An award-winning historian of social movements examines the unlikely rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the North after World War I, underscoring the organization’s ideas that “echo again today.”
Among those ideas were white supremacy, Christian evangelicalism, suspicion of elites, anti-intellectualism, fear of immigrants, and a conviction that American values were under dire threat. Gordon (Humanities and History/New York Univ. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, 2009, etc.), the winner of two Bancroft Prizes, argues persuasively that the Klan was visible and respected, drawing its membership from the middle class. “In many areas,” she writes, “Klan membership brought prestige” and “community status.” Like other contemporary fraternal organizations, such as the Masons and Rotarians, the Klan fostered “male bonding through brotherhood and ritual.” Elaborate and arcane rituals involved “Klan water,” purchased from the organization’s national headquarters, “where it was made sacred, like holy water.” Membership required learning an intricate vocabulary of rank. The Imperial Wizard reigned over three Great Klaliffs, the Great Klabee, the Great Kligrapp, the Great Kludd, and the Great Night-Hawk, and “chapters were known as Klaverns, each headed by an Exalted Cyclops.” New members were “naturalized” at a Klonversation, and the officers of a Klavern were known, tellingly, as Terrors. The Klan was funded through initiation fees, dues, and a pyramid scheme, whereby recruiters worked on commission; the Klan also sold costumes and memorabilia. A member could buy “a zircon-studded Fiery Cross” as a brooch for his wife. Gordon examines in particular Klan popularity in Portland, Oregon, once a bastion of racism, and the attraction of the organization to at least half a million women, many of whom were active in other reform groups, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In the late 1920s, the Klan was beset by infighting, money troubles, and scandals that exposed leaders’ hypocrisy and misbehavior. Its appeal diminished, and membership dwindled. But as the author amply shows, its fearful, angry spirit lives on.
A revealing, well-researched—and, unfortunately, contemporarily relevant—investigation of the KKK’s wide support in the 1920s.