Essay: Ku Klux Klan

In preparation for our trip along I-70 I have been reading up on the history of the Ku Klux Klan. There are three different incarnations of the Klan. In this essay I want to focus on the second one, because that is the one that spread beyond its Southern confines, and what may be yet another new incarnation of the hate group. In the interest of completeness I give a brief description of the first and third Klans, but I will focus on its second incarnation.

Presidential Reconstruction
Presidential Reconstruction

Presidential Reconstruction [source]

The first Klan was organized in Pulaski, Tenn. in 1865. Its members were former Confederates. It sprang up in the South as a reaction to Radical or Congressional Reconstruction (1867-77). President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated just after the end of the Civil War, had outlined a moderate policy of bringing the rebel states back into the Union fold in his famous Second Inaugural, the “malice toward none” speech. However, radical Republicans swept Congress in the 1866 midterms and gained enough votes to override President Andrew Johnson’s vetoes. Radical Reconstruction ended after the disputed election of 1876 gave rise to the Compromise of 1877. Rutherford B. Hayes became president on the understanding that federal troops would be withdrawn from the South, where they had propped up increasingly corrupt and inept regimes.

The third klan is the one that experienced a revival in the South in the 1950s and 1960s in response to the Civil Rights movement, but according to the website of the Anti-Defamation League, “[m]ost Klaverns (local units) remained stubbornly independent, although the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s encouraged some unification into independent realms of varying sizes.” Its fragmentation also made it easier for law enforcement officials to infiltrate. (Ku Klux Klan - History)

Birth of a Nation theatrical poster
Birth of a Nation theatrical poster

Birth of a Nation theatrical poster [source]

The second incarnation of the Klan got its start in 1915, inspired by the release of the movie “Birth of a Nation” by D.W. Griffith. The movie portrays black men as sexual predators and white women as being in dire need of protection, which is why gallant white men must organize in the Klan. This time it adopted modern organizational principles and practices, particularly in recruitment, and it grew rapidly. One of the new recruits was David Curtiss “Steve” Stephenson (1891-1966), a drifter from Texas who had volunteered for the American Expeditionary Forces, but got no closer to the action than an army camp in Massachusetts. He settled in Irvington, Ind. in 1920. Stephenson, who was a talented salesman and organizer, joined the Klan soon after his arrival.

At that time, the United States had just rescued the Allied powers in Europe from near-certain defeat at the hands of the Central powers by joining the fight on the Western front in France at the eleventh hour. While the war was probably nowhere near as bitter an experience for the average Dough Boy as it had been for European troops on the Western Front, it was wrenching nonetheless. Add to this the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918, immigrants with outlandish habits and religions arriving on America’s shores in droves, ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote in 1920, the shock of the Jazz Age, with girls wearing short skirts and short hair who smoked in public, and, until Prohibition outlawed it, also drank liquor in public, and it does not seem far-fetched that conservatives felt that “real Americanism,” and American womanhood in particular, were in urgent need of protection.

Meanwhile, in Germany, another drifter made his way back from the Western front, where he had served with distinction and won the Iron Cross, into radical Bavarian politics. He joined the obscure National Socialist German Workers Party in 1919 and built it into a formidable political organization based on his talents as a speaker. In 1921 he became its undisputed leader. Two years later, this far right splinter party thought it had gained enough strength and popular support to attempt a coup d’etat. However, it failed miserably and the coup’s leader, Adolf Hitler, used his time in prison to write his political memoir “Mein Kampf.”

What is it that made Hitler and his Nazi movement so spectacularly successful in Germany while the Klan petered out? After all, the Klan enjoyed the same kind of behind-the-scenes support from various officials that the Nazis did in their early years. Hitler was convicted of attempting to overthrow the government, was sentenced to five (!) years in prison and ended up being paroled - but not being deported to his native Austria - after little over a year. The dislocation of the Great War and the peace that followed it had left Germany highly unstable and politically divided, but that does not explain why the instability and disunity did not have the same effect in the United States. In the 1920s, the instability and dislocation following a bloody and bitter Civil War over secession and slavery were still within living memory.

America in the 1920s shared quite a few, shall we say, less pleasant traits with Germany. In fact, they may have been more pronounced in here than in Germany before Hitler became chancellor. Racism was certainly alive and well, as attested by the rapid growth of the second Ku Klux Klan. For example, lynchings peaked at 83 in 1919, 76 of which were against blacks. Antisemitism never became as virulent here as it did in Germany, but it was certainly present. Henry Ford published a set of pamphlets entitled “The International Jew” that prominent Nazis later called their inspiration. Hitler admired Ford and kept a picture of the industrialist in his office and a copy of the pamphlets in his library.

The oath that klansmen had to swear is enlightening as well: “Are you native born, white, Gentile, American citizens? [...] Will you, without mental reservations, take a solemn oath to defend, preserve, and enforce these same?” Of course, it was easy to blame Jews, immigrants and Catholics for the political and moral decay of the country. “Politicians did not have answers for what was ailing the country. But the Klan was there to provide an answer: It was because Socialist labor agitators were undermining the country. The ministers could not explain why the whole country seemed to be falling apart morally and spiritually, but the Klan knew it was because the Jews and the Catholics had pulled Americans away from God.” (Grand Dragon. D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, M. William Lutholtz, 1991, p. 33)

D. C. Stephenson
D. C. Stephenson

D. C. Stephenson [source]

I believe that a more decisive factor in the success achieved by the Nazis was that they were a large (and very aggressive) fish in a small pond. It also helped that they could count on at least tacit support from Bavarian authorities, who thought extreme right-wing parties far less dangerous than extreme left-wing ones. The Klan, by contrast, was a comparatively small fish in a large pond, even though membership in the Indiana Klan reached a quarter of a million by 1925, including half the members of the state’s general assembly and its governor. Grand Dragon Stephenson was undone by a combination of greed, corruption and violence. That same year, Stephenson was accused and convicted of the rape and murder of Madge Oberholzer and sentenced to life in prison. When the governor refused to grant him a pardon, Stephenson began exposing Klan members to public scrutiny, which effectively destroyed the organization. Stephenson was paroled in 1956 and died in obscurity in Tennessee in 1966, by which time the Klan, in its third incarnation, was already in decline.

But while it may have declined, it has not gone away, as evidenced by the existence of a Klan website. It lists as its national membership coordinator Rachel Pendergraft, daughter of Thomas (Thom) Robb, owner of Thomas Robb Ministries in Arkansas. He is also the organizer of the annual European American Heritage Festival, which does not by coincidence take place in Pulaski, Tenn. It links to the websites of David Duke, White Pride Homeschool, Ann Coulter, a holocaust-denying book seller called The Barnes Review, French and Flemish right-wing political parties and a group calling itself Council of Conservative Citizens, which has links to all major European right-wing parties on its website. Its statement of principles bears striking resemblance to the tea party.

When fascism comes to America...
When fascism comes to America...

When fascism comes to America... [source]

There is a meme going around on the internet that shows a right-wing politician wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross, with the Sinclair Lewis quote: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” In the 1920s, not a few ministers supported the Klan wholeheartedly. So-called christian identity groups, such as Robb’s Christian Revival Center, may the new incarnation of the Klan. They certainly seem proud to link themselves to far right movements and parties. The only thing that may be different in this, by my count its fourth incarnation, is that it may no longer be anti-Catholic, since it shares the church’s implacable opposition to abortion and gay rights.

Nicoline, June 21, 2012

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