After the sensationalized trial and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, William Joseph Simmons, of Harpersville, Alabama, son of an original Klansman, decided that it was time to do something to protect the white Protestant heritage of America.
He had watched D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and was drawn to the heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan.
It was he who led the charge on October 16, 1915, up Stone Mountain, to burn a cross in honour of Mary Phagan, the young girl that Frank was wrongfully accused of murdering.
Cross burning was not a practice of the first Ku Klux Klan. Griffith borrowed the idea from the Scottish Clans, who had burned crosses as a method of signalling from one hilltop to the next.
Simmon's cross burning, highly visible to the surrounding area on that fateful night, was the symbol of a religious rebirth, and the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was brought to life. It was to be a fraternity of native-born Anglo-Saxon or Celtic Protestants who would rid the country of at least the influence, of Blacks, Jews and Roman Catholics, or anyone else who "didn't belong".
As Grand Wizard, Simmons created titles like Kleagle (organizer and field worker) Kloncilium (supreme advisory board) and Klonsel (legal counsel), while maintaining the Goblins, Dragons, etc. of the original Klan. For his services he was provided with a home called Klan Krest and a monthly salary of $1,000.00. (3)
The Klan had gone from obscurity, to a well organized and well financed resistance movement.
In October of 1921, concern with the Klan's popularity led to a federal hearing, where Simmons repeatedly stressed the benevolent and fraternal nation of the Klan, himself denouncing the violence. After his appearance, letters poured in from across the country, with requests for assistance in creating local chapters. The Klan then garnered over a million new members. Simmons would later say that "Congress made us". (1)
In 1922, the torch was passed to Edward Young Clarke, an advertising executive from Louisiana.
Clarke was the ultimate promoter, but alas turned out to be the ultimate swindler.
In 1922, Louisiana Governor John M. Parker, sent J. Edgar Hoover (then Assistant Director of the Bureau of Investigation), a request for help in dealing with the Ku Klux Klan, that had grown so powerful in his state that it effectively controlled the northern half. Initially, the feds did not want to get involved, believing it to be a state matter, until Parker reminded them of their duty to protect the states from domestic violence. (2)
Once they started digging, they found that Clarke had been skimming off the top, keeping $ 8.00 of every $10.00 membership fee, and cashing in on the sale of "uniforms" (white bed sheets?). The only thing they could convict him on, however, was transporting a mistress across state lines, in violation of the 1910 Mann Act; legislation that prohibited white slavery and the interstate transport of females for “immoral purposes”.
A Change in Direction
Though lynchings remained popular throughout the 1920s, despite attempts to create anti-lynching laws, the membership of the "new" Klan was more urban, and publicly denounced the practice.
The Klan's hierarchy instead decided to become more political, by promoting candidates with a shared vision of the United States as a White Protestant Nation. In his book of that name, Allan Lichtman, traces the Conservative movement back to those days.
From 1920 to 1925 the Ku Klux Klan grew more explosively than any political or social movement in U.S. history. In these few years the Klan recruited some three million to six million white Protestants from across America's working and middle classes, representing those who founded and "own this country" ... Klan leaders used modern marketing techniques to build thriving chapters in both cities and small towns. The Klan flourished not only in the South but also in Maryland, Indiana, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, Colorado, and Kansas ... [they] sometimes resorted to violence but more commonly participated in direct civic action and electoral politics ... defended Nordic Americans and their traditional culture from Catholics, blacks, and Jews ... (4)With ambiguous messaging, and a tough on crime stance, they reached out to middle America.
The Klan had an intensely local appeal as it worked to enforce traditional Protestant values by upholding Prohibition, fighting crime, and shutting down dance parlors, pool halls, and brothels. It backed public schools and hospitals and clean government but also boycotted Jewish and Catholic-owned businesses. Klan members benefited from this strategy, which sustained their economic privileges as white Protestant Americans." (4)
They also decided that it was time to change the system from within:
Using side show tactics, like parading a goat around wearing the name of a candidate they opposed, or launching boycotts and whisper campaigns, the Klan referred to their political activism as "guerrilla warfare", a term that continues to be used by the conservative movement today. Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition said of his activism to garner the white Protestant vote: "I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag. You don't know until election night." (5)Klan members donned white robes of purity, hid their identities under hoods, burned crosses, exchanged secret handshakes and greetings, and spawned a rich bestiary of leaders termed kleagles, wizards, goblins, and dragons. But underneath the lavish ritual lurked a serious political operation. The Klan elected thousands of endorsed candidates to school boards and local governments and extended its reach to state and national offices. Outside the solidly Democratic South, the Klan linked arms with anti-Pluralist Republicans. Statistical analysis of all nonsouthern counties that white Protestants, both fundamentalist and mainstream, provided the vote for Klan-sponsored candidates. Race and religion, not class or urban-rural residence, distinguished the Klan vote from support for other candidates. At its height in 1924 the Klan swept nearly every major election in which it had endorsed a candidate. (4)
The media dismissed the Klan in the 1920s and mocked their rallies, in the same way that they allowed Reed to fly under their radar.
" ... and by the time it finally caught their attention, Reed's Christian Coalition controlled both houses of Congress and would later play a major role in putting George W. Bush in the White House, not once but twice. (6)Gerry Nicholls, VP of the National Citizens Coalition when Stephen Harper was its president, also refers to the tactics used by the NCC as "guerrilla warfare". (7)
This doesn't mean that Reed or the NCC supported the KKK, but does validate Lichtman's claim that the conservative movement did not begin in the 1940's as many believe, but the 1920s, when the toned down Klan attempted to recreate America in their image, by working to elect conservative candidates.
And they did not confine their activism to America, but crossed into Canada at the same time, said to be instrumental in electing the conservative government of James Thomas Milton Anderson, in Saskatchewan. Though Anderson denied any involvement with the Klan, his policies reflected their "values". Values which included opposition to Catholics and the French language being taught in schools.
Later Pat Emmons, a Grand Wizard of the Saskatchewan Klan, scheduled a public meeting at which he said he would expose the alleged link, but "couldn't make himself heard over the shouts and jeers." (8)
Another Political Rebirth
When it was learned that former Canadian Klan leader, Wolfgang Droege, was the Reform Party's Ontario policy chair (9), Preston Manning immediately denounced him, claiming not to know. He also purged the party of Droege's new group, the Heritage Front. However, according to former Heritage Front member Al Overfield, he “let the Reform Party executive know about his political past, and they had no problems with it." He also stated that Stephen Harper was well aware of his involvement in far right groups.
Any successful movement, left or right, needs the radicals and Canada's conservative movement was no different. In fact at a Reform Party assembly, they actually passed a motion that would allow extremists to join. When someone stood up and asked "What about Doug Christie?" the response was "Ah, leave him in. We may need to use him later." (10)
Doug Christie was the controversial lawyer and monarchist, who defended most of Canada's neo-Nazis, including James Keegstra, the school teacher who taught his students that the Holocaust was a hoax. Christie was also the founder of Western Canada Concept, a separatist party calling for Western provinces and territories to break away and form their own country (or join the United States). Stockwell Days' father was a candidate for the Party.
It can be very tempting for politicians to tap into the passion and energy of these extremist groups, to help them get elected. The problem is what to do with them after.
They are Still an Important Part of History
According to Robert O. Paxton, the Ku Klux Klan was the first known fascist movement.
The Klan constituted an alternate civic authority, parallel to the legal state, which, in its founders' eyes, no longer defended their community's legitimate interests. In its adoption of a uniform (white robe and hood), as well as its techniques of intimidation and its conviction that violence was justified in the cause of the group's destiny, the first version of the Klan in the defeated American South was a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe. It is arguable, at least, that fascism (understood functionally) was born in the late 1860s in the American South. (11)What was unique about fascism as a political theory, was that unlike other isms, that have clear formulated doctrines, fascism "introduced no systematic exposition of its ideology or purpose other than a negative reaction against socialist and democratic egalitarianism." (12)
Seymour Martin Lipset said of the "radical right" involved with the conservative movement, that they are far from having a unified ideology. The common denominator that unites the Radical Right is the identification of the policies which it opposes. (13)
In the 1920's the KKK opposed non-white immigration, Negroes, ethnics, liberalism, loose morals and non-Protestants. They claimed to "uphold the family and stop crime and vice from ruining their communities". (4)
How is that any different from the Right's goals today? They have included Jews and Catholics but only of the Orthodox variety. Paxton states that religion plays a much greater role in authentic fascism in the United States than in the first European fascisms (11). Many other respected authors and journalists, also refer to the Religious Right and the modern conservative movement as fascism.
No matter how we sugar coat it, by seeking alternative monikers, like neoconservatives, corporatists, or the least threatening term of all, "conservatives", used to differentiate them from Republicans or Tories, they are still fascists.
In fact, Paxton believes that we are doing history a grave injustice by not recognizing that.
A real phenomenon exists. Indeed, fascism is the most original political novelty of the twentieth century, no less. It successfully gathered, against all expectations, in certain modern nations that had seemed firmly planted on a path to gradually expanding democracy, a popular following around hard, violent, antiliberal and antisocialist nationalist dictatorships. ....We must be able to examine this phenomenon as a system. It is not enough to treat each national case individually, as if each one constitutes a category in itself. If we cannot examine fascism synthetically, we risk being unable to understand this century, or the next.Allan Litchman in White Protestant Nation opened the door, by tracing the conservative movement to the albeit temporary rebirth of the KKK in the 1920s. A time when Fascism was gaining popularity across Europe, before Mussolini and Hitler made it a dirty word.
The vast majority of today's conservatives would not support the violence of the Nazis or the KKK, but they need to understand that their political actions are just as undemocratic. Even if they do refer to it as "direct democracy", it is the use of money, radicalism and religious authority, to dictate policy. It doesn't get any moer fascist than that.
1.The White Separatist Movement in the United States: "White Power, White Pride!", By Betty A. Dobratz and Stephanie L Shanks-Meile, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, ISBN: 13: 978-0801865374, p.38
2. A Byte Out of FBI History,Imperial Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan in Kustody, FBI Files, March 2004
3. KU KLUX KLAN: Simmony? Time Magazine,February 25, 1924
4. White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement, By Allan J. Lichtman, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008, ISBN: 10-0-87113-983-7, pp 42-42
5. Inside the Christian Coalition, By Frederick Clarkson, Institute for First Amendment Studies, Jan/Feb 1992
6. The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada, By: Marci McDonald, Random House Canada, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-307-35646-8 3, p. 5
7. How to wage political guerrilla warfare, By Gerry Nicholls, Report Magazine, June 5, 2008
8. Klan Gained Hold in Saskatchewan, By Ron MacDonald, Winnipeg Free Press, May 8, 1965. p.14
9. Preston Manning: Roots of Reform, By: Frank Dabbs, Greystone, 2000, ISBN -13-97815-50547504
10. Of Passionate Intensity: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada, By Trevor Harrison, University of Toronto Press, 1995, ISBN: 0-8020-7204-6
11. The Five Stages of Fascism, By Robert O. Paxton, Columbia University, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 70, No. 1. (Mar., 1998), pp. 1-23.
12. Fascism: Origins of Fascism, The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia
13. The Radical Right, Edited by Daniel Bell, Doubleday, 1964