Until relatively recently, it looked as though the Ku Klux Klan was receding into the annals of American history. But given that everything is topsy turvy in 2017, including the fact we're quite literally in a state of emergency when it comes to white nationalism, it seems like a relevant moment to reexamine the origins of the hate group: where it began, how it took hold, and what it takes to bring it down.
In The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, prize-winning historian Linda Gordon does just that, looking back at how the Klan switched up its strategy in the 20th century and managed to gain traction with a new generation of Americans. We spoke with the New York University professor about how the '20s Klan adapted its agenda to persecute not only Black people, but also anyone it considered an “alien." We also discussed the roles that women played within the larger group, and how they formed their own subculture. What we discovered was manufactured hysteria, conspiracy theories, and blind intimidation that feels shockingly similar to the political culture of today.
People generally know what the KKK is. But what are its actual origins?
“The original Ku Klux Klan was organized immediately after the Civil War in the South, and it was quite literally what we would call a terrorist group. You had to be white and native born, and you couldn’t be in the Klan if you weren’t Protestant. The Klan that arose in 1920, which is sometimes called the second Klan, had a very different strategy: They fused racial bigotry with religious bigotry. At that time, there were so few African Americans in the Northern parts of the country that a campaign just directed against them wouldn’t have had traction. But, by emphasizing Evangelical Protestantism in denouncement Catholics and Jews, they were able to build a really mass movement.”
What role did women play in the second KKK?
“Women could not be members of the first Klan that formed after the Civil War — but that doesn’t mean they didn’t support it. In the second Klan, women were eager to join, and they soon developed their own large women’s Ku Klux Klan, the WKKK. It wasn’t as big as the men’s KKK, but it had 1.5 million members. They put on these massive pageants and picnics that were like county fairs in the summer outside. You can be sure it was women that did all the work: got the food, organized the children’s activities, organization the games. They also ran quite a number of Klan youth groups, like the Junior KKK, which was mainly about indoctrinating young people with Klan ideology and making them proud that they were the ‘right’ kind of Americans, meaning white Protestants.
"But there is an exception to all this, which you find it in a lot of conservative women’s movements. In what they wrote and said, they articulated a very conservative conventional gender ideology: that women belonged in the home, raising children, being good wives, and that men were the head of the family. But once the women started to organize into their own chapters, they rebelled against male control. For example, when they first started the WKKK, they were required to give portions of their initiation fees and dues to the male Klan. In many locations, they just started absolutely refusing to do that. So they may have paid lip service to taking the back seat. But once they get involved in politics, they started to get feisty.”
How has the KKK, and women’s role within it, changed over the course of the 20th century?
“It’s important to note that the current KKK is completely decentralized. You have a lot of local chapters; you do not have a national leader vetting policy. The 1920s Klan issued a whole book, which came down from its headquarters in Atlanta, that was basically a script of exactly what was supposed to happen at every local meeting. At that time, the organization was tremendously committed to uniformity, which you won’t find today. In some ways that’s good news; in other ways, bad news. It’s good that they don’t have the power you get from having a central organization anymore. But because it’s so decentralized, there’s also no control over what these local groups do.
“Today, as in the 1920s, a lot of people who support the Klan or other white nationalist groups: I think they really get off on just being able to angrily defy what they see as the establishment. They have this ‘fuck you’ attitude. And women get off on that as much as men. Nowadays, my guess is that women are still subordinate ultimately in making the decisions. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t begin — or haven’t already begun — resisting male authority, or wanting to exert their own power. But a lot of these white nationalist groups have not only conservative but weirdly reactionary notions about what women ‘should’ do. Like having tons and tons of babies so there are more little white nationalists.”
What do you think that reflects about our current cultural atmosphere?
“One thing that has been disturbing to me is how many women supported Trump despite the revelations of his really predatory attitude toward women. The lesson is: Just because they’re women doesn’t mean they place “women’s issues” as their priority, and we have to get past the idea that women are always a naturally gentler, kinder sex. I think for a lot of people, including women — both the anger they identify with and the white pride, whether they’re overtly or covertly racist — reflects a victimization narrative with roots.
"The 1920s Klan thought that Catholics and Jews were actually trying to take over the country, and they situated native born white people as the victims — even though that group obviously represented the majority. The same thing is happening within these groups now, including with women. These people see themselves as victimized by things that are going on in this country they don’t like like, for example, affirmative action. The Klan of the ‘20s made these kinds of claims, too. They would say immigrants were taking their jobs, which wasn’t true at all.”
Some people might say that white supremacists have been ‘emboldened’ in Trump’s America because they were there all along; others might say they were there all along. What do you think after writing this book?
“I have a visual image when I think about this: There’s always been a stream of both racial and religious intolerance, and that stream goes as far back in the United States as I am aware. But there are two things happening now: One is that racist groups are growing and attracting new people. The other is that they are publicly, proudly proclaiming their views, and that is really dangerous. One thing I really worry about is how for a short period in the 1920s, the second Klan made it respectable to mouth these really foul racial slurs; it was totally legitimate and even respectable. Then WWII, and the struggle against the Nazis, sort of stigmatized racism, and certainly anti-semitism, because that’s what the Nazi’s built their regime around. When racism goes underground, it’s because people have the sense that others are disapproving. But it’s so overt now, and that concerns me.”
The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition is out from Liveright on October 24.