Klan Nation: A history of the KKK we were doomed to repeat

In historian Linda Gordon's "The Second Coming of the KKK," we hear echoes of an American past that isn't dead

By Erin Keane

Chief Content Officer

Published October 25, 2017 4:59AM (EDT)

A Ku Klux Klan meeting in Beaufort, South Carolina, May 24, 1965. (Getty Images)
A Ku Klux Klan meeting in Beaufort, South Carolina, May 24, 1965. (Getty Images)

Images of the Ku Klux Klan, forefather of the many white supremacist hate groups that are active and becoming emboldened in America today, often focus on two terror-filled epochs: the group’s genesis during Reconstruction, formed to prevent through violence the gains black Americans stood to make in the former Confederate states during the post-Civil War era, and the mid-20th century third wave that arose in the American South in backlash to the fight for civil rights.

Callbacks to these periods — in particular, the most recent surge, as its cross-burning terroristic threats, brutal mob violence, collusion with authorities and high-profile assassinations were well-chronicled by modern media — creates a portrait of the Klansman as a vicious, secretive, uncontrolled evil redneck, easy to spot even without his hood and just as easy for “respectable” folks to disavow. This is one way the Klan became virtually synonymous with American racism, which is to say that acts and systems perpetuated outside of the KKK brand of hooded lynch mobs and bombings were then downplayed and dismissed by those who wanted to believe — despite all evidence to the contrary — that the age of organized hate was behind us.

After all, the Klan itself is diminished today, or at least its public face is. A June 2017 Virginia KKK rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, drew about 50 on the Klan side, according to CNN, while counter-protesters numbered around 1,000. That’s good news, right? But if Americans doubted that other brands of white supremacy were active and actively recruiting in the 21st century before this summer, the Rally to Unite the Right, held two months later in the same historic college town, dispelled that. White nationalist groups, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists showed up armed and belligerent, and many people were injured. The day culminated in deadly violence when a man from Ohio, James Alex Fields Jr., who was photographed with the white supremacist group Vanguard America earlier that day, rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others.

The ostensible purpose of the Unite the Right rally was to protest Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee and rename Lee Park as Emancipation Park. Communities across the country have been grappling with the placement of memorials to the Confederacy, many of which were erected during the 1910s and ‘20s. This public debate, too, has bewildered those who want to believe that the philosophy of racial oppression that underwrote the Confederate secession and led to the Civil War is ancient history.

So historian Linda Gordon’s illuminating new book, “The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan and the American Political Tradition,” arrives at an opportune time. Gordon’s book is a must-read for anyone wondering over the last several months how we ended up as a country — with the first African-American president not even a year out of office — facing a group of golf shirt-wearing young white men marching onto the campus of a prestigious university carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us,” a president who has demonized Mexicans and other immigrants, and unabashed white nationalist ideology from the likes of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka at work in the White House. Gordon documents not only the mechanics of how the Ku Klux Klan roared back to power, both socially and politically, in the 1920s but why. The parallels between then and now, branding differences aside, could not be more evident.

First, as Gordon writes, "If we are to understand this second coming of the Klan, we must surrender some of our preconceptions about it”:

Those come mainly from the first Ku Klux Klan, established after the Civil War as a secret fraternity with the aim of reimposing servitude on African Americans after the end of slavery. Its tools were lynchings, torture, and other forms of terrorism designed to inhibit any challenge to white supremacy.

By contrast, the KKK of the 1920s was stronger in the North than in the South, and the scope of its hate widened beyond African-Americans to also encompass Jews and immigrants — targeted, too, by the far right today — in addition to Catholics and bootleggers. The group moved out of the shadows of midnight meetings onto Main Street; they posted recruitment notices in newspapers and made other overt public relations efforts, sponsored community picnics and parades held in broad daylight and waged successful political campaigns. At its height, this iteration of the Klan boasted a national membership of 4 million to 6 million Americans.

Middle-class whites, and those who aspired to join their ranks, eyed membership in this new incarnation of the Klan as a business networking opportunity and even a ticket into the middle class. There were women’s auxiliaries and children’s programming. The regalia and secret ceremonies became normalized, presented as nothing more nor less than the trappings of any other segregated social fraternal lodge. Of course, the violence never actually went away. As Gordon points out, especially in states that “were as much southern as northern,” such as southern Illinois and Indiana, lynchings, tar-and-featherings and whippings were common.

In Arkansas City, Kansas, Klansmen invaded "Darktown" and kidnapped a black man who, they claimed, stole suitcases from the train station, and hung him until he "confessed," then forced him to leave town forever.

Oklahoma law officers sometimes handed suspects over to Klan whipping parties or even participated in the beatings. In Kansas, Klansmen abducted an anti-Klan mayor, tied him to a tree, and "laid thirty stripes on his bare back."

In Steubenville, Ohio, masked Klansmen attacked a meeting of the Sons of Italy and shot two men to death.

The daytime respectability of the Klan during this era merely served as a shield for its violent acts of terror.

Shedding our preconceptions of what a white supremacist or white nationalist looks like, talks like and acts like is necessary for understanding the 21st-century incarnations, too, especially when it comes to combating the racist and anti-immigrant sentiments peddled by the “alt-right” that helped fuel Donald Trump’s rise to power and have helped to mainstream hatred for black activists, immigrants, Muslims and other minorities. In 2017, the hoods and robes have been exchanged for business casual or neo-Nazi gear, and the picnics have been replaced in part by internet message boards and Twitter threads. Yet the recruitment tactics, the messaging of grievance and the hatred for those who aren’t white, Christian, native-born Americans are distressingly similar.

To begin with, it shouldn’t surprise any journalist working today that the appetites of the press helped the second wave of the Klan grow. Gordon recounts a quote from Bessie Tyler, one of the massively successful publicists hired on commission to sign up new members: “The minute we said Ku Klux,” Tyler said, “editors from all over the United States began literally pressing us for publicity.” So they sent out press releases and passed “exclusives” to journalists, which sold papers and, as it turned out, Klan memberships. Meanwhile, Gordon points out, critics erroneously believed that “merely exposing the Klan would isolate and shrink it."

That folly was demonstrated when in 1921 the New York World newspaper published a series of investigative reports on the KKK by a disaffected former Klansman, including an official list of its recruiters; the articles were syndicated and published simultaneously in newspapers throughout the country. The reporters and editors expected these revelations of KKK bigotry and vigilantism to put an end to its revival. Instead they generated a large increase in its membership, signs of the any-publicity-is-good-publicity effect and of the welcome its ideas received.

As media outlets found by airing every hateful remark Donald Trump made during the 2016 election -- rhetoric that helped embolden white nationalists and supremacist hate groups -- sometimes sunlight is a disinfectant and sometimes it’s a growth agent.

Gordon notes that criticism of the KKK from scholars and intellectuals, who branded the Klan’s rise as “the inane hysteria of uneducated, lowbrow hicks,” merely fueled the populist anger directed toward secular liberals and “cosmopolitan, highbrow urbanites” — despite the fact that between 1915 and 1930 half of active Klan members lived in cities — adding another layer of similarity to today’s cultural scapegoating of “elites” stoked (of course) by the well-heeled urbanite leaders of the far right.

Meanwhile, the Klan fought back against the sunlight of the press through its own media, a tactic that has been all too easy for today’s far right to replicate in our Balkanized media landscape, where echoes of this Klan media strategy can be seen in right-wing talking points today: “Where African Americans were part of local populations,” Gordon writes, “the Klan blamed them for the alleged increase in crime, no matter the actual statistics.”

None of the success of the Klan's recruitment schemes would have been possible without an emotional landscape ripe for exploitation. “As individual Klan writers and speakers elaborated their ideas imaginatively, one set of emotional tropes dominated: fear, humiliation, and victimization,” writes Gordon, emphasizing that Klansmen felt the America they knew and valued — “traditionally unified and virtuous” — was under siege by outside forces. This contradiction — that "real" Americans were both superior to others yet constantly threatened by outsiders who have the power to destroy said "real" America — is still in place today. As Gordon writes:

These alarms about the erosion of “true” Americanism flowed through stories of allegedly actual events. Because the threats were communicated through tales of distinct happenings, they were not easily susceptible to counterargument: a counterargument would have to deny what Klanspeople took to be facts, facts accepted because of their respect for those who told the stories.

This September 2017 story from The New York Times, “How Fake News Turned a Small Town Upside Down,” comes to mind. “Trusted sources” now are often podcast hosts and Twitter personalities, not to mention right-wing pundits, not a guy in a hood teaching a newbie the secret handshake, but the emotional tropes being exploited are remarkably similar.

But a note about those hoods, those rituals and ceremonies, whick Gordon admits might look and sound unbelievably corny to the contemporary ear and eye, so much so that it seems impossible to believe that anyone ever thought putting a K in front of every word would be a cool way to signify belonging: They served a need still very much in existence. Gordon describes the rituals and signifiers as folk theater, performed for each other, not outsiders, as “a game of make-believe. Beyond their bonding effect, beyond confirming that membership in the Klan brought honor and prestige, they provided enjoyment.” The rituals offered both escape and belonging; a fantasy second life — such as the kind enjoyed online — and “the security and prestige of being an insider” that can come now from simply being conversant in the right memes. Above all, as Gordon explains, they “offered deliverance into a brotherhood as a respite from the loss of community that increasingly characterized modern life.”

So today’s figureheads don’t take on the form of regimented Grand Dragons but rather individuals burnishing their digital-era personal brands, leading online armies of trolls who have started to assemble in person, too. They head up think tanks, cloaked in the khaki-slacks camouflage of Beltway banality. Some represent a style of nativism designed to look mainstream that seeks to radicalize potential recruits through respectable channels like college speaking tours. That would include Richard Spencer, who is said to have created the catch-all term “alt-right,” a slippery piece of “Not your Great-grandpa’s white supremacy!” branding that traffics in both the lulz of participatory meme theater and a throwback language of grievance and performance of community. Another thing that hasn’t changed is the violence this rhetoric attracts and encourages, as made evident by the three neo-Nazis arrested for attempted murder at a Spencer event at the University of Florida last weekend, after they allegedly shot into a crowd of counter-protesters.

To say it one more time for those who wish it weren’t so, the past isn’t dead and it’s not even past; and those who don’t learn from it are doomed to repeat it. In America, we’ve been caught in a loop for the last 150 years, but we don’t have to keep standing by while these cycles perpetuate. The organized second wave of the Klan fell apart due to leadership sex scandals and resentment over profiteering in a membership structure that turned out to be remarkably similar to a Ponzi scheme. But the politics never went away. They simply ducked under the surface, waiting for the right climate to again bubble up. Histories like Gordon’s should help Americans understand the roots of these toxic ideologies, as well as the circumstances that help them flourish, in order to better spot them when they sprout.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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