Essay: Ku Klux Klan 1920

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The Ku Klux Klan originally formed during the Reconstruction, in part to prevent the integration and upward social mobility of African-Americans. However, the sinister and shameful hidden face of the Klan morphed for the next few generations. Changing demographics, social, political, and economic realities in the United States caused a revolution in Klan ideology, membership, and practice. By the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan rebirthed itself as a national organization and ceased to limit itself to southern considerations. New perceived enemies of white supremacy in the United States ranged from Jews and Catholics to anyone deemed a threat to the middle class WASP establishment. By 1924, there were Klan chapters in all 48 states, and the organization was particularly popular in the Midwest, where it was "integrated into mainstream society" in ways that were frightening.[footnoteRef:1] the Klan was also gaining considerable momentum in the western states like Oregon. As McVeigh notes, "the movement was characterized by racism, nativism, religious bigotry, coercive moralism, and economic conservativism."[footnoteRef:2] Each of these concurrent ideologies characterizes Klan identity, mentality, and motives during the interwar period. There were distinct causes for Klan revitalization during this time, as well as for the specific manifestations of the Klan as being anti-immigrant as well as anti-black. Racism, bigotry, and hypocritical morality were the core values that perpetuated the Klan mentality, pushed the invisible empire into all corners of the country, and created a pervasive element of terrorism and hatred that reverberated throughout American society. [1: R. McVeigh, 'Power Devaluation in the Ku Klux Klan, and the Democratic National Convention of 1924, Vol 16, No 1, p. 2] [2: R. McVeigh, 'Power Devaluation in the Ku Klux Klan, and the Democratic National Convention of 1924, Vol 16, No 1, p. 2]

The most obvious Ku Klux Klan ideology is the belief in white supremacy. During the Reconstruction era, this meant stifling the integration of African-Americans into the social, cultural, political, and economic landscape. However, it was a southern-specific movement, that lacked a national impetus. The Klan had to rebrand itself during the 1920s, in order to expand its locus of power and influence. This later manifestation of the Ku Klux Klan began to revitalize and reorganize around the time of the First World War. The headquarters of this new Klan was also in the South, in Atlanta. It was formed as "a fraternal society with sentimental reverence for the Klan of the 1860s," meaning that it retained its most fundamental tenet of white supremacy.[footnoteRef:3] it was therefore relatively easy to target the perceived Other, and the Klan built itself on a pre-existing white supremacist mentality that continued to flourish unchecked in the American South. The Klan could revitalize membership in ways other than appealing to racial bigotry, however. In fact, it became an imperative for the white power movement to expand its ideology due to the great migration of African-Americans away from the South during this time, toward the urban centers of the North. With fewer African-Americans in the South, Klansmen and women needed new targets for their terrorist attacks and political campaigns. They easily found those targets in the influx of new immigrants to the United States. Because new immigrants to the United States were scattered in all corners of the United States the Klan found many new members simply by appealing to the bigotry, xenophobia, and racism in the white American soul. [3: DA Horowitz, "Social Morality and Personal Revitalization: Oregon's Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol 90, No 4, 366]

The interwar economy made it particularly simple for the Klan to infiltrate white Protestant middle class communities around the nation. People of color and new immigrants from Europe were competing directly with whites for factory jobs and other skilled and unskilled positions. The perceived threat that non-whites and non-Protestants might infiltrate American and state politics also allowed the Ku Klux Klan marketing to capitalized on the prevailing fears lingering and leading up to Great Depression, and the organization became systematically dedicated to extricating all non-whites from official positions of power. "The Klan was a vigilante body which used both violent and non-violent techniques of coercion to foster white supremacy, Protestant hegemony, and orthodox standards of morality and propriety."[footnoteRef:4] Therefore, the 1920s revitalization of the Klan made it into a more broad special interest group that appealed even more so to Northerners than to Southerners. It was "less violent and more political," and less focused on African-Americans as targets than to a broad swath of America that it could readily demonize.[footnoteRef:5] During the interwar period, the Klan presented itself as the protector of America against diverse enemies like "anarchists, syndicalists, and communists" as well as from immigrants.[footnoteRef:6] [4: CC Alexander, 'Kleagles and Cash: The Ku Klux Klan as a Business Organization," the Business History Review, Vol 39, No 3, 348-9] [5: D. Holley, 'A Look Behind the Masks: The 1920s Ku Klux Klan in Monticello, Arkansas," the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Vol 60, No 2, pp. 133] [6: LJ, Griffin, CR Wilson, Hargis, PG, Social Class. Vol 20 of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, University of North Carolina Press, 2012, p. 108.]

Among those that the Klan could demonize in addition to people of color, immigrants, and those of non-Protestant religious persuasions, the Klan could also be the beacon of hope for all white Protestants against the moral scourge of alcohol and bootleggers. The Klan did indeed take it upon itself to become a moral beacon and a savior of American souls from the ravages of modernity. The organization made itself out to be a moral savior by championing investment in public schools, and using public office positions to promote prohibition and conservative religious values. The Klan had ceased to become Southern, and became American. It was in mainstream Protestant churches nationwide, revealing the terrible undercurrents of fear and bigotry that have shaped the real Middle American values for centuries. The Klan was not afraid of losing its base among Southerners; quite the contrary, it embraced its new role as the savoir of America. It became the preserver of American family values.

Prohibition fit neatly into Klan schemes to dominate moral discourse in America, and prove itself to be a benevolent organization dedicated only to the well-being of a great nation. Like most pro-Prohibition forces, though, the Klan only proved itself to be highly hypocritical and not just from an ethical and moral stance but also from a financial one, too. During the interwar period, the Klan benefitted from the economic situation that the Great Depression presented first by showing that people of color, Jews, and Catholics were threatening the economic viability of whites and of their very own job market. The Klan then discovered how it might benefit from Prohibition, too, albeit in ways different from those used by Mafia. The Klan during the 1920s became an economically viable institution, which is one of the reasons why its influence became more tangible and pervasive around the nation. As Alexander points out, the Ku Klux Klan "became one of the most thriving industries in America."[footnoteRef:7] After the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the Klan especially profited from its anti-Communist and "anti-American" sentiments by appealing to these thread in American society. [7: CC Alexander, 'Kleagles and Cash: The Ku Klux Klan as a Business Organization," the Business History Review, Vol 39, No 3, 348]

During the 1930s, the ideological mask of the Klan would morph yet again. It had suffered some setbacks during the 1920s. For example, the Klan had successfully taken over the Indiana legislature by wooing voters who shared their general ideology. One of the members of that legislature then assaulted a fellow elected official and the story led to a broad condemnation of the Klan. It had a public relations disaster on its hands, and rose to the occasion in the 1930s by identifying key elements in the Roosevelt government it could label as Communist: namely, Jews.[footnoteRef:8] it has been suggested that Nazis in Germany drew from Klan ideology and methodology in the Final Solution, especially since a Klan member had established a chapter in Germany in 1923.[footnoteRef:9] the links between the Klan and Nazis deepened throughout the 1930s, well before the outbreak of the Second World War and especially prior to American involvement in the war. It is certainly foreseeable that American resistance to entering the war in spite of rumors of Nazism and genocide could have stemmed from the extent to which Ku Klux Klan anti-Semitic ideology had fomented in the American consciousness. There are records of direct political links between Nazi and Klan members in the Untied States, especially in New York, where there were large numbers of Jewish residents and businesses just waiting to be targeted even before most Americans understood what Nazism was.[footnoteRef:10] [8: M. Gitlin, the Ku Klux Klan, Greenwood, Santa Barbara, 2009, 22.] [9: M. Gitlin, the Ku Klux Klan, Greenwood, Santa Barbara, 2009, 22.] [10: M. Gitlin, the Ku Klux Klan, Greenwood, Santa… [END OF PREVIEW]

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