The Last Time the KKK Surged in the United States

We talked to author Linda Gordon about her horrifyingly prescient new book.
October 24, 2017, 6:58pm

The white nationalism that has taken center stage since the presidential election of Donald J. Trump forced author Linda Gordon, for the first time, to write "something really, really ugly." Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition illustrates how the 1920s reboot of the Ku Klux Klan was regarded as rather ordinary and respectable, much like today's efforts to make everyday racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism acceptable again.

Gordon, a New York University history professor, happened to be writing a more expansive book about 20th-century social movements when Trump happened, and she didn't want people to think all such movements are wonderful. Second Coming of the KKK illustrates how a ne'er do well Atlanta physician dusted off racist remnants of the post–Civil War Klan aimed at maintaining white supremacy in civic and social life in the South. With the help of a couple of savvy public relations pros, Klan membership spread like wildfire, enveloping Northerners and Westerners in love with the idea of defining themselves by what they were not, including being black, Jewish, Catholic, or recent immigrants.

Gordon, who has authored several books including Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits and Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, talks about a world driven to extremes—then and now.

VICE: You wrote that "the 1920s Klan seemed ordinary and respectable to its contemporaries." Is there a respectability movement afoot among modern white supremacists?
Linda Gordon: That kind of extreme racism and hostility to women and anti-Semitism is enabled by more "respectable conservatives." I don't think it's right for us to assume the problem is the only this fringe at the far right. Just consider how, not only did Trump build up this ridiculous hysteria about Obamacare, but the whole Republican Party went along with that.

Does it surprise you that you felt led to qualify your Jewishness in a historical examination of white supremacy?
I definitely thought I had to say I am a Jew in this book precisely because I've been feeling this increase in anti-Semitism. I suspect there is much more polite anti-Semitism among people who would deny they have those feelings as people who deny they're racist. One of the ways that operates is through conspiracy theories. The interesting thing is if you allege Jews are in cahoots about this, or blacks are conspiring about that and you ask how, the answer is it's a secret conspiracy. It's a circular, self-fulfilling kind of notion. For example, one conspiracy says all black people get free college tuition. I have read many statements that all kinds of undocumented immigrants get all kinds of welfare when, in fact, they're not eligible for any kind of assistance.

In light of the show of white power in Charlottesville, Virginia, and visceral reactions to the Black Lives Matter Movement and Trump, what role does the "status anxiety" you described in the Klan's appeal play today?
I get so exorcised by the fact that people believe all kinds of false things. We need to find ways to educate white people to understand all the advantages we have as white people. For a lot of people, they are invisible. When I did a [radio] interview, there was this caller who started by telling how he applied for a job, and he was sure he wouldn't get it. He said the hiring manager told him, 'We have to hire somebody who's black.' I don't really think the person who interviewed him would have said that.

It's not only wrong, but what's interesting is it's the reverse of what is true. There's a really interesting book called When Affirmative Action Was White that looks at all the preferential treatment given to whites on school, jobs, mortgages, loans, housing. When I went to Swarthmore College, I know I got in because I came from Portland, Oregon. The reason I know is they basically had a Jewish quota disguised as being a New York quota. I got in because I wasn't from New York.

You describe the Klan as a social movement, like civil rights or feminism, lacking in central organization. Sounds a lot like Black Lives Matter.
In terms of white nationalists, I see that as good news and bad news. The good news is maybe they'll be less of a threat than if they were a more centralized organization. The bad news is it's much harder to control. The kind of thing that happened in Charlottesville, I think we're going to see more of that. Another part of this is white nationalists are not only male-dominated, they are, on the whole, young men-dominated.

There's something about these young guys who are just ready to fight physically, what we used to call "testosterone poisoning." In the 1920s, one advantage—because they did have this Imperial Wizard—is whoever had that position could see how the Klan would gain more if they stayed within the law. They were obedient to this idea that you could spew out all kinds of disgusting stuff, but they would try to refrain from violence. If it hadn't been for that, things would have been much worse. In the 1920s, there were several cases of lynching of blacks, Japanese, and Mexican Americans. In a way, I wish Black Lives Matter was more centrally organized because it might have more power.

You write that the second Klan waned quickly, "a fraction of its peak strength (though it continues today)" by 1926. Why would anybody need a KKK?
It's hard for me to grasp why people are fearful of people different from them. I find it inherently interesting to meet people different from me. How do we get people so fearful, so angry to the point where they could find pleasure in finding out about people who have a different culture?

This notion of a resentful white working-class is only part of the story. What we're seeing among these extremists—this is exactly like the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s—they truly believe America is destined to be a white country. They are absolutely furious, and I think they've been that way since the civil rights movement began to challenge the notion this is a white country."

Today's white nationalists don't seem to have much room for women at the front, although some white supremacist women have found ways to enter the spotlight. How does the 1920s KKK movement inform this today?
They fall into this certain kind of idea of the role of women, in which they're told over and over again they're extremely important because they're giving birth to the next generation of the white race. There's a certain kind of romanticism about these women reproducing whiteness. They get some sort of attention. Then there's the problem that a lot of people think feminism is all about how women should be in the workforce and something is wrong with you if you want to stay home and raise your children. When I was a younger feminist, I certainly didn't think that. Women are in the labor force because they have to earn.

What do Klan women described in the book have in common with women seeking to assert their leadership abilities?
The fact that I called those people "feminists"—I'm worried people will think I'm anti-feminist, which I'm not at all. Feminism comes in all stripes and all kinds of clothing. I'm sure Ivanka Trump thinks herself a feminist. There are corporate CEOs who think of themselves as feminist even though they have really horrible policies toward the people they hire. You can find people who think women should have equal rights but black people shouldn't.

Aside from reading _Second Coming of the KKK_**, what would you include in a syllabus for people who want to get their history straight on white supremacy?** There's this short essay that's really impressive from Eric K. Ward, an African American social movement organizer: "How Anti-Semitism Animates White Nationalism." It examines close connections between anti-Semitism and anti-black racism.

The 1920s KKK proved to be a recruiting success based on a likely combination of member loyalty and fear, including in the West. Who did Westerners have to hate? Or fear?
I happen to come from Oregon. Portland is a pretty liberal place. There have been major white nationalist groups coming out of Oregon. White nationalists started in Oregon when there were almost no African Americans living there. Until World War II, it was a mostly white, Protestant state. You don't need the actual presence of African Americans to start this racism going. People are looking for a scapegoat. The interesting thing among people looking for someone to blame for their problems is they're always blaming downward, people less advantaged than they are rather than people who run the economy. People are losing their jobs not because immigrants are taking them away; it's because corporations have moved jobs to places where labor is cheaper.

You describe Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forest and his grandson Nathan Bedford Forrest II, the Grand Dragon of the Georgia realm of the second clan as ancestors of the 1920s Klan. Given the Klan agenda, isn't that reason enough to take down the 1,500 or so Confederate symbols everywhere people have demanded it?
Those statues… were not put up until the 20th century precisely because there was beginning to be a civil rights movement denouncing segregation. They honor Civil War heroes, but they are not Civil War statues. If I was an African American and lived in a city where I had to pass by these statues regularly, they would be a direct offense. It is as if someone put up a statue of Hitler or Hitler's cronies. There's a double-standard because no none would dare put up a statue of someone known for their anti-Semitism. When it comes to racism, it's still allowed.

What was the Klan's problem with Hollywood?
The majority of the Klan were these evangelical Protestants with very rigid views about sex and gender. They just hated Hollywood because they thought Hollywood was promoting indecency. They would complain about women in their community wearing dresses that were too low-cut. Anything that strayed away from what they considered the straight and narrow was just anathema.

They hated jazz, which was growing in popularity. They literally believed if you listened to jazz, the next step is you would become a prostitute. My sense is they dumped homosexuality in the same pool as all these other sexual infractions—immodest clothes, necking, skimpy bathing suits, all the things they considered immoral. Masturbation? Needless to say, the Klan was horrified by that.

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