In this essay I set out to explore the reasons for the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920's and see its impact on US politics at the time. Firstly, I will briefly outline the history and guidelines of the Ku Klux Klan, as it existed before 1920's, as I believe it is important to understand the Klan's concept in the American history. And secondly, I will discuss particular Klan policies in its second version in 1920's and means of influencing the whole US nation. The issue of the Klan was quite typical and one of the most controversial of the 1920's, thus I would like to point out some interventions with the particular political situation of the era. The Ku Klux Klan was originally founded as early as 1866 in the U.S. South after the Civil War, in years called Reconstruction and as a secret society of white Southerners. During the years of Reconstruction, the scattered American nation tried to restore its union, forbid slavery and help freed slaves to become rightful citizens.
At that time, the Klan members frantically opposed the Reconstruction plans, did not at all approve the notion of equality of blacks to whites and opposed to the idea that the blacks should become landowners and have a vote in the elections and influence "the white man's country", the United States. The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan wore typical white grotesque costumes and hideous masks which were somewhat ghostly and frightening and insured its owners to remain in anonymity. As an impressive ritual, "they used to ride through the countryside mounted on horseback claiming to be the dead soldiers from Shiloh who had recently risen from hell to return to keep the Negroes in their rightful place". (Rambow) Throughout the first period of its quite intensive existence, the Klan remained very much in the hands of local leadership with only nominal control. The government bills (so called "Force Acts") which were supposed to authorize the president to use military force and martial law against secret societies such as Ku Klux Klan had rarely any impact. The first version of the Ku Klux Klan was strictly southern issue and the secret organization officially disbanded in 1869, but how it was in reality is another matter.
"By January 1869, Imperial Wizard of the Klan ordered the dissolution of the order. His explanation was that the Klan had become perverted in some localities and that public opinion was becoming unfavorable to masked orders... ". (Ibid) But even after that the core of the Klan remained in the Deep South as a fraternal order, before its notion appeared handy as a tool of influence some fifty years later. In 1915, "Colonel" William Joseph Simmons, revived the Klan after seeing D.W. Griffith's film Birth of A Nation, which demonstrated the Klansmen as great heroes who were too good to be hidden in the pages of the books. Simmons made his living by selling memberships in fraternal organizations in a similar spirit that used to be Ku Klux Klan and as a result later announced a kind of "rebirth of the Klan". (web) Thus, for $10, one could become a secret member of the Klan and get a sense of belonging to superior white Protestant America.
This version of Klan did not primarily focus its attention on blacks and their lynching, but broadened its message of hate to include Catholics, Jews and foreigners. The Klan promoted fundamentalism and patriotism along with advocating white superiority. They blasted bootleggers and promoted a return to "clean" living that should remain isolated from Progressive influences and rapid modernization of good old America in between the wars. Appealing to people uncomfortable with the shifting nature of America from a rural agricultural society to an urban industrial nation, the Klan attacked the elite, urbanites and intellectuals. However, its membership was not limited to the poor and uneducated on society's fringes. Mainstream, middle-class Americans donned the white robes of the Klan too.
Doctors, lawyers and ministers became loyal supporters of the. In Ohio alone their ranks surged to 300,000. As to the northern states, e.g. in Pennsylvania, membership reached 200,000. The Klan in 1920's remained a secret society, but it was by no means isolated or marginalized. Their membership ballooned in the 1920's.
By the middle of the decade, estimates for national membership in this secret organization ranged from 3 million to as high as 8 million Klansmen. One of the particular social issues that was concerned with was the fact, that black veterans were coming home from WW I and it was not possible for them to be put back to their original places. They migrated North in immense numbers and took the "places of white workers in the factories" and became to get more and more involved in the political and social life of the country. And there was very similar situation concerning the immigrants that were coming to the United States in great number up to 1917, before the immigration was more or less unrestricted to anyone indifferently.
Now it was believed, that the immigration of eastern and southern Europeans in particular created grave social problems. Finally, most new immigrants were either Catholics or Jews, and their coming aroused fear among Protestant Americans. And it was Ku Klux Klan, that begun a powerful campaign aimed at Jews and Catholics. Still, the Klan impulse was not usually a response to direct personal relationship or face-to-face competition, but rather a result of the sense that the moral code and the old religion were being ignored in wicked cities. Thus, the of the twenties differs to the original version of the Klan; it didn't stand as much for hatred and racist violence, but rather to promote morality and rural chastity. As to the impact on local and state politics, the Klan became in many aspects an important element.
The Klan devised a strategy called the "decade", in which every member of the Klan was responsible for recruiting 10 people to vote for Klan candidates in elections. In 1924 the Klan succeeded in engineering the elections of officials from coast to coast, including several mayors from southern cities. In Colorado, Indiana and elsewhere, they placed enough Klansmen in positions of power to effectively control the state government. Known as the "Invisible Empire", the Klan's presence was felt across the whole country.
As an effective instrument, they were using 1920s'-style advertising and tapping into the conservative mood of the 1920's and white mainstream resentment of immigrants and opposing ideas, repositioned the Klan as an upholder of "traditional American values". It must be pointed out, that the Democratic Party was highly divided in the 1920's, especially over the issues such as immigration, Prohibition and Ku Klux Klan. Those problematic questions caused discussion not only within Democrats, but in the whole American society. The greatest influence on large scale politics took shape in connection with the US presidential elections of 1924. The dispute crystallized not so significantly between the Republicans and Democrats, but within the Democratic Party alone. The party was divided basically to the Southerners, who either feared or supported Ku Klux Klan and were generally and historically anti-Negro and more conservative, and the Northerners who slowly begun to develop strength among black supporters.
The tension reached its peak during the Democratic National Convention contest. .".. former Secretary of the Treasury, William G. McAd oo had won the support of the South and West, and, although he openly repudiated it, the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan". (Hofstadter, 64) His counterpart who had the support of Irish- and Catholic easterners and Mid westerners was governor of New York, Al Smith, a Roman Catholic opponent of prohibition and the Klan. When the candidate could not be decided among those two in the one hundred and third ballot, the convention turned to John W. Davis. Another fight within Democrats was their platform for election.
It concerned Smith's resolution to condemn Klan as un-American. This proposal failed by one vote of 543 to 542. Similarly, the Democrats could not agree over the issue of prohibition. On this figure we can see that the tension around Klan was really tight within Democrats and it was clear that the differences between Republicans and Democrats were insignificant compared to this. To conclude this essay on Ku Klux Klan of the twenties, it must be said, that the at that time differed fundamentally from its predecessor, at least concerning its matter. It is still important to see it as a necessary device of the particular period, when the society in the US was in turmoil.
It was an era when two different world views came into collision, the traditional one and the one that was shaping the future, the progressive one - thus only the form of both versions of Klan had something in common. The fact that the of the twenties operated on larger scale is given by the technological and social progress of the society (e.g. better media, transport) which helped to influence the nation as a whole together with its politics. Link, Arthur S. American Epoch: A History of the United States since the 1890's. Vol. II: 1921-1941. New York, 1968 Hofstadter, Richard.
The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. People & Events: The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's web Rambow, Charles. Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's: A Concentration on the Black Hills web.