It was one of the greatest — and most disturbing — success stories of the 1920s. In just five years, the Ku Klux Klan grew its membership from a few thousand to five million. What had been an organization principally of rural white southerners in the 1860s now included among its members doctors, lawyers, and professors in both northern and southern states. How did they do it? Like any modern organization: they launched a marketing campaign.
The Klan had begun as a fraternal order of former Confederate soldiers who terrorized freed slaves and members of the state governments implementing Reconstruction. But when Reconstruction was dismantled, the Klan melted away.
By 1915, the Klan had just one member: William Joseph Simmons. He was inspired to revive the organization after watching D. W. Griffith’s film, Birth of a Nation, which portrayed Klansmen as heroes.
To Simmons, 1915 seemed right for the Klan’s return. Many southerners were angered by progressive policies that were expanding the federal government and supporting civil rights for minorities. Also, many resented the flood of immigrants and feared foreign cultures would destroy what they considered “traditional American values.”
Simmons felt the country would be receptive to an organization pledged to white nationalism. On Thanksgiving Eve, 1915, atop Stone Mountain near Atlanta, Simmons swore 15 candidates into the revived Klan. After they repeated the oath, he set a large cross on fire. It was a bit of stagecraft dreamed up from Birth of a Nation that had captivated Simmons, and it soon became a Klan tradition.
But something was missing. Recruitment was slow. In five years, Simmons had added only 5,000 members.
Then he met Mary Tyler and Edward Clarke, professional fundraisers who saw potential in the Klan, particularly when Simmons offered them 80 percent of the profits from dues. In June 1920, they became the brains behind the Klan’s national marketing campaign.
The timing for a racist organization was better than it had been five years earlier. There was a new defiance among black Army veterans, now returning to the South from the war. Having served their country, they were unwilling to reprise any subservient role in their communities. Major race riots had already erupted in several cities.
But Clarke and Tyler realized that racism wasn’t enough. Not every part of America was as interested in suppressing black Americans and protecting white power. The Klan couldn’t grow unless it reached a broader audience.
So Clarke and Tyler divided the country in eight regions and sent out 1,000 agents to identify the focus of bigotry and fear in their assigned areas: labor-union organizers and communists in the industrial north, Asians on the west coast, Jews and Catholics almost anywhere.
They began to expand the Klan’s mission, stirring hatred against these groups.
The two also tapped into Americans’ anger at accelerated social change. They wanted to channel the disapproval of the media that mocked tradition, the rebellious attitude of young people, the immodest behavior of women, and, of course, jazz.
Having relatively few adherents in cities, the Klan adopted several attitudes popular in rural areas. They helped enforce Prohibition and they denounced motion pictures.
Almost everywhere they found a public yearning for a golden past, where they remembered an America free of foreign influences. Millions were drawn to the Klan’s policy of “America for Americans” as well as its sometimes violent enforcement of fundamentalist Protestant values.
Many members would never have supported the beatings, tar-and-featherings, murders, and kidnappings committed by other Klansmen. They believed in the Klan was a patriotic, God-fearing organization that revered traditional values. To them, it was simply a fraternal organization, a good place to enjoy white privilege, and maybe do some business networking.
Tyler realized that American women were another promising market. “The Klan stands for the things women hold most dear,” she told the New York Times in 1921. She developed a women’s Klan that eventually claimed 500,000 members, who hosted picnics and attended cross burnings.
They launched a modern media campaign for Simmons, lining up interviews with reporters. Suddenly the Klan’s message was reaching whole new parts of the country. Within a few months, membership had grown 2,000 percent.
Meanwhile their agents were recruiting members in every part of the country. About half of every $10 initiation fee they collected was forwarded to the national office in Atlanta, most of it flowing into the pockets of Clarke and Tyler.
In addition, they were getting a kickback on the sale of official white robes, charging $6.50 for robes that had cost them $3.28. Sensing even greater profits, they began churning out various Klan publications for members. As another sideline, they managed real estate on Klan-owned properties. Within a year, Clarke and Tyler had taken in over a million dollars.
It had been an illegal, covert organization in the Reconstruction era. But in 1925, over 50,000 Klansmen marched boldly through Washington D.C. And, contrary to tradition, not a single one wore a mask.
Not only had the Klan gained social acceptance, it held political power. Klan-backed candidates held office in city and state governments across America, where they protected the Klan’s interests. In Indiana, Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson could even claim, with good reason, “I am the law.”
The Klan might have seemed unstoppable, but the end came soon afterward as it was rocked by several scandals. In addition, the fallout from several investigations was bringing to light the true work of the Klan.
The New York World’s investigation revealed that, in 1921, the Klan was responsible for four murders, a mutilation, 41 floggings, 27 tar-and-featherings, five kidnappings, and 43 threats and warnings to leave town. Civic groups started posting the Klan’s membership lists publicly, and the NAACP led a successful public education campaign about the abuses of the Klan.
One of the scandals took down Tyler. She and Clarke were planning to oust Simmons and take over the Klan’s leadership when they were arrested in a “house of ill repute.” Police discovered them conducting an affair despite being married to others — while in possession of bootleg alcohol. Klan members were outraged, especially when they discovered Tyler, a woman, had been the force behind the Klan’s rapid growth.
She was accused of embezzlement and forced out of the Klan in 1922.
That same year, the FBI was requested to investigate the Klan control of northern Louisiana. The complaint said members had already tortured and killed two men who had opposed the organization. The FBI focused its efforts on Clarke, who had been able to remain an officer in the Klan and was now taking $8 out of every $10 initiation fee.
Unable to convict Clarke on any existing law, he was charged with violating the Mann Act when he drove his mistress across a state line. He, too, was forced from the Klan and moved out of the country to avoid prosecution.
The Klan’s membership started declining rapidly, from its peak of five million members in 1925 to 30,000 in 1930. It reached a low of 3,000 in 2015. Recently, Klan membership has started to pick back up again. There’s been no official word on who is handling their marketing.
Featured image: A flyer advertising a Klan event at the Texas State Fair, 1923 (The Portal to Texas History, the University of North Texas)
The language of American politics seems to get more hysterical with each election. Recently, among other insults, the label “fascist” has been thrown around with reckless gaiety. Both the right and left wings have seen fascists among their opponents and, no doubt, we’ll be hearing the “F” word more over the next nine months.
So, as a public service, we’d like to show what the word really means. Using an article by Post writer Stanley High, we present the 1939 class of home-grown haters: dedicated, I’ve-got-the-shirt-to-prove-it fascists.
Nineteen thirty-nine was a promising year for America’s extremists, who had seen Nazi Germany gobbling up large chunks of Europe. Hoping to repeat that success in America, they were busily cranking out campaign literature to anyone who’d read it. They were led by an assortment of demagogues and would-be führers—all “chronic speechmakers” according to High—who were pushing the ideas of authoritarian government, racial purity, and the elimination of communists.
Several, as High noted, had begun their activism while members of the Ku Klux Klan. For example, George E. Deatherge, founder of The Knights of the White Camellia.
[He] insists that, thanks to the Klan, America started toward Fascism long before Germany.
Nazi policy toward the Jews, he says, is only a copy of the Klan’s program for the Negroes.
Even the Nazi salute, according to Deatherage, is a straight steal from the Klan.
His publication serves as one of the distributing agents of World Service, the English-language newssheet printed by the Nazi International. He does not attempt to conceal his Fascist preferences or the Nazi sources from which he gets them. “Fascism,” he has said, “is America’s only solution.”
So taken was he with the Nazi’s success that Deatherage told his supporters to stop burning crosses on people’s lawns and burn swastikas instead (even if they were harder to build).
Another Klan alumnus, George W. Christians, founder of the White Shirts, idolized Germany’s führer.
He imagines that he looks like Hitler. He has a pruned mustache and a lock of hair that, on the day of my visit, had to be coaxed before it fell into place athwart his forehead.
Christians is looked upon by some of his colleagues as dangerous. He makes no bones about his belief that violence has to come in the United States, or of his hope that it will come soon.
On his desk, when I visited him, he had a full-sized brick with a sticker on it of the Crusaders for Economic Liberty. I asked for an explanation.
“Well,” he said, “we don’t tell our boys to throw bricks through the windows—not yet. But we tell them that if they do, be sure to put our stickers on them.”
Meanwhile, the Klan was nursing hopes it could benefit from all the talk about “racial purity” etc.
Over the previous decade, Dr. Hiram Wesley Evans, the Invisible Empire’s Imperial Wizard, has presided over its diminished destiny from a modest Atlanta office and, as an undiminished sideline, has sold concrete. Today he lives in a beautiful modernistic home in the city’s swankest section… and confidently predicts that 1940 will usher him and his organization into the limelight again.
Deatherage and Christians were just two among many men trying to gain a national following. There was also Dudley Pelley, founder of the Silver Shirts, an anti-Semite and opponent of all things communistic.
He ran a sizeable publishing operation that printed 30,000 pieces of propaganda every day. But his faith was in the sword, not the pen.
“Violence is on the way. When it comes, we’ll be ready for it.”
Then there was Reverend Gerald Winrod, publisher of “The Defender,” and Donald Shea of “The National Gentile League, Inc.” And every major city, it seemed, sprouted its own fascist organization, which usually masked a hatred of Jews behind a front of Christianity. There was the American Gentile Protective Association (Chicago), the Christian American Crusade (Los Angeles), the Christian Constitutional Party (San Francisco), the Christian Democrats (Dallas), the Christian Protective League (Mobile), and the American Christian Defenders (New York).
They gained followers by downplaying their love of autocracy and racism and promoting patriotism.
No group in America make freer use of the Founding Fathers or play closer to the flag. That, too, is out of the Nazi book. On behalf of the Founding Fathers, they hate democracy. The Founding Fathers, they maintain, did not found a democracy— “mob rule”—but a republic—”a government of representatives.”
With varying degrees of openness, they doubt—as the Nazis did—whether so much evil can be uprooted without the use of force. Most of them appear to relish the prospect. Some of them are actively organizing to have a hand in it. Meanwhile, in support and for the spread of these hatreds, they are pouring upon the country an extensive propaganda which, for incoherent violence, might be drawn directly from the [German Nazi] presses — as some of it actually is.
While some fascists hid their sympathies behind polite and noble phrases, the German-American Bund openly emulated the German Nazi party. Its membership —230,000 German Americans and 10,000 uniformed strong-arm storm troopers— was led by Fritz Kuhn, “ponderous of mind and body, but inclined to swagger… a stiff disciplinarian and a good organizer, but no platform rabble-rouser.”
Kuhn called his Bund “a militant organization of patriotic Americans.” While his public messages were restrained, his subordinates were telling Bund members—
“we must be prepared to fight for the right kind of government… There will be bloodshed and fighting. We shall have to do our part… There will be a time to wipe out our enemies.”
America First, the country’s most vocal advocate of isolationism, was very active in 1939. Most of its members believed it was a politically neutral organization that wanted to keep America out of Europe’s coming war. But it was directed by James True, who published the Industrial Control Report, a fascist report on Washington.
If an American Hitler arises and has need, as he will, of a newspaper, he could… do worse than to take over Industrial Control Reports. That, I am sure, would please Mr. True… The editorial policy would hardly have to be touched. It is already as pro-Hitler as—at this stage—it is prudent.
Each one of these men hoped for national prominence. If any of them gained power in America, High wrote—
what he leads will be neither good to look at nor easy to handle. It will include some sincere citizens and, with them, as unlovely an assortment of aliens, bigots and malcontents as any that ever abused the privileges of a democracy.
It seems safe to predict that, thanks to their presence in it, the country is due for some discomforting, and perhaps prolonged, attacks of ideological indigestion.
No candidate of today’s major party, regardless of how extreme they talk, merits the label “Fascist.” There are many people in this country, however, for whom the title is a perfect fit, and — as The Huffington Post noted this week— that number is growing.
A Proud Moment in a Long Struggle
President Obama will be in New York on July 16 speaking to a crowd of 10,000 people. While he has addressed much larger groups, rarely has he spoken on such a significant occasion: America’s first black president will be giving the keynote speech at the 100th birthday celebration of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The NAACP was formed in 1909 to address a rising opposition to civil rights. Racism in America was discarding its subtlety, coming out in the open, and making a new bid for power. Southern legislators had enacted new laws that made it difficult, if not impossible, for black Americans to vote. Racial tensions ignited race riots, and more were coming.
Dr. W.E.B. DuBois edited the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, and helped frame the association’s goal:
“To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for the impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the court, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law.”
The early years were daunting and Washington extended little sympathy for the cause. The NAACP addressed the need to end official segregation, promote black men to officers in the military, and oppose the rising enrollment in the Ku Klux Klan. The effort met consistent opposition from southern legislators who blocked federal legislation against lynching.
Halfway through its first century, the NAACP was confronting racism as virulent as ever. Black Americans were achieving some of their goals, but they were also being accused of seeking their rights too aggressively.
In the November 7, 1964, Post, Dr. Martin Luther King addressed this issue directly in his article, “Negroes Are Not Moving Too Fast.”
“Among many white Americans who have recently achieved middle-class status or regard themselves close to it, there is a prevailing belief that Negroes are moving too fast and that their speed imperils the security of whites. Those who feel this way refer to their own experience and conclude that while they waited long for their chance, the Negro is expecting special advantages from the government. It is true that many white Americans struggled to attain security. It is also a hard fact that none had the experience of Negroes. No one else endured chattel slavery on American soil. No one else suffered discrimination so intensely or so long as the Negroes. In one or two generations the conditions of life for white Americans altered radically. For Negroes, after three centuries, wretchedness and misery still afflict the majority.
“Anatole France once said, ‘The law, in its majestic equality, forbids all men to sleep under bridges—the rich as well as the poor.’ There could scarcely be a better statement of the dilemma of the Negro today. After a decade of bitter struggle, multiple laws have been enacted proclaiming his equality. He should feel exhilaration as his goal comes into sight. But the ordinary black man knows that Anatole France’s sardonic jest expresses a very bitter truth. Despite new laws, little has changed in his life in the ghettos. …
“Charges that Negroes are going ‘too fast’ are both cruel and dangerous. The Negro is not going nearly fast enough, and claims to the contrary only play into the hands of those who believe that violence is the only means by which the Negro will get anywhere. …
“A section of the white population, perceiving Negro pressure for change, misconstrues it as a demand for privileges rather than as a desperate quest for existence. The ensuing white backlash intimidates government officials who are already too timorous, and, when the crisis demands vigorous measures, a paralysis ensues. …
“Our nation has absorbed many minorities from all nations of the world. In the beginning of this century, in a single decade, almost nine million immigrants were drawn into our society. Many reforms were necessary—labor laws and social-welfare measures— to achieve this result. We accomplished these changes in the past because there was a will to do it, and because the nation became greater and stronger in the process. Our country has the need and capacity for further growth, and today there are enough Americans, Negro and white, with faith in the future, with compassion, and will to repeat the bright experience of our past.”
The NAACP has no reason to close operations this year. There is, alas, still more work ahead. However, we hope they, and the country, savor the moment when President Obama shares the podium with America’s first black secretary of state, Colin Powell, and our first black attorney general, Eric Holder. America should be very proud of this organization and the long dedication of its generations of members.