The Ku Klux Klan as a Political Force Behind True Americanism
The Ku Klux Klan, which will be later referred to as the KKK, revived in 1915 in South America and was on the rise from the 1920’s across South and eventually North America. By 1925 the Klan had become a national political force with around five million members. The second Klan was very different to the first Klan in the fact that they did not only focus on race. The second Klan, like the first, believed that white Protestants were superior to minorities, which consisted of blacks, Jews and Catholics. They believed that America was sick and needed to be cured by true native- born, white Protestant Americans. They used the incentive of white supremacy, Protestant traditions and morals as well as propaganda to create an organisation where people can express their beliefs and enforce law and order in America.
Firstly, one reason for the formation of the revived Ku Klux Klan re-emerged, as the greater fraternal lodge and would be a political engine of white native-born Protestant American nationalism. This idea of a hundred per cent Americanism meant that the Klan believed it should be native born white Protestants who were true Americans and should be running the country. After the Civil war between the North and South America ended in 1865, black African- Americans were granted their freedom, this caused hostility in the South as African- Americans were there main source of labour and this freedom eventually led to blacks having a more political role, as in in 1870 the 15th Amendment granted them the vote. Hostility towards black’s freedom and political roles eventually led to the formation of the first KKK, who were a violent vigilante force against African- Americans. However, the revived KKK in the 1920’s shadowed some of the belief of ‘one hundred per cent Americanism’ and race relations as the first KKK, but they also targeted Jews and Catholics believing them to be un-American. In the South, segregation had always been apparent, as a source tells us of Harry Crews’ childhood in the South, “There was a part of me in which did not matter at all they were black… but there was another part of me in which it had to matter because it mattered to the world I lived in”. Similar to the first Klan, the revived Klan believed they were a force of law and order, lynching served as a method of law enforcement in sparsely populated places where white people felt especially insecure. Whites demanded the idea that black criminals could get away with harming a white person without being punished, worried that the lack of retribution would encourage blacks to raise their hands against whites.
The Klan emphasised “pure Americanism” and it became the country’s most militant defender against minorities. By protecting the nation, they enabled themselves to secure the birth right of Anglo- Saxon Americans, believing they were the only group who were true Americans, but this could only be achieved through “aggressive application of the art of Klancraft”. During World War one, African- Americans fought for what they believed to be their country. Unfortunately, when they returned to the South and encountered white Sothern beliefs, the whites were angered and sometimes violent against black veterans in uniform, as the uniform commanded respect. Whites would not give African- Americans respect for supporting America in the war, as they still believed African- Americans were not true Americans. This emphasis on white supremacy and one hundred per cent Americans in the 1920’s may have been due to mass immigration, which the whites forcefully and effectively argued for strict restrictions on. They organised economic boycotts against businesses that were owned by or that employed immigrants, Catholics and Jews. They also argued that it should only be native born white Protestants who should be allowed to vote and hold office. The Klan wanted to completely eradicate them from being involved in the running of America, which appealed to many white Protestant Americans, making them believe that they are superior. On the other hand, the KKK have argued that they did not make these individuals who joined racist and bigots, that they grew up that way, the Klan only gave them the language to articulate their newly emerging economic and political grievances. Therefore, the idea of white supremacy and native born white Protestantism allowed the KKK to rise as a political force due to the fact they emphasised and exploited the problems at the time in America such as immigration. The KKK openly allowed people to express their grievances and prejudices of the time in a force dedicated to return America back to native born white Protestant Americans.
The revived KKK was made up of “plain people, very weak in matters of culture but representing the old pioneer stock, the blend of the Nordic races which had given the world its civilisation”. This quote demonstrates that the Klan aimed to uphold and enforce the traditions and religion of Protestantism, as they are the true Americans who created their civilisation. An example of this traditions is that most specifically in the South, Republicans countries tended to vote most heavily for prohibition while Democratic lowland countries tended to vote against it. The biggest supporters of the Republicans were white Protestants who believed that alcohol caused corruption, gambling, wife beating and prostitution, therefore they wanted to remove it from America. However, the KKK believed that once the prohibition had been enforced it was not being upheld, and that it was their duty to restore law and order. The Klan also focused on the traditions of masculinity, femininity and appropriate gender roles believing men to play the active role in society as political actors, protecting their family and country from harm of the enemy. As well as this the Klan promised a heady combination of violent vigilantism and male camaraderie. These images were compelling to many “proper, God-fearing” men whom the Klan targeted as recruits, they wielded religion as a weapon of terror and political power. This enabled traditional Protestant men to feel like they have a sense of duty to America and God, protecting themselves and their family from corruption by enforcing the ideology of masculinity, assertiveness, bravery and toughness.
The first KKK, like its successors, saw themselves as guardians of liberty, however the first Klan linked sexual morality to racial and religious hatreds by depicting Jewish, Catholic and black men as sexual savages who sought to quench their insatiable sexual appetites with white gentle-women. In addition to this the Klan depended on existing preconceptions among white Protestants that non-Whites and non-Protestants were strange, alien and inexplicable. The Klan’s political mission was white protestant supremacy and upholding its morals and traditions, which allowed the majority of the population to join an organisation that transformed their fears and resentment into political action. During the rise of the Klan in the 1920’s the average Klansman and woman joined the Klan without a great deal of knowledge as to what it was all about. They simply know that America was sick and needed help, believing that the Klan offered this cure. Many Klansman would recruit their families, therefore the Klan created a junior Klan which introduce Klannish valves to the children ad gave the Klan a supply of new members who will uphold the traditions and aims of the Klan, as well as giving children access to their parents. The KKK clung onto these traditional values due to the social and cultural changes related with WW1 and the roaring twenties, the members who joined the Klan were simply not ready for these changes. Therefore, the 1920’s Klan was less violent than the first and more political, its prejudices were broader, directed against bootleggers, prostitutes, gamblers, immigrants, Catholics, rebellious teenagers and political radicals. The Klan needed the help of public officials to realise such elements of its program as immigration restriction, prohibition enforcement, opposition to American participation in the League of Nations and the world, tax relief, prohibition of interracial marriage, exclusion of Catholic teachers from the public schools, the closing of parochial schools and prohibition of property ownership by non- citizens. The Klan could have the advantage in attempting to uphold traditions as in 1923 as at least 75 congressional representatives owe their seats to the Klan. They had their members in every aspect of society up until its decline in 1925, such as sheriffs, mayors, governors and senators, as well as local businessmen, farmers, shopkeepers etc. Overall, one of the Klan’s biggest aims was to restore traditions, morals and religion to the changing and modernising America. By clinging on to this, it allowed the Klan to gain members who were not ready for change, creating a political force to ‘cure’ America.
Propaganda is a key method in gaining members and spreading their message for any organisation, therefore the Klan did this to recruit and ‘enlighten’ the population about their beliefs, especially in the North, as the Klan was more popular in the South. The first Klan did use propaganda by producing in every Southern newspaper an account of black wrongdoing; if no episode from nearby could be found, episodes were imported from as far away as necessary. Differently to the first Klan, the second Klan focused more on different methods of propaganda as in 1920, Simmons (founder of the revived Klan) hired Mary Tyler and Edward Clarke as publicity agents and promoters of the group. Tyler and Clarke divided the entire country into what amounted to be sale territories and they sent more than 1000 solicitors into the field to recruit members. The Klan’s morality campaign succeeded in normalising fear and hatred of minorities. It can be argued that the return of ‘Birth of a Nation’ in Jan 1921 helped the Klan to renew its efforts to win over local men, as they began to regularly show this film at their campaign rallies. ‘’Birth of a Nation’ was released the same year as the second Klan creation. In this racist epic of the civil war, reconstruction and restoration of white rule, Griffith harnessed all the emotive power of modern film-making technique to convince viewers that black men were beasts and white vigilantes were the saviours of American civilisation. Given the right to vote and hold office, the film showed that African- American men dragged society into chaos, worse they used such power to stalk white women. In the final, climatic scene, the hooded and robed members of the KKK ride in to save the young white heroine from rape- by castrating and lynching her black would-be assailant. The KKK’s act ended sectional fratricide among white men and gave birth to a reunited America’. President Wilson even showed the film at the White House in 1915 for cabinet members and their families, Wilson said “It is like writing history with lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true”. If this film can even be seen to be true by a President then it could easily have it could easily persuade average American men of the dangers of African- Americans and the dangers that native born white Protestants face. As well as the use of films and newspapers, the Klan also gained members with its sense of community and social aspects. Members gathered for barbeques, music, sports, swimming, along with speeches. Sometimes Klan rallies featured weddings of members, public rituals that interwove personal and political commitments. Simmons even allowed members to obtain ‘degrees’ which many local Klansman took the bait; they were delighted in impressing their fellows with the mastery of the Klan. They believed this form of an education provided them with a future. On the whole, the Klan’s use of propaganda through, film, media and appealing to people through its social aspects and sense of community, allowed the Klan to increase its membership and create a political force which eventually led to the Klan reaching its peak in 1925 of nearly five million members.
To conclude, the revived Ku Klux Klan became a national political force through its restoration of “True Americanism” presenting itself as a tool for embedding the economic and political power of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The KKK reached their highest number of members in 1925 of around five million due to their efforts to campaign across the country about their beliefs and morals through marches, rallies, newspapers, leaflets and even the film ‘Birth of a Nation’. These efforts of propaganda and their focus on American traditionalism helped the KKK to gain support in the North and put many of its members in positon of power, such as Congress. The Klan did not only gain its popularity through providing men with a way to transform their fears and resentment into political action, it was also a socialised group with a sense of community that hosted barbeques, music events, sports team and a form of education. Due to the rise of the Klan, in Indiana Klanswoman explained “it was considered the thing to do to join the Klan in the 1920’s”. This demonstrated that the Klan had become so popular among white Protestants by 1925 that it became a national political force, believing the KKK were the cure for America.
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