History and Historiography

Rank-and-File Radicalism within the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s

By John Zerzan, Anarchist Library

In the following article are presented some unusual features of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, the only period in which the KKK was a mass movement. In no way should this essay be interpreted as an endorsement of any aspect of this version of the Klan or of any other parts of Klan activity. Nonetheless, the loathsome nature of the KKK of today should not blind us to what took place within the Klan 70 years ago, in various places and against the wishes and ideology of the Klan itself.

In the U.S. at least, racism is certainly one of the most crudely reified phenomena. The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s is one of the two or three most important — and most ignored — social movements of 20th century America. These two data are the essential preface to this essay.

Writing at the beginning of 1924, Stanley Frost accurately surveyed the Klan at the crest of its power: “The Ku Klux Klan has become the most vigorous, active and effective organization in American life outside business.”[1] Depending on one’s choice of sources, KKK membership in 1924 can be estimated at anywhere between two and eight million.[2]

And yet, the nature of this movement has been largely unexplored or misunderstood. In the fairly thin literature on the subject, the Klan phenomenon is usually described simply as ‘nativism’. A favorite in the lexicon of orthodox historians, the term refers to an irrationality, racism, and backwardness supposedly endemic to the poorer and less-educated classes, and tending to break out in episodic bouts of violently-expressed prejudice. Emerson Loucks’ The Ku Klux Klan in Pennsylvania: A Study of Nativism is a typical example. Its preface begins with, “The revived KKK and its stormy career is but one chapter in the history of American nativism,” the first chapter is entitled, “Some Beginnings of Nativism,” and in the book’s concluding paragraph we learn that “Nativism has shown itself to be a perennial.”[3]

Kenneth Jackson, with his The Ku Klux Klan in the City, has been one of a very few commentators to go beyond the amorphous ‘nativism’ thesis and also challenge several of the prevailing ste- reotypes of the Klan. He argues forcefully that “the Invisible Empire of the 1920s was neither predominantly southern, nor rural, nor white supremacist, nor violent.”[4] Carl Degler’s succinct comments corroborate the non-southern characterization quite ably: “Significantly, the single piece of indisputable Klan legislation enacted anywhere was the school law in Oregon; the state most thoroughly controlled by the Klan was Indiana; and the largest Klan membership in any state was that in Ohio. On the other hand, several southern states like Mississippi, Virginia, and South Carolina hardly saw the Klan or felt its influence.”[5] Jackson’s statistics show clearly the Klan’s northern base, with only one southern state, Texas, among the eight states with the largest membership.[6] It would be difficult to even begin to cite Jackson’s evidence in favor of terming the Klan an urban phenomenon, inasmuch as his whole book testifies to this characterization. It may be interesting to note, however, the ten urban areas with the most Klansmen. Principally industrial and all but one of them outside the South, they are, in descending order: Chicago, Indianapolis, Philadelphia-Camden, Detroit, Denver, Portland, Atlanta, Los Angeles-Long Beach, Youngstown-Warren, and Pittsburgh-Carnegie.[7]

The notion of the KKK as an essentially racist organization is similarly challenged by Jackson. As Robert Moats Miller put it, “in great areas of the country where the Klan was powerful the Negro population was insignificant, and in fact, it is probable that had not a single Negro lived in the United States, a Klan-type order would have emerged.”[8] And Robert Duffus, writing for the June 1923 World’s Week, conceded: “while the racial situation contributed to a state of mind favorable to Ku Kluxism, curiously it did not figure prominently in the Klan’s career.”[9] The Klan in fact tried to organize “colored divisions” in Indiana and other states, to the amazement of historian Kathleen Blee.[10] Deg- ler, who wrongly considered vigilantism to be the core trait of the Klan, admitted that such violence as there was “was directed against white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants rather than against the minorities.”[11]


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