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What the history of the Ku Klux Klan can teach us about the Capitol riot

“It’s not going to stop with this,” a historian who studies the Klan explains.

Ku Klux Klan members parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol building to the Treasury Department in Washington, DC, on August 8, 1925.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

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.”

Anna North

Can you give us a brief capsule history of the Ku Klux Klan?

Linda Gordon

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.

A Klan wedding that preceded the Klan parade in Washington, DC, in 1925.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
The photograph’s description in 1930: “Excitement just ran rampant among, Lynbrook, Long Island, Ku Klux Klanners when they turned out in customary regalia for parade, but the rest of the town didn’t get worked up.”
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

The core of the second Klan were white evangelical Protestants. This was a time of massive immigration coming into the United States starting in about 1880. Very few immigrants in that period were Protestants. They were Catholics from Southern Europe, or Jews from Eastern Europe.

The second Klan was predominantly nonviolent. There was some vigilantism, but it was an organization that figured out that it could get further by using legal electoral operations. They had a very effective lobbying operation — they published over 150 print publications, they owned two radio stations.

We are talking about an organization with a great deal of power in part because they charged their members relatively high dues. You had to pay a $10 initiation fee, which these days would probably be about $125 in value. This is not an organization of poor people. It was an organization of middle-class and lower-middle-class people.

One thing it did have in common with white supremacist groups today is that probably the single largest occupational group in the Klan were police, or other officers of law and order, like sheriff’s deputies.

For various reasons, the second Klan declined radically by the end of the 1920s. And many of its members in the 1930s went into the American Nazi groups, which were far more numerous than many people know.

German American Bund Camp Nazi youth salute Hindenburg in 1934 in Griggstown, New Jersey.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

The third Klan was in response to the civil rights movement. It began in the ’50s and ’60s and didn’t use the Klan’s name so much. But they organized what were called White Citizens Councils, and their main drive was to oppose school integration. And they were, to some extent, violent. They bombed people. They’re very famous for having blown up a church and killing four little girls.

And now we come to the fourth, which is today. Today, the Ku Klux Klan is just one small group among many, many different white supremacist groups. There is no overarching larger organization. Many of these groups are completely independent. What’s different, though, is that we live in the era in which social media allows many disparate groups to communicate and make common plans — like their plans to invade the Capitol. In other words, they just have a very different communication structure. And that communication structure means that it really isn’t necessary for them to have one single large organization.

Anna North

Are there still official, active Klan chapters? Does the Ku Klux Klan exist in name today?

Linda Gordon

Yes, it does.

Overall, there are many, many of these small white supremacist groups, and they are not all exactly identical in their ideology. One of the things that has happened is that the Trump administration and the Trump personality have kind of unified them. They now have a leader, or if not literally a leader, then certainly their spokesperson and enabler. And that is different from anything that ever happened before. The massive Ku Klux Klan of the ’20s never had someone at the very top of the government who was enabling them.

Chanting “White lives matter!” and “Jews will not replace us!” several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia campus in 2017.
Evelyn Hockstein/Washington Post via Getty Images

Anna North

What was the catalyst for the second Klan forming?

Linda Gordon

There were several sort of catalysts. One was, of course, this massive immigration. In all this kind of far-right stuff — in every case, and that’s true today — they operate by making people afraid. In the 1920s, they believed this country, destined to be a white Protestant country, was in danger of being taken over by people who were not white Protestants and who were in their view very, very evil people. Fear is central.

The second big force was World War I — because World War I, like all wars do, had ratcheted up a kind of super-patriotism. And after the war, there was this real legal repression of dissent, in which lots of people who had opposed the war, and other people who were just considered disloyal because they were foreign-born, were actually deported. During that period, you had government not necessarily publicly attacking Catholics and Jews, but certainly raising the level of fear by suggesting that there were these people infiltrating the United States who were not really patriotic or loyal Americans.

And then there’s the influence of the film The Birth of a Nation, which appeared in 1915. It was a film which showed very, very ugly stuff — Black people presented as these awful savages who are intent on seizing and raping white women. The general tone of it was, again, about increasing fear.

Actors costumed in the full regalia of the Ku Klux Klan ride on horses at night in a still from the first feature-length film The Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith in 1914.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One other thing that’s very much in common between the ’20s Klan and what’s going on today is conspiracy theories. Take one example: Members of the second Klan spread the theory that the reason so many Catholics were coming into the United States was not because they were poor and looking for a better life, but because the pope ordered them to come. And once they came, they were supposed to go underground, awaiting the time when the pope would give the order for a coup that would take over the American government and establish the United Catholic States of America.

That’s based on religion, but I’m sure you can see the similarities to these white nationalists who seem to have this capacity to believe completely bizarre theories without any evidence, like Hillary Clinton is operating a massive child sex abuse ring.

Anna North

Why were people in the era of the second Klan so willing to believe these kinds of conspiracy theories? And what does that tell us about the rise of this kind of theory now?

Linda Gordon

I can only give you some simple, partial answers. One is, it depends on who you hear the theories from. In the case of the second Klan, a very large role was played by ministers. The Klan claimed to have 40,000 ministers. And they were not just members, they were people who, through their sermons, urged people to join the Ku Klux Klan to protect white Protestant domination of the United States. And in general, I do think that people tend to believe things depending on who they hear them from.

As described in 1923: “This unusual and exclusive photo shows ... Grace Methodist Episcopal Church in Newark, NJ. ... The forty klansmen, their identity concealed, sensationally entered the church and were welcomed by the minister and introduced the ‘Exalted Cyclops’ to the congregation.”
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

There was also a tendency to be hostile to science. Science seemed to them to be part of this conspiracy to take America away from the people who really belong to it. And I think that lies behind the fact that today’s far right is often also people who don’t want to wear masks. They just do not want to believe the science. And that was true in the ’20s. In the ’20s, the big issue was evolution. The Klan went all out in its battle against evolutionary theory and teaching evolution in schools.

Anna North

Why was the Klan so worried about evolution?

Linda Gordon

Well, it’s ungodly, right? These are fundamentalist Christians. But I also think behind that lay this kind of anti-elitism in which they just see these scientists as sort of intellectual snobs who don’t respect ordinary people. And there’s a lot of language that is similar today about who are the real American patriots. The Klan use this language that is almost identical to some of what you see today about people who are 100 percent American, true American. And they believe that they represent the true essence of what is good about the United States.

Anna North

You mentioned that the second Klan in particular was mostly middle and upper working class. Do we see class parallels today, when it comes to the Capitol rioters and white supremacist groups more generally?

Linda Gordon

I’m not on top of the demography of the current white supremacists, but I will say two things that are not true. And that is that people in the 1920s, as well as people now, who don’t like what the white supremacists are doing, very frequently want to think of them as stupid, uneducated, very crude. In other words, really insulting their intelligence. That’s what people were saying all the time about the second Klan.

And we now know that they were wrong. The members of the 1920s Klan were as educated as average Americans. They included not only many white-collar people but even professionals, middle-class businessmen.

So one thing is it’s wrong. But the other thing is that kind of talk — that this was just a bunch of stupid, uneducated oafs — that just merely confirmed their view that the people who were the elites had nothing but disdain for the people who were the real salt of the earth in America.

I experience that today. There’s a lot of attacks, for example, on Trump, as if he was stupid. I have no idea if he’s stupid or not, but I’m not sure that stupidity is the problem. There’s obviously many other forces, like the tremendous desire for power.

But I do suspect very strongly that if we ever got a real systematic tallying of who were members of these white supremacist groups, we would probably be surprised to find that they are just as well-educated as the average American.

Anna North

I’m glad you brought up this perception that people either in the Klan or at the Capitol riot were dumb, or that they were uneducated. I’ve also kind of seen a perception that they must be very poor, or classist language used to describe them. I’m curious where these kinds of perceptions come from, either now or in the 1920s. Why is there this wrong assumption that people involved in white supremacist movements are stupid or uneducated or low-class in some way?

Linda Gordon

I do think there’s a certain amount of snobbery among the more highly educated, centrist or liberal populations of America.

But I do think that one of the things that is behind this — when you look at what just happened, what we see is people who are almost hysterical with rage and willing to do things even at risk to themselves and others. A lot of people would say, well, that rage comes through the fact that they are suffering economically. They’re losing jobs to people who are more elite. But for the 1920s Klan, that was not the case.

A Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington, DC, circa 1920. On the right is J. M. Fraser, a member of the original Klan from Houston, Texas.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

There was no indication that the people drawn to the Klan were people who were losing economic status. One of the bizarre things is that the Klan, with its attacks on Catholics and Jews, was strongest in places in which there were hardly any Catholics or Jews. And furthermore, there was no evidence that these guys in the Klan were economically suffering. So there’s no simple relationship between what they’re saying and the idea that they have some real suffering and real grievances.

Anna North

So what did draw people to the 1920s Klan?

Linda Gordon

You almost need a kind of psychological understanding. I think people in the Klan, and people in these groups today, just like people in the Nazi movement, they really get something from their involvement in these groups. They get a sense of community, they get a sense of affirmation.

Obviously, it’s making millions of Americans now look again at the question of, what is fascism? And how it is that very, very huge populations can be organized into this kind of hysteria, about people who are “stealing” the nation from its true destiny. I think that is what you hear a lot in white nationalist groups, that someone is stealing the country, stealing the election, taking it away from the people it rightfully belongs to. And evidence is simply not relevant. The Klan went all out on this notion of the threat to white Protestant domination at a time when white Protestants completely dominated the economy, the government, the culture. So it’s not actually accurate perceptions of real changes.

Anna North

My last question is: What can the history of the Klan and the history of the second Klan in particular tell us about the Capitol riots, the white supremacist movements that are ongoing today, and where we go from here as a country?

Linda Gordon

I’ll offer something very opinionated about this, that not everybody would agree with. But when you look at one of the differences between, say, right-wing groups and liberal groups, a lot of liberal groups are really committed to proceeding in ways that are objective, that are looking at both sides of an issue. And the right wing has no particular interest in that.

Pro-Trump supporters gather for the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6 in Washington, DC.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Following the rally, pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol as lawmakers were set to sign off on President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory.
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

And so you have a huge imbalance there. I think it’s good to try to see both sides. But on the other hand, I think we may be reaching a point where people who want to stop this white supremacy, we cannot rely on simply the law to find them and try them and convict them. People really need to become louder and more active in defending values of democracy and freedom and civil liberties and anti-racism. Whether they do that by just the way they talk or whether they have demonstrations in the streets — nonviolent demonstrations — I hope that what just happened may be ultimately a force that’s going to bring people together and understand the importance of making very, very public stands for what are American values of the kind that we support.

Because one of the things I do know is it’s not going to stop with this. It’s going to continue, and it’s going to continue for quite a while, and getting rid of Trump is certainly not going to end it.

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