What the History of the Ku Klux Klan Can Teach Us about the Capitol RiotHistorians in the News
tags: KKK, Ku Klux Klan, White Supremacy, Capitol Riots
The mob that gathered in Washington, DC, last Wednesday, culminating in the storming of the US Capitol and the deaths of at least five people, was initially dismissed by some as a bunch of “deadbeat dads, YouPorn enthusiasts, slow students, and MMA fans.”
It might be tempting to think of the Capitol rioters as fringe elements, rejects and losers already on the margins of society. But that was far from the case. In attendance that day, it now appears, were several off-duty police officers. There was the CEO of a Chicago-area tech company, the son of a Brooklyn judge, and more than a dozen state lawmakers. And, of course, the mob was encouraged ahead of the riot by members of Congress and President Trump himself.
It all goes back to a larger truth about white supremacist movements in America: They haven’t been composed, as some claim, of poor white people disenfranchised by society. Instead, they’ve often included supposed pillars of the community — professionals, businesspeople, and especially law enforcement officials.
Indeed, all these were represented in one of the best-known white supremacist groups in American history, the Ku Klux Klan. Linda Gordon, a history professor at New York University and the author of The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, has studied the makeup of the group, especially during the 1920s when its activities became much more overt and open. And, she told Vox, the Klan, which at one point required the payment of significant entry fees, was “not an organization of poor people."
Its members were not economically disadvantaged by the wave of immigration they opposed. Nor were they, as some opponents then and now claimed, particularly uneducated or simply “stupid.” Rather, the roots of white supremacy, then and now, are more complex, and to understand them, we have to look at where groups like the Klan and the Capitol rioters get their information and why they believe what they believe. And stopping such groups will take more than insulting their intelligence.
I spoke with Gordon, in a conversation that has been edited for length and clarity, about the Klan of the 1920s, its focus on immigrants and conspiracy theories, and what this history can tell us about where we go as a country in the wake of the Capitol riot. Because, as Gordon puts it, “it’s not going to stop with this.”
Can you give us a brief capsule history of the Ku Klux Klan?
The simplest way to think about this is to understand that there were four iterations of the Klan.
The first emerged in the South, immediately after the Civil War. It was a terrorist group, in the literal sense of that term. Their main activity was violence against African Americans. They, over time, lynched more than 4,000 Black people, and they had one simple purpose: to maintain white supremacy and to prevent Black people from being able to enjoy any of the rights of a citizen.
The second Klan, which is the one that I wrote about, was really quite a different beast. It arose around 1920. And it was a mass movement of somewhere between 3 [million] and 6 million people. Unlike the first Klan, it was not at all secret about who was a member. It advertised openly in newspapers, and operated many events.
It was also different because it had 1.5 million women members. And it was largely in the North. And because it was in the North, and because at that time there were actually very few African Americans living in the North, the second Klan leaders came to understand that they would have very little traction by focusing specifically on Black Americans. Instead, they were very, very much reacting to large-scale immigration, and with tremendous animosity toward Catholics and Jews.