When the Machine in Washington Gets to Running Full Time
Judge Magazine, 1920
In 1915 the Ku Klux Klan had gone through a revival at the hands of Alabama physician "Colonel" William Joseph Simmons. In 1915, while recovering from being struck by a car, Simmons, a doctor and veteran who owed his rank not to his membership in the Woodmen fraternal order and not his military service, went to a showing of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of the Nation. Inspired by the film's depiction of the Klan as protectors of southern culture and virtue, he decided to revive the organization. On Thanksgiving day of 1915, in a show of theatrics that would have impressed Adolf Hitler, he gathered a few friends, climbed to the top of Stone Mountain, and burned a cross in imitation of the film. Thus the Klan rose from the ashes with Simmons as the self-declared grand wizard of the new invisible empire.
But Simmons wasn't immediately successful in his racist endeavor. Doubtless Simmons saw the Klan as a money-making endeavor, but it lacked real purpose and hadn't taken off in the way he'd hoped. During World War I the Klan proclaimed itself a protector of America, taking a stand against immigrants and union organizers, but to little effect. In 1920, Simmons signed over 80% of new membership dues to Atlanta publicists Edward Young Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler and the Klan was re-branded as an organization that was radically pro-American (meaning anti-black, anti-Jewish, and extremely anti-Catholic). The Klan quickly made it clear they were ready for violence, expanding its enemy list to include Asians, immigrants, bootleggers, dope, graft, nigh clubs and roadhouses, violators of the Sabbath, sex, pre/extra-marital escapades, and anything they defined as scandalous behavior. They exploited the fears of the nation, feeding on social unrest, and the tactic worked.
The racist plague spread across the Midwest and by 1921 the organization's roles had risen to almost 100,000. But even as the future of racism looked bright, the Klan encountered its first troubles.
While the leadership of the Klan proclaimed the organization was nothing more than another of the hundreds of fraternal orders popular in America at the time, the rank-and-file members of the group had started acting on Simmons' rhetoric. Klan members went on a rampage of whippings, tar-and-featherings, and using acid to brand "KKK" on the foreheads of blacks, Jews, and others they considered "anti-American".
Membership in the Klan rose into the millions, some estimates put membership in Ohio alone at 300,000. Membership soon wasn't limited to uneducated rural whites, the Klan's roles included ministers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. Ministers, law enforcement, and political leaders refused to act against the clan (some were among the perpetrators) and few Klansmen were prosecuted. At the same time it was revealed that members of the Klan's leadership had been involved in financial misconduct. And to add insult, promoters Clarke and Tyler were arrested, semi-clothed, in a police raid on a house of ill-repute. The fallout took the form of congressional hearings in October 1921, but as is ever the case with Congress, the hearings ended without any action being taken.
In Hollywood it's said you don't have to worry what people are saying about you, but when they stop talking about you, and the same seemed to hold for the KKK. After multiple newspaper articles revealing the violent tactics and corruption of the Klan and a congressional investigation, membership boomed. By 1924 internal strife and violence had ousted the Klan's founder and his publicists, putting Texas dentist Hiram Wesley Evans on the wizard's throne and ushering in a new era of terrorism in the form of whippings, shootings, and lynchings against the Klan's favored targets as well as anyone considered "anti-American", "immoral", or "race traitors".
The Klan also took a stand against women's rights under the banner of supporting "pure womanhood." In Alabama a divorcee with two children was flogged for the crime of remarrying. In Georgia a woman was given 60 lashes under the charge of "immorality and failure to go to church" and when her 15 year old son ran to her defense he was given the same punishment. In both of these cases ministers led the Klansmen responsible for the violence. In Oklahoma the Klan beat young girls caught riding in automobiles with young men. Even in California's San Joaquin Valley women were flogged or tortured under the charge of immorality.
It was at this pinnacle of violence that the Klan made its greatest political gains. The Klan put a man in the US Senate and helped oust the two Jewish congressmen who'd led the inquiry into Klan activities in the early 20's. The Klan sought to influence the outcome of the 1924 presidential election and moved its headquarters to Washington DC to facilitate access to its flunky delegates in both the Democratic and Republican parties. The Democratic convention in New York erupted into a fight over an anti-Klan platform plank which, in the end, lost by a single vote. After the election, Evans would oversee a 40,000-strong march of robed Klansmen down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument, to have helped reelect Coolidge, and to have secured passage of strict anti-immigration laws. The Klan was at the height of its power and influence, heading for a decline.
I go into all this history in hopes everyone can hear its echoes in the bombastic rhetoric of certain politicians who are plying for the office of President of these United States of America. In times when we the people are uncertain, uncomfortable, and even afraid, our better angels often desert us and we're left to the council of our baser instincts. We operate out of what we think is self-preservation when, in fact, we're making ourselves the victim of the mob. How far is it from it from demonizing people to burning crosses in front of their homes, bombing their churches, and lynching their children? Maybe not as far as you'd hope.