by Linda Gordon,Liveright, 272 pp., $27.95
Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s
Most of us who grow up in the United States learn a reassuring
narrative of ever-expanding tolerance. Yes, the country’s birth was
tainted with the original sin of slavery, but Lincoln freed the slaves,
the Supreme Court desegregated schools, and we finally elected a black
president. The Founding Fathers may have all been men, but in their
wisdom they created a constitution that would later allow women to gain
the vote. And now the legal definition of marriage has broadened to
include gays and lesbians. We are, it appears, an increasingly inclusive
by Felix Harcourt, University of Chicago Press, 272 pp., $45.00
But a parallel, much darker river runs through American history. The Know Nothing Party of the 1850s viciously attacked Catholics and immigrants. Eugenics enthusiasts of the early twentieth century warned about the nation’s gene pool being polluted by ex-slaves, the feeble minded, and newcomers of inferior races. In the 1930s, 16 million Americans regularly listened to the anti-Semitic radio rants of Father Charles E. Coughlin.
The most notorious of all the currents in this dark river has been the Ku Klux Klan. It flourished first in the South after the Civil War, lynching and terrorizing African-Americans who tried to vote, and then gradually disbanded in the early 1870s under pressure from the federal government. After a long spell of quiescence, it reemerged into national prominence in the 1920s, reaching an all-time peak membership in 1924—a year, incidentally, that saw the dedication of various Confederate memorials, including the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, whose planned removal was the pretext for the “Unite the Right” rally there in August.