Portside aims to provide varied material of interest to people on the left that will help them to interpret the world, and to change it.
By Linda Gordon
W.W. Norton/Liveright, 288 pages
Forthcoming: October 24, 2017
[This is a two-part review. Portside ran Klan 2.0, the first part August 30th. Here is the second part of Scott McLemee’s review.]
While issuing his third and most vehement statement about the events in Charlottesville, Va., Donald Trump waxed indignant at the media’s failure to recognize “good people on both sides” -- such as those ones who assembled at the University of Virginia campus on the evening of Aug. 11, “protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.”
How he spotted the antiquarians in that crowd remains puzzling. Available footage suggests the whole thing to have been a re-enactment of selected scenes from Triumph of the Will. Not a lot of quiet dignity on display. It took a braying mass of genocidal thugs for Trump to discover his new calling as champion of historical preservation; his interest in the past derives entirely from its usefulness in mobilizing resentment.
As it happens, the president made his remarks just as I was finishing this column on Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, due from W. W. Norton and Company in October. The force of recent developments pushed it to the top of my reading pile, ahead of schedule. The “good people” Trump invoked were thin on the ground during the demonstrations in Charlottesville, but Gordon’s book is filled with literally millions of them: civic-minded and public-spirited Americans, sober and pious, given to organizing softball teams and charity fund-raisers, who remembered a time before the country started going wrong and wanted to make it great again.
Any similarity between the Klan of the 1920s and the Trump mobilization is a long way from coincidental. As noted in that article, the original (Reconstruction-era) KKK was a relatively small, ad hoc terrorist group in the South -- while the third-phase Klan (driven by hostility to the civil rights movement and its legacy) remains marginal and prone to fracturing. The Klan of the 1920s was a phenomenon of a completely different order. While appealing to racist sentiment, it was on the whole less obsessed with restraining African-American progress (Plessy v. Ferguson had taken care of that) than with hostility to immigrants. And its millions of members and supporters, spread out across the entire country, gave the KKK considerable electoral muscle.
It “condemned the political class,” writes Gordon, “even as it worked to elect its own politicians.” In Klan ideology, “those responsible for the erosion of American values and the American way of life were not capitalists or men of significant wealth” but rather “cosmopolitan, highbrow, professional, well-educated, prosperous urbanites, who were often liberals.” That does not mean the Klan itself was a purely rural or small-town movement. Drawing on the enormous body of Klan historiography, Gordon points out that up to half of the membership was urban, with almost a third of it living in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit; “in many states Klan per capita membership was larger in cities than in smaller places.”
Nor did KKK hostility to educated elites keep it from setting up fraternities to recruit on campuses, while also establishing two Klan-run colleges. (The ill-fated Lanier University in Atlanta boasted a curriculum of “100 percent Americanism.”) The KKK “gave one of its largest donations -- $1,568 (worth $22,500 in 2016) -- to the Reverend Bob Jones, to help him establish his conservative whites-only Bob Jones University.”
Less surprisingly, perhaps, the KKK tended to be on mutually supportive terms with the repressive state apparatus. In its own eyes, the Klan was a law unto itself; members referred to each other as “citizens,” while everybody outside counted as “aliens.” In some places, it exercised terror directly:
Oklahoma, Indiana, Kansas and southern Illinois -- locations that were as much Southern as Northern -- experienced a great deal of Klan violence: whippings, tar and featherings, and lynchings. In all four places, various degrees of racial segregation were in place, and Klan violence helped keep it in place.
Elsewhere, the Klan functioned as a sort of police auxiliary. The mayor of Portland, Ore., deputized a Klan-approved citizens’ brigade: its members “received guns, badges and the power to make arrests, but their names would remain secret.” In addition, the Klan claimed that the police department itself contained 150 “citizens.” Federal agents in Oakland, Calif., “incorporated a group of Klansmen into raids on Prohibition violators.”
My impression from reading other studies is that it would be mistaken to assume that all or even most Klan members in this period were engaged in violent activity, and Gordon quotes one contemporary assessment that “probably nine-tenths of them … do nothing but repeat [Klan] ritual, pass pious resolutions and go home.” For many, I suppose, it was something to look forward to -- a night out with the boys. Whatever the percentages, Klan members could and did regard themselves as law-abiding citizens. And the appalling truth is that it was, on the whole, perfectly reasonable for them to think so.
The dynamism of the second-era Klan’s dynamism came in part from its successful combination of violent hatred with the accepted forms and norms of legitimacy. It encouraged teetotaling, regular church attendance and a good-neighborly sense of community involvement. Anything allowing people to express malice with a good conscience has a certain built-in advantage when it comes to recruitment.
But something else stands out in Gordon’s analysis that is not so clear from other accounts. The Klan was at war with the world around it; it wanted to return to some imagined sense of what the country had been before its unity was shattered by the Civil War and waves of immigration. But it also tried to create a world unto itself, and did so in decidedly 20th-century terms: through spectacle, mass communications and branding.
The second Klan came in the wake of a movie, Birth of a Nation, in which the vigilante group was reimagined (to use the preferred expression of this era of perpetual remakes) as a kind of nativist chivalric order. Mixed into the revived KKK’s deadly serious ideology was a certain amount of D. W. Griffith cosplay. But it was not a movement springing up from below. The new Klan was, from the start, a business -- albeit a fairly unimpressive one until its founder outsourced the promotional work to an enterprise called the Southern Publicity Association. With a contract giving its promoters “an astonishing 80 percent of any revenue [it] brought in from new recruits,” the Klan grew exponentially.
Membership was not cheap, and the recycling of old bedsheets was deemed completely unacceptable. The $10 initiation fee did not cover the robes, which cost another $6.50. In addition, the Klansman paid “annual dues of about $5, and a yearly $1.80 tax to the national headquarters.” Gordon estimates that joining “cost $23.30 for the first year (worth $318 in 2016).”
Economies of scale eventually drive down the cost of manufacturing the robes to $2 each, but the huge profit margin was further reinforced by a strict dress code. “The headgear and Klan insignia had to be just so,” Gordon writes; they were designed “so that wives could not hand-sew them.” This “made the members want the real, manufactured object.” In addition, the member would need the handbook of rules and rituals known as the Kloran. Also available for purchase was “Klan water,” obligatory for certain rituals. (The mimicry of a Catholic tradition by the rabidly anti-Catholic KKK is striking.)
Gordon quotes another historian’s apt characterization of the Klan of the 1920s as “a hybrid of a social club and a multilevel marketing firm.” The incentive for constant recruitment was built in. Retention seems to have been another matter:
According to one recent estimate, the Klan took in at least $25 million ($342 million in 2016 dollars) annually. This is likely an exaggeration, since as much as one-third of the members were in arrears, never paid or soon quit paying dues … A study of the Indiana Klan showed that few other than leaders stayed for long. In one town, of 1,067 listed as Klavern members, 61.5 percent had been suspended at least once for not paying dues.
The capital did accumulate, though, and with it there built up a large infrastructure. The Klan owned or controlled newspapers, magazines and radio stations. It “tried but failed to create its own banks so that its members could avoid using un-American ones.” Also serving to build an imaginary wall between the KKK and the outside world were its rituals and private language. A Klonklave, or weekly meeting of a Klavern, might hear a from a visiting Klokard (lecturer), after which the Klabee (treasurer) would accept Klecktokens (initiation fees) from newcomers, who would be expected to learn the differences of rank and function between an exalted cyclops and a grand dragon.
All of this seems more ridiculous than strictly necessary. But Gordon makes the case for it as participatory role-playing. The hybrid of social club and multilevel marking firm was also a community theater of sort. And in combination with propaganda sources that “limited [Klan] members’ exposure to information that might have challenged their fears,” this created a sealed-off culture of grievances.
It worked, for a while. But the profiteering, corruption and mutual animosity of its leadership doomed the whole enterprise. Self-contained and self-centered, it disintegrated in time, collapsing from internal conflicts. For decades after that, nothing comparable took its place. Trump’s campaign for the presidency emerged in 2015, of course, reviving much of the second Klan's mentality. If history is repeating itself, that may yet turn out to have a bright side.
Author Linda Gordon, winner of two Bancroft Prizes and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, is the author of The Second Coming of the KKK, Dorothea Lange and Impounded, and the coauthor of Feminism Unfinished. She is the Florence Kelley Professor of History at New York University and lives in New York and Madison, Wisconsin.
[Essayist Scott McLemee is the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed. In 2008, he began a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. From 1995 until 2001, he was contributing editor for Lingua Franca. Between 2001 and 2005, he covered scholarship in the humanities as senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2005, he helped start the online news journal Inside Higher Ed, where he serves as Essayist at Large, writing a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs. His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other publications. In 2004, he received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He has given papers or been an invited speaker at meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Cultural Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Organization of American Historians.]