The Corner

Making the Klan Boring

Kevin Boyle, who teaches history at Ohio State University, reviewed a couple books on the Klan in the New York Times yesterday. The KKK of the 1920s is a fascinating story. But it is a difficult one to tell in an interesting or accurate way without ever using the words “Democrat,” “Wilson,” or “Progressive,” which is why Boyle’s review is so lame. Here’s his opening:

Imagine a political movement created in a moment of terrible anxiety, its origins shrouded in a peculiar combination of manipulation and grass-roots mobilization, its ranks dominated by Christian conservatives and self-proclaimed patriots, its agenda driven by its members’ fervent embrace of nationalism, nativism and moral regeneration, with more than a whiff of racism wafting through it.

No, not that movement. The one from the 1920s, with the sheets and the flaming crosses and the ludicrous name meant to evoke a heroic past. The Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, they called it. And for a few years it burned across the nation, a fearsome thing to ­behold.

In “One Hundred Percent American,” Thomas R. Pegram, a professor of history at Loyola University Maryland, traces the Invisible Empire’s meteoric rise and equally precipitous fall. The ’20s Klan was born, he explains — or more precisely was reborn — on Thanksgiving evening 1915, when 16 Southerners trooped up Stone Mountain, in Georgia, for a bit of ritual bunkum inspired by D. W. Griffith’s incendiary film “The Birth of a Nation.” The group’s leader, a one-time Methodist minister named William Simmons, hoped to turn the men into a fraternal organization that night: sort of a Rotary for white supremacists. But he had no idea how to do it. So for five years the Klan stagnated, until Simmons handed the operation over to a couple of publicity agents, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke, who knew a thing or two about the dark art of marketing.

Tyler and Clarke kept the costumes and crosses and secret signs that Simmons loved. But they broadened his bigotry. No longer would it be enough to target African-Americans, not when there were Catholics, Jews and immigrants to hate as well. They also added an aggressive political pitch, seizing on the hyperpatriotism of the recently concluded World War to turn the Klan into the champion of “one hundred percent Americanism,” staunch defender of law, order and traditional values. It was a brilliant appeal, tapping as it did into long-running prejudices, the war’s overwrought rhetoric and fears of a changing America. In the early 1920s, the K.K.K. became a national phenomenon, more popular north of the Mason-Dixon line than south of it. At its peak in 1924 there were probably 35,000 Klansmen in Detroit, about 55,000 in Chicago, 200,000 in Ohio, 240,000 in Indiana and 260,000 in Pennsylvania: a veritable army of proud Anglo-Saxons kluxing in their local klaverns. Ten bucks a head for membership, another six and a half for those fine flowing robes.

Klan leaders used that stunning success to insinuate the Invisible Empire into public life. On the local level, Klansmen turned themselves into moral watchdogs: beating drunken husbands, whipping wayward wives, chasing down bootleggers and purifying public schools, mostly by demanding that Catholic teachers be fired. In Indiana, Oregon, Colorado, Texas and Arkansas they built political machines strong enough to put their hand-picked candidates into governors’ offices. Indiana’s K.K.K. took control of the State Legislature, too, while Texas sent a Klansman to the United States Senate. There was even talk in the highest circles of trying to elect a Kluxer president.

Let’s leave aside what I take to be an utterly lame and asinine assault on the tea parties (indeed, the lede is so lame I had to read it twice to realize the editors even let him go there).

The average reader with no specialized knowledge and an unhealthy faith in the wisdom and accuracy of the New York Times might find in all of this reinforcement of the conventional liberal tale of the KKK as a quirky and extremist conservative organization.  

But that’s simply not the story of the second Klan. I don’t expect Kevin Boyle to hammer home the Klan’s progressive and Democratic ties. But he manages to make them all sound conventionally conservative. He doesn’t acknowledge that Woodrow Wilson was Birth of a Nation’s most famous booster. Nor does he mention that World War One was the Progressives’ war and that “100% Americanism” was touted and promoted by Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson — our two progressive presidents. He doesn’t mention that evil spirits of World War One were orchestrated by progressive wordsmiths, activists, and artists.

Boyle writes, “There was even talk in the highest circles of trying to elect a Kluxer president.”

Yes there was! Particularly at the 1924 Democratic Convention, famously known as the “Klanbake.” Boyle also fails to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that enforcing Prohibition laws was a Progressive priority.

Boyle then ends the piece with this clump of poo:

At the end of the book, though, Baker steps back from her texts. Suddenly her analysis becomes more pointed. Yes, the Klan had a very short life. But it has to be understood, she contends, as of a piece with other moments of fevered religious nationalism, from the anti-Catholic riots of the antebellum era to modern anti-­Islam bigots. Indeed, earlier this year, Herman Cain declared that he wouldn’t be comfortable with a Muslim in his cabinet. It’s tempting to see those moments as Pegram does the Klan: desperate, even pitiful attempts to stop the inevitable broadening of American society. But Baker seems closer to the mark when she says that there’s a dark strain of bigotry and exclusion running through the national experience. Sometimes it seems to weaken. And sometimes it spreads, as anyone who reads today’s papers knows, fed by our fears and our hatreds.

I think Cain’s statements on Muslims have often been indefensible or indecipherable, but is it really tempting to see Herman Cain as an inheritor of the Klan tradition? Really? That’s an interesting argument! Tell me more! No, wait, he takes it back. That the Times lets him do this in a throw-away sentence is astounding, even when grading on the usual curve.

One last, albeit familiar, point. I’ve long argued that there’s an infuriating tendency among mainstream liberal historians to take two approaches to evils in American history. Sins are always either the result of conservatives doing conservative things or they’re the product of America’s fundamentally bigoted nature. It’s just never, ever, the case that liberalism or progressivism has something to apologize for. Liberalism is never wrong, because essential to the concept of liberalism is the idea that it must always be right. The fact that racism and other evils were commonplace, even central, to much of the progressive project is simply too jarring to contemplate and so we get either a whitewash or blame-shifting. And with Boyle, we get both.


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