The Second Ku Klux Klan: How It Gained Social and Political Power Among White Protestants

The KKK became one of the most powerful social and political movements in the US.

Teen Vogue/January 10, 2024

By Zeb Larson

As Christmas break got underway at Ohio’s University of Dayton in December 1923, multiple bombs were set off across the campus. Local members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) had targeted the school because it was a Catholic institution, and Dayton at that time had both a large Catholic population and a lot of Klan members. Cross-burnings became so frequent that at one point the school’s football coach rounded up his players and sent them into a nearby cemetery to chase the perpetrators off. In Oregon a year earlier, members of the Klan had helped to successfully pass a bill to ban private schools, a thinly veiled attempt at prohibiting children from attending Catholic schools.

The KKK in the 1920s was one of the most powerful social movements among white Protestant Americans. While its members claimed they didn’t support bigotry and merely wanted to support American values, they held deep-seated nativist beliefs. In addition to virulent racism toward African Americans, they also held anti-Catholic, antisemitic, and anti-immigrant attitudes. To make themselves more politically palatable, they took on the trappings of a social club, hosting picnics and even putting together bands. The total number of people who joined is difficult to calculate, but estimates range in the low millions in the mid-1920s.

Today, as we live through a new resurgence of nativism and white backlash, we can learn a lot by looking back at the early history of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Ku Klux Klan was originally founded as a social club for Confederate veterans and was modeled on other secret societies; there were membership rituals and absurd titles like “Grand Wizard” or “Grand Cyclops.” By 1867, it became committed to violently resisting Reconstruction. Members assassinated politically active free Black people and white Southern sympathizers. Through violent voter intimidation, the Klan intimidated and attacked voters to gain control of state legislatures like Georgia’s, but was targeted by the federal government, which tried to eliminate the group through the Enforcement Acts. Thanks to federal prosecution and the end of Reconstruction in 1877, most Klan groups were disbanded.

In 1915, however, the Klan was revived. This new incarnation was inspired in part by D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a movie about Reconstruction. It presented a deeply racist view of that history, depicting African Americans as inept at government, incapable of being good citizens, and sexually threatening toward white women. It also romanticized the Klan, depicting them as protectors. It was enough to motivate William Simmons, who, as The Atlantic detailed, relaunched the Klan in Georgia and adopted the white sheets and hoods from the movie as the group’s new uniform. This version of the Klan is often called the second Klan, to distinguish it from the one that existed after the Civil War.

The second Klan’s membership initially remained small, but it began to grow in 1920, Thomas Pegram, PhD, an American history professor at Loyola University Maryland, told Teen Vogue. “They hired this public relations firm called the Southern Publicity Association,” he explained. “And they really push for an expansion of membership outside the South. The 1915 Klan basically existed in Alabama and Georgia and essentially it was tied to super patriotism during World War I. But the new Klan, they really went after [recruiting] white Protestants with fraternal organizations and Protestant churches.” Klan recruiters, called Kleagles, charged a $10 initiation fee to new recruits and were allowed to keep a portion of it, giving them an incentive to sign up as many people as possible. At one point, an estimated third of the white men in Denver were said to be Klan members, according to the Denver Post.

Outside events also fed the growth of the Klan. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia stoked fears that a Communist takeover could happen in the United States in what became known as the Red Scare, the first of two in the US in the 20th century. The Great Migration saw millions of African Americans move from the South into Northern and Western cities looking for work. These new arrivals were joined by waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The summer of 1919 became known as Red Summer because of the sheer number of race riots that happened all over the country specifically targeting African Americans. Fears of social change and societal unrest stoked KKK membership drives beginning in 1920, which saw the organization balloon in size.

In some senses, the Klan looked like a very normal institution, in part because its activities were designed to seem innocuous to its intended audience. “The 1920s is an age of fraternal associations,” Dr. Pegram said. “[The Klan] carry out all kinds of public displays that kind of reinforce Protestant culture and humanitarianism. [They host] parades and picnics and they cut records and have radio stations.” The Klan became powerful politically because it could organize so many people. It also had its own women’s KKK chapters that had hundreds of thousands of members.

While the Klan is best known for terrorizing Black Americans, by the 1920s, the organization also made anti-Catholicism a central part of its identity. Klan adherents argued that Catholics couldn’t be good Americans because they would ultimately be loyal first and foremost to the Pope. Other forms of bigotry like anti-Asian racism or racism toward African Americans were still fundamental to the group’s ideology, but as Dr. Pegram noted, “Anti-Black racism is so commonplace in 1920s America that the Klan does not stand out for that. It is almost mainstream in that sense.”

They took stances that might seem odd considering their bigotry, such as support for universal public schooling. This was intended to weaken Catholic parochial institutions and thus the Catholic Church. In addition to the case in Oregon where they managed to pass a ban on all private schools in order to shut down Catholic schools (one that was successfully challenged in court), they ran for school board elections around the country and tried to ban “religious garb” in classrooms — a challenge aimed at nuns.

They also aligned themselves with other social issues like Prohibition. Klan members saw Catholicism, immigrants, African Americans, and crime as all interlinked and threatening, and local Klan chapters became enthusiastic supporters of anti-drinking laws. Local or federal law enforcement at times deputized Klansmen who participated in violent raids of suspected bootleggers. Overwhelmingly, immigrant Catholics were the targets of these raids. In different regions, Klans supported and fought for different causes. In Oregon, Klan-aligned legislators passed an “Alien Land Law” aimed at preventing Asian immigrants from owning land and meant to target Japanese farmers.

On the subject of immigration, the Klan supported the 1921 and 1924 laws that drastically curtailed immigration from most parts of the world. They weren’t instrumental in passing these laws because nativism was at an all-time high, Dr. Pegram noted, adding, “They claim to have had influence in passing that legislation, but I think it would have passed with or without the Klan.” However, at a local level, they fought for political power often very successfully. In Portland, Maine, for example, the local Klan successfully changed the city government to rely on at-large city council members in order to dilute the political power of the city’s immigrant neighborhoods. They also proved instrumental in electing a new governor who was sympathetic to their goals. State Klans helped elect congressmen and governors, but they also supported and elected hundreds of local candidates.

The second Klan’s actions sometimes bordered on farcical. In North Manchester, Indiana, a rumor spread that the Pope might be traveling through the area by train and a mob formed at the station to meet him. They confronted a man they believed to be the Pope, who turned out to be a corset salesman. But the absurdity didn’t make them any less dangerous. In Ocoee, Florida, Klansmen marched the day before an election to warn African Americans against voting. When some tried anyway, local Klansmen retaliated by burning houses and murdering dozens of people in what became known as the Ocoee Massacre. Even as the organization denied being involved in various violent attacks, its members lynched people, beat them in public, or tarred and feathered them.

The Klan peaked in 1925 in terms of membership and influence. In some ways, it was a victim of its own success: The organization was shaken by infighting and a split in the early 1920s when Hiram Evans ousted William Simmons as leader. The sheer amount of money that flowed into the organization made it a tempting target for corruption. According to Dr. Pegram, “At the state level, like in Pennsylvania, the state leader of the Klan is put on trial by local Klansmen under his control because he was incompetent and he seems to be playing and making money off the top. This happens in place after place after place.” In Portland, Oregon, Klan commissioners were caught trying to steal funds from a purported construction budget and voted out of office. Shortly thereafter, the state-level head of the Klan in Oregon, Frederick Gifford, was accused of stealing funds. D.C. Stephenson in Indiana commanded one of the most powerful state-level Klans in the country but was brought down after he was charged with the murder and rape of a young woman. All of these scandals combined to drive the KKK’s membership down to a fraction of what it had been.

But it did not wholly disappear, either, and the Klan’s revival contributed to new white supremacist and far-right groups. Florida remained a Klan stronghold through the 1930s, and its members went after civil rights and labor organizers, going so far as to castrate and murder one man, Joseph Shoemaker. In Michigan and three other states, an offshoot of the Klan called the Black Legion claimed over 100,000 members and was responsible for dozens of murders, including that of a federal official from the Works Progress Administration. In San Diego, former Klansmen gravitated toward the Silver Shirts, a Fascist militant group that attacked Mexican laborers and union organizers and stole arms from the US military.

As we face the rise of a new extreme right, looking back at this earlier history shows that there’s a long legacy of xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and bigotry in American history. The Klan’s influence lingered long after the group had mostly dissipated, with several states, into the 2000s, still legally banning teachers from wearing religious garb in the classroom. Most dangerous, Dr. Pegram says, is the nativist America First ideology that they championed: “Essentially, it's our country, it's our values, and we have a right to them and nobody else does… The degree to which some of those beliefs are unquestionably accepted, even in a changed demographic context in the United States, is I think remarkable.”

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