“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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.”