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Ku Klux Klan - The Twenties

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rose and fell over the years. The organization reached its peak, not during Reconstruction in the South, but during the 1920s, when its estimated strength was some four to five million members throughout the United States. Its influence plummeted shortly afterwards due to internal power struggles and intense investigation by the federal government.

In February 1915 the D.W. Griffith movie later titled The Birth of a Nation premiered in a Los Angeles theater. Though considered progressive in its technique and style, the film had a decidedly backwards plot that glorified a short-lived, post-Civil War white supremacist group called the Ku Klux Klan. The movie's broad release in March provoked riots and even bloodshed nationwide. Based on the Thomas Dixon novel and play The Clansman, the silent film adaptation by D.W. Griffith made cinematic history as the first Hollywood blockbuster. The story glorified the role of the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist secret society of white supremacists, in the years following the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, and negatively stereotypes African Americans in ways that reflect racial attitudes among white Americans during the era. Even President Woodrow Wilson enjoys a private White House showing.

It also revived interest in the KKK, leading to the birth of several new local groups that summer and fall. this present-day successor of the old Kuklux, since the latter part of 1915, when it was chartered as a legitimate fraternal organization by the State of Georgia. The originator of the idea of reviving the old institution under the old name was Colonel William Joseph Simmons of Atlanta, now Professor of Southern History in Lanier University. Associated with him in the application for the charter from the State of Georgia were three surviving members of the old Kuklux Klan. By virtue of this fact the new Klan declares itself, in its constitution, to be the only legitimate heir of the original organization.

Many more followed, mostly in southern states at first. Some of these groups focused on supporting the U.S. effort in World War I, but most wallowed in a toxic mix of secrecy, racism, and violence. World War I effectively came to an end with the signing of a ceasefire in November 1918, but the KKK was just getting started. Pro-war oriented Klan groups either folded or began to coalesce around a focus on racial and religious prejudice.

The Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence in politics and society after World War I. The Ku Klux Klan, dormant since the late 1800s, was revived in part to counteract the economic gains made by African Americans during World War I. It was made up of native-born, white Protestants of many income and social levels. In the changing world of the 1920s, the group was against Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, immorality, and drinking.

The great demand for labor during the war brought about the greatest migration in history of Negroes from the South to the North. High wages, North and South, raised the Negro for a time to unheard-of pinnacles of affluence. Then the sudden slump in business threw back into idleness thousands who had become accustomed to "easy money." Many of these found themselves hundreds of miles from their homes with no means of returning; large fractions of the whole number had forgotten their old habit of docility in their brief period of financial independence and ventured to assert their rights as citizens in a manner offensive to the dominant white race.

The demands of the National Association for the Advancement of the Colored People for the abolition of segregation of the races in the Government departments at Washington, the reduction of Congressional representation in the Southern States in proportion as the Negro is disfranchised, the pardon of the imprisoned soldiers of the Twenty-fourth Infantry held in Leavenworth for the Houston riots, the abolition of "Jim Crow" cars on interstate railroad trains and the appointment of Negro Assistant Secretaries of Labor and Agriculture were pointed to by officials of the Kuklux Klan as proof that white supremacy was now acutely and nationally menaced.

The Roaring Twenties were a heady time, full of innovation and exploration-from the novelty of "talking pictures" to the utility of mass-produced Model Ts ... from the distinct jazz sounds of Duke Ellington to the calculated social rebellion of the "flappers"...from the pioneering flights of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart to the pioneering prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner.

It was also a lawless decade-an age of highly violent and well-heeled gangsters and racketeers who fueled a growing underworld of crime and corruption. Al Capone and his archrival Bugs Moran had formed powerful, warring criminal enterprises that ruled the streets of Chicago, while the early Mafia was crystallizing in New York and other cities, running various gambling, bootlegging, and other illegal operations.

Contributing to criminal chaos of the 1920s was the sudden rise of the Ku Klux Klan. In the North that organization, when considered at all, has been thought of as a colossal buffoonery, a matter unworthy of the time or thought of intelligent folk; and, indeed, for the average American, with his common sense and his appreciation of the ridiculous, any other attitude would seem unlikely. But in certain sections of the country, notably the South and Southwest, the attitude of numbers of people has been quite the reverse, and the consequences of that attitude evil and seriously dangerous.

The Ku Klux Klan crossed Mason and Dixon's line in the Winter of 1920-21. Revived in the South some five years ago, this secret, oath-bound organization that had its origin in the troublous times of the Reconstruction period following the Civil War in America, began during the Winter just past to extend its activities into the North and West, with the avowed intention of uniting native-born white Christians for concerted action in the preservation of American institutions and the supremacy of the white race.

In New York City and in other centres even further distant from the region in which the original Kuklux Klan was active there have been planted nuclei of the revived organization, according to the statements of its officials. How many such centres have been established in the North and West and the extent of the membership are not revealed. As in the original Kuklux Klan, members are known only to each other; the general public is permitted to know only certain national officers connected with the organization.

Among Southerners a romantic tradition of patriotism and terrible justice hallowed the memory of the old Klan. Thoughtless enthusiasts have joined the new because of that tradition. Among the negroes the very name is still a thing of nightmare terror, and such an attitude of mind perfectly suited the plans of the founder of the new order. And what were those plans? What reason could there be at this time to drag from its grave this old Southern bogey, with its secrecy, disguises, masks, Kleagles, Wizards, and fee-fi-fo-fum clap-trap?

The Klan excludes from membership negroes, Jews, Catholics, and foreignborn, whether citizens or not. In its own phrase, it is the only Gentile White Protestant American-born Organization in the world. It is secret. Its membership is secret, in that respect differing probably from every other secret society in America, though like enough to many in Russia. When asked if he is a member, the custom is for a good Klansman to evade, more rarely to reply in the negative, but in any event not to avow his membership.

It is said that in California the antiJapanese feeling is the basis of appeal; in some localities the Jew is referred to in a manner to rejoice the heart of Henry Ford; less frequently, white supremacy as an anti-negro appeal is eloquently defended. But it appears the Church of Rome is never scanted. Always she is represented as the deadly.enemy of American institutions, to be crushed not so much for her religious tenets as for her dark and unexplained political machinations.

The chief appeal has been to religious intolerance. Good men, Christian men, pastors of churches, have enrolled themselves as members, feeling that in some way through this mysterious order they would be able to combat the forces of evil, and especially the political activities of the Roman Catholic Church, portrayed in such lurid colors by these new evangelists. There has been a recrudescence of that puritanical meddlesomeness which seeks to regulate the habits, lives, and consciences of other people.

In the early 1920s, membership in the KKK quickly escalated to six figures under the leadership of "Colonel" William Simmons and advertising guru Edward Young Clarke. By the middle of the decade, the group boasted several million members. The crimes committed in the name of its bigoted beliefs were despicable-hangings, floggings, mutilations, tarring and featherings, kidnappings, brandings by acid, along with a new intimidation tactic, cross-burnings. The Klan had become a clear threat to public safety and order.

Nationally, Indiana was said to have the most powerful Ku Klux Klan. Though it counted a high number of members statewide, its importance peaked in the 1924 election of Edward Jackson for governor. A short time later, the scandal that surrounded D.C. Stephenson destroyed the image of the Ku Klux Klan as upholders of law and order. By 1926 the Ku Klux Klan was crippled and discredited.

The Klan first infiltrated Kansas in mid-1921. It claimed to be a reform group promoting Christianity and white supremacy and arguing for limits on foreign immigration. Hostile toward a long list of "undesirable" persons, the Klan's main efforts focused against Catholics. Klansmen kidnaped and assaulted the Catholic mayor of Liberty after he refused them use of a hall he owned. Although many people agreed with the Klan's creed - as many as 200,000 Kansans may have been Klan members - most disliked its tactics.

In 1922, Louisiana Governor John M. Parker sent J. Edgar Hoover (then Assistant Director of the Bureau of Investigation) a heartfelt message that was personally delivered by a New Orleans newspaper reporter. Please help, it said, the Ku Klux Klan has grown so powerful in my state that it effectively controls the northern half. It has already kidnapped, tortured, and killed two people who opposed it.and it has threatened many more. The FBI found that the Klan was wielding great political power throughout the South as it fed off the prejudices of the day and instilled fear in millions. It found that campaigns to increase Klan membership had been a resounding success. Membership had soared and so had the number of Klan groups in many different states.

According to Tuskegee Institute, more than 4,700 people were lynched between 1882 and 1959 in a campaign of terror led by the Ku Klux Klan. The number of victims killed by lynching in the history of the United States exceeded the number of people killed in the horrible attack on Pearl Harbor (2,333 dead) and Hurricane Katrina (1,836 dead) combined.

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