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Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama, 1915-1949

Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama, 1915-1949

by Glenn Feldman

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This first book-length examination of the Klan in Alabama represents
exhaustive research that challenges traditional interpretations.

The Ku Klux Klan has wielded considerable power both as
a terrorist group and as a political force. Usually viewed as appearing
in distinct incarnations, the Klans of the 20th century are now shown by
Glenn Feldman


This first book-length examination of the Klan in Alabama represents
exhaustive research that challenges traditional interpretations.

The Ku Klux Klan has wielded considerable power both as
a terrorist group and as a political force. Usually viewed as appearing
in distinct incarnations, the Klans of the 20th century are now shown by
Glenn Feldman to have a greater degree of continuity than has been previously
suspected. Victims of Klan terrorism continued to be aliens, foreigners,
or outsiders in Alabama: the freed slave during Reconstruction, the 1920s
Catholic or Jew, the 1930s labor organizer or Communist, and the returning
black veteran of World War II were all considered a threat to the dominant
white culture.


Feldman offers new insights into this "qualified continuity"
among Klans of different eras, showing that the group remained active during
the 1930s and 1940s when it was presumed dormant, with elements of the
"Reconstruction syndrome" carrying over to the smaller Klan of the civil
rights era.


In addition, Feldman takes a critical look at opposition to
Klan activities by southern elites. He particularly shows how opponents
during the Great Depression and war years saw the Klan as an impediment
to attracting outside capital and federal relief or as a magnet for federal
action that would jeopardize traditional forms of racial and social control.
Other critics voiced concerns about negative national publicity, and others
deplored the violence and terrorism.


This in-depth examination of the Klan
in a single state, which features rare photographs, provides a means of
understanding the order's development throughout the South. Feldman's book
represents definitive research into the history of the Klan and makes a
major contribution to our understanding of both that organization and the
history of Alabama.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is a major contribution to Alabama history and a much needed reinforcement of current interpretations. The work will speak the loudest to the academic community and while that is beneficial, every Alabamian would profit from reading this story and considering how to make the future better than the sordid past that is on display in this account. "
—Robert D. Ward, Georgia Southern University
Feldman (Center for Labor Education and Research in the School of Business at the University of Alabama-Birmingham) offers new insights into the continuity of the Klan in Alabama, showing that the group remained active during the 1930s and 1940s, when it was presumed dormant, and up to the civil rights era. He contends that opposition to Klan activities by southern elites was spurred by their view of the Klan as an impediment to attracting outside capital and federal relief, as well as abhorrence of its violence and terrorism. Includes b&w historical photos of key figures. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.40(d)

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Chapter One

Origins of the Revised Klan

In 1920 Americans grappled with a bewildering array of changes. The US. Census Bureau announced that for the first time in the nation's history a majority of Americans lived in urban settings. Women won the right to vote. Many observers hoped that the "weaker sex" would exert a healing effect on politics, but some believed that exposure to political disease entailed the risk of contamination. The Great War, with its unparalleled waste of human life, shocked a generation. The nation found little solace in the aftermath of war. Domestic violence racked the country as the "red Summer" redefined the meaning and the regional character of racial turmoil. During the world war, Russia's Bolshevik Revolution raised the terrifying specter of "Reds" and anarchists plotting from within. In the postwar period, worry turned to fear, then paranoia, as American authorities brutally stamped out a largely illusory menace in the Red Scare Of 1919-1920. Labor and management clashed in a record number of strikes in 1919. Disillusionment set in as people began to realize that the unspeakable violence of World War I had not made the world safe for democracy. America's failure to join the League of Nations only underscored the stinging reality that countries were still at odds after the Peace of Versailles.

    Meanwhile, foreigners continued to pour in from southern and eastern Europe. For many old-stock Americans this new immigration was unwelcome. It contrasted sharply with the earlier, acceptable nineteenth-centuryimmigration of Anglo-Saxons, a movement in which many older-stock Americans had taken part. The new Jewish and Catholic immigrants were strange peoples with strange ways. They huddled together by choice and necessity, often in urban ghettoes. They spoke their own languages, retained their own style of dress and customs, published newspapers in their mother tongues, and seemed to have an unsettling predilection for joining labor unions. With them, they brought little or no experience with democratic regimes; many native whites exposed their prejudices by assuming that all immigrants were anarchists and Reds. The unwelcome ways of the new-comers included a taste for alcohol and political bosses that shocked and dismayed average Americans. Catholics, in particular, were suspected of harboring a dangerous allegiance to a foreign prince who dictated their every move from Rome.

    Race relations offered little comfort. During the exigencies of World War I, hundreds of thousands of blacks had fled southern repression, served in the army, or worked jobs formerly reserved for whites. Postwar competition for jobs and housing led to increased tensions. In 1919, racial strains boiled over as major race riots erupted in twenty-five cities. The race issue would never again be considered entirely a southern problem.

    After the war, cultural values seemed as vulnerable to assault as white supremacy and ethnic integrity. The automobile, with its inherent anonymity, was called a "motel on four wheels" by some. Teens enjoyed unprecedented freedom from parental supervision as they engaged in sexual experimentation in backseats across America. The image of the liberated flapper, although it applied to only a small minority, threatened citizens who felt more comfortable when women hewed to the more traditional roles of mother, sister, daughter, or wife. Freudian psychology, modernism, material values, and the intellectual alienation of a "Lost Generation" seemed to be eroding traditional American culture at an alarming rate.

    Many Americans found these changes, taken together, to be dizzying, even overwhelming. Society seemed to have shaken loose from its traditional moorings and was drifting without purpose or direction. Frightened, politically powerless, economically challenged, and desperate for some measure of control over their lives, millions of men and women turned to the Ku Klux Klan for salvation. Millions more hoped they would be successful.


The second Klan was founded on Thanksgiving night 1915 atop Stone Mountain, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, the marquee city of the New South. William Joseph Simmons, an Alabama native, led a group of twenty-odd shivering men to the top of the mountain, where they lit a cross and summoned the Invisible Empire back into existence after a forty-year hiatus. The ceremony followed the Atlanta premier of D. W. Griffith's classic silent movie, Birth of a Nation, based on the Reverend Thomas Dixon's romantic account of the Reconstruction KKK.

    Simmons stressed the ties between the original Klan and his revised version. He repeatedly referred to the Reconstruction order during the Stone Mountain ceremony, which was held on land borrowed from the Venables of Atlanta, a leading family in the original Klan. Simmons also arranged to have three Reconstruction Klansmen present to lend an aura of authenticity and continuity to the inaugural proceedings.

    Joseph Simmons himself claimed a close link with the original order. Born in Harpersville, Alabama, in 1880, the son of a Reconstruction Klansman, he had tried his hand at medical school and the Methodist ministry but had failed at both. By 1912 he had become a professional fraternalist boasting membership in a staggering array of organizations.

    Despite Simmons's efforts to tie the new order to its precursor, the 1920S Klan departed from its Reconstruction counterpart in its spiritual, ideological, and sometimes physical kinship with the many preparedness and patriotic societies that had been spawned by American involvement in World War 1. The Reconstruction Klan had no counterpart in this regard.

    Prior to the First World War, a series of preparedness societies took root, thanks largely to the efforts of General Leonard Wood and Theodore Roosevelt, president during the Progressive Era. The preparedness societies—notably the American Defense Society (ADS), the National Security League (NSL), and the Navy League—emphasized the need to build and maintain a larger army and navy, to require universal military training, and to silence internal dissent. These groups waged a relentless ideological battle to guarantee conformity and support for the war through a barrage of speakers, books, pamphlets, articles, movies, political lobbying, and gigantic parades. Their efforts often went beyond patriotism, preparedness, and propaganda into outright nativism.

    In 1916, progressive President Woodrow Wilson espoused the cause of preparedness when he voiced the nativist and antiradical concern with "one-hundred percent Americanism," an issue indelibly associated both with the societies and with the newly founded Ku Klux Klan. Wilson echoed the fears and anxieties of many in prewar America by expounding the "dangers of `hyphenated Americanism.'" "There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit," Wilson said, "born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws ... who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life ... Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out." "The melting pot has not melted," the educational director of the NSL agreed. "In the bottom ... there lie heaps of unfused metal."

    During World War I, anxiety turned to paranoia. States banned the German language in their churches and schools. People renamed sauerkraut "liberty cabbage." The German measles became "liberty measles." In the spring of 1918, Congress passed the Espionage and Sedition Act. In this climate, a number of patriotic societies sprang up to help Americans win the war at home by assuring that the country's citizens supported the war and its aims and rejected anything that could possibly be construed as a foreign threat, including labor unions and immigrants. These patriotic societies combined their efforts with antiimmigrant preparedness groups such as the ADS and the NSL. They also worked in conjunction with official agencies like George Creel's Committee on Public Information (CPI), the justice Department, and state councils of defense, and they often advocated disregard for civil liberties and engaged in extralegal activity to advance the war effort. Violence did not lag far behind. The 250,000-man American Protective League (APL) was, in the words of historian William Pencak, a "privately-organized red squad" and, according to historian David Kennedy, "a quasi-vigilante organization ..., a band of amateur sleuths and loyalty enforcers.... [and an] unruly posse comitatus on an unprecedented national scale." The APL, in conjunction with local police and justice Department agents—and a number of lesser-known but picaresque organizations such as the Terrible Threateners, the Sedition Slammers, the Boy Spies, and the Liberty League—tracked down suspected German spies and conducted numerous "slacker" raids designed to net immigrant draft-dodgers.

    After the war, unspent patriotic zeal found an outlet in a number of organizations (figure 1), the most prominent of which was the newly organized American Legion. Anxious about a radical threat made visceral by the Bolshevik Revolution, the Legion emphasized "one-hundred percent Americanism," military strength, isolationism, a denial of the right of revolution, an aversion to organized labor, and a decidedly anticorporation element. During the Red Scare, the Legion and wartime patriotic societies such as the ADS and the NSL joined with the newly revised KKK to crack down on suspected radicals and anarchists. Groups like the Allied Liberty League, the Sentinels of the Republic, the Crusaders, and the American Vigilant Intelligence Federation were also quite active.

    The Klan of the 1920s had much in common with the preparedness and patriotic societies: nativism, vigilantism, an anticorporation bent, a love of conformity, "one-hundred percent Americanism," a distaste for immigrants, radicals, and labor unions, and a desire to coordinate their activities with constituted authority. Klan Wizard Joseph Simmons was connected to the Atlanta APL as well as to a lesser-known group modeled on the League and called the Citizens' Bureau of Investigation. In wartime Alabama, conservative allies of U.S. senator Oscar W. Underwood such as Forney Johnston, Lloyd Hooper, and Victor Hanson dominated the state's council of defense. After the war, though, KKK membership overlapped strongly with the leadership of Alabama's American Legion.

    Simmons envisaged his empire to be a fraternal, patriotic, native white Protestant order based on the firm foundation of the original KKK. Building on a solid core of white separatist tenets borrowed from the first Klan, Simmons extended the mission of the modern order. The new Klan would look beyond the exalted but worn duty of keeping the black man in his place. Foremost among the assorted perceived new dangers was the threat that Protestant America would be swallowed up by hordes of eastern and southern European immigrants. To their African American, Catholic, Jewish, and immigrant enemies Klansmen soon added liberals, unionists, women suffragists, "wets" and anyone who deviated from what they called "one-hundred percent Americanism.


In actuality, the revised Klan organization both followed and departed from the Reconstruction model. Simmon's empire sported new divisions—realms," "dominions," and local chapters termed "klaverns" His Klan also inherited the Reconstruction tendency to emphasize the mysterious, the macabre, and the ghoulish in order to attract persons captivated by the mystique as well as to intimidate those likely to be frightened by such vivid imagery.

    Despite the slow and mostly urban beginning of Simmons's Klan, a remarkable series of events in 1921 combined to transform the KKK into a thriving national concern. Opposition from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a series of exposés in the New York World had the ironic effect of boosting public interest in the group. Simmons hired E.Y. Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler, two professional publicity agents, who used state-of-the-art marketing techniques to bring in thousands of new memberships at ten dollars each. An investigation by the US. Congress also provided exposure that resulted in increased membership.

    A natural showman, the Reverend Simmons was primarily responsible for the Klan's dramatic success at the 1921 hearings of the House Rules Committee. Simmons gave a moving performance in which he portrayed his Klan, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, as far removed from the antiblack, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic organization many congressmen believed it to be. The former preacher told story after story about his child- hood in rural Alabama. He spoke of playing, fishing, and hunting with blacks, of teaching them the alphabet, and of writing love letters for illiterate men of color. "If this organization is unworthy," Simmons vowed, "then let me know and I will destroy it, but if it is not, let it stand." He called upon God to forgive those who persecuted the KKK. At one especially poignant moment, he fainted. Years later Simmons admitted: "Congress made us."

    The hearings, the articles, and the marketing campaign had a phenomenal effect. By the end of 1924, the KKK claimed 115,000 members in 148 Alabama klaverns and 4 to 6 million members nationwide. Branches even opened in England, France, Germany, Wales, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, China, and the Panama Canal Zone.

    The second Klan also tapped into a pool of ready-made fears and insecurities that expressly derived from World War I. The upshot of these shocks and traumas was the acceleration of a recent trend toward conservatism—in both political and economic affairs. The conservatism that had accompanied America's involvement in world war, and had ended much of its turn-of-the-century experiment with progressive reform, became unnaturally accelerated by peace and its convulsive aftershocks. The result was an enhanced predisposition toward conservatism, even reactionaryism, with a return to traditional values and an intensification of the Progressive Era's darker tendencies, such as nativism, racism, and moral intolerance. For many, the Ku Klux Klan was an important part of the answer.

    Joseph Simmons's Klan was clearly quite different from the 1860s order, but, in Alabama, revival entailed conscious attempts to link the new society to its Reconstruction progenitor. Newspapers in Birmingham and Montgomery hailed the return of the KKK as "awe-inspiring" and reminisced fondly about the original order. Enthusiastic editors revived Dunning School depictions of Reconstruction and the KKK, romanticizing the original order as having saved southern civilization from a reign of terror induced by impudent blacks, scoundrelly carpetbaggers, and treasonous scalawags.

    Soon after the inaugural ceremony atop Stone Mountain, Colonel Simmons tried to exploit ties between the Reconstruction Klan and his new order by sending racist editor Jonathan Frost to recruit Confederate veterans in Alabama. The choice was unfortunate. In 1916, Frost made an aborted attempt to seize control of the fledgling Alabama Klan, embezzled several thousand dollars, and vanished.

    Despite the initial setback, the young Alabama Klan was buoyed by the attitude of Birmingham's Big Mule industrialists and their Black Belt political allies. Although the alliance bitterly opposed the Klan later in the decade, initially at least it greeted news of the hooded revival with undisguised enthusiasm. The KKK, for men like Victor Hanson—publisher of the Birmingham News, the Birmingham Ledger, and the Montgomery Advertiser—was, in 1921 ,a welcome addition. Hanson, Oscar Underwood, and other Big Mules initially equated Simmons's Klan with the Klan of their fathers and with the political redemption of the white South from the "hell" of federally imposed Reconstruction.

    Planter/industrialist approbation of the revised Klan was most evident in the large city newspapers in which the tandem exercised influence. Attempts to link the second KKK with its Reconstruction ancestor were an important reason for the order's initial positive reception. The Montgomery Advertiser, long the chief organ of Black Belt political interests, observed in 1918 that Simmons's new Klan "bore all the ear-marks of the ancient and honorable order that [had] placed white supremacy back in the saddle after a reign of terror for several years at the hands of negroes and scalawags." A massive Klan initiation in Birmingham in January 1921 provided a perfect forum for similar praise from the Big Mule/Black Belt press. Victor Hanson's Birmingham News, the principal mouthpiece of the state's industrial interests, lauded the event as evidence of justifiable white outrage at "Negro uppitiness" following World War I that recalled black insolence after the Civil War. Hanson's paper also glorified both the original and revised versions of the sheeted order. Frederick I. Thompson's Birmingham Age-Herald, another major industrialist organ, was hardly less congratulatory. Thompson, like Hanson, was a charter member of the Big Mule/Black Belt coalition and owned several large daily newspapers in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham. The patrician organ extolled the work done by the original Klan in safeguarding the South during Reconstruction, described members of the new order as the cream of southern society, and jointly praised both incarnations of the group.

    In assisting with the revival, Alabama's Big Mules took pains to praise the new order as an extension of the noble Reconstruction Klan. Major Willis Julian Milner—one of Birmingham's founding fathers, a leading industrialist, and a Confederate veteran—praised original Klansmen as the saviors of white civilization during the hellish days of Reconstruction. He railed against carpetbaggers and scalawags as "a flock of Vultures" who sought to "insert their felonious talons into the hearts of unborn babes." Milner toasted the courage, manhood, and integrity of the Reconstruction KKK and spoke of the immutably low "character ... [of the] Negro."

    The favorable reception given to the revised KKK in Alabama was in large part the fruit of Joseph Simmons's painstaking efforts to establish his order as the legitimate successor to the original Klan (see figure 2). "The present Klan is ... the reincarnation ... of the spirit and mission of the Anglo-Saxon," he wrote. "The name of the old Klan has been taken by the new as a heritage ... a mantle one worthy generation might gall upon the shoulders of its successor ... to maintain Anglo-Saxon civilization ... from ... [the] invasion of alien people of whatever clime or color." Accordingly, Simmons buttressed the rhetoric with symbolic displays. The new KKK awarded "hero medals" to any 1920s Knight who had been a member of the Reconstruction order. One Scottsboro den singled out fourteen men to receive hero crosses for being part of the "valiant and noble host of the Original Klan of the [Eighteen-] Sixties." Birmingham dens named themselves after Confederate war heroes Robert E. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

    Symbolism and rhetoric also found echoes at the popular level. A Talladegan later remembered that "everybody knew that when [the] Carpetbaggers and Northern capitalists took control of the South after the Civil War and helped bring poverty and misery to its citizens ... it was the Ku Klux Klan that saved the South.... To accept the [1920s KKK] was much like an expression of appreciation for what their grandfathers had done."

    The constitution of the revised KKK also emphasized continuity with the original order "for the same spiritual purposes as it originally had." The revised Klan claimed the "object, ritual, regalias, and emblems" of the original KKK as "a precious heritage we shall jealously keep, forever maintain and valiantly protect."

    While Big Mule/Black Belt newspapers glorified the original Klan and welcomed its revival, connections between the two Klans were also painfully evident to black editors. Chicago's Defender announced the Klan's rebirth by describing the original society in less than flattering terms: "The name Ku Klux implies disorder, bloodshed, rapine, and everything [aimed at the] destruction of government." A black editor in New York concurred that the Klan was "a `league with Satan and a covenant with hell....' The groans of the negroes done to death without judge or jury still ring in our ears.... the stench from burning flesh still offends the nostrils of Almighty God."

Nevertheless, the Klan of the 1920s was separate and distinct from the old Klan in a number of important ways. New marketing techniques led to gigantic galas designed to increase membership, and the new Knights displayed a novel concern with civic affairs, religion, and community morality. Perhaps more important, though, the revised Klan was a child of the Progressive Era—albeit a child traumatized in its infancy by the external and internal threats that America had endured in connection with World War I. While it lacked much of progressivism's undeniable liberalism, it did share a passion for political change and reform, an extension of democracy, a vehicle for the concerns of white middle-class Protestants, and, like the Progressive Era, a diversity of purpose and membership that still defies simple explanation. Moreover, World War I acted as the forge that heated the Progressive Era's less attractive features to a white-hot intensity and imprinted them upon the new Ku Klux Klan: racism, nativism, xenophobia, and even a willingness to use violence to maintain conformity, compel patriotism, and secure traditional values such as prohibition.

    In Alabama, the revised Klan eventually enjoyed success by almost any standard. Although membership was slipping nationally, Grand Dragon James Esdale claimed 150,000 members in 1926. The figure is somewhat suspect because, during Esdale's long tenure as the state's leading Klansman, his capacity for self-promotion was exceeded only by his ability to alienate friend and foe alike. A Klan slate won a majority in Birmingham's bitterly contested 1925 city elections and with it control over city government. In 1926, the KKK swept Alabama's state elections, placing members of the order in the governor's mansion, the attorney general's office, and the US. Senate. Politicians who owed their allegiance to the Klan came to control counties virtually in their entirety. Judges, solicitors, sheriffs, police chiefs, county clerks, and a host of other city, county, and state officials belonged to the hooded order.

A Belle of the Fifties
Memoirs of Mrs. Clay of Alabama Covering Social and Political Life in Washington and the South, 1853—66

By Virginia Clay-Clopton


Copyright © 1999 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Glenn Feldman is Assistant Professor at the Center for Labor Education and Research, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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