[Marxism] Ku Klux Klambakes

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 19 09:38:53 MST 2017


NY Review of Books, DECEMBER 7, 2017 ISSUE
Ku Klux Klambakes
by Adam Hochschild

The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the 
American Political Tradition
by Linda Gordon
Liveright, 272 pp., $27.95

Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s
by Felix Harcourt
University of Chicago Press, 272 pp., $45.00

Most of us who grow up in the United States learn a reassuring narrative 
of ever-expanding tolerance. Yes, the country’s birth was tainted with 
the original sin of slavery, but Lincoln freed the slaves, the Supreme 
Court desegregated schools, and we finally elected a black president. 
The Founding Fathers may have all been men, but in their wisdom they 
created a constitution that would later allow women to gain the vote. 
And now the legal definition of marriage has broadened to include gays 
and lesbians. We are, it appears, an increasingly inclusive nation.

But a parallel, much darker river runs through American history. The 
Know Nothing Party of the 1850s viciously attacked Catholics and 
immigrants. Eugenics enthusiasts of the early twentieth century warned 
about the nation’s gene pool being polluted by ex-slaves, the feeble 
minded, and newcomers of inferior races. In the 1930s, 16 million 
Americans regularly listened to the anti-Semitic radio rants of Father 
Charles E. Coughlin.

The most notorious of all the currents in this dark river has been the 
Ku Klux Klan. It flourished first in the South after the Civil War, 
lynching and terrorizing African-Americans who tried to vote, and then 
gradually disbanded in the early 1870s under pressure from the federal 
government. After a long spell of quiescence, it reemerged into national 
prominence in the 1920s, reaching an all-time peak membership in 1924—a 
year, incidentally, that saw the dedication of various Confederate 
memorials, including the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, 
Virginia, whose planned removal was the pretext for the “Unite the 
Right” rally there in August. After another eclipse, the Klan roared 
back to life a third time in protest against the civil rights movement 
of the 1960s. Among other acts of violence, Klansmen took part in the 
murder of three voter registration workers near Philadelphia, 
Mississippi, in the summer of 1964—James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and 
Andrew Goodman.

All along, of course, even while sticking to rhetoric of tolerance and 
inclusion, politicians have made winks and nods toward that dark river 
of which the Klan is a part. Richard Nixon had his Southern Strategy. 
Running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan sent an unmistakable 
message by giving a speech about states’ rights near Philadelphia, 
Mississippi. George H.W. Bush used the notorious Willie Horton campaign 
commercial. And now suddenly, it’s no longer just winks and nods. Only 
when pressed by a reporter did Donald Trump in early 2016 reluctantly 
disavow the support of Klan leader David Duke. “David Duke endorsed me? 
O.K., all right. I disavow, O.K.?” Then as president he outraged people 
around the world by equating antiracist protesters with the unsavory 
brew of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Klan members who gathered at 
Charlottesville, declaring that there were “some very fine people on 
both sides.” One of the least fine among the right-wingers rammed his 
car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing one and injuring many 
others. Once again, it seems, the Klan is elbowing its way back into 
American public life.

The first and third incarnations of the Klan—the cross-burning lynch 
mobs and the vigilantes who beat up and murdered civil rights workers in 
the 1960s—seem beyond the pale of today’s politics, at least for the 
moment. But the second Klan, the Klan of the 1920s, less violent but far 
more widespread, is a different story, and one that offers some chilling 
comparisons to the present day. It embodied the same racism at its core 
but served it up beneath a deceptively benign façade, in all-American 
patriotic colors.

In other ways as well, the Klan of the 1920s strongly echoes the world 
of Donald Trump. This Klan was a movement, but also a profit-making 
business. On economic issues, it took a few mildly populist stands. It 
was heavily supported by evangelicals. It was deeply hostile to science 
and trafficked in false assertions. And it was masterfully guided by a 
team of public relations advisers as skillful as any political 
consultants today.

Two new books give us a fresh look at this second period of the Klan. 
Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK is the wiser and deeper; 
Felix Harcourt’s Ku Klux Kulture offers some useful background 
information but then, reflecting its origin as a Ph.D. thesis, becomes 
an exhaustive survey of Klansmen’s appearances, variously as heroes or 
villains, in the era’s novels, movies, songs, plays, musicals, and more.

The KKK’s rebirth was spurred by D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film, 
Birth of a Nation. The most expensive and widely seen motion picture 
that had yet been made, it featured rampaging mobs of newly freed slaves 
in the post–Civil War South colluding with rapacious northern 
carpetbaggers. To the rescue comes the Ku Klux Klan, whose armed and 
mounted heroes lynch a black villain, save the honor of southern 
womanhood, and prevent the ominous prospect of blacks at the ballot box. 
“It is like teaching history with lightning,” said an admiring President 
Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist, who saw the film in the White 
House. Wilson’s comment underlines a point both Gordon and Harcourt 
make: the Klan of this era was no fringe group, for tens of millions of 
nonmembers agreed with its politics.

The founder of the reincarnated Klan in 1915 was an Atlanta physician 
named William Joseph Simmons, who five years later fell into the hands 
of two skilled public relations professionals, Elizabeth Tyler and 
Edward Young Clarke. They convinced him that for the Klan to gain 
members in other parts of the country, it had to add Jews, Catholics, 
immigrants, and big-city elites to its list of villains. Tyler and 
Clarke in effect ran the KKK for the next several years, a pair of 
Bannons to Simmons’s Trump.

Simmons signed a contract giving the two an amazing 80 percent of dues 
and other revenue gleaned from new recruits. They are believed to have 
reaped $850,000—worth more than $11 million today—in their first fifteen 
months on the job. The whole enterprise was organized on a commission 
basis: everyone from the recruiters, or Kleagles, up through higher 
officers (King Kleagles, Grand Goblins, and more) kept a percentage of 
the initiation fee ($10, the equivalent of $122 today) and monthly dues. 
The movement was a highly lucrative brand.

Tyler and Clarke polished Simmons’s speaking style and set up newspaper 
interviews for him, gave free Klan memberships to Protestant ministers, 
and assured prominent placement of their blizzard of press releases by 
buying tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of newspaper advertising. To 
appear respectable, they made these purchases through two well-known ad 
agencies, one of which had a Jewish CEO. Simmons, however, spent much of 
his share of the take on horse races, prizefights, and drink. Several 
rivals who lusted after the KKK’s lucrative income stream maneuvered him 
out of office with the help of Tyler and Clarke.

A plump, diminutive Texas dentist, Hiram Evans, became the new Imperial 
Wizard in 1922. He, in turn, his eye on Tyler and Clarke’s 80 percent of 
revenues, was able to force them out because of a scandal—the two were 
sexually involved but each was married to someone else. Linda Gordon 
gives Tyler major credit for the Klan’s success: “The organization might 
well have grown without this driven, bold, corrupt, and precociously 
entrepreneurial woman, but it would likely have been smaller.” About 
other women in the Klan, such as one group called Ladies of the 
Invisible Empire, Gordon dryly notes, “Readers…must rid themselves of 
notions that women’s politics are always kinder, gentler, and less 
racist than men’s.”

Significantly, the new Wizard moved the Klan’s headquarters to 
Washington, D.C. Membership skyrocketed, reaching an estimated four 
million by 1924. The revenue remained enormous: beyond dues, there were 
sales of Klan insurance, knives, trinkets, and garb. Those robes and 
pointed hoods were made to an exacting pattern, sold at a big markup, 
and, until his ouster, could only be purchased from a company owned by 
Clarke. The temptations of this fountain of money led to further 
rivalries and embezzlement, compounded by the conviction of several Klan 
leaders for various sordid offenses, most spectacularly the Indiana 
Grand Dragon for the rape and murder of a young woman who worked for 
him—a crime that left his bite marks all over her body. All of this made 
the Klan largely collapse by the end of the decade—but not before it had 
helped win an enormous legislative victory, and not before there 
occurred a curious episode involving the Trump family.

Before we get to that, however, there’s another odd parallel between the 
Klan of the 1920s and the present day, which has to do with the sheer 
value of getting attention in the media. Many newspapers campaigned 
against the KKK, and no less than five such exposés won Pulitzer Prizes. 
The first was for an excoriating series of stories in the New York World 
in 1921 that revealed secret Klan rituals and code words, gave the names 
of more than two hundred officials, and listed violent crimes committed 
by Klansmen. The heavily promoted articles ran for three weeks, were 
reprinted by seventeen newspapers throughout the country, and provoked a 
congressional investigation. But instead of crushing the organization, 
the exposé did the opposite; one historian estimates that the series 
increased Klan membership by more than a million. Some people even tried 
to join by filling out the blank membership application form the World 
had used to illustrate one story.

Being denounced by a liberal New York newspaper, it turned out, gave the 
Klan just the political imprimatur it needed, and spread the news of its 
rebirth across the nation. Imperial Wizard Evans exulted that the 
exposés had provided “fifty million dollars’ worth of free advertising.” 
People loved the idea of joining a fraternal organization with secret 
rites and extravagant titles that included judges, congressmen, and 
other prominent citizens, and that legitimized combat against the forces 
that seemed to be undermining traditional American life.

What were those forces? Movements heavy on ethnic hatred and imagined 
conspiracies flourish when rapid changes upset the social order and 
people feel their income or status threatened. In the heyday of European 
fascism, the threat came from the enormous job losses of the Great 
Depression, which in Germany followed the humiliating Versailles Treaty 
and ruinous inflation that wiped out savings. Among many of Trump’s 
supporters today, the threat comes from stagnating or declining wages 
and the rapid automation and globalization that makes people feel their 
jobs are ever less secure.

We don’t normally think of the heady, expanding American economy of the 
1920s as a period of threat, but Gordon offers a broader cultural and 
feminist analysis. “The Klan supplied a way for members to confirm 
manliness,” she writes, in an era when many traditional male roles were 
disappearing. “As more men became white-collar workers, as more small 
businesses lost out to chains, as the political supremacy of 
Anglo-Saxons became contested, as more women reached for economic and 
political rights,” the Klan “organized the performances of masculinity 
and male bonding through uniforms, parades, rituals, secrecy, and 
hierarchical military ranks and titles.” She quotes an admonition from 
one Oregon chapter: “Remember when you come to lodge that this is not an 
old maid’s convention.” A man who by day might be an accountant or 
stationery salesman or have a wife who earned more than he did could, in 
his Klan robes, be a Kleagle or Klaliff or Exalted Cyclops by night.

Not all Klan members were men, of course, and the Klan was not the only 
organization that offered ceremonial dress and fancy titles: it’s 
telling that the first place Klan recruiters usually sought members was 
among Masons. But Gordon’s is a thoughtful explanation of the Klan’s 
appeal in the fast-urbanizing America of the 1920s, which was leaving 
behind an earlier nation based, in imagined memory, on self-sufficient 
yeoman farmers, proud blue-collar workers, and virtuous small-town 
businessmen, all of them going to the same white-steepled church on 
Sunday. It was a world in which men did traditionally manly work and 
women’s place was in the kitchen and bedroom. Even city-dwellers—perhaps 
especially city-dwellers—could feel this nostalgia. (Although, as with 
many idealized pasts, the reality was less ideal: many 
late-nineteenth-century farmers and small businessmen went bankrupt or 
deep into debt, casualties of a string of recessions and declining world 
commodity prices.)

All these feelings, of course, came on top of centuries of racism. And 
that hostility was surely exacerbated during the 1920s when the Great 
Migration of African-Americans out of the South was well underway, 
making black faces visible to millions who had seldom or never seen them 
before.

Demagogic movements prey on such anxieties by identifying scapegoats. 
One of the revived Klan’s targets is familiar to us from today’s 
demagogues: immigrants. By 1890, the ships streaming past the Statue of 
Liberty to Ellis Island were bringing people from new places, mainly 
southern and eastern Europe: Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, especially in 
the Russian Empire, Polish and Italian Catholics, and a continuing flow 
of immigrants from Catholic Ireland. The Klan wanted these new arrivals 
cut off and such immigrants already here to be deported.

This paranoia toward immigrants blended easily with the hostility to 
Catholics and Jews that many Americans already shared. Henry Ford 
circulated the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion; Klan 
officials, early experts in fake news, concocted similar forgeries about 
Catholic plots to take bloody vengeance on all Protestants. To WASP Klan 
members, Catholics seemed threatening because Irish political machines 
had taken control of many cities in the Northeast and Midwest. The pope 
was suspect because his was an international empire, based outside the 
United States. To make things even more un-American, mass was conducted 
in Latin, and many Catholics and Jews spoke foreign languages at home. 
In an apparently populist gesture, the Klan advocated more spending on 
public schools and libraries, but this was interwoven with demands to 
ban parochial schools.

Jews, of course, had been convenient scapegoats for centuries, and their 
prominence in banking, in the eyes of the Klan and many others, meant 
that they surely had had a sinister hand in causing the financial panics 
that affected millions of Americans so painfully between 1890 and 1914. 
Furthermore, Jews were undermining American morals through their control 
of Hollywood, tempting people out of Protestant church pews and into 
movie theaters. The Klan was particularly enraged by a 1923 silent film, 
The Pilgrim, in which Charlie Chaplin appeared as a hypocritical 
minister. A stream of manufactured stories in Klan publications also 
accused Jews of masterminding the white slave trade. And if you should 
want proof that Jews could never be assimilated in America, it was right 
there in the Bible: Jonah emerged from his ordeal whole, indigestible 
even by the whale.

 From Jewish bankers and movie moguls it was a short step to another set 
of Klan villains: big-city “elites” who tried to dictate to 
salt-of-the-earth true Americans how they should live. These elites 
were, according to one Klansman quoted by Gordon, “a cosmopolitan 
intelligentsia devoted to foreign creeds and ethnic identities…without 
moral standards.” Another wrote, “The Nordic American today is a 
stranger in…the land his fathers gave him.” And of course, every 
condemnation of the Klan by a big-city intellectual merely confirmed 
this feeling. The Klan also hated professional boxing (in the 1920s 
dominated by Jews and Catholics), jazz (blacks), and Broadway show tunes 
(Jews); Klan members attacked dance halls and were suspects in the 
burning down of a Maryland boxing arena. Another point of controversy, 
inflamed by the 1925 Scopes trial, was evolution, seen as a Jewish and 
highbrow conspiracy to undermine Christian doctrine; the Klan pushed for 
state laws against teaching it. On this issue, and on many others, 
evangelical churches were important KKK allies.

In the South, the revived Klan stuck to its traditional vigilantism: 
lynchings of black Americans continued, sometimes several dozen a year. 
And on occasion violence spread to the North: in 1925, for example, Klan 
members on horseback attacked the Omaha home of Reverend Earl Little, an 
organizer for Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement. Little wasn’t 
home, but his pregnant wife and three children were. The Klansmen 
galloped around the house with flaming torches and shattered all the 
windows. In Michigan, where the family moved after the baby was born, 
vigilantes burned their house to the ground. The baby grew up to become 
Malcolm X.

Most of the time, however, in the northern states where the 1920s Klan 
thrived—its highest per capita membership was in Indiana and Oregon—it 
presented a less violent face. In 1925 forty-six chartered trains 
brought some 30,000 Klansmen to the nation’s capital, where they marched 
down Pennsylvania Avenue (robes and hoods, but no masks) and held a 
rally at the Washington Monument. The next day they laid wreaths on the 
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and on the grave of William Jennings Bryan, 
who had argued against evolution at the Scopes trial. You can see film 
of the march on YouTube, with the Capitol building in the background.

Following in the public relations tradition inaugurated by Tyler and 
Clarke, the Klan mixed its arcane midnight rituals with everything from 
Klambakes to a Klan summer resort to the Klan Haven orphanage in 
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It sponsored sports tournaments for all ages, 
Bible study groups, gun clubs, and children’s camps, and had its own 
auto-racing stadium in Denver. Baseball, the ultimate American 
small-town game, was the most popular Klan sport, and in Wichita in 
1925, Klan players even took on, and lost to, a local semipro all-black 
team. One year later, in Washington, D.C., another Klan team played the 
Hebrew All-Stars. It was masterful PR: who could accuse such an 
organization of being prejudiced?

All of these activities ensured plentiful newspaper coverage: Klan 
parades, beauty contests, minstrel shows, picnics, and even midnight 
Klonklaves (to enhance the aura of mystery, photographers were kept at a 
distance). Like it or hate it, readers were hungry for such news, and 
the result, writes Harcourt, was that an “odd kind of legitimacy” was 
“tacitly bestowed on the Klan.” The newly launched Time put Imperial 
Wizard Evans on its cover in 1924. The Klan also had an extensive press 
of its own: the weekly Kourier published sixteen state editions and 
claimed a readership of 1.5 million—although such numbers were usually 
inflated. Sympathizers controlled two radio stations, both, 
incidentally, in New York City. Klan members were a significant enough 
demographic that businesses found it worthwhile to come up with names 
like Kountry Kitchen or Kwik Kar Wash or to merely advertise themselves 
as “100% American.”

The Klan of the 1920s went to great lengths to polish its image because 
its real mission, aside from lining the pockets of its leaders, was in 
electoral politics. And here it was highly influential. In 1924 the 
organization mobilized hundreds of Protestant clergymen across the 
country whose sermons helped deny the Democratic presidential nomination 
to New York Governor Al Smith, a Catholic and vocal Klan opponent. 
Twenty thousand people attended an anti-Smith cross-burning in New 
Jersey two weeks before the Democratic convention. And in 1928, when 
Smith did get nominated, Klan opposition doubtless added to the margin 
by which he lost the general election to Herbert Hoover.

In alliance with other groups, the Klan won major victories on the state 
level. One of its causes, for instance, was eugenics laws, which allowed 
the forcible sterilization of those of “defective stock”—who all too 
often turned out to be nonwhite. Some thirty states adopted such 
legislation. In Oregon, KKK member Kaspar K. Kubli (the Klan was so 
delighted by his initials that it exempted him from dues) was speaker of 
the house. “For ten years, 1922 to 1932,” writes Gordon, “the majority 
of all Oregon’s elected officials were Klansmen, and opposition was so 
weak that Klansmen ran against one another.” In the mid-1920s, the 
majority of representatives elected to Congress from Texas, Colorado, 
and Indiana were Klan members, as were two justices of the US Supreme 
Court. Texas Congressman Hatton Sumners, a member, used his position as 
chair of the House Judiciary Committee to try to block an anti-lynching 
law. Sixteen senators and eleven governors in all were Klansmen, divided 
almost equally between Democrats and Republicans. From Wilson through 
Hoover, no president disavowed the Klan.

In 1924 came the great triumph of the Klan and its allies: harsh new 
immigration limits that virtually excluded Asians from moving to the 
United States, sharply reduced the number of immigrants admitted, and 
set national quotas ensuring that the great majority of them would come 
from the British Isles or Germany. (The quotas were cleverly based on 
what the ethnic origins of the American population had been in 
1890—before the height of immigration from southern and eastern Europe.) 
This law, the Johnson-Reed Act, was sponsored by Congressman Albert 
Johnson of Washington State, whom Gordon calls a Klansman. Others are 
less certain of his actual membership, but in any event he was ardently 
supported by the Klan, and the law bearing his name helped shape the 
country for forty years to come.)

Sometimes what doesn’t happen is revealing. If upheavals that threaten 
people’s jobs and status provide the classic fuel for movements like the 
KKK, then in the 1930s, when the Depression threw a quarter of the 
American labor force out of work and left hundreds of thousands living 
in shacks of scrap wood and tarpaper, why didn’t the Klan come back to 
life stronger than ever? One answer is that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New 
Deal, despite its shortcomings, was a far-reaching and impassioned 
attempt to address the nation’s economic woes and injustices head-on, 
with a boldness we’ve not seen since then. It gave people hope. Another 
answer is that although FDR made many compromises with southern 
Democrats to get his programs through Congress, he was no racist. The 
more outspoken Eleanor Roosevelt was a fervent proponent of 
anti-lynching laws and of full rights for black Americans. The tone set 
by the White House matters; it creates moral space for others to speak 
and act. Perhaps it’s no surprise that these were years when the Klan 
lay low.

In all three of its historical incarnations, the KKK had many allies, 
not all of whom wanted to dress up in pointed hoods and hold ceremonies 
at night. But such public actions always have an echo. “The Klan did not 
invent bigotry,” Linda Gordon writes, “…[but] making its open expression 
acceptable has significant additional impact.” Those burning crosses 
legitimated the expression of hatred, and exactly the same can be said 
of presidential tweets today.

She ends her book by writing, “The Klannish spirit—fearful, angry, 
gullible to sensationalist falsehoods, in thrall to demagogic leaders 
and abusive language, hostile to science and intellectuals, committed to 
the dream that everyone can be a success in business if they only 
try—lives on.” One intriguing episode links the Klan of ninety years ago 
to us now. On Memorial Day 1927, a march of some one thousand Klansmen 
through the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York, turned into a 
brawl with the police. Several people wearing Klan hoods, either 
marching in the parade or sympathizers cheering from the sidelines, were 
charged with disorderly conduct, and one with “refusing to disperse.” 
Although the charge against the latter was later dropped, his name was 
mentioned in several newspaper accounts of the fracas. Beneath the hood 
was Fred Trump, the father of Donald.*

*
This story first surfaced briefly some two years ago, but drew little 
attention since Donald Trump—who, characteristically, denied 
everything—was not yet the Republican presidential nominee. The most 
thorough account is Mike Pearl’s “All the Evidence We Could Find About 
Fred Trump’s Alleged Involvement with the KKK,” Vice, March 10, 2016. ↩
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:)



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