Thursday, June 21, 2018

Linda Gordon's Second Coming of the KKK: "Klan's Mobilization of Evangelical Ministers Foreshadowed — and Probably Helped Generate — the Entry of Christian Right Preachers into Conservative Politics"

I've just finished reading Linda Gordon's The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (NY: Liveright, 2017). It's an excellent historical study of the reincarnation of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Linda Gordon is a history professor at New York University.  

As the book shows with meticulous documentation, the second coming of the Klan moved the geographic center of the Klan from the American South, where its first incarnation occurred, to the Northern states, where the Klan made heavy inroads in the 1920s in major cities, among professional and educated people, and, in particular, among Protestant ministers. Gordon notes that they were the second most significant component of the Klan in the 1920s in numerical terms, and were among its most powerful leaders, occupying high positions in the leadership structure of the KKK.

Part of her study is devoted to showing how significant the Klan was in her home state of Oregon, which has a liberal reputation, but in racial terms, has a history of gross overt racism. The Klan of the 1920s was, in short, not much like the stereotypical picture many people have of the organization as a mostly Southern thing appealing primarily to déclassé and uneducated white working-class people. Indiana was a hotbed of the 1920s Klan. So was Colorado. The West in general was KKK territory in this period.

To recruit members outside the South, the reincarnated Klan expanded its list of targets from African Americans; it focused on immigrants, Catholics, and Jews, as well. It was a white nationalist Protestant Christian organization seeking to establish the hegemony of white Protestants over other groups in American society, and it had large appeal precisely for that reason.

Gordon was writing her book prior to the election of Donald Trump. It was released not long after the 2016 elections, and reading it now, in 2018, is like reading a prescient blueprint for the election of Donald Trump. A recurring question I asked myself over and over as I read the book: what are the descendants of these folks doing, a generation or two down the road? What is their political agenda now? Where do they stand politically? I think we can guess.

They certainly have not gone away. None of this has gone away from American culture, despite the fatuous claims of the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that we've achieved some Jubilee Year of postracial harmony and no longer need legal protections for minority groups. Look, especially, at the passages below from p. 195 in which Gordon talks about the Klan's lasting success in planting lies in American culture about the (non-existent, for the most part) threat posed by immigrants, and how that led to legislation targeting immigrants and to rhetoric that legitimated acceptable hate speech about immigrants. 

The second incarnation of the Klan died institutionally, to a great extent, after its initial flourishing in the 1920s, due to the gross corruption of its top leaders, who were, in a number of conspicuous and highly publicized cases, living libertine lives while preaching against sexual immorality and alcohol consumption, and were usually feathering their own nests to an astonishing degree with Klan funds. But its victories, especially in the area of immigration legislation and the free and easy rhetoric many Americans use to lie about and attack immigrants: these live on in our culture.

As I read, I clipped passages that struck me as significant and worth sharing. Here they are:

P. 5

P. 18

P. 35

P. 51

P. 51

P. 55

P. 80

P. 88

P. 89

P. 89

P. 90

P. 81

P. 91

P. 186

P. 195

P. 195

P. 195

The photo at the head of the posting is from Portland, Oregon, in 1922, from a church whose minister invited the Klan to parade itself at the church. It's held by Oregon Historical Society, catalogue number 51017. Gordon features the photo in her book.

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