Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s

Kathleen M. Blee

Excerpts: pages 17-20


After Iying dormant for several decades, the Klu Klux Klan reemerged in 1915. By the mid- 1920s approximately four million women and men had enlisted in its racist, nativist crusade. What accounts for the spectacular growth of this second Klan? It is tempting to search for exceptional events to explain the Klan's dramatic appeal. And in part the Klan's strength did result from conditions that made the early twentieth century ripe for a political movement championing nationalism and white Protestant supremacy. In many rural areas declining agricultural prices caused widespread hardship among farmers and agricultural laborers, making them susceptible to Klan propaganda about "Jewish bankers" and "foreign interests" in the U.S. economy. Rapid technological and social changes, high rates of immigration and internal migration, postwar nationalism, rapid urbanization, and the migration of large numbers of Southern blacks to the North also heightened the appeal of the Klan's open racism and nativism to Northern and urban white Protestants.

Although these factors were important in the Klan's success, they do not explain the Klan's appeal. Racist, nativist, and antiradical sentiments long predated-and would long outlive-the second Klan. If some communities in which the Klan flourished were economically depressed, others were prosperous. If some Klansmembers enlisted in reaction to sweeping changes in their lives, many lived in relatively stable communities. The Klan took deep root among populations whose supremacy was rarely challenged and in areas with little racial and religious diversity. For some, Klan membership celebrated and affirmed long-held privileges.

It is more helpful to understand the second Klan by considering it within- rather than as an aberration from-the ideas and values that shaped white Protestant life in the early twentieth century, fueling religious fundamentalism and prohibitionism as well as the Klan. Seen in this light, the racist appeal and whites-only membership policy of the second Klan movement were remarkable mainly for their explicit call to violence in defense of white supremacy. The Klan's underlying ideas of racial separation and white Protestant supremacy, however, echoed throughout white society in the 1920s, as racial and religious hatreds determined the political dialogue in many communities. Few white-controlled institutions or organizations in the United States either practiced or espoused racial integration or equality, allowing the Klan to proudly proclaim its continuity with established sentiment among whites. A 1924 defense of the Klan's racial exclusivity, for example, noted-correctly-that many fraternal lodges practiced racial prejudice by restricting membership to white males.

Vitriolic public statements of racism and nativism were pervasive in the early twentieth century. D. W. Griffith's immensely popular feature film, Birth of a Nation, glorified the racial terrorism of the first Ku Klux Klan. The trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman accused of assaulting a young girl in his employ, was a cause célèbre to antiSemites. In 1921, the U.S. Congress passed an emergency act to restrict immigration; pressure by racial hate groups resulted in an openly racist system of national quotas by 1924. Ironically, many anti-Klan activists opposed the Klan solely on political or religious grounds but supported white privilege as strongly as Klansmembers did.

What, then, accounts for the resurgence of the Klan in the 1920s? Although widespread acceptance of white supremacist and antiCatholic, anti-Semitic ideas made the Klan possible in the 1920s, both the immediate impetus to its rebirth and the factors underlying its recruiting success lay in part outside the realms of ideology and politics. It was financial opportunism that shaped the Klan's rebirth and a sophisticated marketing system that fueled its phenomenal growth.

The second Klan began in 1915 through the efforts of William J. Simmons a circuit-riding minister, unsuccessful itinerant salesman, and fraternal society organizer. Simmons claimed that a mystical vision instructed him to unite native-born white Protestant men in battle against the forces of "aliens," "commodity madness," political corruption, excessive taxation, and religious infidelity that were destroying the nation. Like Klan leaders after him, Simmons began on the "hell and brimstone" revival circuit, preaching on such topics as "red heads, dead heads and no heads," "women, weddings and wives," and "kinship of kourtship and kissing." His popular lectures defended traditional sexual morality against the forces of "ungodly modernism," a position that his new Klan qülckly embraced. Although Simmons often used womanhood as a symbol of the white Protestant values in need of protection against imminent destruction, the notions of gender that characterized Simmons's Klan were somewhat different from those of its Reconstruction-era predecessor.

This difference can be seen in Simmons's bizarre and rambling writings. Like his Klan forefathers, Simmons insisted on the one hand that the Klan was a fraternity exclusively for "real American manhood," men of mental toughness and dedication. "No man," he declared, "is wanted in this Order who hasn't manhood enough to assume a real OATH with serious purpose to keep the same inviolate." Simmons also mimicked a successful tactic of the first Klan, invoking fears of black rapists and miscegenation to encourage white men to enlist.

On the other hand, Simmons often compared himself to Jesus Christ, a prophet and victim living among devils and infidels. In this theocratic vision based largely on images of Victorian family life, Simmons pictured Klansmembers as children with himself, the Christ figure, as mother, not father. Symbols of womanhood and motherhood represented strength and constancy as well as racial vulnerability in Simmons's writing. A description of the Klan's birth, composed to defend Simmons's supremacy in the organization, is illustrative:

I was [the KKK's] sole parent, author and founder; it was MY creation- MY CHILD, if you please, MY first born. I, ALONE, am responsible for ITS borning and being.... No devoted mother ever endured for her babe more mental anguish and gave more constant attention, through many sleepless nights and troubled days.... Every dime I earned was earned to preserve its life and promote its development.

The meaning of manhood in the second Klan also shifted from the explicitly violent masculinity of the first Klan to fraternal brotherhood. Simmons admonished Klansmen to live by a higher ethical code than that of the "alien" (non-Klan) world. Klansmen were to respect fellow Klansmen, reject the lure of sexual debauchery, and refrain from carnal conduct with nonwhite women. Of course, Simmons's code was image, not reality. Probably few Klansmen adhered to it. Nonetheless, the meaning of masculinity as a political symbol had changed.

Simmons imposed a strict mandate of secrecy on his Klan followers. Together with Simmons's disdain for publicity, it prevented the fledgling Klan from reaching many potential recruits. Moreover, Simmons was an incompetent political leader. Disaffected Klansmen characterized him as an immoral and waffling ruler, "a man of weakness and vice [whose thoughts] run to women and liquor.» Simmons's grandiose plans-for five Klan universities, a company to publish Klan-written history texts, a banking and trust institution to aid ailing farmers, free homes for all newly married Klan couples, a national full employment policy, a program to support Klan orphans, several medical research centers, and a chain of hospitals- went unfulfilled.

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The Politics of Sex, 1923