Originally formed as a vigilante group in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the Klan’s comeback in the 1920s was sudden and grandiose. What made it particularly important was its reach beyond the South, a perspective examined in Linda Gordon’s new book, The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition.
The Klan of the 1920s stands out as national, impressive, and frightening, with many electoral victories to its credit. A Klan spokesman claimed — in a moment of megalomania — that 26 governors and 62 percent of Congress were Klansmen. But if we halve or even quarter this exaggerated figure, the kernel of truth that remains is daunting, and the policy effects were undeniable.
Representative Albert Johnson of Washington, a declared member, chaired the House Immigration Committee in the 1920s and led the successful fight to get immigration restrictions passed in 1921 and 1924 — bills that kept Jews fleeing Nazi Germany from entering this country. Representative Hatton Sumners, a pro-Klan legislator, headed the House Judiciary Committee. Between 1924 and 1926, in the top Klan state of Indiana, 11 of 13 persons elected to the US House were Klansmen.
Local impact was even greater. A man with the unlikely name of Friend Richardson was the Klan-supported candidate for governor of California in 1922, though he was not a member himself. At an Oakland rally, a speaker told the crowd: “[T]he election of Richardson is imperative if we are to remove the Jews, Catholics, and Negroes from public life in California.” Richardson won by a startling majority and served in the governor’s mansion from 1923 to 1927.
Throughout most of the 1920s, the majority of all elected officials in Oregon at every level were Klansmen. As Gordon notes, “In smaller towns Klansmen often ruled absolutely.” Overcoming party differences, the Klan was so powerful that none of that era’s presidents — Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover — ever spoke against the KKK.
Gordon begins her book by showcasing the terror of the Klan and then letting readers understand just how normative they were. The frontpiece has a chilling image: a page-and-a-half photo spread of a Klan rally, showing a dense, packed crowd of white-hooded figures, all with arms extended laterally while a cross burns ferociously behind them. Yet her opening paragraph describes a picnic — a Klan picnic — on July 4, 1923, in Kokomo, Indiana. As Gordon explains, “This giant gathering [estimates ran from 50,000 to 200,000] made its participants feel part of something vast, patriotic, and noble — a celebration of Americanism. The food was so plentiful it required several rows of tables, each extending the distance of a block.” This was the dark side of the Jazz Age.
The typical Klan member was hardly a member of the cosmopolitan elite, yet neither was he the gap-toothed backwoodsman of Deliverance. Scholars agree that membership consisted of small businessmen, lower-middle-class employees, and skilled workers. Of Chicago Klansmen, 61 percent held white-collar positions, while in Denver, 71 percent were in high and middle nonmanual positions, compared to 41 percent of the male population as a whole. These were people hardly on the bottom, but they were often worried about dropping toward that level at a time of rapid changes in technology.
Their foremost targets were those they held responsible for their fears: the immigrants. Unlike the first and third Klans, this variety focused less on African Americans (then restrained by Jim Crow hegemony) than on the groups entering the country in high numbers and thus threatening their majority status, their jobs, and their culture: Catholics, above all, and Jews. These “aliens” and their liberal defenders were “the big-city dwellers who were tempting Americans with immoral pleasures — sex, alcohol, and music, notably jazz.”
The Klan was, if anything, flexible in its bigotry while responding to local prejudices. In California’s Central Valley, they killed Mexican-American farmworkers. In Washington State, they delivered the same verdict to Filipinos. And they bombed and set fire to farms owned by Japanese Americans on the West Coast.
Mobs in white hoods rode to the rescue as “the Klan argued that the nation itself was threatened. Then it declared itself a band of warriors determined to thwart that threat.” Violence was the preferred language. In Oregon, a local clergyman and Klan leader told his flock the only way to convert a Catholic priest was to kill him. In this rendering, the United States was confronted with an unprecedented cast of villains but had a heroic cadre of saviors rushing to rescue her. This iteration found its strength in small towns, especially in the Midwest, where few blacks lived but immigrants were appearing, as Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans wrote that “the Negro is not the menace to Americanism in the same sense that the Jew or the Roman Catholic is a menace.”
All this was cloaked in Americanism. Evans claimed membership in several churches and 15 fraternal orders. After three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan — a Klan skeptic but a fundamentalist Christian hero — died after the Scopes Monkey Trial, the Klan held a memorial service in Dayton, Ohio, where the burning cross bore the inscription: “In memory of William Jennings Bryan, the greatest Klansman of our time.” Not true, but a brilliant PR move.
The Klan also carried on, or created, certain traditional thought patterns that are still in effect. They reveled in the American strain of anti-intellectualism, as Evans demanded “a return of power into the hands of the everyday, not highly cultured, not overly intellectualized, but entirely unspoiled and not de-Americanized, average citizen of the old stock.” Leaders also based campaigns on what is now called “fake news,” exaggerating numbers to impress non-members with their strength and intimidating them to join. Lying about the attendance at public events was a Klan specialty. In 1924, they claimed membership in one Indiana county of 10,000, but rolls showed only 3,000 names and the largest event drew 2,000. One Klan parade, according to their publications, had 50,000 participants, a slight exaggeration over the 2,700 that actually attended.
For those insecure about their place in the United States, the KKK offered a strong and vibrant community with its own hierarchy, its own rituals and culture, and even its own language, which was mostly based on the first letter of a word. When meeting a stranger, one might inquire “Ayak” (Are You A Klansman)? Only the answer “Akia” brought comfort (A Klansman I Am). The most ridiculous Klan expressions were the renamed days of the week: Dark, Deadly, Dismal, Doleful, Desolate, Dreadful, and Desperate, which sound like the Seven Dwarfs’ depressing cousins.
Gordon also focuses on women in the Klan, building on and expanding Kathleen Blee’s pioneering work on this subject. Females were a major component of this Klan, planning, preparing, and staffing their rallies, celebrations, parades, and carnivals, as well as being major spokespersons. Alma White, author of the hate-filled screed Heroes of the Fiery Cross, was also the first woman bishop in the United States, of a New Jersey church called Pillar of Fire. The Northern Klan unanimously supported the women’s suffrage amendment — for white American women only, of course. Gordon notes how, simultaneously, “Klanswomen seem often to have militated for equality within the organization” while maintaining extreme bigotry toward nonwhite groups, never recognizing the contradiction.
Though Gordon implies that she will make points about the United States in the era of Donald Trump, she wisely avoids any heavy-handed comparisons and leaves readers to draw conclusions on their own. Still, her book serves as a lesson for what the alt-right could become should it attain a greater level of respectability. Gordon notes that a key feature of the Klan was its palatability in Middle America, and “however much they exaggerated or lied, they passed as honorable citizens, and that was the key to the Klan’s success. It was not secret because it did not need to be.”
The most chilling moment in the book, in light of recent events, comes at the end. When the Klan dug up old grievances, it also put renewed energy into them. “However reprehensible hidden bigotry might be,” writes Gordon, “making its open expression acceptable has significant additional impact.”
This is a solid study. More than any other historian, Gordon has laid out the story of the Klan when it was at its height, filling in a crucial part of the 1920s as well as providing insight into our own era. Highly readable and well researched, this is an important book.
Robert A. Slayton is the Henry Salvatori Professor of American Values and Traditions in the Department of History at Chapman University.