For many Americans, the recent movement of white supremacy from the margins into the mainstream has been a staggering development. Under the guise of countering a “political correctness” run amok, topics that were long considered taboo have lately been broached publicly and proudly. Fringe organizations dedicated to white supremacy have mobilized with surprising strength, while the politics of racism have been revived and rationalized at the highest levels of power.
For white supremacists, Donald Trump’s victory last fall was both revelatory and revolutionary. “Trump has unquestionably brought people to our ideas,” enthused Richard Spencer, the white-nationalist leader who coined the term “alt-right.” Emboldened by the Trump administration—which, until recently, included alt-right allies like Stephen Bannon—white supremacists stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight. “It’s been an awakening,” Spencer raved at a celebratory rally after Trump’s election. “This is what a successful movement looks like.”
That movement, of course, led to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally this past August. According to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, the protesters went there “to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” and “take our country back.” To the shock of onlookers, clean-cut young men marched through the streets of the college town in a torchlight parade, their faces contorted in anger as they shouted “Blood and Soil!”—the old Nazi slogan rendered in German as “Blut und Boden!” The following day, the demonstrations turned deadly when a 20-year-old alt-right supporter drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters, killing one.
With any other American president, the obvious response would have been a quick and clear condemnation of the white supremacists. But Trump, as he often reminds us, is like no other president. His initial comments parceled out blame to the “many sides” involved in the confrontation and were so lightly drawn that the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer saw his words as a sign of support. To make matters worse, Trump then insisted that “some very fine people” had participated in the white-supremacist protest. Naturally, alt-right leaders were flattered. “Really proud of him,” said Spencer.
To many Americans, the warm relationship between the White House and white supremacists appears to be a new and shocking development. But as Linda Gordon reminds us in The Second Coming of the KKK, white-supremacist politics have entered our political mainstream before. The “second Klan” of the 1910s and ’20s—unlike the vigilante group that preceded it in the Reconstruction era or the racist terrorists who targeted the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s—operated largely in the open and with broad support from white society in general and white politicians in particular. Moving beyond the regional and racial boundaries of the South, this version of the Klan spread across the country, targeting a broader range of enemies: Asians and Latinos alongside African Americans, as well as large swaths of religious minorities like Catholics, Jews, and Mormons. At its peak, the second Klan claimed to have between 4 and 6 million members nationwide, although Gordon makes a persuasive case that this was “certainly an exaggeration.”
A slim volume that largely synthesizes the already substantial literature on its subject, The Second Coming of the KKK nevertheless offers readers something new: The book is written, quite self-consciously, for this moment. Unlike other historians who strive for an ever-elusive objectivity, Gordon is refreshingly blunt about who she is and why she wrote it. “In my discussion of the Ku Klux Klan I am not neutral, and like all historians, I cannot and do not wish to discard my values in interpreting the past,” she notes in her introduction. “The fact that I am one of those the Klan detested—a Jew, an intellectual, a leftist, a feminist, a lover of diversity—no doubt…informs this book.”
But Gordon is also an accomplished American historian, and despite her lack of sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan, her approach to the group is a model of historical empathy. Unlike a previous generation of liberal and leftist scholars who dismissed far-right movements like the Klan as the result of “irrational paranoia,” Gordon takes her topic quite seriously, and comes away with serious lessons. Viewing the world from the vantage point of the ordinary men and women who joined the order, she concludes that the politics of white supremacy seemed quite reasonable to them. “The Klan’s drive to maintain the supremacy of white Protestants was a perfectly rational expression of what many of its members conceived as their interest,” she asserts. “So were its strategies for achieving that goal. Even the Klan’s appeal to fear was a rational means to build mass support.”
The Klan seemed reasonable, Gordon argues, because it found a way to make itself appear respectable. Unlike the secretive vigilantes who made up the versions that came before and after it, the second Klan distinguished itself by operating largely in the open. “However much they exaggerated or lied,” Gordon notes, its leaders “passed as honorable citizens, and that was the key to the Klan’s success. It was not secret because it did not need to be. It remained legal and reputable.”
Indeed, the chief success of The Second Coming of the KKK is the way in which Gordon makes clear that the organization was not an outlier, but perfectly in tune with its time. The late 1910s had been one of the most chaotic and crisis-ridden periods in American history. In the wake of the First World War, Americans suffered through a host of problems: soaring inflation, widespread unemployment, a deadly influenza epidemic, a “bloody summer” of race riots, massive labor strikes, revolutionary bomb plots, and a deeply repressive Red Scare. As the 1920s dawned, many people rallied to Warren G. Harding, who promised that he would return the country to a calmer state of “normalcy.”
For large numbers of white Americans, nothing seemed quite as “normal” as the Ku Klux Klan. Its presence was taken as a given, and its influence in politics and society was pervasive. Notably, in Muncie, Indiana—the “Middletown” that sociologists Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd studied as the embodiment of 1920s America—the mayor was a loyal Klansman, as were the president of the local school board and the secretary of the YMCA.
From the beginning, the Klan presented itself as a fraternal club—its name, after all, came from kuklos, the Greek word for “circle”—and it proved itself perfectly pitched for a decade dominated by them. One ad styled the Klan as a “Standard Fraternal Order,” while a recruiter in Wisconsin described it as “a high, close, social, patriotic, benevolent association” that had “a perfected lodge system.” With its arcane rituals and oaths, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan seemed little different from the Knights of Pythias or the Knights of the Maccabees. Indeed, the Klan’s racial and religious hatreds made it more like these groups than not, as most fraternal orders of the era barred blacks, Catholics, and Jews.
In this way, the second Klan followed the path blazed by established fraternal clubs more than it followed the footsteps of the original hooded order. “The new Ku Klux Klan,” Sinclair Lewis observed in his 1927 classic Elmer Gantry, was simply “an organization of the fathers, younger brothers and employees of the men who had succeeded and become Rotarians.” As Gordon notes, when Klan recruiters set out to organize a new town, they routinely sought out local Masons in hopes of enlisting them first and thereby setting an example for other “good citizens” to follow. And most did: In one Michigan county, nearly three-quarters of the local Klansmen belonged to other fraternal orders, including the Masons and the Odd Fellows.
In keeping with this fraternal identity, the second Klan promoted itself as a civic-minded organization. Fittingly, Gordon begins her book with detailed descriptions of the massive carnivals convened by the Klan. On July 4, 1923, for instance, a crowd estimated at between 50,000 and 200,000 attended a Klan picnic in Kokomo, Indiana. The “Klonvocation” boasted six tons of beef, 55,000 buns, 2,500 pies, and 5,000 cases of soda. Children had their own play center, while adults could take their pick of entertainments, including a boys’ singing quartet, a “talkie” film, circus performers, a six-round boxing match, and a daredevil who performed aerial acrobatics on the wing of a circling plane.
As a sign of its “all-American nature,” the Klan put together its own baseball teams. To drum up publicity and boost recruitment, KKK squads were more than fine playing games against teams of racial and religious minorities. In Wichita, Kansas, the Klan played against a local “crack colored team.” In Youngstown, Ohio, Klansmen played against the Knights of Columbus; in Los Angeles, another squad staged a three-game charity series against a team from B’nai B’rith. “Newspaper coverage typically treated the Klan teams like all others,” Gordon observes, “with no particular attention to Klan politics.”
But just as the Knights of Columbus and B’nai B’rith served as the public face of Catholic and Jewish communities, so too did the Ku Klux Klan represent nativist Protestants who sought to keep those religious communities under control. A Klan-allied minister in Maine aptly described the order as “the rising of a Protestant people to take back what is their own.” Other clergymen concurred; indeed, an estimated 40,000 ministers joined the organization, Gordon notes, turning their congregations into “Klan sanctuaries and recruiting camps.” Again, this was all done openly, with robed Klansmen offering public testimonials and financial contributions to friendly churches, often in the middle of Sunday services.
If the Klan’s close relationship with the institutions of Protestant Christianity helped to cement its claim to mainstream American culture, so too did its ties with capitalism. Though it claimed to serve as the champion of ordinary working- and middle-class whites against the “elites,” the Klan rarely if ever targeted individual businessmen or the growing power of corporations. Instead, in keeping with Calvin Coolidge’s famous maxim that “the chief business of America is business,” the organization strove to present itself as a business-friendly enterprise. By 1922, for example, the local “klavern” in Madison, Wisconsin, advertised itself as “the Loyal Businessmen’s Society.”
The Klan also proved to be a rather successful capitalist enterprise itself: It not only opposed communists, socialists, and other “un-American” radicals; it also turned a tidy profit. Founded in 1915, the second Klan went largely unnoticed until its leader effectively turned the organization over to public-relations professionals. With a contract that guaranteed “an astonishing 80 percent of any revenue brought in from new recruits,” the Southern Publicity Association had ample incentive to help the Klan spread across the country. Klan recruiters, known as “kleagles,” worked on commission, keeping $4 of each $10 new initiation fee for themselves and kicking the remainder up the ladder. The entire enterprise was, Gordon notes, one more pyramid scheme in an era already teeming with them.
The initiation fees were only the start. Klansmen paid annual dues to their local klavern, plus a yearly tax to the national headquarters. Members had to purchase a “Kloran,” the handbook of Klan codes and rituals, as well as robes and hoods from the organization. “Not coincidentally,” Gordon notes, “the costumes were designed so that wives could not hand-sew them. The headgear and Klan insignia had to be just so, which made the members want the real, manufactured object.” There was plenty more that members could purchase, ranging from a “Kluxer’s Knifty Knife” to a “zircon-studded Fiery Cross” brooch for their wives. Klan officials had plenty of profitable side projects, too: a recording company that sold phonograph records and player-piano rolls of Klan tunes, a real-estate endeavor, and even a for-profit life-insurance company. By one recent estimate, which Gordon warns may be overblown, the second Klan at its peak took in more than $25 million annually (approximately $342 million today).
To promote their profits, Klan leaders fed their members a steady diet of fake-news stories that would keep them outraged and engaged. The organization “needed a sense of danger to thrive,” Gordon notes. “Klanspeople had to visualize themselves as soldiers defending against threats, and in so doing created belief in those threats.”
Klan propaganda portrayed a white Protestant America under siege from sinister forces at home and abroad. Members learned, for example, that Catholic priests were funneling “a steady stream of gold” to fund the Vatican’s plan for “world supremacy,” all the while corrupting the nation from within. Apocryphal accounts from “escaped nuns” claimed that convents were secretly harems where nuns served as sex slaves for the priests. An initiation rite for the Knights of Columbus supposedly required Catholic laymen to “wage relentless war, secretly and openly, against all heretics, Protestants and Masons.”
Jews were just as guilty, the Klan insisted. They too ran “white-slave dens,” but their pernicious influence struck deep at the heart of American culture, with “Jew Hollywood” and the media corrupting the minds and morals of God-fearing Americans. On top of all this, Klan reports warned ominously, “fourteen million people of the colored race” were busy “organizing” as well.
Convinced of the threats confronting “real America,” Klan members believed that they were the true victims and thus were justified in fighting back with a vigorous “defense.” Like its earlier incarnation, the second Klan regularly engaged in brutal acts of vigilante violence, lynching, whipping, and tar-and-feathering individuals whom it found guilty of a host of evils. But more often, and more ominously, the 1920s Klan acted not beyond the law but with its blessing. In Portland, Oregon, for instance, the local police department allegedly included 150 Klansmen in its ranks. Moreover, the mayor authorized the creation of a 100-man vigilante squad: Its members, chosen on the Klan’s advice, were given badges, guns, and the power to make arrests.
In all likelihood, only a small number of Klansmen engaged in vigilante violence. In the judgment of a contemporary cited by Gordon, “probably nine-tenths of them…do nothing but repeat the ritual, pass pious resolutions, and go home.” Of course, the second Klan didn’t rely on violence as much as its predecessor, simply because it didn’t need to resort to physical coercion to get its way. The Klan could exhibit a much greater level of control through its oversize role in local, state, and national politics.
In Oregon, for instance, the Klan helped elect the Democratic governor, then pushed through a law that effectively wiped out Catholic schools by requiring parents to send all children between the ages of 8 and 16 to public ones. (In 1925, the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional.) In Texas, the Klan toppled a four-term US senator, dominated the state legislature, and controlled the cities of Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, and Wichita Falls. In Oklahoma, when the governor called all adult male citizens of the state into military service and declared martial law in an attempt to stop the organization, the Klan-controlled legislature retaliated by impeaching and removing him from office.
In some states, the Klan’s control was nearly absolute. In Indiana, Grand Dragon David Stephenson essentially presided over the state’s political system, until he was brought down in a lurid scandal and sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder. When the Republican governor, a longtime crony, refused to pardon him, Stephenson spilled all of his secrets, sending a congressman, the mayor of Indianapolis, and other officials to jail. (The governor escaped a bribery conviction only because the statute of limitations on the case had run out.)
Despite her subtitle’s reference to the “American political tradition,” Gordon spends relatively little time detailing these examples of the Klan’s role in formal politics. Discussion of the campaigns and candidates backed by the Klan comes quite late in the book, almost as an afterthought. One chapter provides a close study of the KKK presence in Oregon politics, but the rise and fall of the Klan’s massive machine in Indiana is covered quickly in a few pages of epilogue. Readers hoping for a thorough accounting of the Klan’s influence in American politics will need to look elsewhere.
That said, given the extensive literature that already exists on the second Klan’s role in state and local politics, it’s understandable that Gordon chose to focus on its less appreciated power as a social movement and cultural phenomenon. The organization shaped the nation’s political consciousness in ways that long outlived any individual election or even the second Klan itself. As Gordon notes, the Klan’s “redefinition of Americanness, and thereby of un-Americanism, would continue to influence the country’s political culture” into our own day.
This, then, is the stark reminder provided by Gordon’s book: No matter how much we may wish to believe that they are foreign to our system, the politics of racism and white resentment have been a perennial feature in our politics. The draw of white-supremacist organizations can’t be dismissed as irrational or irrelevant; their influence is ignored at our own peril. They are, as the Klan insisted a century ago, “100% American.”