It didn't take long for America's first blockbuster feature film to produce its first creepy fan subculture. Right before the Atlanta debut of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, an epic that glorified the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, William Joseph Simmons and 11 others celebrated Thanksgiving by burning a cross atop Stone Mountain and declaring the KKK reborn. A week later, on December 4, 1915, they received a charter from the state of Georgia for their new organization, dubbed The Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc.
In 2005, most people are barely aware that there has been more than one KKK, let alone that the most notable Invisible Empire would have turned 90 years old this weekend. But the second Klan was radically different from both the Klan that emerged after the Civil War and the Klan that battled the civil rights movement in the '60s. It had its greatest strength outside the South, and approximately half its followers lived not in the countryside but in cities. Most of its members eschewed illicit violence, and when it was violent its victims often as not were white. (In some communities, violence was more likely to be wielded against the Klan than by it.) As you'd expect, it was racist, nativist, prohibitionist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic, but its worldview wasn't always consistent or coherent: It may have been a united organization, something that was only barely true of the first Klan and was never true of the third, but it adopted different issues and tactics in different parts of the country, making it much harder to stereotype than its predecessor and its successors.
Above all, it 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.
The first came in the 1960s, with Kenneth Jackson's book The Ku Klux Klan in the City (1967) and Charles Alexander's Crusade for Conformity (1962) and The Ku Klux Klan in the Southwest (1965). (The latter's title is misleading, since its discussion doesn't venture west of Texas.) The Klan that emerged in those books was urban, national, and largely concerned with enforcing an authoritarian moral order. Race may have been paramount in other parts of the South, but in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, wrote Alexander, the Klan's activities "indicated a strikingly small amount of hostility to Negroes." Instead, the "Klansman's conception of reform encompassed efforts to preserve premarital chastity, marital fidelity, and respect for parental authority; to compel obedience of state and national prohibition laws; to fight the postwar crime wave; and to rid state and local governments of dishonest politicians." These Klansmen were more likely to flog you for bootlegging or breaking your marriage vows than for being black or Jewish.
The second wave of scholarship has been ongoing since the mid-'70s, as social historians poured through census data and, where possible, newly uncovered records of individual klaverns. The result was a series of detailed studies of the Klan's activities, ideologies, and social class in cities ranging from Buffalo to Anaheim. Many of these writers, notably Leonard Moore and Shawn Lay, espouse what's come to be called the "civic activist" interpretation of the second Klan, arguing, in Moore's words, "that the Klan served different purposes in different communities, but that in general, it represented mainstream social and political concerns, not those of a disaffected fringe group....To varying degrees, each [study] found that the Klan focused a good deal of energy on community business elites who stood in the way of popular social and political reforms." Lay's study of the Klan's activities in El Paso was a counterpoint not just to the organization's original image but to Alexander's portrait of its efforts elsewhere in Texas. "If, in fact, the Klan was composed largely of unrestrained racists, bigots, and moral authoritarians," Lay later wrote, "then El Paso would have been one of the most likely places for the order to engage in roughshod tactics. But such was not the case. The El Paso klavern largely ignored the Hispanic majority, never employed violence, and spent most of its time challenging the policies of fellow Anglos who dominated city government, focusing on such issues as better public education, honest elections, and road construction." The El Paso Klan, he concluded, was "quite similar to earlier reform efforts in El Paso's history."
The key word in the above paragraph is "unrestrained." 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." If anything, that understates the complexity of the organization, which in some places aided rather than opposed strikers. There's even a report of a labor-oriented Klan in West Virginia that had two black members.
The second Klan's popularity declined in the late '20s, as a series of scandals undercut its image as the defender of traditional morality and as its more mainstream members grew disillusioned with the group's ability to deliver on its promises. The remnants of the organization adopted a more familiar far-right orientation, including an alliance with the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, before finally dissolving in 1944. But from around 1921 to 1925, it was a significant force in American society—an ugly echo, not just of longstanding prejudices, but of the just-concluded Progressive Era.
Progressivism, like the Klan, came in many flavors: There were east coast reformers who wanted business and government to work as partners and mountain state populists who distrusted such centralized power, white supremacists in the Wilson administration who did so much for segregation and anti-racists in the NAACP who wanted to censor The Birth of a Nation. You could write a book on how much of that the Klan reflected or rejected, but I'll highlight just a few areas of overlap:
1. Progressivism had roots in the Protestant pietist tradition, and its partisans were frequently interested in reforming individuals as well as institutions. It's a quick jump from there to the moral authoritarianism described in Charles Alexander's books. Jane Addams, the Social Gospel activist who played such a big role in passing protective labor regulations and compulsory schooling laws, was also a critic of the "debased form of dramatic art, and a vulgar type of music" that a young person might find in the five-cent theaters, writing that it was "astounding that a city allows thousands of its youth to fill their impressionable minds with these absurdities." Prohibition, that Klan kause kelebre, reached its height as a cause during the Progressive Era, complete with muckraking exposés of the "whiskey ring" and culminating with the passage of the eighteenth amendment in 1919.
2. Racism also had a foothold among the progressives. It might be tempting to argue that bigots like Woodrow Wilson, who introduced Jim Crow rules to the federal government, were merely progressive in some areas and reactionary in others. But the American eugenics movement was tied closely to the progressives' drive for "scientific" reform, and its heyday covered both the Progressive Era and the '20s. Politicians offered eugenic arguments not just for laws that banned miscegenation and allowed authorities to sterilize the allegedly unfit, but for restrictions on immigration from southern and central Europe.
3. The progressives and the Klan shared an interest in mandating public education and eliminating urban political machines. The civic-activist historians tell us that the rank-and-file Klansman's interest in such reforms was frequently a sincere response to corruption and inadequate schooling, though it's clear that their urban proposals owed at least something to their fear of immigrants, and that their education proposals were transparantly anti-Catholic. If the Klan's motives were not purely nativist, then neither were the progressives' purely benign: Just as the Klansmen sometimes shared the progressives' hopes, the latter sometimes shared the Klansmen's fears.
4. In the late 1910s the Klan was a small regional organization. In the early '20s it was large and national. There's a number of reasons why it made this leap, but the biggest may be the effects of World War I. This too marked a connection with progressivism.
As the historian William Leuchtenburg and the economist Murray Rothbard have argued, Wilson's wartime policies were an outgrowth, not a negation, of Progressive Era politics. During the conflict, government planners and "enlightened" corporate leaders replaced a relatively free market with a heavily regimented economy, while intellectuals hoped, in Leuchtenburg's words, to adopt "the same sort of centralized directing now employed to kill their enemies abroad for the new purpose of reconstructing their own life at home."
The repression and nationalism of this period is well-known: Dissidents were arrested, newspapers banned, potentially seditious immigrants deported. There was also a propaganda blitz, described by Alexander in The Ku Klux Klan in the Southwest:
During the war the American people had been subjected to the first systematic, nationwide propaganda campaign in the history of the Republic. From both official and unofficial sources poured a torrent of material having the objective of teaching Americans to hate—specifically to hate Germans but, more broadly, everything that did not conform to a formalized conception of "100 percent Americanism." In the fall of 1918, just as the indoctrination process was reaching its peak, as patriotic feeling was mounting to frenzy, the war came abruptly to an end. Americans who had stored up an enormous volume of superpatriotic zeal now no longer had an official enemy on whom to concentrate this fervor.
One result was the red scare and race riots of 1919. Another, arguably, was to enlarge the number of people primed to join an organization like the Klan. The fact that the original Klan had resisted the idea of a united nation didn't matter, any more than the fact that The Birth of a Nation was overtly antiwar.
Some progressives had been antiwar as well, of course, among them the Wisconsin senator Robert LaFollette, and any argument connecting the Klan to the progressive impulse should take account of the fact that it opposed him strenuously when he ran for president on a third-party ticket in 1924. In fact, the 1924 election indicates the extent to which the Klan was entangled with the progressives. For that was the year of the Democrats' infamous "klanbake" convention, when Klansmen participated heavily as delegates and blocked a platform plank that would have condemned their order. They also entered the presidential race, mostly to oppose the candidacy of Al Smith, who as an anti-prohibitionist and a Catholic was anathema to the group, but also to back a candidate of their own. There was a southern conservative in the race, Sen. Oscar Underwood of Alabama, but he was a critic of the Klan. Instead they endorsed the Californian William McAdoo, son-in-law to the late President Wilson. The convention was deadlocked, and the Democrats wound up picking a compromise candidate, John Davis, whose other claim to fame would be to argue the segregationist side in Brown v. Board of Education three decades later.
But the important thing is McAdoo, the man the Klan actively campaigned for both before and during the convention. What were the man's most notable accomplishments? He had been one of the architects of Wilson's war collectivism, helping create the Council of National Defense and serving as head of the Railroad Administration. And as secretary of the treasury, he had been instrumental in creating one of the Progressive Era's most substantial new interventions in the economy: the Federal Reserve system.
Today the Federal Reserve is more likely to be the object of a Klan conspiracy theory than the source of its favored candidate for president. Today, for that matter, when a movie inspires people to create odd organizations and dress up in costume, they're more likely to end up at a convention devoted to Star Trek than a convention devoted to nominating a presidential candidate. A lot can change in 90 years.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).