Commentary: Rebirth of a Nation — The Klan’s Long Shadow Falls in Charlottesville

A makeshift memorial of flowers and a photo of victim, Heather Heyer, sits in Charlottesville, Va., Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017.

Hours after white supremacists’ violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protestors killing one woman and leaving scores hospitalized, President Trump read a strategically vague, equivocal statement from his private golf club in New Jersey.

He blamed “many sides” for the violence and hatred, and uncharacteristically neglected to call out the perpetrators – the KKK, neo-Nazi, alt-right and other hate groups who had just terrorized an American city. This verbal fuzziness continued with an oddly saccharin plea for mutual love and respect, and to “cherish our history” — which some viewed as a nod and wink to the “Unite the Right” organizers whose stated purpose for being in the city was to defend the removal of monuments to their Confederate heroes.

But former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke was having none of Trump’s equivocality. From Charlottesville he tweeted, “I recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency.”


For those aghast at this weekend’s events, recall that not quite two years ago, candidate Trump dithered over Duke’s tacit endorsement, while the New York Times likened Trump’s success to Reconstruction-era politics. The following weekend, Saturday Night Live rolled out a “Voters for Trump” campaign″>spoof ad with ordinary people reciting banalities like “he says what I think” while the camera slowly zoomed out, revealing a housewife ironing a Klan robe as an audience burst into laughter. It was questionably funny then, but Trump’s candidacy at the time was still widely viewed as a joke. Saturday’s violence demonstrated yet again for the nation that America’s latent white supremacy is no laughing matter.

Now, 200 plus meme-filled days into this President’s term, America is faced with a serious choice: Keep laughing until it kills us, or take a long look in the mirror.

Trump’s statement doesn’t get a pass for legitimizing the resurgence of white supremacist violence, but he was right about one thing: “This has been going on for a long time.” Lest you think Charlottesville is an aberration, let’s revisit the rise of the “Second Klan” in 1915 — as good as any starting point for this all-too American story.

On a chilly Thanksgiving night in October 1915, a dozen or so hooded men assembled atop Stone Mountain outside Atlanta, Georgia – an American flag fluttering in the wind, a bible opened to the twelfth chapter of Romans, and a flaming cross to light the night sky. Inspired by the recent release of D.W. Griffith’s racist epic, Birth of a Nation, William Joseph Simmons and his disciples proclaimed the second rising of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

I suspect you can easily imagine this scene. That’s because the enduring media rendering of the Klan is deeply rooted in our popular imagination – fringe outcasts cloaked in ghostly costumes on a torch-lit hilltop. The snag in this fiery narrative is that it conjures up a characterization of racism as a cultural anomaly. Our collective imaginings of white supremacists, with all the stylings of Griffith’s film, have maintained this myth.

Historical scholarship of the WWI era paints a lesser-known, but more enlightening portrait of racism in America, the nature of the Klan, and reveals the 100-year shadow it casts over our nation’s current political and social divides.

The Stone Mountain version of the Second Klan remained an insignificant local group until well after the Armistice of November 1918, when in June of 1920 Simmons contracted with publicists Mary Tyler and Edward Clarke, partners in the Southern Publicity Association – a firm that had mastered the persuasive art of patriotic, nationalistic propaganda during WWI promoting the Red Cross, the Anti-Saloon League, the Salvation Army and the War Work Council (weaponized irony and smug memes serve as modern era white nationalism’s propaganda of choice).

Ku Klux Klan members pose for photos at a camp meeting near Morgantown, W.Va. in May 1926.

Credit West Virginia and Regional History Center / West Virginia University Libraries
West Virginia University Libraries
Ku Klux Klan members pose for photos at a camp meeting near Morgantown, W.Va. in May 1926.

Under the guidance of shrewd publicists, the Klan refashioned itself with a familiar brew of coded values: family, community service, law and order, patriotism, “Old-time religion,” hard work and economic prosperity, coupled with sober depictions of Klan members as pillars of respectable society. Their platform of hate against immigrants, Catholics, Jews and African Americans was not only disseminated through burning crosses and white-sheeted horsemen, it was carefully diffused through communities in the guise of family gatherings propagated through cheerful fliers. Picnics. Merry Go-Rounds. Proudly sponsored by your local Ford dealership.

Armed with this time-tested brand, Tyler, Clarke and Klan leaders hired a staff of seasoned organizers and set to work increasing the membership of the Klan. Within months, membership soared to 100,000, and by 1921 the Klan had chartered two hundred chapters, with nearly one million members. By the mid-1920s, they had enlisted more than 5-8 million people in nearly every state in the Union, and became a divisive force in the 1924 Democratic Convention held at Madison Square Garden in New York. Dubbed the “Klanbake” by journalists of the time – it represented the longest continuously running convention in U.S. political life. A populist force of reckoning, the millions-strong Klan opposed and defeated Catholic nominee Al Smith, then Governor of New York.

Historian Nancy McLean pulls back the deceptive cloak of decency worn by Klan members and illuminates the now-common embedded race-coding of neutral public policy issues in American politics in her book, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: the Making of the Second Klu Klux Klan:

“Most often the men who donned the order's robes and assembled beneath its flaming crosses were, as one contemporary put it, “… the good, solid middle-class citizens." Not only did the Klan draw from the broad middle of the nation's class structure, but it most commonly mobilized support through campaigns waged on the prosaic theme of upholding community moral standards.”

The Klan campaigned on values that appealed to an aggrieved white middle class whose status, centrality and power was threatened by the rapidly shifting economic landscape of the WWI era: urban industrialization, the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South, and a flood of Eastern and Southern European immigrants.

The gains and mobility of Black Americans struck a particularly painful chord among a plurality of reactionary populists, but what the Klan perhaps feared most were the hundreds of thousands of African American WWI veterans returning from fighting in Europe in 1919, and what these soldiers symbolized. Trained in combat, exposed to new experiences (and contact with African colonial troops) overseas, their sacrifices fighting had changed them forever. NAACP leader W.E.B. Dubois exhorted returning veterans to fight for their rights in a famous essay, Returning Soldiers, penned for the organization’s magazine, The Crisis, in May 1919:

We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it from France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.

And fight they did. In the Summer and Autumn of 1919, race riots erupted in three dozen cities and one rural county throughout the United States. Dubbed “Red Summer,” black veterans defended their communities from white mobs as racial frictions intensified amidst a post-war economic recession, industrial labor competition, overcrowded urban tenements and greater militancy among black war veterans. In the rural areas of the South, there were 64 lynchings in 1918 and 83 in 1919, including several Black veterans whose only crime was wearing a uniform. Just last week, while doing research on African Americans in WWI, I stood on a street corner in Chicago where one of the bloodiest of these riots occurred in August of 1919. This past does not feel distant.

The white reactionary response to the threat of Black social and economic gains was unequivocally asserted in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. A group of 50 or so Black WWI veterans donned their uniforms and weapons, drove to the county courthouse and offered to guard a young black man charged with assaulting a white woman in an elevator. This inflamed a white lynch mob of 1500, who looted gun shops and attacked the prosperous Black community of Greenwood (dubbed the Black Wall Street). The veterans fought a pitched battle overnight, until the local sheriff and arriving Oklahoma National Guardsman deputized the lynch mob, and used airplanes and machine guns to burn Greenwood to the ground. The message was clear. Gains in status, position and power for Black Americans was intolerable.

Fast forward 100 years to striking economic and social parallels, in which the persistence of racially-coded public policy terms is exploited for political profit and power during periods of economic and social stress. As in the 1920s, there is growing disparity in income and wealth, unregulated excesses of Wall Street, and the extermination of the middle classes.

A similar gulf between the haves and have-nots existed just before the stock market crash of 1929. While the WWI era heralded post-industrial disruption, ours brings its own revolutionary moment with far-reaching impacts from technological change. Headlines abound about robots and artificial intelligence displacing both white and blue collar workers, while Silicon Valley Tech investment capitalists and the Koch-funded, libertarian Cato Institute explore “Universal Basic Income” for the majority of people who will be left behind in the brave new economy. The changing face of America, especially the increase in the Latino population and the influx of Muslims, is eroding longstanding privileges of white people in America. Finally, the ultimate symbolic dislocation of white power amidst this maelstrom of economic, social and technological distress — the election of America’s first African American President in 2008.

Enter reactionary populism in shifting forms, from the coalescing of discontent among Tea Party members to the dramatic rise in militant “patriot” groups and the rebranding of white supremacy as the meme-loving “alt-right.” West Virginia University’s Director of the Center of Black Culture and Research Marjorie Fuller dissects this response in The Pendulum Effect.

Echoing the rise of the “Good Citizen” Klan of the WWI era, Tea Party ideologues originated as a decentralized, small-scale movement that was predominately white, male, nativist, patriotic, anti-immigrant, and politically conservative. It remained insignificant until shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, when conservative PACs, such as the Koch brother’s FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity lent media know-how, funding and organizational expertise to grow its membership. They funded and organized “Town Hall” meetings and other patriotic-themed protests. Within five years, Tea Party affiliates were elected to political office, membership soared to nearly one-half million and sympathizers numbered in the tens of millions, with the movement becoming a divisive force in the Republican Party.

Does this all sound familiar?

If you find yourself bristling at the notion that the same forces that gave rise to the Tea Party movement, then Trumpism and the alt-right bear a resemblance to the reactionary populism that bred the Second Klan, let me stop you right there. This weekend and the past 200 days of escalating white nationalism, bears this trend out. Despite the Tea Party’s frequent and early assertion that their followers were not racist, several studies found that “racial resentment” was a greater predictor of Tea Party membership than political conservatism. Similarly, studies have confirmed that racism and xenophobia drove Trump’s election more than economic anxiety. Keep in mind the fraternal Klansmen of 1925 fancied themselves going about the noble business of upholding community values, patriotic virtues, nationalistic ideals and the ubiquitous, racially-coded theme of law-and-order. Trump emphasized these themes in his administration’s response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville: “What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives,” he said.

Perhaps it’s entertaining to scoff at the caricatures and memes of Trump as a”>Chaplinesque fascist, as this keeps us at a comfortable distance from a terrible truth. And Trump, in his foot-dragging disavowal of the KKK and the alt-right violence in Charlottesville, must have more than a passing awareness of this truth.

Which means we needn’t look any further than the closest mirror to confront a familiar embodiment of latent white supremacy and white nationalism — cloaked, not in white sheets, but the pretense of “Good Citizen” in this divided, troubled America.