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In 1920s Middle America, the Ku Klux Klan gained popularity not by appealing to the fanatical fringes of society, but by attracting the interest of “average” citizens. During this period, the Klan recruited members through the same unexceptional channels as any other organization or club, becoming for many a respectable public presence, a vehicle for civic activism, or the source of varied social interaction. Its diverse membership included men and women of all ages, occupations, and socio-economic standings. ...
In 1920s Middle America, the Ku Klux Klan gained popularity not by appealing to the fanatical fringes of society, but by attracting the interest of “average” citizens. During this period, the Klan recruited members through the same unexceptional channels as any other organization or club, becoming for many a respectable public presence, a vehicle for civic activism, or the source of varied social interaction. Its diverse membership included men and women of all ages, occupations, and socio-economic standings. Although surviving membership records of this clandestine organization have proved incredibly rare, Everyday Klansfolk uses newly available documents to reconstruct the life and social context of a single grassroots unit in Newaygo County, Michigan. A fascinating glimpse behind the mask of America’s most notorious secret order, this absorbing study sheds light on KKK activity and membership in Newaygo County, and in Michigan at large, during the brief and remarkable peak years of its mass popular appeal.
The Klan Brand Comes to Town
The Ku Klux Klan, as a fraternal membership organization, enjoyed phenomenal success throughout the United States during the early to mid-1920s. Its support, measured in the millions, was both geographically widespread and culturally mainstream. At least part of the reason for the Klan's great success can be found in the very systematic and business-minded methods by which the organization recruited members. Exported nationwide from Atlanta, the hooded order arrived locally as a ready-made "product," and traded willfully upon an image that combined an appealing aura of exclusive mystery, thrilling visual drama, and contemporary, contentious edge. Less spontaneous than perhaps it would have liked to appear, every piece of official literature, ritual, and regalia was strictly copyrighted, and the organization's full official title—"The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Incorporated"—gives a clue as to its essentially commercial intentions.
As it had done elsewhere, the Klan swept across Michigan like wildfire, an extended recruitment drive seeing the hooded order arrive in villages, towns, and cities throughout the state during the summer months of 1923. Everywhere, its method was the same—its enigmatic presence and conspicuously shrouded movements designed to incite local gossip and an excited anticipation of the exclusive world of fraternal mysteries that lay hidden inside. In many locations, and particularly in the small-town rural districts such as Newaygo County, the arrival of the Klan provided the most exciting spectacle in town—the best, perhaps only, source of a vicarious thrill, to which seemingly "everyone" had begun to subscribe. Making this palatable, politically speaking, was the Klan's avowed devotion to the values and concerns of white Protestant Michigan's respectable mainstream. Calling for "law and order," for prohibition enforcement, for public morality, for clean politics, and for limited European immigration, the Klan's outward pleas for a straightforward Protestant, patriotic pro-Americanism echoed many themes already commonplace within the dominant social milieu. Also playing an important role in popularizing the Invisible Empire, meanwhile, was an innovative and responsive entrepreneurial element operating around the movement's fringes. Opportunistically offering a wide variety of affordable and eye-catching Klan-related wares, it appealed strongly to the sensibilities of what was an emergent, enthusiastic consumer culture, and continued to find novel ways in which to make the KKK appear both attractive and conventional.
MICHIGAN ABLAZE: THE KLAN ARRIVES IN NEWAYGO COUNTY
In a tone oscillating somewhere between cautious trepidation and excited gossip-mongering, the Newaygo Republican of 6 September 1923, detailed the first tangible signal that the "Invisible Empire" was present on its very own doorstep. Just a few nights earlier, a crowd of perplexed residents of this rural mid-Michigan county, "no doubt ... unaware as to just what was going on," had found themselves standing by in anxious wonderment as "a large, fiery cross was burned on Bunker Hill." Announcing that this was apparently a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan, the Republican's on-scene reporter had been informed personally that the blazing cross was in fact loaded with meaning, that its sudden appearance against the night sky "designated a membership of the first five hundred in the county." Hard facts concerning the mysterious order were, of course, typically and deliberately evasive—the reporter's information coming courtesy of a conspicuously anonymous "travelling man." Indeed, the promoters of the Klan in Michigan, as elsewhere, traded heavily upon a combination of visual drama and the vicarious interest generated through the cultivation of rumor and hearsay. The Michigan edition of the Klan news organ the Fiery Cross made a point of noting the Newaygo community's obvious surprise at this first startling show of flames, as well as the tantalizing implications as the cross "threw its light skyward, informing the inhabitants here that the Ku Klux Klan was among them."
Having left the community to speculate wildly for precisely a week, the next issue of the Republican contained a large public notice, placed by parties unnamed. Spanning two columns of the page, the announcement on one level promised to provide clarification, while at the same time it set about perpetuating the growing sense of mystery surrounding the organization. "There will be a public meeting somewhere in the city of Newaygo Wednesday night," it read, where "a national speaker will expose the true facts about the Ku Klux Klan"—adding that "everybody [is] invited." In order to take up their invitations to a meeting without either time or venue, however, the public were urged that they would need to keep their eyes open and "look out for the hand dodgers." In reality, nobody would have to look far at all, as "representatives of the mysterious and much discussed Ku Klux Klan" soon bombarded the entire county with handbills promoting the upcoming event, which was to feature an official KKK lecturer publicly outlining the principals of the organization. Taking place at the Park Theatre movie house in Newaygo, immediately after the regular film showing, the meeting drew a crowd of five hundred, pulling in visitors from surrounding towns and villages, and even travelers from neighboring counties. Addressing an arena packed to capacity, the Klan orator, whose identity would remain "unannounced and unknown" throughout, was reportedly "received with marked enthusiasm." Clearly impressed with a performance "beyond the expectations of many who gathered," the local press, while giving scant detail, went on to praise him as "a brilliant speaker [who] commanded the strictest attention of his audience," and said "nothing ... of a nature that would offend." Portraying an otherwise morally bankrupt and unnervingly cosmopolitan modern world, the Klan orator hailed the hooded order as a reliable rock of uncomplicated patriotism. His speech proved a roaring success, described by the Republican in terms that had become synonymous with the KKK across the United States by this time: "just a plain talk on one hundred percent Americanism."
In the weeks following the meeting, the sight of bold Klan imagery continued to decorate Newaygo County's night skies on a regular basis. On September 22, another huge wooden cross blazed atop Newaygo's Schoolhouse Hill, to be followed by similar incidents in the town of White Cloud (the county seat, some ten miles to the north) on the nights of September 28 and October 2.5 Two weeks later, the White Cloud Eagle noted in a front-page headline that someone or something was "Still Burning Crosses Here," citing the latest examples of October 12 and 16, where on both occasions fiery crosses accompanied by fireworks displays had appeared on the school grounds and upon Chalfant Hill, respectively. The same article also detailed a large and recent Klan gathering just over the county line in the nearby city of Big Rapids. Here, "in the lurid glow of a huge fire," curious citizens had been lectured on the nature of the organization by a Protestant minister and KKK organizer from the sizzling Klan hotbed that was the state of Indiana, Michigan's southerly neighbor. While declaring the Klan to be "an organization of white Protestants," excluding all other groups from membership on religious and racial grounds, the minister depicted it primarily as a force for law and order, "the arch enemy of the corrupt politician, the major vices, the bootlegger, the moonshiner, the radical agitator and the alien." At the close of his address, copies of the Klan's own publication, the Fiery Cross, were distributed widely among the crowd, along with small cards on which the personal details of interested individuals were taken, "a preliminary step towards making it possible for citizens to join the Klan."
Highly visible demonstrations of Klan presence, designed to intrigue and enthrall the public at large, continued in Newaygo County throughout the latter part of 1923 and well into 1924. The hills and open spaces of the towns of Newaygo and White Cloud, in particular, saw repeated appearances of the now infamous fiery cross, most often accompanied by one or more attention-grabbing fireworks "bombs." It was in the county's most populous city, Fremont, however, that the Klan seemed to concentrate most of its early promotional efforts. Here, at the Ideal Theatre, D. W. Griffith's sprawling big-screen epic The Birth of a Nation—a noted KKK recruitment tool used throughout the 1920s—appeared in early February 1924. Famously glorifying the original Klan of the Reconstruction era, and celebrating that organization as the binding force that united a nation torn asunder by civil war, the extravagant picture was lauded by the Fremont Times-Indicator as "epoch-making" and a "masterpiece." Such was the lingering power of the movie's reputation since its original release in 1915 that its promotional ads could claim "no explanation necessary for this picture," asking only that "it should be shown to everybody in and near Fremont."
A public meeting in April 1924 saw the community building in Fremont filled to capacity as more than one thousand people, representing every town in the county and a few from beyond, assembled to receive the lecture of a visiting Klan official. Once more, the speaker chose to remain unidentified, yet proved to be a most "forceful and eloquent" orator, who followed an opening prayer with a lively address, "punctuated with frequent applause" from the excited crowd. Again, the organization he represented was painted as an army of impossibly heroic supercitizens, the sworn enemies of "the crooked, grafting politician," and active enforcers of the prohibition laws in a murky world where immorality and vice held sway. Vowing to destroy America's underworld and "make the bootlegging business impossible," the speaker also "paid a beautiful tribute to pure womanhood," adding that all members of the secret order were sworn by solemn oath to act as gallant "protectors of women." While making it abundantly clear that such lofty responsibilities could only be entrusted to white Protestant Americans, he was careful to point out that the Klan bore no malice toward parties ineligible for membership, going so far as to declare his organization a "friend of the Negro and the alien."
Most public or informational meetings held by KKK organizers tended to follow a similar formula, with the Klan employing charismatic speakers to stoke the fires of interest in the organization, continually emphasizing its propensity for useful and patriotic public service. Almost always, these speakers were Protestant ministers brought in from areas where the Klan had already flourished. The fact that these individuals were often unknown in town meant that they could frequently play along with the secret order's penchant for intrigue by withholding their identities, while still maintaining an air of authenticity bestowed by their status as men of God. In some cases, however, traveling Klan speakers had become so strongly identified with the organization that their names were not concealed, and even served as a definite crowd-puller for the Klan cause. One such speaker was Rev. Fred Ross of Battle Creek, Michigan, who gave "a rousing address on the principles of the Ku Klux Klan" at the Fremont community building in July 1924. Invitations had been sent out some time beforehand to those eligible who might be interested in the organization, and around eight hundred men from across Newaygo County were present, their curiosity roused by an event billed, on this occasion, as suitable for male ears only. Seizing the opportunity to publicly venerate the organization, Rev. Ross explained to those assembled that the Klan "is not a political party ... but a movement and a crusade for better Americanism ... built on the principles of the Christian religion ... [and] working for real democracy in this country." Keen to dazzle as well as to persuade, he went on to outline the strength of the movement nationwide, and in doing so exhibited one of the Klan promotional machine's trademark characteristics—a shameless flair for gross exaggeration of its own might. While the Klan was indeed enjoying its numerical pinnacle during this period, the projections voiced by Rev. Ross for future expansion were, at best, startlingly overoptimistic, if incredibly impressive-sounding to a receptive audience. The organization, which had become a nationwide phenomenon since its incorporation in 1915, was now, he claimed, "growing by 75,000 new members a week ... and expected to have a membership of 30,000,000 within a year."
The Klan's trumpeted arrival in Newaygo County was an entirely typical scene within Michigan during the organization's relentless recruitment drive of summer 1923, and local Klan units or "Klaverns" sprang up in very similar circumstances in towns and cities throughout the state. "Michigan," declared the August issue of the Fiery Cross, "is engulfed in a Klan wave" and is "coming into her own as enthusiasm sweeps north" from the more established KKK strongholds of Indiana and Ohio. With a stream of "glowing reports" arriving from all over the Wolverine State, the Indiana-based Klan organ even announced the imminent launch of a Michigan-specific edition of its paper, as well as describing with admiration the impact of the Invisible Empire in the state:
Applications for membership are increasing at a rapid rate ... Today is high tide in Klandom! Today Michigan is calling for Klan speakers; fiery crosses dot the hillsides and each and every night classes from twenty-five to classes numbering in the late thousands are being initiated. Inquiries from the most remote spots in this big state are being received by state officials, in which citizens make known their desire to become affiliated with this great Protestant movement. Communities that have as yet had no speakers are clamoring for information. Those places that have been favored with addresses concerning the Klan are asking for more.
Though this portrait of a vibrant and enthusiastic KKK presence in Michigan comes from an obvious pro-Klan source, its assertions of impressive organizational growth and spread during this period are well-founded. Even a cursory survey of the regional press for the summer months of 1923 (which still constitute only the very early stages of Klan recruitment in Michigan) reveals KKK activity in at least—and probably a great deal more than—a hundred named towns and cities, including appearances in some of the more secluded hinterlands of the state's Upper Peninsula. Official Klan documents listing local Klaverns by name and number also support such a scenario. The regular news bulletin produced by Michigan Grand Dragon George E. Carr, in fact, makes specific reference to individual units numbering at least up to 150.14 Of these 150, it has been possible to positively identify the whereabouts of 109 Klaverns, the results pointing to a spread that spanned huge portions of the state.
Incomplete an indicator as this may be, it nonetheless makes a striking point, demonstrating that no less than sixty-four of Michigan's eighty-three counties were home to branches of the Klan. In some counties, such as Newaygo, one Klavern covered the whole county. Other counties, especially around major cities, supported multiple units. The KKK, though, was certainly no urban phenomenon, and with many of the most remote and rural parts of the state already covered here, it seems highly likely that the remaining forty-one units that are known to have existed (though as yet are geographically unaccounted for) would have seen the organization represented in virtually every county in the state. Meanwhile, other sources go on to indicate an even stronger Klan presence—the Owosso Argus Press, for instance, specifically reporting in October 1926 that there were no less than 215 Klan units operating within Michigan at that time. In addition, scattered references to the all-female auxiliary Women of the Ku Klux Klan in its Michigan organ Wolverine Women detail a statewide network of at least 74 chapters, numbered separately from the men. Also chartered in various Michigan locations were Klan auxiliaries for foreign-born Protestants, as well as junior orders for both boys and girls, though no detailed organizational records of these survive.
Excerpted from EVERYDAY KLANSFOLK by Craig Fox Copyright © 2011 by Craig Fox. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 26, 2013