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On a February night in 1925, three blocks from the District of Columbia line and within walking distance of the Catholic University of America, several hooded figures from Klan No. 51 of Mt. Rainier, Maryland, ignited the fiery trademark of their order, a flaming cross, next to the public school. After the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915, and especially after local Klan movements erupted across the United States from 1921 on, drawing two to four million men, women, and children into various Klan associations, the burning cross had come to symbolize the complicated, contradictory energy of the Invisible Empire. Cross burnings were the Klan's most spectacular and entertaining public displays, accompaniments to the outdoor "naturalization" ceremonies that inducted initiates into the order, reinforced the fraternal bonds among Klansmen, and, according to eyewitness testimony, thrilled the often large crowds of onlookers attending the events.
On the other hand, the flame and the silent, hooded figures grouped around it in the darkness conveyed an equally apparent message of intolerance, intimidation, even malevolence toward those outside the fraternity of white Protestant values and behavior. The Klan had, after all, taken it upon itself to enforce the legal, moral, and cultural standards of its own community as guidelines for proper "Americanism." Catholics; bootleggers and other prohibition law violators; unfaithful husbands; sexually adventurous women; indiscreet, successful, or assertive blacks, Jews, or immigrants; even corrupt or unresponsive public officials—all found themselves targeted by organized, often extralegal, Klan activism. The fiery cross of the 1920s was a threat as well as a beacon.
The activities of Klan No. 51 over the preceding two years had reflected the peculiar mixture of fraternal benevolence, political engagement, religious intolerance, and moral policing that marked the Klan movement throughout the United States. As was common in any lodge, Mt. Rainier Klansmen collected money for Christmas donations and needy families, visited sick fellow knights, and decorated the graves and comforted the survivors of those who had died. Charitable work, however, was but part of a larger commitment to moral regulation. The Mt. Rainier klavern also helped fund a mother's legal effort to regain custody of her children, thus restoring proper family relations in the Klan's idealized Protestant commonwealth. Klansmen themselves were expected to meet their fraternal and family obligations. A wayward knight from Klan No. 51 was formally banished from the order for "nonpayment of dues and desertion of family." Other aspects of the group's moral stewardship edged toward vigilantism. Although there is no evidence that Mt. Rainier Klansmen followed the brutal example of Southwestern knights and beat abusive husbands, the klavern excitedly moved to investigate requests for intervention against men who were reportedly "misusing" their wives, some of the members emphasizing that it "was the duty of a Klansman" to act in such cases. Grateful relatives of the distressed women became vocal supporters of Klan No. 51.
The politics of law enforcement and public schools, key elements of Klan concern nationwide, also dominated the attention of Mt. Rainier's klavern. Its political committees emphasized races for state's attorney and attorney general, both responsible for prosecuting crimes, and the membership commended the mayor for "his loyal stand on law and order." As with moral regulation, the Mt. Rainier Klansmen advocated direct intervention into politics. Counseled by its political committees to "endorse their men for public offices," position knights "at the polls to talk them up," and vote "as a unit," Klan No. 51 advanced its members as candidates for mayor, school board trustee, and superintendent of school repairs.
Bigotry and hints of extralegal pressure combined with public spirit in motivating the Klan's participation in the politics of schools and crime. A Klan investigator warned that a candidate for attorney general initially supported by the local klavern was "a Fourth degree 'Casey,'" a member of the reviled Catholic fraternal order the Knights of Columbus. Similarly, Klan interest in the school offices was sparked by a report that an objectionable candidate, probably a non-Protestant, would be named head of the repair department. Even though this position involved little contact with children or control over public school policy, Mt. Rainier Klansmen authorized a representative to confront a "surprised" school official about it. The hooded delegate revealed his identity as a Klansman and personally presented the klavern's case against the favored candidate. The Klan's obsession with race and ethnicity even led to extreme measures against its own members. An applicant for naturalization in Klan No. 51, soon to be an active Klansman, was not welcomed into fraternal embrace until the kligrapp, or secretary, of the klavern made an official inquiry to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Statistics "to ascertain if [the candidate] is Gentile or Jew."
Thus the Klansmen who gathered a few miles from the capitol in February 1925 represented a complicated social movement of great force. On this particular night, however, the cross-burning ritual was not an expression of the Klan's swift rise to prominence and power but rather a reflection of its equally rapid collapse at mid-decade. The Mt. Rainier Klan had recently suffered from sporadic attendance at meetings, even among officers, and frequent nonpayment of dues. The flaming cross set up next to the public schoolhouse was part of an effort to restore the sagging energy of the local Klan movement.
What transpired next, however, did not inspire hope. The Mt. Rainier Fire Department drove up to the assembled Klansmen, reported the sober minutes of the next klonklave, and "several of the fire company went up and cut the guide wires of the cross and put it out with the chemical truck." Where once there had been flames, excitement, and threatening postures, there were only cinders, frustrated Klansmen, and "gos[s]ip[ping]" neighbors. Within a year, critics of the Klan across the nation joined Kansan William Allen White in deriding the "nightshirt"-wearing "hate factory and bigotorium now laughed into a busted community." By 1925 the community of the Klan was fatally damaged, but the critical blows had not come from the enemies of the hooded order, despite the energy and determination of their work against the Klan. Instead, rank-and-file Klansmen abandoned the Invisible Empire when local political failures, moral and financial scandals involving prominent Klan officers nationwide, and corrosive disputes within klaverns or between local Klans and the national headquarters in Atlanta—over finances, policy, and jurisdiction—destroyed the cohesiveness of the movement and its effectiveness as an instrument of moral regulation.
A New Klan in a New Era
The 1920s Klan induced both fear and ridicule during its short, convulsive career, but it was anchored in the social context and everyday circumstances of the New Era. The workmanlike manner in which the firefighters extinguished the blazing cross suggests another quality of the 1920s Klan movement that has complicated the historical interpretation of the hooded order: its ordinariness. On the one hand, the 1920s Klan was clearly and, to some extent, deliberately exotic. The masks and robes, the elaborate ritual, the pompous and complex nomenclature that even many Klan officials failed to master, even the baroque compendium of threats to American values that Klansmen recited—all these identified the Klan movement as unusual and mysterious. Beyond appearances, the compulsive secrecy of the order, its taste for vigilantism, and well-publicized cases of Klan violence in the 1920s marked the Ku Klux Klan as sinister and extremist.
Yet for a short span of time there was an ordinary, everyday quality to the Klan's presence in the still-dominant white Protestant America of the 1920s. While secret, Klan membership in many communities was nonetheless an open secret and included public officials, Protestant ministers, and ordinary and prominent citizens alike. During the three years in which the Klan flourished in the small city of Monticello, Arkansas, its roster included the mayor, the city marshal, half the city council, the sheriff, the county school superintendent, the county clerk, the treasurer, the tax assessor, the coroner, and eleven of the fifteen male teachers and administrators at the local agricultural college. The Invisible Empire in Indiana was so tightly interwoven into the fabric of society that newspapers regularly advertised Klan events. Klan members there felt comfortable marching in public without masks, and many former participants expressed the view that "everyone was in the Klan."
Many joined the Klan for fraternal and social reasons or to pursue local political issues. Even the racism, religious bigotry, and ethnic chauvinism that pervaded the rhetoric and policies of the Invisible Empire could be found, in more muted form, in the common white Protestant prejudices of the era. Indeed, most recent examinations of the 1920s Klan in specific communities have treated the Klan phenomenon less as an underground movement of alienated and sometimes violent dissenters from the patterns of modern America and more as an intensified expression of widely shared civic and moral values that many concerned local citizens judged to be threatened by dramatic cultural change in the aftermath of World War I.
The second Ku Klux Klan was both a product and a reflection of the distinctive patterns of postwar America. Even though the name, the air of secrecy, the devotion to white supremacy, and the robed and hooded regalia of the 1920s Klan was borrowed from the original Reconstruction-era Klan, there were few direct ties between the national popular movement of the 1920s and its regionally restricted, night-riding predecessor. "The old Klan was liquidated when its work was finished," Hiram W. Evans, the second imperial wizard of the 1920s, assured a reporter. "The new Klan has no essential connection with it." The first Klan arose from political and social circumstances in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Organized in Tennessee by disgruntled former Confederate soldiers, the Klan, in addition to some ritualistic and cultural elements, was an explicitly political terrorist organization committed to driving Republican policies and newly enfranchised blacks from the public life of the South. Klan violence and intimidation escalated until Congress passed anti-Klan legislation, which by 1872 allowed prosecutors and federal troops to suppress the hooded order forcibly even though the Klansmen's goal of returning white, conservative rule to the Southern states was realized during that decade.
The second Klan, reorganized nearly forty-five years later, also portrayed itself as a cleansing force in politics. But in contrast to the first incarnation of the Invisible Empire, the Klan revival built upon twentieth-century developments such as mass entertainment and leisure, patriotic voluntary associations, advertising and the go-go economic style of the 1920s. Moreover, the cultural balkanization of the urban, industrialized, pluralistic United States into a racialized, religious tribalism, to use the historian John Higham's term, produced a greater range of potential enemies for the new Klan to confront.
The second Klan was born in 1915, yet it did not prosper until 1921. Its founder, Alabaman William J. Simmons, claimed to be the son of an original Klansman, but his vision for the renewal of the hooded order was primarily fraternal. A middle-class itinerant of grand gestures, dissolute habits, and only mild career success as a soldier, farmer, history teacher, Methodist minister, and fraternal lodge organizer for the Woodmen of the World (from whom he gained the title colonel), Simmons reveled in the intricacies of fraternal ritual. While rehabilitating from a serious automobile accident, he developed the elaborate catalogue of titles, rules, and procedures for the Klan, then moved to organize the lodge when D. W. Griffith's landmark film The Birth of a Nation, which presented a heroic image of the Reconstruction Klan as the defender of white womanhood and Christian civilization, sparked new interest in the Invisible Empire. A monument to the inspirational power—and propaganda value—of the new art of cinema, The Birth of a Nation, when revived in theaters or special showings, eventually played a significant role in the organization of a nationwide Klan in 1921. Yet in 1915, after the dramatic inauguration of the second Klan on Stone Mountain outside Atlanta, the new lodge stagnated. During World War I, Simmons offered the services of his secret knights to the hyperpatriotic American Protective League, a self-appointed "band of amateur sleuths and loyalty enforcers" who by extralegal surveillance and occasional use of roughhouse methods intimidated slackers, strikers, and suspected subversives. These wartime adventures ingrained the tendency toward suspicion and vigilantism in the Klan, but the Ku Kluxers were active only in a handful of Georgia and Alabama cities and mustered fewer than two thousand members.
The Invisible Empire became a national phenomenon only after Simmons in 1920 hired the Southern Publicity Association, a partnership of two professional marketing agents, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke, who previously had raised money for charities and political interest groups, to promote the Klan. By targeting existing men's lodges and Protestant churches as likely sources for recruiting, or kluxing, fresh Klansmen in an age of eager, yet racially and religiously exclusive, camaraderie; by extolling the new order as a benevolent and patriotic men's organization at a moment of labor unrest, racial tension, and anti-radical sentiment; and by hiring professional salesmen, called kleagles, to sign up new members in return for four dollars from every ten-dollar initiation fee, the Southern Publicity Association used modern marketing and mass mobilization techniques to build a movement committed to the defense of tradition but rooted in the social context of the 1920s. The Klan not only arranged for screenings of The Birth of a Nation to attract members but it also produced and distributed its own propaganda films, such as The Toll of Justice and The Traitor Within. As a marketing gambit, Clarke, who became the public face of the recruiting drive, offered Protestant ministers free membership in the hooded order. Often by prearrangement, a small group of hooded Klansmen would appear at a Sunday service, make a donation to the church, and thereby announce the local presence of the Invisible Empire. Similarly, armed with the knowledge that American fraternalists, much like Simmons himself, sought fellowship through simultaneous membership in several lodges, kleagles glad-handed their way through the meeting halls of the Masons, Elks, Odd Fellows, Red Men, and other fraternal clubs to draw attention to the Klan.
Even though the major Protestant denominations officially maintained a frosty distance from the Klan, and fraternal bodies, especially the Masons, mounted anti-Klan movements within their lodges, at a popular level the boosterism of Clarke and his kleagles was successful. By 1924 the Klan claimed thirty thousand Protestant ministers had taken the hood as members of the Invisible Empire. A Klan lecturer two years earlier boasted that 75 percent of Klansmen were recruited from the Masons. The numbers may have been inflated, but the patterns were not. Despite controversy and some genuinely heroic opposition against its presence, the Klan became influential in the pulpits and congregations of many Methodist, Baptist, United Brethren, and Disciples of Christ churches, often by tapping deep wells of suspicion toward Roman Catholicism that remained beneath the landscape of early twentieth-century American Protestant culture. Likewise, under a Klan hierarchy that celebrated its ties to the Southern branch of Scottish Rite Freemasonry, the Invisible Empire ignored its fraternal critics and presented itself as "the 'fighting brother' of masonry."
Excerpted from ONE HUNDRED PERCENT AMERICAN by Thomas R. Pegram Copyright © 2011 by Thomas R. Pegram. Excerpted by permission of IVAN R. DEE. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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