Apr 29, 2016
The comedian W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America premiered on CNN this past weekend. The show’s first episode focuses on the contemporary Ku Klux Klan. A portion of my dissertation is on the 1920s Klan. I decided to watch the show to get a better sense of the Ku Klux Klan of today. I am glad I did. Overall, I found the program to be informative and, often ironically, funny.
One of the most entertaining moments in the show comes when Bell offers direction to Thomas Robb as he films his video program “This is the Klan.” The black media professional instructs the white amateur on how he might better communicate to his audience. In doing so Bell disproves the whole premise of white supremacy, that people with “white” skin are somehow innately superior to people of color. If there was any truth to that superiority Robb would have been the one offering instructions.
The Klan the Bell portrays in his show shares significant continuities with the Klan of the 1920s. Like its predecessor, it is a white supremacist Protestant Christian organization. Robb and many of the other Klan leaders that Bell encounters are Protestant clergy. The words used at the cross burning Bell witnesses are words of Christian ritual.
Bell’s piece would have been even more compelling if he had highlighted not only the continuities but also the dissimilarities between the epochs of the Klan. This would have meant offering a more nuanced historical background to the Klan. Bell assumes that his viewers know the movement’s history and that the Klan has exclusively targeted black people. This glossing over of history represents a missed opportunity.
There have been three separate Ku Klux Klan movements. The Klan of 2015 is a different organization, or rather set of organizations, than the Klan of 1871 or 1920. Its members have different concerns than their earlier brethren. By examining those different concerns Bell could have demonstrated how white supremacy has changed, and how it has remained constant, over the course of the last 150 years. In doing so, he could have made a statement about our current political moment.
The first Klan was the Reconstruction-era Klan. It was founded in late 1865 or early 1866 by former Confederate soldiers. Under the leadership of the detestable Nathan Bedford Forrest, it terrorized and assassinated black and white radical Republicans and former Union soliders in an effort to reassert white supremacy in the South. It was suppressed by the Grant administration and rendered largely irrelevant by the betrayal of Reconstruction by Northern whites in the mid-1870s. After the 1874 mid-term elections white supremacists in the South no longer needed masks to kill black and white radicals. (For more on the first Klan see my recent lecture at Harvard).
The second Klan was founded in 1915 in Atlanta, Georgia. Its founder, the execrable William Joseph Simmons, was inspired by the W. B. Griffith’s white supremacist fantasy Birth of a Nation. This second Klan grew slowly at first and took until about 1924 to reach its peak. At its height it could claim five million members and held significant political power in nine states.* This Klan lasted until late 1940s by which time it only had a few thousand members.
The second Klan was distinct from the first in three important ways. First, it was as anti-immigrant organization. While the Klansmen (and Klanswomen) of the 1920s certainly terrorized blacks they were mostly concerned with the threat that European immigrants posed to “Anglo-Saxon civilization.”** They feared that “our government would be overrun with undesirables, and instead of being a Nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, become a veritable melting pot for the scum of the earth.”
Second, it was both an anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic organization. One of the primary objections that Klan members had to immigrants was that the undermined the place of Protestantism within the culture of the United States. They supported things likes women’s suffrage and universal public education because they saw them as strategies to both counter the influence of the foreign born within politics and force assimilation.
Third, the second Klan was a national, not sectional, organization. Its leaders claimed they had several hundred thousand members in states like Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Oregon. These claims are believable in that the Klan exhibited significant public strength in these states either through large rallies or the election of public officials who openly supported the Klan.
The third Klan, the Klan that Bell encounters in his show, is more similar to the first Klan than the second in that it is primarily an anti-black and Southern movement. The first Klan owed its origin to white supremacist opposition to Reconstruction. The third Klan began as a white supremacist reaction to the civil rights movement.
If Bell had spent even a couple of minutes tending to the second Klan something would have become clear to his viewers. Its rhetoric is similar to that of the presumptive Republic Party nominee, Donald Trump. Like Trump, Klansmen of the 1920s painted immigrants are fundamentally threatening the nation. Compare this 1924 statement from the Grand Dragon of South Carolina to some of Trump’s utterances:
“The immigrants who come to this country form communities by themselves and congregate in the great cities. Paupers, diseased and criminals predominate among those who land upon American soil. They have a very low standard of morals, they are unable to speak our language and a great majority of them are unable to read and write their own language. They come from countries where they have been accustomed to a lower standard of wages and living and therefore, compete with American labor which is already overcrowded.”
Or contrast this statement about Catholics from Hiram Evans, the second Imperial Wizard of the Klan, to Trump’s words on Muslims:
“In Protestant America we must have time to teach these alien peoples the fundamental principles of human liberty before we permit further masses of ignorant, superstitious, religious devotees to come within our borders.”
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. As the Washington Post and other news outlets have documented his father, Fred Trump, might have been affiliated with the Klan. He has appears to have been arrested at a Klan rally during a time, 1927, when the Klan could hundreds of thousands of white Protestant men as members. It would not have been unusual for the elder Trump to have been a Klan member. A number of prominent Protestant white men at the time either were members or openly sympathetic to the Klan.
Whether or not Fred Trump was ever a member of the Klan is probably beside the point. Far more relevant is that by briefly discussing the second Klan Bell could have shown through his documentary how the ideas of that incarnation of the white supremacist Protestant terrorist organization are at the center, and not the margins, of contemporary American political discourse.
*For membership numbers see Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), xi. The states where the Klan held significant political power were Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Texas (see David Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, third edition (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987), 80, 59, 200, 127, 72, 162, 57). I define a state in which the Klan held significant power as a state in which either a Governor or a Senator openly affiliated with the Klan was elected or a state in which the election of a Governor or a Senator was due to the mobilization of the Klan. Chalmers claims that Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, and Indiana were the states where the Klan held its greatest political strength.
**All quotes are drawn from my dissertation research. If you’d like the precise citation feel free to contact me.