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1. Ku Klux Klan

Spreading far beyond its roots in the Reconstruction South, the resurgent Klan of the 1920s was a short-lived but potent phenomenon. By equating white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism with "true Americanism," it fueled intolerance for blacks, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. In the guise of protecting community morals, it expanded its victims of vigilante justice to those it deemed lawbreakers, bootleggers, unfaithful spouses, corrupt politicians, etc.—all with no judge or jury beyond the local secret "klavern." Whippings, tar-and-featherings, threats of violence, and for black victims, lynching, became common practice in some regions of the South, Southwest, and Midwest (Indiana was the stronghold of Klan power in the decade).

As the Klan marketed its message nationwide through paid "kleagles" and Klan membership climbed into the millions, many groups came to resemble community fraternal organizations rather than bands of masked nightriders. They sponsored public picnics, parade floats, and free speakers (and for the members, of course, secret nighttime cross-burnings), and they promoted Klan sympathizers for political office. Many eschewed violence, while yet fostering suspicion and prejudice toward local minority groups (e.g., French Canadians in Maine, Japanese in California, Native Americans in the southwest). "Such blending of the extreme and the ordinary was common in the Klan of the 1920s," writes historian Nancy MacLean; "indeed the blurring proved a source of strength."1 The resulting "overlap with the mainstream" led to several years of explosive growth and relative acceptability for the Klan, visible in its widespread political influence. After its heyday in the mid-1920s, the Klan fueled its rapid demise through internal feuding, financial scandal, and the sensational 1925 murder trial of Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson. By 1930 the Klan had virtually disappeared from the American political landscape, its membership less than 50,000. The Fiery Cross had self-immolated.

    Collected commentary on the Klan PDF file
  • Collected commentary on the Ku Klux Klan. To provide an overview of the 1920s Klan, this collection offers contemporary commentary from newspapers, magazines, Klan and anti-Klan publications, novels, political cartoons, and a sociological study. How did local communities and the nation as a whole respond to the phenomenon of the 1920s Klan? Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. (12 pp.)

  • Political cartoons on the Klan PDF file
  • Political cartoons on the Ku Klux Klan. Sixteen cartoons on the Klan from general circulation (white-owned) and African American newspapers, and from Klan publications, are presented with guidance for analyzing and discussing the cartoons. How did the publications differ in presenting the Klan? What did each find important to emphasize? Study the cartoons with the five other cartoon collections in DIVISIONS, and complete the cartoon analysis chart. (Cartoons: 15 pp., Chart: 2 pp.)

  • Newsreel: Klan parade in Washington, DC, 1925. "40,000 Ku Klux Klansmen—clad in full regalia—make wonderful spectacle" reads the title frame in this brief British Pathé silent newsreel of the first Klan parade in Washington, DC, on August 8, 1925. Footage includes marchers on Constitution Avenue and at the Washington Monument; at 2:27 appears footage of women marchers. While some footage is repeated (this is probably a draft version), the repetition is helpful for studying the marchers, their demeanor, costume, and signs, and the visual effect of their unmasked parade in the nation's capital. (3:06) BRITISH PATHÉ NEWS

  • "Timely Topics," humor monologue by Will Rogers, 1923, SOUND RECORDING (3:09); TRANSCRIPT. Renowned as the "cowboy-philosopher" of the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers began a nationally syndicated column of witty yet pungent news commentary in 1922. Becoming popular across the partisan divide, he traveled nationwide delivering his humorous take on the day's events. In this brief recording, released as a 78 rpm vinyl record, Rogers jokes about "timely topics" including crime, divorce, Prohibition, and the parking problem. It concludes with a telling comment on the power of the Klan at the time. (Audio clip online; transcript, 1 p.) LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/NHC

See also Black & White, Native & Foreign, and "Reds" & "Americans."

Discussion Questions

  1. What general impressions of the 1920s Klan did you get from these primary resources? What surprised or intrigued you?
  2. How was the Klan portrayed differently in the pro- and anti-Klan publications and cartoons? in the general circulation and African American publications? What did each choose to emphasize about the Klan?
  3. What were Klan opponents' main objections to the Klan? How did the Klan reply to its opponents, in print and in action?
  4. How did "true Americanism" and "white supremacy" share the Klan banner of the 1920s? What aspects of postwar America prompted the slogans?
  5. How did the 1920s Klan become a national political force? How did the Republican and Democratic Parties deal with the Klan's significant influence in state and national politics?
  6. How did the audio and video resources affect your understanding of the 1920s Klan? How might newsreels, radio coverage, and sound recordings—which did not exist in the rise of the 1860s Klan—have influenced national response to the Klan?
  7. List four to five adjectives that encapsulate the 1920s Klan. What adjectives did you reject in the process? Why? (You might choose to write several short descriptive sentences instead, but selecting adjectives is a more rigorous and revealing task.)
  8. Complete the cartoon analysis chart for this Theme DIVISIONS to analyze the cartoonists' viewpoints and the visual devices they used to convey them, e.g., their use of American symbols of liberty and of the Klan's white hood and robe.
  9. Combine these resources on the Klan with others in the Theme DIVISIONS, especially Black & White, Native & Foreign, and "Reds & Americans." Compare the issues, anxieties, and consequences of these social-political divisions of the 1920s. Which were unique to the 1920s? Which appear in other periods of anxiety and rapid change?
  10. Conduct research to compare the first Klan of the 1860s-1870s, the second Klan of the 1920s, the Klan revival during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and white supremacy groups of today. Is there one "Klan" that is periodically revived, or one name that is applied to different social phenomena?

Framing Questions

  • What factors precipitated and fueled the social divisions of the 1920s?
  • How did each division reflect postwar adjustments and the "modern age"?
  • What issues overlapped the multiple social divisions of the period?
  • How had each issue evolved by 1930 as the nation entered the Great Depression?


Collected commentary
Political cartoons
      Cartoon analysis chart
Newsreel, 1925 Klan parade
Will Rogers, "Timely Topics"
12 pp.
15 pp.
 2 pp.
View online.

Listen online.
 1 p.
30 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Ku Klux Klan Collection, Michigan State University Libraries (29 titles, most from the 1920s, in pdf)

Primary sources in The Making of African American Identity: Vol. III, 1917-1968
Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and City University of New York)
Analyzing political cartoons: guides from
The 20s Ku Klux Klan in:

1Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 4.

– Leslie Rogers, "One Must Be Extinguished," political cartoon, The Chicago Defender, March 31, 1923. Reproduced by permission.
– Klan parade, Washington, DC, Sept. 13, 1926; photograph captioned "Leading the Klu [sic] Klux Klan parade which was held in Washington, D.C. today; on the right is Mr. J. M. Fraser . . . from Houston, Texas." Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Photo Company Collection, #LC-USZ62-96154.
–Fred B. Watson, "The Creeping Shadow," political cartoon, The Afro-American (Baltimore), Oct. 3, 1925. Reproduced by permission of the Afro-American Newspapers Archives & Research Center; digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– WKKK (Women of the Ku Klux Klan), Godfrey Klan 93, Hartford City, Indiana, photograph, ca. 1923 (detail). Indiana Historical Society, Item ID PhotoSubjColl_WKKK_Godfrey_Klan. Reproduced by permission of the Indiana Historical Society.
– Broadside advertising Ku Klux Klan meeting and picnic, Madison, Wisconsin, Oct. 4 [1924]. State Historical Society of Wisconsin, #51778. Reproduced by permission.
– Edmund Gale, "This Is Going to Be Good," political cartoon, Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1924. Reproduced by permission of the Los Angeles Times; digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

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