What was the Second Klan about in the 1920s?
The following excerpt comes from Stanley Coben’s book Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America:
“The early twentieth-century assaults on Victorianism provoked a strong organized defense by fundamentalists, Prohibitionists, and various conservative and patriotic organizations. However, the huge nationwide Ku Klux Klan, with at least three million members, emerged as the most visible and powerful guardian of Victorianism during the 1920s.”
As it turns out, the Second Klan wasn’t so much about race or violence against blacks as it was about defending America’s traditional White Anglo-Protestant national identity, culture and morals in the culture war of the 1920s against Jews, Catholics and modernists.
Remember, the national consensus of the Victorian era was that an “American” was a White, Anglo-Saxon (in culture), Protestant with liberal and republican principles. By the 1920s, this consensus is starting to break down. We are entering the turbulent period when all this changed.
“Unlike the vigilante groups which had used the name Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War and during the mid-twentieth-century battles against integration, the Klan of the 1920s did not focus on protecting white supremacy in the South. At the height of the Klan’s power in 1924, Southerners formed only 16 percent of its total membership. Over 40 percent of early twentieth-century Klan members lived in the three midwestern states of Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. The Klan enrolled more members in Connecticut than in Mississippi, more in Oregon than in Louisiana, and more in New Jersey than in Alabama. Klan membership in Indianapolis was almost twice that in South Carolina and Mississippi combined.”
The Second Klan was not a Southern organization.
It was an American Nationalist group that defended the Victorian consensus in national identity, culture and morality. America was a White, Anglo-Saxon (in culture), Protestant nation. The Second Klan had significant support in the South, but it was based in the Midwest.
“Also, Klan members in the mid-1920s were not any more violent than other native, white, middle-class Protestant males. After the Klan organized nationally for maximum profit and political action in 1921, the organization expelled members and whole chapters charged with having taken part in vigilante activities. However, inconclusive newspaper and government investigations into the activities of a small minority of early Klansman during 1921 gave the organization a violent image. The name Ku Klux Klan (adopted mainly because of the Klan’s role in the immensely popular film, The Birth of a Nation), the Klan’s secrecy, and the order’s refusal to admit anyone except native white Protestant males contributed to this image, especially among blacks, Catholics, Jews, and champions of civil liberties.”
The Second Klan wasn’t a violent organization.
There were lynchings in the 1920s and deadly race riots in places like Tulsa and Rosewood, but racial violence didn’t have much to do with the Klan. It was more focused on Prohibition.
“The near absence of Klan violence against Southern blacks was explained, in part, by a perceptive editorial in the Savannah, Georgia, Tribune, a black-owned newspaper which strongly supported Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist Universal Negro Improvement Association and was outspoken about civil-rights violations. The Tribune‘s editorial (whose conclusions were corroborated by other evidence), published July 13, 1922, stated:
The evidence is that in the South the Ku Klux are not bothering with the Negroes. The naked truth is that when a band of lynchers set out to kill a Negro they do not take the trouble to mask. They do not think it necessary to join a secret society, pay initiation fees and buy regalia when Negroes are the quarry.”
If it wasn’t bothering blacks, what was the Second Klan up to in the 1920s?
“The Klan’s primary objectives consisted of guarding the major Victorian concepts and the interests these protected. The ideas of character, largely reserved for white Protestants, the home and family in which character was formed, and distinctly separate gender roles stood foremost among these concepts. A series of articles entitled “The Klansman’s Criterion of Character,” published weekly from March 1 to March 29, 1924, in the Klan’s national newspaper Searchlight, illustrated what the Klan expected of its leaders as well of its ordinary members.”
In order to understand the Second Klan, you have to understand the Victorian mindset which segregated men and women into separate spheres and gender roles, ranked the different races and nationalities in a hierarchy, sharply distinguished between the “civilized” and “savage” and saw the home as a sort of school where Protestant children were taught the moral virtues that collectively made up their “character.” A good person was a hardworking, sober, pious person who practiced self-denial and the moral virtues and who had genteel manners. This is what the modernists rebelled against in the 1920s.
“These studies of members’ characteristics found that Klansmen represented a near cross section of the white Protestant male population in their communities. Everywhere, the Klan fought to overcome the power of business and professional elites, except in some small towns. Outside those towns, few members of these elites joined the Klan, and those who did tended to be younger members who evidently believed that their ambitions could be best furthered by the Klan.
The Second Klan was mostly composed of the respectable White Protestant middle class. The Chamber of Commerce was usually their greatest enemy.
“Klansmen were concentrated in middle white-collar positions and among small businessmen. Those who were blue-collar workers were overwhelmingly in skilled positions. Members belonged to all major Protestant denominations, but the Klan included very few members of fundamentalist sects. They attended services in Northern Methodist and Disciples of Christ churches especially. Klansmen generally had lived in their communities longer than nonmembers, usually at least ten years before they joined the order, yet they tended to be younger. Well over three quarters of them were married. They belonged to more civic and fraternal organizations, particularly to the Masons. They possessed greater wealth, more property, and registered to vote in 1924 in much larger proportions that did nonmembers in their communities. Klansmen in the mid-1920s decidedly were not a fringe group of vigilantes, they were solid middle-class citizens and individuals of high Victorian character.”
The Second Klan generally attracted the best people in the White Anglo-Protestant Heartland: highly religious, civic minded, married men who were more settled in their communities and thought their culture was in decline because of Jews, Catholics and modernism.
“However, Moore concluded that the Indiana Klan “did not employ violence as a strategy, and only a tiny fraction of the hooded order’s membership ever engaged in violent or threatening acts.”
Isn’t it interested that Jewish and Italian gangsters in cities like Chicago are romanticized, but the Second Klan is demonized even though the former were far more violent and corrupt. When corruption was discovered within the Indiana Klan in the mid-1920s, the group fell apart because of the values of its membership.
“These statistics bear out Leonard Moore’s conclusions about the meaning of the latest books and articles about the Klan:
“Together, these recent works made it nearly impossible to interpret the 1920s Klan as an aberrant fringe group … In-depth analysis of state and community Klans from different regions of the country make it clear … that the Klan was composed primarily of average citizens representing nearly all parts of America’s white Protestant society.”
The image of the Second Klan doesn’t match the reality of the organization.
“The editorial continued:
“There are those who affirm that in its protests against lawlessness, against Roman Catholic domination, against Jewish monopolies here and there, against a divided allegiance to our country, it is doing a great and needed work; that it is the savior of Protestantism; that it is the defender of the Constitution; that it is a help to morals and religion; that it masks are but legitimate appeals to the dramatic within all of us … that it has “cleaned up” villages, towns and cities … There can be no doubt that … tens of thousands of good people feel just this way about it and are fervent in its advocacy.”
Leonard Moore summarized what he called the Klan’s “basic message”:
The average white Protestant was under attack: his values and traditions were being undermined; his vision of America’s national purpose and social order appeared threatened; and his ability to shape the course of public affairs seemed to have been diminished.
Where is the lie?
The Klan was best known for dealing with drunks who abused their wives and neglected their families.
“Stapleton easily defeated Bailey in an election held in May 1923. He soon appointed fellow Klansmen to every important city office. In addition, seven Klan members received appointments as police sergeants, and dozens more were selected as patrolmen. Less than a month after the election, the city’s district attorney reported a dramatic drop in bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling.”
Again, it is no mystery why the Jewish press and modernists hated the Klan because it was opposed to their corruption and campaign of moral and cultural degeneration.