The Spirit of the Klan Haunts the 2016 Election
Let’s talk about building a wall to keep out immigrants; it’s a thing in the current campaign. But it’s not a new idea. How about this earlier version?
The image is from 1928, and a bit fuzzy. Note the three faces peeking over the wall: the “Red” is for eastern Europeans & Jews; “Rum” is for Irish, as deemed to be all drunkards, and stupid; and at left, the one with the big pointed hat is the Catholic church, as the force behind immigrants from Italy and other predominantly Catholic countries (especially Irish again).
Today the wall would be on the Mexican border, and focus on keeping out Latinos and Muslims. But the image is, to me, eerily familiar.
And then let’s notice calls to eliminate and suppress a great religion, and exclude its adherents. Like this?
(“This tree must come down.” Okay, I put “Islam” on the tree; actually it said “ROME.” This image is from 1925.)
And what about the meme of a corrupt political system, rigged elections — but noticeably NOT including vote suppression efforts against minorities? Check this:
The caption here is “Push him off.” This doglike figure, branded “Corrupt Politics,” from 1926, is wearing a Catholic bishop’s mitre; the church, as we’ve seen, was associated with ethnic Americans who opposed Prohibition of liquor, which was also identified with public corruption, mobsters like Al Capone, and so forth.
And last (but not least), a repeated refrain in this campaign’s rhetoric was the phrase “100 Percent”; especially “100 % American,” but 100% could be almost anything that was especially favored. Like this:
In this 1925 drawing, “100%” occurs eight times (some are too small to be read, but they’re there). The number shows up in many similar sketches. (Some of the text here was digitally enhanced, for readability.)
Okay, so what’s the point?
All these images, as should be evident, feature and celebrate the Ku Klux Klan, in its second mass incarnation, from the 1920s. Yes, including the anti-immigration wall.
In that decade, the Klan recruited several million members, and became politically powerful for some years in many states, and even took over the state government of Indiana, and ruled in many cities.
But our concern here is less the history of this mass upsurge (fascinating and horrifying as it is!) than some of the movement’s key themes, because they have much current echoes and resonance.
I researched these themes and the images last summer. And a key to their resilience came in an obscure editorial in one of the few Indiana newspapers to challenge the Klan. In 1923 when the order was riding high in the state, an unnamed, beleaguered editor in South Bend, called it out as “Klanism”:
“Klanism”; it’s a clumsy term, but then the Klan specialized in ungainly verbiage. And the editor was right: the Indiana Klan, followed by other Klan groups, collapsed from internal corruption and scandal by the late 1920s. Yet the attitudes evoked in these images and its standard rhetoric not only survived, they have even flourished in other guises.
After all, many Klan sympathizers were prevented from officially joining by work rules or other constraints. But this didn’t prevent them from sharing the Klan’s signature issues — or from sticking with them when the Klan itself receded.
At its height, the 1920s Klan attracted hundreds of thousands of “respectable” folks: professionals, successful business people, prominent matrons, church leaders. (In fact, Klan leaders made special efforts to recruit ministers and pastors, waiving fees and other requirements, and not shrinking from offering outright bribes.)
One such beneficiary was the famously pugilistic evangelist Billy Sunday (1862-1935), one of whose mottoes was “fighting the devil & sin.”
Once in 1922, Sunday was about to launch into a sermon in Richmond, Indiana (home of Earlham, a Quaker college, and many Quaker Klan members) when, according to the Indianapolis Times, a dozen Klansmen came marching in, “clad in white robes and attended with much mystery.” They presented Sunday with a fifty dollar, um, contribution, and a letter of endorsement. (Unlike the devil, Sunday did not fight them off.)
This was no isolated incident; I have found records of the same thing happening in least two midwestern Friends churches, along with many others.
The cross, the flag & especially “America” — these were the 1920s Klan’s main symbols and platform. The common image of the group as being above all obsessed with race hatred directed at blacks jumbles their priorities. Sure, they wanted to keep down African Americans; but in the 1920s, particularly in Indiana, they hardly bothered to talk about that.
My guess is that this reflected a period that was a low point of civil rights agitation; so the Klan turned to its other targets, of which it had many: immigrants (Europeans and Asian); Catholics, Jews, and anyone who opposed Prohibition. There was some violence, but it was subdued and often clandestine. In its frequent public events the Klan emphasized a respectable-sounding, “positive” message, which centered on, as we have seen, “100% Americanism,” casting itself as its premier defender. (And many female members were strong supporters of women’s new right to vote.)
The Klan’s largest ever public rally was held in Kokomo, Indiana on July 4, 1923. Estimates of attendance range to 200,000 and beyond. Credible accounts paint it as a kind of patriotic segregated Woodstock, a family-oriented, day-long affair, with games and picnics, a parade, and many bands.
The climax was a long, tedious address by one D.C. Stephenson, the “Grand Dragon of the Indiana Realm of the Knights of the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan,” who arrived in his own airplane. His topic was not about repressing people of color; it was “Back to the Constitution.”
The occasion’s symbolic climax was the burning of a cross said to be sixty-feet high, accompanied by hymn-singing and fireworks. Numerous other huge Klan rallies were held across the state in those years.
“All in all,” wrote one historian without irony, “there was scarcely a phrase in the speech that would embarrass a major party candidate today.”
Indeed, there is one major party candidate on the scene today who echoes these themes seemingly without shame and without fear of their heritage being noticed.
Stephenson was riding high in 1923. He and his Klan took over the Indiana Republican party, and seemed to be controlling the state. He was said to be looking to run for the U.S. Senate and then the presidency, aiming to land in the White House with Klan support as his launching pad.
But his career soon crashed and burned. Despite the order’s much-trumpeted reverence for Prohibition and strict “family values,” Stephenson himself was a notorious drinker and had a charismatic predator’s taste for grabbing young women for sex, consent being optional.
In 1925, a young woman he had kidnaped and raped took poison and left a long, damning deathbed affidavit, made public after her death. Stephenson was tried and convicted of second-degree murder. He served many years in prison.
The resulting scandals rocked the state Republican leadership, and sent the Klan organization into a fatal tailspin, not only in its onetime national stronghold, but across the country. Respectable people stampeded out the door, and into what I call the Ku Klux Kloset.
The secret character of the Klan became their cover; a vow of silence spread across families and whole communities. In a state where perhaps a third of the adult white Protestant population had been part of the Klan, it quickly became a generation’s shared family secret, one that’s been kept remarkably well.
The vow still persists. How sturdy the Ku Klux Kloset‘s construction could be was shown by a 1995 incident in Noblesville, Indiana. An old trunk turned up in an abandoned barn and was opened — and in it was the membership list of 1920s Klan members in Noblesville and the surrounding area. On it was just about every Protestant white male. (Women had a separate Klan auxiliary that was also very large.)
The list was turned over to the Hamilton County Historical Society. A local historian began retyping the list to preserve it, and was soon shocked to find his father’s name on the list. And soon all hell broke loose. As the New York Times told it:
The historical society, after some debate, voted to accept the Klan list, but to restrict access to it.
“It would be embarrassing to some families” to publish the list, Mr. [David] Heighway [the society’s director] said, adding that threats of boycotts of merchants by the Klan also had to be considered. “There’s an ethical question here, too, since we don’t know how many people were forced to join the Klan.”
The last living person on the list died several months ago, but the roster will still be made available only for scholastic or genealogical purposes. The Historical Society said it would require researchers to gain the consent of all descendants before publishing the name of any Klansman, a requirement that would seem virtually impossible to meet.
The local NAACP objected to this concealment; their protest was ignored.
A similar example occurred among Indiana Quakers. Daisy Douglas Barr was the head and chief organizer of the huge woman’s Klan group in Indiana. She was also a prominent and vocal Quaker pastor, who had held the pulpits of several substantial Quaker congregations in the state.
With the Klan’s demise, Barr quit pastoring and faded from the public eye; but she was still quietly prominent in the WCTU and other white women’s organizations. When she died in 1938, sizable obituaries ran in several major papers around the state, some on the front page. Yet not one of the half-dozen I found said a single word about her Klan career. Neither did the memorial notice in the records of the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Quakers, of which she was still a member in good standing at her death.
The point here is that, as politics in Indiana have often showed since, in many corners of the state, Klan attitudes persist; but in this Kloseted fashion. No doubt many Hoosiers who uncovered these links in their family histories today would be as shocked as the Noblesville historian: none of their relatives had paraded in a white robe in their lifetimes. Yet in Indiana, the continuity of attitudes, the long shadow of Klanism, is not hard to identify. It is shown in the current governor’s attempt to ban immigration by Syrian refugees; a vicious anti-LGBT law, and numerous other measures.
So despite the Ku Klux Kloset, there are many telltale signs of what is inside. And as another anti-Klan editor, George Dale of Muncie, wrote after the Indiana Grand Dragon’s murder conviction, “The Klan may be dead as an organization, but the brand of politics inaugurated by D.C. Stephenson goes marching on.”
And so the “brand” does. Many of the same “platform planks” persist, long after the old robes have moldered, or been forgotten in an abandoned barn. The speakers today can ritualistically denounce the Klan, especially in its minor, often clownish current guise. But the echoes, and more than echoes, ring from a time when it was a major force in U.S. politics, a time when “Klanism” seems to be rising yet again. It’s almost eerie to hear one of the Klan’s favorite mantras, “100 percent!” repeated on the stump of a national campaign, as it is regularly.
By the way, a word about the 1920s sketches posted here. They all come from an unexpected source: the Pillar of Fire Church, a group which had its headquarters. including a college and a clinic, not in Indiana but in Zarephath, New Jersey, a hamlet smack between the two academic powerhouses of Princeton and Rutgers. The church’s founder and bishop, one Alma Bridwell White, was both a feminist and an ardent adherent of the Klan.
In the 1920s she published a series of three widely-read books, extolling the Klan as the savior of America, and even a redeemer figure foretold in biblical prophecy. The books were heavily illustrated by Branford E. Clarke.
That was 93 years ago. But the editor was right. 100 percent.
Pass it on.