The Agenda

Jesse Walker on the Second Klan

Mark Hemingway and Jonah Goldberg have both recommended Jesse Walker’s essay on the political worldview of the 1920s era Ku Klux Klan, and for good reason:

Above all, [the second Klan] was a fundamentally modern movement. It was inspired by a movie, advanced through advertising, and organized with techniques that might have been employed by a corporate sales force. In the early ’20s it had between 1.5 and 5 million members, many of them at the center of political power. The Klan controlled the governments of Indiana, Oregon, and Colorado, elected other politicians across the country, and played a major role in the Democratic convention of 1924; its members included future president Harry Truman and future Supreme Court justice Hugo Black. Early scholars assumed that the secret society was overwhelmingly rural, fundamentalist, and driven—in one sociologist’s words—by the “petty impotence of the small-town mind.” Two waves of revisionist scholarship have destroyed those assumptions.

Walker elucidates the “civic-activist” interpretation of the second Klan:

Lay isn’t arguing that the Klan wasn’t racist, but that, as he put it in his study of the Klan in Buffalo, “the intolerance that characterised the KKK pervaded all levels of white society during the 1920s.” In much of the country, it attempted to advance its ends not through covert violence but through the organized, legal violence of the state. (In Oregon, for example, it attempted to outlaw parochial schools.) Still, the civic-activist interpretation has provoked a backlash—writing in the Alabama Review in 1998, the historian Glenn Feldman complained that “the Twenties Klan is currently portrayed, by some scholars, almost as an innocuous, garden-variety civic and philanthropical agency.”

It would be more accurate to say it’s portrayed as an organization that adopted different forms in different places, and two relatively recent books about the KKK’s activities in the southeast—Feldman’s Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama (1999) and Nancy MacLean’s Behind the Mask of Chivalry (1994)—stressed the racial violence of that region’s klaverns even while reiterating many of the civic-activist school’s ideas. MacLean’s book, unfortunately, attempted to generalize Georgia’s experience to describe the entire national organization, an effort that not only contradicted the findings of other scholars but overlooked the extent to which the Georgia Klan was influenced by specifically local factors itself. (The klansmen of Salt Lake City did not enjoy a close relationship with the old southern Populist Tom Watson, for example, just as the Georgia kluxers had no reason to fret about Utah’s Mormon power structure.) But she offered one of the best summations of the second Klan when she rejected the “specious dichotomies” of the debate. The Klan of the ’20s, she wrote, “was at once mainstream and extreme, hostile to big business and antagonistic to labor unions, anti-elitist and hateful of blacks and immigrants, pro-law and order and prone to extralegal violence. If scholars have viewed these attributes as incompatible, Klansmen themselves did not.”

After the second Klan collapsed in the wake of scandal, its remnants gravitated towards the racist fringe. At the height of its power in the 1920s, however, its message resonated with that of the larger Progressive movement, which had a moralistic core and a deep interest in reinforcing racial and ethnic hierarchies. 

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