Monday, November 27, 2017

Adam Hochschild: "Klan of the 1920s Strongly Echoes the World of Donald Trump," "Heavily Supported by Evangelicals"

Adam Hochschild in the current issue of New York Review of Books

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 nation. 
But a parallel, much darker river runs through American history. . . . 
The first and third incarnations of the Klan—the cross-burning lynch mobs and the vigilantes who beat up and murdered civil rights workers in the 1960s—seem beyond the pale of today’s politics, at least for the moment. But the second Klan, the Klan of the 1920s, less violent but far more widespread, is a different story, and one that offers some chilling comparisons to the present day. It embodied the same racism at its core but served it up beneath a deceptively benign façade, in all-American patriotic colors. 
In other ways as well, the Klan of the 1920s strongly echoes the world of Donald Trump. This Klan was a movement, but also a profit-making business. On economic issues, it took a few mildly populist stands. It was heavily supported by evangelicals. It was deeply hostile to science and trafficked in false assertions. And it was masterfully guided by a team of public relations advisers as skillful as any political consultants today. . . . 
One intriguing episode links the Klan of ninety years ago to us now. On Memorial Day 1927, a march of some one thousand Klansmen through the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York, turned into a brawl with the police. Several people wearing Klan hoods, either marching in the parade or sympathizers cheering from the sidelines, were charged with disorderly conduct, and one with "refusing to disperse." Although the charge against the latter was later dropped, his name was mentioned in several newspaper accounts of the fracas. Beneath the hood was Fred Trump, the father of Donald.

The newspaper article at the head of the posting: it's a full-page ad that ran in one of Arkansas' two statewide daily newspapers, the Arkansas Gazette, on 5 August 1922 (p. 11). The Klan was organizing in Little Rock at this point, and as the ad states, a rally (to recruit new members and garner more support) was to be held that Saturday evening in Little Rock's city park.

The speaker who would explain Klan principles to those interested in joining the KKK? Dr. Harry G. Knowles, pastor of Little Rock's First Christian church, which is a few blocks up the road from my house. At the time he gave this presentation shilling for the Ku Klux Klan, he was vice-president of the Little Rock Ministerial Society and on the executive board of the Arkansas Christian Missionary Society.

And there's more: the ad at the head of the posting is from August 1922. On 27 February 1922, the state's other statewide paper, the Arkansas Democrat, carried an article (p. 10, col. 1-2) reporting on a sermon the pastor of Little Rock's First Methodist church* had preached the preceding evening to standing-room crowds. As this piece reports, people had to be turned away, since there was no room  in the church for latecomers. 

The theme of Rev. P.C. Fletcher's standing-room-only sermon? The glories of the Ku Klux Klan:

Adam Hochshild's New York Review of Books article, some of which I excerpt above, is a review of two new books about the Klan: Linda Gordon's The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (NY: Liveright, 2017), and Felix Harcourt's Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2017). When these historians report, as Hochschild notes, that the Klan of the 1920s was "masterfully guided by a team of public relations advisers as skillful as any political consultants today," and presented a "deceptively benign façade" that caused the KKK to be "heavily supported by [white] evangelicals," they know whereof they speak.

When we don't repent of what is horrendous and immoral in our history, we repeat our horrendous and immoral history. Repentance requires concrete action grounded in realistic knowledge of who we are and what we've done, not nice words.

*As the article notes, the church was called First Methodist Episcopal Church, South; Northern and Southern Methodists had not yet healed the breach that occurred when Southern Methodists (like Southern Baptists) split their national church over the issue of slavery in the mid-19th century.

No comments: