As I mentioned in an article earlier this year, the Ku Klux Klan was first formed 150 years ago. It was mostly suppressed, however, during the first term of President Ulysses S. Grant as the Ku Klux Act of 1871 gave the President the power to impose heavy penalties against terrorist organizations and to use military force to suppress the KKK.
A novel and a movie
Over thirty years later, though, Thomas Dixon, a pastor from North Carolina, glorified the Klan’s activities during the first years of Reconstruction. His 1905 novel was titled The Clansman, and I found it quite fascinating when I read earlier this fall.
Dixon’s book largely about the mistreatment of Southern whites after the Civil War is skillfully written. By the time I finished it I momentarily felt like saying, “Thank God for the KKK!” Of course I knew better, and knew more than what was portrayed in a novel.
In the years following the publication of Dixon’s book, however, there were those who didn’t seem to know better. One such person was William Joseph Simmons, who became the founder of the second Ku Klux Klan.
Simmons (1880-1945) decided to rebuild the Klan in 1915 not long after he had seen it favorably depicted in the newly released film “The Birth of a Nation,” which was based on Dixon’s novel.
That over-three-hour silent movie was the first movie to be shown in the White House. Woodrow Wilson was the President in 1915, and he was a Southerner (born in Virginia) and perhaps more racist than any his predecessors all the way back to Andrew Johnson (from Tennessee).
When I watched “The Birth of a Nation” on my computer this fall, I was surprised to see that after the intermission, the second part begins with three screens showing statements by Wilson.
The movie is different from the novel in several ways—but it equally glorifies the Klan. And based on the inspiration gained from seeing D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster movie, Simmons recruited 34 men to become his first Knights of the KKK.
A fiery cross
On November 25, which was Thanksgiving Day in 1915, Simmons and 19 of his Knights marched up Stone Mountain (near Atlanta) and lit a cross on fire. That marked the rebirth of the Klan, which grew rapidly and peaked with over four million members in 1924.
The reborn Klan was dedicated to keeping the country white and Protestant and to saving America from domestic and foreign threats—and one can’t help but wondering if the same kind of thinking is not behind you-know-who’s slogan “Make America Great Again.”
In his book The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America (1987), Wyn Craig Wade links the Klan to the religious fundamentalism of the 1920s—and to the Christian Right of the 1980s. Now in 2016 we see many evangelical Christians, perhaps inadvertently, linked to rejuvenation of the KKK—or at least of its main emphases.
And now . . .
It is no secret that the KKK and other white nationalist groups are ardent supporters of the President-elect’s and of his selection of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist.
Recently, Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senator Harry Reid, said: “It is easy to see why the KKK views Trump as their champion when Trump appoints one of the foremost peddlers of White Supremacist themes and rhetoric as his top aide.”
Admittedly, things may not turn out as bad as many fear—but they may also turn out a lot worse that many others think. It is troubling that 145 years after the first KKK was suppressed by the President, current Klan members are now cheering the President-elect.
Two more resource books worth noting:
Baker, Kelly J. Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011)
Rawlings, William. The Second Coming of the Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s (2016)