ku Klux Klan as a hierarchical, national organization and the locally-based, decentralized phenomenon of the Klan as a social movement.” Community-focused, grassroots knights “had only a dim perception of the national body.” For a Klansman in Denver, the realm of Colorado was the only Klan he had anything to do with. Klankraft intrigue at the national level demoralized the rank-and-file. The two marketing promoters who constituted the Southern Publicity Association had basically swindled William Simmons out of the control of his own organization, and for all intents and purposes regarded the Invisible Empire primarily as a commercial enterprise. While there certainly was the occasional charlatan or narcissist in their midst, the overwhelming majority of Klansmen truly did believe in the Klan’s moral mission, and strove to build their “benevolent fellowship that would clean up local politics, enforce the law, save the public schools, and defend Americanism.”
Amid growing disgust with the two promoters who operated the Southern Publicity Association, compounded by evidence of their serious financial and sexual misconduct, Hiram Evans initiated a coup at the national Klonvocation, deposing William Simmons as Imperial Wizard. These power politics dominated the national office, and many of the state offices, for the remainder of the order’s tenure. As Pegram explains: “State and local Klan organizations were pulled into and split apart by the elite power struggles in the Invisible Empire, while ordinary Klansmen by the hundreds of thousands were alienated by the tawdry display of high-level Klankraft in action.”
Dissension eventually came to consume local klaverns, so much so that by 1924, one Iowa knight positioned himself near the door at meetings to escape more easily when conflict inevitably escalated. Power intrigues are perhaps an inescapable facet of human nature, but we may certainly mitigate them by adopting such principles as the Führerprinzip of the Third Reich.
This incident with the Southern Publicity Association leads us to the final death knell for the Second Klan: moral hypocrisy. As aforementioned, Indiana and Colorado were the Invisible Empire’s greatest power centers. The realm of Colorado collapsed after scandal ruined Grand Dragon John Locke; Locke had used his own medical office to browbeat a teenage knight into a forced marriage, threatening him with castration. The outgoing Denver District Attorney charged the Klan leader with kidnapping and conspiracy, a situation that may have been survivable were it not for a rival within the Klan, a United States Senator who was angry that Locke had not adequately supported him in his race. This rival initiated a tax investigation which revealed that the Grand Dragon had not filed income tax for a decade. Imperial Wizard Evans then stepped in to depose Locke, and the realm disintegrated amidst the ensuing power struggle.
The demise of the realm of Indiana was far more spectacular. Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, though extremely effective and arguably the most powerful man in the State of Indiana, was an ideologically-uncommitted opportunist with a known penchant for liquor and vulgar sexuality, behaviors that could not have stood in starker contrast against the Protestant values promulgated by the Invisible Empire. On several occasions, the drunken Stephenson had attempted to violently assault women or had been discovered in compromising sexual circumstances by policemen. In March 1925, as the Klan’s political program unraveled, a young office worker named Madge Oberholtzer suffered a grotesque, truly horrific rape aboard an overnight train to Chicago. The young woman fled the train and attempted to commit suicide by ingesting a prodigious quantity of bichloride of mercury tablets; she eventually succeeded, after lingering in agony for a month. In her dying declaration, she pointed to D.C. Stephenson as the culprit, detailing the attack.
Authorities supposedly matched Stephenson’s teeth to the numerous bites that had been inflicted upon the poor girl, and prosecutors charged the embattled Grand Dragon with murder, based on the admittedly spurious theory that the woman had died not from her suicide attempt, but rather from infections that had arisen from the vicious bites. Stephenson was convicted of murder in the second degree, and sentenced to life in prison. He would eventually be paroled in 1956, and died ten years later.
In 1940, Stephenson supporters published a book, So They Framed Stephenson, arguing several compelling theories that the Indiana Grand Dragon had indeed been framed; though his sexual reputation is fairly damning, it bears noting that Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans hated the man. Evans was known to have used compromising photographs to blackmail other Klan leaders, and, prior to the Oberholtzer incident, Stephenson’s yacht had been blown sky high under mysterious circumstances. After the woman’s funeral, parties unknown torched his home. Claims later surfaced that Evans had threatened witnesses in the case, one of whom was found murdered. In any case, though, Pegram emphasizes that “neither the national Klan nor Stephenson’s many [so-called] friends in government made a move to secure a pardon for the onetime personification of the law in Indiana.”
As D.C. Stephenson toppled from power, “the disgraced Grand Dragon pulled the Indiana Klan down with him.” He was particularly enraged by his abandonment at the hands of Indiana Governor Edward Jackson, whom he had mobilized the Klan to support. In revenge, Stephenson opened his black box to the press, revealing his contract with Indianapolis Mayor John Duvall, a string of checks that supported the election of Governor Jackson, and information that linked Jackson and other state GOP officials with the attempted bribery of the former Governor. The state indicted Governor Jackson, Mayor Duvall, the Chairman of the Marion County Republican Party, and an attorney; several other Republican officeholders resigned after being exposed for having taken bribes from Stephenson. The biggest loser, however, was the Indiana Klan. Amid another power struggle initiated by Evans, the Indiana Klan, the crown jewel of the Invisible Empire, crumbled into dust.
In the wake of the debacles at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, failure to achieve any real legislative gains in Klan-dominated states like Indiana and Colorado, the persistent violence committed against Klansmen, and the personal moral failures of its national and state leaders, the Second Klan, riven with schisms at every level, died. As its political influence tumbled headlong into the abyss, so too did its membership rolls, taking its public legitimacy along with it. Though the Klan might have contributed to the zeitgeist that gave rise to the passage of the 1924 National Origins Act, that legislation was a half-measure that fell far short of the Invisible Empire’s wishes; thus, the Ku Klux Klan “failed to codify its version of White Protestant Americanism into law. Instead, assertions of White Protestant solidarity began to retreat to the klavern itself [and] became expressions of cultural preference and fellowship within the fraternal walls of the Klan’s shrinking empire.”
Though it had been stunningly effective as an expression of grassroots sentiment at the community level, the national Klan allowed itself to become disconnected from its knights and their communities, excising the beating heart that had given it such vitality. The Invisible Empire was thus simultaneously firmly situated within the White Protestant mainstream and without it, in an ever-increasingly pluralistic and syncretistic culture. Pegram argues that “Ku Kluxers never comfortably occupied the mainstream because the Invisible Empire aroused bitter contemporary opposition and denunciation. Anti-Klan sentiment extended beyond the groups specifically targeted by the Klan to the White Protestant establishment itself. Immediate and sustained criticism of the organization’s secrecy, masks, and vigilantism was evident throughout the New Era. Several states took action to banish the Klan or passed anti-mask laws to break up its public events. Even in an age when assumptions of white supremacy, unembarrassed ethnic chauvinism, and religious intolerance toward Catholics and Jews were commonplace, the Klan’s expression of these themes was deemed incendiary and objectionable.” Nevertheless, it is a powerful testament to the significance of the Second Ku Klux Klan as a populist social movement that millions of ordinary Americans chose to articulate their hopes and dreams through the Invisible Empire.
The bright fiery cross was a threat to disorder, immorality, and alienism, to Catholics, bootleggers, alcoholics, unfaithful spouses, whores, blacks, Jews, and immigrants, along with corrupt and ineffective politicians. But the bright fiery cross was so much more, serving as a beacon, a standard behind which White Protestants could align, rally, and fight. As one Klansman declared, “America must not only be saved for Americans, but by Americans.” And, whatever his personal failings, Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans understood that native whites, the descendants of the pioneers, possessed the unassailable “prior right to control America” over any other group. It was “undebatable” that “the white race must be supreme, not only in America but in the world.” A popular slogan of the Second Klan read “We are here today, tomorrow, and forever.” Shall we fulfill this promise? What are we willing to sacrifice, to forgo?
Recuperating from an automobile accident, Imperial Wizard William Simmons wrote the motto for the reorganized Ku Klux Klan, a mixture of Latin and Gothic: “Non Silba Sed Anthar.” Not for self, but for others.
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