Book Analysis: The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Politica


Book Analysis

The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition by Linda Gordon

In August 2017 similar groups of far-right protesters gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia for a rally which was dubbed “Unite the Right.” These self-identified individuals of alt-right, neo-Confederates, Klansmen, white nationalists, and neo-fascists movements, gathered to unite and protest against the removal of a statue of Civil War General Robert E. Lee from a city park. Armed with anti-Semitic slogans, Nazi and Confederate battle flags, torches and various weapons, they marched through the streets generating fear and inciting violence. As the clashes between protesters grew in intensity, counter-protestor Heather Heyer was killed when James Alex Fields, Jr. rammed his car into the crowd. Thirty-eight additional people were injured.[1]

In the days following these events, many were stunned. For those of us born after the Civil Rights era, there is no frame of reference for this type of violence in the streets. News footage of people, generally white men, waving Confederate flags, shouting anti-Semitic slogans and epithets, armed men carrying tiki torches and Nazi flags, were images only seen in photographs and documentaries of the twentieth century. Then, to add insult to injury, the forty-fifth President of the United States made a statement which, instead of condemning the behavior, seemed to condone the actions of these white nationalists saying there was “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides” despite the fact that there was little violence instigated by the counter-protesters. Then, he referred to “very fine people on both sides” which seemed to imply sympathy for white supremacy.[2] Politicians of his own party criticized the President for his failure to condemn the actions of the white nationalists, while at the same time, white supremacists were emboldened by the President’s lack of conviction.

For anyone seeking to gain a clearer understand of this and other episodes of white supremacy in our recent and not so recent history, historian, Linda Gordon’s work The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Traditionis a must read. Although the book was written and published prior to these events in Charlottesville, her historical narrative and thorough analytical perspective illuminates this social movement which is stepped in nativism, racism, and fear. As historians seek to understand the present through an analysis of the past, Gordon has made a considerable contribution to this effort. Many issues in our modern political discourse surrounding immigrants, morality and labor have their origins during this period of the early twentieth century.

What Gordon seeks to explain to readers is how the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s is different from the formation of the original Klan and how this twentieth century Klan has impacted American political tradition. This new Klan proved to legitimize bigotry and redefined American values. They provided a new definition of Americanism which persists to this day; which is infused with a blind patriotism, toxic masculinity, evangelical Christian values and a strict binary gender order. She brings to light their activities which are filled with inconsistencies inherent in its ideology and practices.

Inspired by the film Birth of a Nation, William Joseph Simmons, an Atlanta physician, southern racist and veteran of the Spanish-American War, began his study of the first Klan. When he decided to revive this movement, he appealed to “REAL MEN whose oaths are inviolate are needed” in 1915.[3] Having achieved modest results, only a few hundred Klansmen joined, he appealed to experienced public relations people, the feminist Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke. They took the organization national and networked with established fraternal orders and temperance organizations and houses of worship. By 1920, they realized that in order to be relevant to Northerners, who had less contact with African Americans, they would need to broaden their promotion of a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant supremacy. They turned their hatred towards Catholic immigrants, particularly Irish and Italians, and Jews. Thus, “the second Klan took off by melding racism and ethnic bigotry with evangelical morality.”[4]

As the author chronicles the rise of the Klan, there is a variable who’s who of evangelical preachers, businessmen, politicians, feminists and social movements whose stories intersect with that of the Klan. Main stream newspapers were used to spread Klan messaging and increase membership. Grand events, parades, amusements and “Klanvocations” or summer picnics featured carnival rides and contests and were held in small towns throughout the mid-west and west to attract people to join.[5]The states of Oregon and Indiana had the highest per capita rates of members and from 1922 to 1932, the majority of all Oregon’s elected officials were Klansmen.[6]The popularity of Klan ideology and its move out of the shadows make it a popular movement as opposed to a secret fraternal order as it was in the last part of the nineteenth century.

The Klan’s major electoral political successes included immigration restriction, anti-miscegenation laws, and the sponsorship of state laws to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. However, the most significant impact the Klan had was through the use of propaganda to influence religious beliefs, culture and race relations. The national Klan discourse included a legitimization of violence and vigilantism, a tough “law and order” campaign and a victimization of African Americans and of immigrants, especially Catholics and Jews. They infiltrated police departments, court houses and state legislatures to propel their agendas which varied regionally. Through her analysis, Gordon illustrates how societal changes; the changing nature of work from blue-collar to white collar, a rapid urbanization, influx of immigrants, shifting gender order and greater empowerment for women, provided an environment where native born, “white” Americans, were attracted to a social movement where “100% Americanism,” loyalty and patriotism was promoted.

Gordon’s in-depth exploration of the language, rituals, symbols, hierarchy and organizing techniques used by the Ku Klux Klan provides insight into our current political climate. Her examination of the “ancestors” of this twentieth century Klan include the inherent racism of the original Klan, nativism, temperance, fraternalism, Christian evangelicalism and the populism of the late nineteenth century.[7]The linkages she made between other social and political movements illustrate how normalized and intrenched in civic and religious institutions the Klan’s influence reached. Membership in the Klan brought prestige to “middling classes” and shop keepers, who wanted to stay in business, recognized the value of displaying American flags, or signs which read “100% American,” simply “100%” or “TWK” (Trade with Klansmen). These symbols identified “right” businesses and were not subject to the boycotts that regional Klaverns (local Klan chapters) organized.[8]

Like much of Klan ideology, female members of the WKKK (Women’s Ku Klux Klan) defied categorization. Some were fiercely independent and held leadership roles, like Elizabeth Tyler, Alma Bridwell White, and Daisy Douglas Barr. These women defied traditional Klan gender order and principles of Republican Motherhood through their advocacy work, national speaking tours, successful recruitment campaigns, and intensive and explicit support launched on behalf of the Klan. They combined the priorities of feminists (temperance and morality) with bigotry (white supremacy, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic) to promote the ideology of 100% Americanism. For example, many in the Klan supported women’s suffrage because they felt that white women’s votes would help to maintain the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority.

As with other moments of racial conflict and construction, one finds many inconsistencies in KKK ideology and white nationalism generally. Gordon’s study of this movement brings to light the many contradictions in these movements and offers a thorough explanation of the ideology. What is apparent through the reading of this book is how pervasive these beliefs and ideologies are in our current political discourse. The first Klan never died out but was simply reinvented and evolved to maintain its relevancy and was emboldened by the implicit and explicit support it received through the political, religious, economic and social movements that it influenced.

[1]Joe Helm, “Recounting a day of rage, hate, violence and death,” Washington Post, August 14, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/local/charlottesville-timeline/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.17148d14cbfd.

[2]Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman, “Trump Defends Initial Remarks on Charlottesville; Again Blames ‘Both Sides’,” The New York Times, August 15, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/us/politics/trump-press-conference-charlottesville.html.

[3]Linda Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2017), 12.

[4]Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK,15.

[5]Ibid., 79.

[6]Ibid., 170.

[7]Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK,26.

[8]Ibid., 172.