A couple of peep-holes in the pillowcase and off we go a-lynching

Ian Hamilton

  • Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of the Ku Klux Klan of the Twenties by David Horowitz
    Southern Illinois, 191 pp, £39.95, July 1999, ISBN 0 8093 2247 1

For quite a few of us, I’d guess, the name Ku Klux Klan suggests a rather creepy style of nightwear. When, as a boy, I first saw pictures of those Deep South nocturnalists in their crazy all-white strip, I had the notion that they had just sprung from their Alabaman slumbers, roused maybe by a sudden seizure of race-hatred, and had simply grabbed the nearest uniform that came to hand. A couple of peep-holes in the pillowcase and off we go a-lynching, so to speak. For a Northern English kid whose Beano routinely dressed its ghosts in bedsheets, these gangs of white-garbed spooks on horseback fitted easily into one’s line-up of night terrors. At the same time, though, they were nothing like as spooky as my Beano visitants. After all, I wasn’t black. Well, not black-skinned.

Later on, of course, in my school Liberal Studies classes, I came to a fuller understanding of what these Klansmen were really all about. Even so, I didn’t know much about them, except that they were the baddest of the bad. When, still later on, in Cinema Studies, I was invited to applaud as a masterpiece D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, I found myself perplexed by the film’s evident admiration for a movement I was by then accustomed to deplore. I could see that hordes of fully togged-out Klansmen rampaging across open plains were immensely cinematic and all that, but Griffith wasn’t like Leni Riefenstahl, a recurrent conundrum in our adolescent Life v. Art debates. He hadn’t merely been sucked in by the visuals, which seemed to be the tale with Leni. Griffith had a genuine feeling for what those uniforms were up to. He harboured dreams that ‘the former enemies of North and South’ might be ‘united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright’. For him, the Klan was ‘the organisation that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule’.

Birth of a Nation was based on a novel called The Clansman by Thomas Dixon (whose own persistent dream was ‘to prevent the lowering of the standard of our citizenship by its mixture with Negro blood’) and was first screened in 1915, by which date the Klan itself had been formally defunct for more than four decades and was pretty well assimilated into the whole panoply of Civil War nostalgia. The original Klansmen – c. 1866 – had projected themselves as the spirits of the Confederate dead, returned from the battlefields, and had their own ways of defining Reconstruction. They were, literally, the spirit – or spirits – of the South. Hence the spook-sheets, and hence, too, the other Klan accessories, like skulls hanging from the horses’ saddles. The original Klan nags, it seems, also got to wear bedsheets, and their hoofs were always muffled, in order to enhance the effect of visible invisibility. My boyhood picture of hurried midnight robings was made to look pretty silly as I learned more about the Klan’s obsession with ponderous ceremonial: its secret code-words, its handshakes and parades – not to mention the cross burnings which seemed to feature at key moments in its night-time frolics. And then, of course, there were the lynchings, for which Klan nighties doubled as judicial robes.

On top of all this, there were the various mad names the Klansmen gave themselves, to denote ranks within the organisation. The overall top man was called Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire, and immediately beneath him were ten Genii. If a Klansman was in charge of a whole state (or, in Klanspeak, ‘realm’), he called himself a Grand Dragon, if you please, and his assistants were called Hydra. At a grassroots level, neighbourhood set-ups were called Dens, or Klaverns. The bossman of each Den was an Exalted Cyclops and his humble Klansmen gofers were called Ghouls.

All of this mumbo-jumbo clearly helped your average white-trash Klansman to see himself as a celestially fearsome warrior, fighting the good fights avenging an ancestral wrong. For the South’s newly freed slaves and for their would-be protectors in the North, though, it did nothing to disguise the down-to-earth nastiness of the Klan’s actual designs. The Klan regularly saw to it that ex-slaves chose not to use their hard-won votes, and that their white sympathisers felt nervous about speaking up in protest. As a result, by the end of the 1860s, most Southern states were run by ex-Confederates. For a brief moment, it seemed like business as usual for the old planter aristocracy, and for this the Klan could claim much of the credit. In 1871, the so-called Republican radicals struck back. The US Congress passed legislation which effectively outlawed the Klan. The sheets went into mothballs and that, for forty years or so, was that.

In 1915, the year of Griffith’s film, the Klan was refounded, by one William Simmons, an ex-minister and ‘promoter of fraternal societies’, but this time its ambitions and influence spread far beyond the South. The original white supremacist and Southern-based agenda became the blueprint for a nationwide campaign of moral uplift. The new Klan’s professed ideal was for 100 per cent Americanism. For a nation to be morally sound, it preached, there must be a purging of all alien components. Blacks were still seen as a major threat but they were now joined on the Klan’s hate-list by Jews, Catholics and mixed-race immigrants, or ‘hyphenates’, as they were called.

The reborn Klan was not as scary as its precursor. Indeed, most of its activities were insidiously and tediously local: making sure that Klansmen voted other Klansmen into sheriffships, mayorships and – now and then, the biggest coup of all – state governorships. There was less of the old night-riding but the sheets did come out of storage: you had to wear them when you attended weekly meetings of your Klavern. And the crazy names still stuck. In fact, a few more of them were added, to take account of the movement’s new bureaucratic bent. Each Klavern had a kludd (chaplain), a kladd (conductor of ceremonies), klabee (treasurer), klarogo (inner guard), kleagle (local organiser), kligrapp (secretary), and so on. Talk about the kl-word: what, one wonders, was a ‘klutz’? Intimidation still prospered with Klan Two but was largely a matter of slow-drip commercial pressure: ensuring that Klansman X stopped buying his groceries from Catholics or Jews. There was also a deeply off-putting strain of Mason-style fraternalism, or neighbourhood do-gooding. If Klansman X were to fall sick (from eating the wrong groceries, perhaps) his co-Klansmen were supposed to rally round – buy Aryan grapes, make sure his rent was paid etc. There were, of course, no Klanswomen (although here and there in the early Twenties attempts were made to set up societies of Loties, or Ladies of the I visible Empire). One theory of Klan-watching psychologists is that being a Klansman turned many a crushed loser into a domestic superhero. Something to do with those multi-purpose bedclothes, one might guess.

Klan Two was a sensational success, for a brief moment. Its moralistic fervour and its rabid nativism chimed in perfectly, it seems, with America’s post-World War One retreat into self-nurturing – and, with Prohibition on the statute books, its purgative ambitions seemed likely to be smiled on by the Federal Government. During Prohibition, the Klan took to unmasking local bootleggers and if a Klansman were to be caught downing a quick shot of moonshine he could expect instant expulsion from his Klavern – and maybe a bit more besides. Klansmen of the Twenties rather enjoyed fingering co-Klansmen – for drinking, adultery, frequenting the wrong shops, being friendly with a Catholic neighbour, and so on. Purity within was the obligatory first step to purity without, and Klansmen were famously quick on the draw when it came to that Biblical first stone.

In the early Twenties, Klan Two’s nationwide expansion was indeed spectacular: at one time the national membership was believed to top five million. And this was achieved despite stiff competition from Knights of the White Camellia and similar clean-up operations. And then, all of a sudden, the whole thing fell apart. New state laws against secret societies, together with one or two well-publicised cases of corruption, seemed to be the cause. Really, though, by 1930 Americans had grown tired of being clean. By this date, they were also broke. Being clean and broke was pretty tiring. Most of Klan Two’s membership was middle to low-income and during the Depression many of these members had to choose between paying their union dues and maintaining their subscriptions to the Klan. By 1930, the Klan’s national membership was down to something like thirty thousand, and the organisation was heading for oblivion. During the Thirties, a few of its more rabid members tried to set up an alliance with the Fascist German-American Bund but these efforts came to nothing. In 1944, Klan Two was formally disbanded but by then disbandment was no more than a formality. Post-World War Two, there were intermittent efforts to revive the Klan but with no success until the Fifties and Sixties, when the Civil Rights movement had quite a few white Southerners clutching at the bedclothes once again. With this ‘Klan Three’, the action was exclusively Deep South and there was no fussing about public morals or Papist hyphenates. Blacks and their buddies were the targets. There were murders of Civil Rights workers and a general revival of 1860s-style Klan terror.

In the early Seventies the Klan was infiltrated by the FBI: successful prosecutions followed and yet again the sheets went back into the closet. This time, however, there was no formal disbandment and since the mid-Eighties, when David Duke organised his spin-off Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, embittered white Southerners have kept in trim by linking up with one or another of America’s numerous neo-Nazi militia movements. The Twenties obsession with Catholics has again been sidelined. The Klan’s alliances with Nazi groups are based on shared fantasies of Aryan supremacy. The Klan is anti-black and so, too, presumably, is the White Aryan Resistance, but anti-semitism is still the neo-Nazi’s principal hate-drive, and the Klan, we can be pretty sure, has no qualms on this score. In other words, a cosy deal.

Recent commentators, though, appear to believe that there is not enough independent Klan activity these days for us to speak of a Klan Four. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that blacks actually living in the South feel certain that the Klan has gone away for keeps. Neo-Nazism tends to flourish in the West and Midwest but its Klan allies are still rooted in the South, and are still dreaming of times past. For them, the Klan’s really good old days were back in the mid-19th century. The Twenties upsurge was not, as they would see it, vintage Klan.

And this certainly seems to be the view of so-called ‘revisionist Klan historians’, among whom David Horowitz is something of a leading light. Horowitz, to judge from his new book, Inside the Klavern, has made it his scholarly business to separate the Protestant-moralistic procedures of Klan Two from those of the crazily antiblack Klans One and Three. Thus, in his book, he ask us to ponder the following ‘disturbing questions’:

How does one evaluate a movement that espoused Christian ethics and democratic values only to contradict the notions of goodwill and fair play inherent to both? Could Klansmen celebrate the virtues of individual character and accomplishment and continue to judge others by family, ethnic and racial background? Could a social crusade dedicated to community cohesion continue to polarise the local citizenry on the most arbitrary and narrow-minded criteria of social origins? Could the Invisible Empire’s ritualistic deference to national unity and constitutional procedure be reconciled with its obsessions with secrecy and ethnocultural ‘solidarity’?

To which the answers seem to be: ‘Well, yes, actually’ or ‘You tell me.’ Horowitz, however, is not much concerned with answers. A benignly donnish puzzlement seems to be his favoured stance. But then, as he keeps telling us, his real business with this book is to exhibit what he clearly thinks of as an academic ‘scoop’: the secret minutes of a Klan Klavern that functioned in the early Twenties in the small town of La Grande, Oregon. These minutes, the first such documents ever to be published, were found some thirty years ago among the papers of a deceased Oregon attorney. As Horowitz explains, ‘they focus on the secret order outside the South and cover a period in which the Invisible Empire was a nationwide organisation of millions whose members fused purity reform and community activism with a controversial heritage of racism and nativism.’

A controversial heritage, indeed. Horowitz can scarcely avoid noticing that the minutes are peppered with racist epithets – ‘coons’, ‘chinks’, ‘wops’, ‘old black crows’ (nuns), and so on – and that there is regular, if casual, talk about the Klan’s ‘great fundamental plan’ to ‘behold the downfall of Catholicism buried in the ruins of its own iniquity’, but overall his wish is to play down the klavern’s racist heritage and to underscore its commitment to ‘community cohesion’. This being so, the book’s presentation is – to say the least – misleading. The cover depicts a dungeonesque wooden door slightly ajar (revealing a blood-red or flame-red interior) and clearly intends to make play with our notion of the Klan as screwball-vigilantes. But then maybe the publishers were desperate. These minutes may be oh-so-secret but for much of the time they read like the weekly log-books of some particularly dim Boy Scout troop. Local trivia meets procedural pomposity. Week in, week out, for two seemingly never-ending years, these small-town dentists, chiropractors, salesmen and railroad workers (about a hundred of them turn up every time) sit down to discuss La Grande’s current state of play: how much money is in the kitty (never more than two hundred dollars), who will organise the Klansmen’s next ‘repast’ (whoever offers the best price, so long as he is not an ‘alien’), who was just seen having his hair cut by a wop (practically everyone, it seems, although regular offenders do get formally ticked off).

Acts of do-goodery are recorded in smug detail and there is recurrent grumbling about certain members needing to order new robes (although there is a problem here, as the minutes ruefully concede: ‘do not discontinue ordering from the Zweifel Tailoring Shop, for up to date we don’t know of any American tailoring houses in the US – they are all Jews’). Now and then a Klan death is reported in high-literary style: ‘Klansman Ben Decious’s mother has now departed from this shore to join that inevitable band wherein reigns peace and harmony, the fulfilment of this life.’ On another occasion, Klansman Davis is said to have ‘departed on the journey to 100 Percent Heaven’. Such phrase-making, we come to learn, is the work of Kligrapp Harold Fosner, a postal clerk who evidently fancies himself as a bit of a creative writer. After one routinely boring meeting, Kligrapp Fosner excitedly confides: ‘Tis beyond my power of expression to relate the harmony and fellowship which reigned supreme. Suffice to say that these were the golden moments of our lives.’

From time to time, in the minutes, we hear of events outside La Grande which suggest that the Klan’s national operation is up to some significant no-good. An Oregon Governor gets elected as a result of Klan machinations, and there is mention of a trial involving some ‘night-riders’. We hear, too, of brandings and (non-fatal) ‘neck-tie hangings’. In La Grande terms, though, lurid items of this sort come as rumours from another planet. And maybe this is the true import of these dreary minutes: for every golden moment in La Grande, another vote gets rigged in Portland. Somehow I don’t think Professor Horowitz would regard this as the chief message of his publication.