Wildly popular 1920s KKK gave us the alt-right

The rise of the alt-right during the 2016 presidential campaign caught many off guard. After the election, the media scrambled to explain this surprising new power in American politics.

But was the alt-right really “new”?

Nearly 100 years ago, an organization rose up in the heart of America with an agenda almost identical to the alt-right’s. It was fueled on paranoia and hate — paranoia that white men were losing control of their country, and hatred of immigrants, blacks, and elites.

Its name was the Ku Klux Klan.

No, not that one.

You’re thinking of the original KKK. Formed by ex-Confederate soldiers after the Civil War, it operated as a terror organization. Klansmen used beatings, burnings, and lynchings to terrify African-Americans across the South and keep them from exercising rights promised to them after the war.

The roots of today’s alt-right are in a different Ku Klux Klan.

Two Klans? Really?

Formed 50 years after the first KKK, Klan 2.0 was a fraternal organization that mostly operated out in the open. It sponsored huge Fourth of July picnics and Main Street parades from Oregon to Kansas to Maine.

For a time, the Klan was as mainstream as the Rotary Club and the Masons. 

Make no mistake, its DNA was KKK. Klan 2.0 was as paranoid and racist as version 1.0. The difference is that it found a way to align itself perfectly with millions of white Protestants in the North as well as the South.

I’ll admit, I had no idea there were two separate Ku Klux Klans, and that one was “legit.”

But a few years ago, Diane and I visited the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Leavenworth, Kansas. Like most guests, we were ushered through this collection of the city’s black history and culture by the woman who collected it — Phyllis Bass, who passed just this October. 

Mrs. Bass let me take pictures of all kinds of artifacts on the walls and in glass cases, including the stunning portraits of early 20th-century African-Americans from the collection of Leavenworth photographer M.E. Everhard. 

There was only one image I wasn’t allowed to photograph — a framed picture of a giant parade through downtown organized by Leavenworth Klan No. 152.

At the organization’s peak, 100,000 Kansans were members of the Klan. Leavenworth boasted one of the state’s largest and most active lodges.

Mrs. Bass hung the picture of the parade right next to the stately Everhard portraits. She didn’t want it reproduced, but she wanted it there as a quiet reminder of what black people in town had to put up with back then — everyday apple-pie racism, walking right past their homes.

Or playing in their ballfields:

Yep, there were KKK baseball teams playing right out in the open. One game in Wichita, Kansas, pitted a dominant Colored League club against the local Klan squad. 

But here’s the most amazing thing about the second KKK:

An obscure group in 1919, it grew so rapidly that by 1924 it was a national force. Klansmen influenced that year’s presidential campaign and got a landmark anti-immigration bill passed by Congress.

And then, just like that, the KKK vanished.

But it left America a legacy that’s still with us.

Today we call it the politics of resentment.

Birth of a Nation … and a movement

The new Klan was started in 1915 by an oddball racist named William Joseph Simmons, and it’s not hard to see where he got the idea.

D.W. Griffith’s movie Birth of a Nation had been released earlier that year. Three hours long, it was a moviemaking marvel, with visual storytelling techniques that were every bit as ambitious as the story Griffith wanted to tell.

The story? Oh, dear, the story …

Based on the novel The Clansman (1905), Birth of a Nation was an epic account of the tragic fall and triumphant rise of Southern white supremacy before, during, and after the Civil War. It was told entirely from the point of view of the KKK.

As one historian put it, the film’s emotionally hard-hitting message was 

“… that African Americans could never be integrated into white society as equals, and that the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were justified because they were necessary to reestablish legitimate and honest government [in the South].” Steven Mintz, Univ. of Houston, in Digital History

Do you remember when Oliver Stone’s movie JFK came out, and people began rediscovering the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories pushed by Jim Garrison (played in the movie by Kevin Costner)?

For a lot of people in 1915, Birth of the Nation had that same effect. It was such a powerful piece of filmmaking, and audiences were so historically ignorant, that it remade the KKK’s image overnight.

The headline of a recent New Yorker essay about the film summed it up — “The Worst Thing About Birth of a Nation Is How Good It Is.”

KKK 2.0 takes off

Yet the new Ku Klux Klan struggled in its early years. Founder William Simmons wasn’t much of a recruiter, getting only a few hundred Southerners into his group.

And then the rocket fuel showed up.

As academic historian Linda Gordon details in her new book The Second Coming of the KKK, Simmons hired a PR firm that convinced him the Klan’s message had national appeal. Gordon writes,

“They turned Simmons into a polished speaker. Engendering and exploiting fear, he would warn that ‘degenerative’ forces were destroying the American way of life. These were not only black people but also Jews, Catholics, and immigrants, the big-city dwellers who were tempting Americans with immoral pleasures — sex, alcohol, and music, notably jazz. Only a fusion of racial purity and Christian morality could save the country.” Linda Gordon 

This was a message Main Street America was ready to hear. The Klan added millions of members to its rolls in the 1920s. Many more did not join, but went to rallies and picnics sponsored by the Klan. These non-joiners also resonated to hearing orators give voice to their previously unspoken resentments and fears.

The Klan was especially popular in lily-white regions of the North like Kansas, Indiana, and — ready for this?


With a population that was 87 percent native-born and overwhelmingly white Protestant, “Oregon was arguably the most racist place outside of the southern states, possibly even of all the states,” writes Gordon (who grew up there and admits she had no clue).

In Portland, the Klan sponsored a special screening of Birth of a Nation in 1922 and made piles of money, despite charging a princely admission of two dollars. Gordon notes that 1,500 African-Americans protested and even enlisted the support of Portland’s mayor.

“Yet this very mayor joined the Klan just a few years later,” Gordon notes, “an indication of the Klan’s power to change minds, or to intimidate.”

Morality and emotion

What accounted for its power?

Gordon thinks the KKK had a particular genius for melding “political and social ideas with an intense emotionality.” It created “structures of feeling” that amplified the unspoken fears and suspicions of everyday white people.

What the Klan pioneered, the John Birch Society, the Tea Party, and the alt-right would later imitate. Journalists now refer to it as “the politics of resentment.” 

KKK 2.0 arose at a time when immigrants were pouring into the nation’s cities (the 1920 census was a watershed, when total urban population first exceeded rural population). That cities were filling up with non-Anglo-Saxon Protestants was a point Klan leaders harped on continually:

“The Negro is not the menace to Americanism in the same sense that the Jew or the Roman Catholic is a menace.” KKK Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans

That’s not to say the Negro wasn’t a “menace” to the Klan. The easiest way to get the audience worked up at a rally was to decry the growing trend of “race mixing.”

When a Klan speaker told a crowd in Boston that 113 mixed marriages had been performed there in the past year, and cried, “We must protect American womanhood!” Gordon notes that “a shuddering ‘yes, yes,’ went up from the crowd.” 

For good measure, Klan speakers always larded their talks with lots of pious rhetoric about traditional values and sobriety. The KKK was a strong (and welcome) ally of the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. 

In general the Klan tried to avoid condoning violence, seeing this as undermining its wholesome, Main Street image. But at this time in our history, known as the nadir of race relations, attacks on black Americans were common.

In the opening scene of his Autobiography, Malcolm X writes about the night in 1925 that his mother got a visit from the KKK.

“When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching, in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because ‘the good Christian white people’ were not going to stand for my father’s ‘spreading trouble’ among the ‘good’ Negroes of Omaha. …

“Still shouting threats, the Klansmen finally spurred their horses and galloped around the house, shattering every window pane with their gun butts. Then they rode off into the night, their torches flaring, as suddenly as they had come.” Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

These incidents, so reminiscent of the Jim Crow South, were a feature of 1920s life in the North. Though the Klan didn’t sanction such acts, its success came from its ability to tap into the same resentments that fueled these acts of violence.

The Klan’s long-forgotten legacy

So how was the Klan done in?

The press tried their best to bring down the Klan with exposés and negative reporting. But as Lila Lee Jones, in her local history of the Klan, noted, 

“adverse press … simply added fuel to the Klan fires in small communities across eastern Kansas. Small townsmen believed that the Kansas City Star was allied with ‘bossism and eastern interests’ and was no true friend of midwestern people.” Lila Lee Jones, Ku Klux Klan in Eastern Kansas

No, something more basic did in the Klan.

Call it hubris, call it hypocrisy, but for all their pious talk, its leaders had a lot of problems with their own morality.

The two people in charge of publicity were found in bed by Atlanta police (they were married to other people, and adultery was illegal). William Simmons upset the temperance community with his drinking and partying.

An Imperial Wizard was convicted of kidnapping, raping, and killing his secretary. The trial became a media sensation that even small townsmen couldn’t overlook.

And then there was the money.

Like today’s alt-right, the KKK made its promoters and media advocates wealthy and famous. Leaders of local chapters profited handsomely collecting dues and selling regalia. 

“Simmons got a $33,000 home in Atlanta, known as Klankrest, two expensive cars, and a bonus of $25,000 ($300,000 today),” notes Gordon.

Such conspicuous consumption drew scorn from Middle America, who looked askance at such Roaring Twenties hedonism.

Membership plummeted after 1925, and the Klan drifted into fringe-group obscurity from which it has never emerged.

But it had done its job.

In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act — named for the Klansman in Congress who sponsored the bill — slapped historic restrictions on immigration. These race-based quotas, which included the total exclusion of all Asians, stayed on the books until 1965.

The Klan’s campaign against Catholic schools in Oregon provided future White Citizens Councils with the blueprint they’d need to resist racial integration following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Above all, Gordon argues, the Klan modeled a way of talking and organizing that would be used by right-wing activists ever after. Even today.

“It influenced the public conversation, the universe of tolerable discourse. It increased the intensity and spread of bigoted speech and, occasionally, action,” she concludes. “However reprehensible hidden bigotry might be, making its open expression acceptable has significant additional impact.”

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