Donald Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education is revealing of more than trouble ahead for public education in the United States. Because she wants to turn much of public instruction private, it also reveals how profoundly the politics of white supremacy has changed since the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan was a mainstream social movement and had broad political influence. There is no better way to understand today’s Trump phenomenon than by comparing him with the Klan, but to do this we must rid ourselves of the idea that the early twentieth century Klan was identical to that of the mid-nineteenth century or the one of our day.
The Klan was re-founded in 1915 in the Deep South not long after the release of the popular movie, Birth of a Nation, which was itself based on an earlier novel The Klansman. The expansion of the Klan relied on techniques now associated with multi-level marketing firms such as Amway as well as the synthesis of exotic rituals such as those earlier popularized by fraternal societies such as the Shriners.
White supremacy has always been a basic element of Klan ideology or Klankraft as it was called with the organization. Despite its constant concern to avoid being labeled as an organization whose members took the law into their own hands, the Klan always employed violence as political terror and social discipline. Between 1915 and 1928, however, the Klan was a broadly representative fraternal organization insofar as it mirrored the beliefs of many white native-born Protestants and insofar as it projected those beliefs into the political realm.
Despite the initial association of the Klan with the Confederate states, in the 1920s it was an organization well beyond the South. Seeking to understand the spread of the Klan, contemporary observers and later historians utilized the same causal links that have been deployed to explain the Trump vote in 2016: fear of labor market competition by immigrants, the transition to a new economy (more industrial) and new society (more urban), as well as changes in social mores about sex and intoxicants.
There has been considerable scholarly debate about who joined the Klan in the 1920s. A once dominant tendency was to believe that Klansmen were marginal members of society: uneducated and impoverished whites with a propensity to violence and profound ignorance about economic structures and politics. In part this was simply a stereotype based on an esthetic that less attractive politics must be held by less attractive people. In part it arose from the desire of middle-class and professional opponents of the Klan who held similar ideas to differentiate themselves and their social milieu from the organization.
Recent studies, employing internal Klan documents, have shown that the Klan in the 1920s was broadly representative of white society, but that its members were disproportionately drawn from semi-skilled labor and lower level civil servants. Klan members were more likely to have had modest incomes and modest educations than to have been unskilled, illiterate, or well-off professionals with college degrees. Klan members, to a greater degree than society at large, benefited from receiving education at a period in American history when most pre-baccalaureate instruction was provided by public schools.
A moment’s reflection dismisses the idea of the Klan in the 1920s as an organization of the impoverished and dispossessed. Unlike the Klan ‘s first incarnation in 1868 as an avowedly terrorist group, the Klan’s revival in after World War I was the work of publicists and advertising agents working out the basic elements of multi-level marketing in the context of a fraternal organization. Members paid the klecktoken or annual dues of $10 at a time when Henry Ford had made himself nationally famous by offering skilled assembly workers $5 a day, which was twice the normal daily wage for factory employees. Members were also expected to buy their own robes, other paraphernalia, and printed literature. Formal membership in the Klan was beyond the means of the impoverished and the economically insecure. Paid organizers, the kleagles, retained $4 of every klecktoken they received. Higher officials retained smaller amounts but from a larger pool. By the mid-1920s the national Klan leadership often attained incomes of hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money.
Klan membership was restricted to white Protestant native-born men although the creation of the auxiliary Women’s KKK in 1923 opened up an avenue for women to participate. The Klan is best known for the violence with which, especially in the South, it enforced white supremacy and suppressed any bids for political or economic equality by Black Americans. The Klan also sought, through legal and extra-legal means, to affect American society in a variety of other areas: immigration, education, drugs, sexual relations, child support, and divorce.
Since the 1960s, Americans have thought of drugs in terms of marijuana and a handful of powerful stimulants and depressants such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and briefly LSD. All of these are available through illegal markets. The hard drugs are sufficiently available to create public health problems and they all contribute to the existence of an unregulated economy that engenders wealth and violence. Recently many states have effectively legalized marijuana although Federal law continues to sanction its use. For hundreds of years, however, Americans thought of alcohol as the most dangerous drug for its economic, social and moral effects on society. In the latter 19th century increasingly effective movements sought to ban the production and consumption of alcohol and they were ultimately successful immediately after World War I with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the constitution and the Volstead Act.
Mention Prohibition today and it conjures up quaint images of flappers and speakeasies or exchanges of gunfire between square-jawed federal agents and gangsters with ominously Italian names along with the easy admission that it was obviously a terrible policy. Yet prohibition had long been a staple demand of American Protestant churches. The Klan, along with the Women’s Christian Temperance Organization and the Anti-Saloon League, also fought for it. Like so many issues, Prohibition was not directly a matter of intolerance or prejudice but it sharpened opposition between immigrant groups and nativist whites. For Jews and Catholics from southern and eastern Europe wine was a sacramental item as well as an item of cultural conviviality along with hard liquor. The inability of the Federal and state governments to enforce Prohibition also gave the Klan license to enforce it by itself. It did so with assaults on drinking establishments and, in parts of the South, with public whippings.
If alcohol was one popular issue that deeply concerned the Klan, education was another. It invariably supported the expansion of the public schools and frequently also supported higher taxes to enhance them. From the Deep South to the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast the Klan fought consistently to extend compulsory public education. In Oregon in 1922 elected Klan officials passed a law requiring that all children between eight and sixteen attend public schools. Progressive as this might seem, the aim of this and other similar legislation backed by the Klan was use the schools to shape the values and allegiances of American citizens. As one Klan official put it in 1923, “the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan should be the vehicle for this Bible reading and instruction and that no atheist, infidel, skeptic or non-believer should be allowed to teach in the public schools.”
The Klan’s opposition to the Catholic Church was rooted in beliefs that the culture and society of the US were uniquely Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. The Klan viewed the massive immigration that characterized the US from the 1890 to 1920 and had brought large numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans to the US (as well as Jews) as an existential threat. The Catholic Church possessed a formidable institutional presence. Its members owed allegiance to the Church and were enmeshed in an institutional framework that included schools, parishes, and charitable organizations. Unlike the various Protestant sects that dominated the religious scene in the US, the Church had a well-organized hierarchy and could mobilize its primarily urban worshippers for elections. Long before academics thought about the reproduction of culture, the Klan grasped the importance of controlling early education to affect the ties of citizens to the institutions of civil society and the state.
The Klan viewed the religious threat to American society as the primary result of immigration. The Klan viewed with concern the large number of Catholics who had entered the US in the preceding decades and especially that “a big percent of these immigrants are from the lowest strata of Italy, Poland, and other Roman Catholic countries.” The Klan strongly supported immigration legislation that in 1924 ended the policy of nearly unlimited entry into the US in order, in its words, to “prevent the glutting of the American labor market and the Romanizing and mongrelizing of the citizenship of the United States.”
No one would deny that the Klan in the 1920s was committed to white supremacy, but this is popularly thought to be a nearly unconscious reflex. For most white Americans, we are often told, being white was a background condition and whites were rarely aware that whiteness was itself a singular condition. This is not how the Klan presented the relevant issue. As noted above, the Klan undoubtedly saw white dominance as intimately connected with Protestantism and Protestantism they certainly believed to be under attack from Catholics and Jews.
It can be difficult to separate the Klan’s racism with that of white society at large in the period between the two world wars. The Klan was committed to maintaining the legal and economic separation and subjugation of African-Americans. It held, as did many Americans in the era of “scientific racism”, that Blacks were an inferior group. Criticism of the Klan at the time from those who believed equally in white supremacy was often based on concern that the Klan provoked violence both as a short-term policy and in order to spread fear among whites that would bring more recruits to the Klan. Writing in 1922, Henry Fry discussed the Tulsa race riot the previous year in which whites killed some 300 Black people, destroyed property, and drove citizens into exile. Speaking of what was probably the worse pogrom in American history Fry, in his book The Modern Ku Klux Klan, noted that the Klan at no time rallied to support the maintenance of law and order despite its claims to be an organization committed to such goals. Oklahoma, Fry pointed out, was a stronghold of the Klan. Despite its state support for law and order, the Klan was a constant source of disorder both through its propaganda and through its mobilization of members for extra-legal and illegal activity. Inciting and organizing popular violence while piously asserting that its commitment to legality was a hallmark of the Klan.
The Klan was, however, solicitous of the police and local law enforcement. It was here that the Klan, especially in the South but elsewhere as well, had its greatest impact on local government. The Klan in the 1920s, even in the South, did not deploy the Confederate flag. To the contrary, although it deplored what it called an over-reaching Federal government during Reconstruction, in the 1920s the Klan presented itself as a bastion of Americanism and a supporter of American institutions.
In 2016 the Klan is no longer an organization of any importance in American politics, but the so-called Alt-Right and political currents that swirl in and around it such as the Tea Party and sections of the Republican party remain strongly motivated by the issues and policies that the Klan pioneered in the 1920s. Trump himself sometimes articulates views very close to those of the Klan. Whether this is chance is far from clear. Just because they were once common views among white Americans of his father’s generation means he likely heard them growing up. That his father was arrested at a Klan demonstration in 1927 and may have been attracted to their nativist message and thus raised his son on it is also possible.
Trump is closest to evoking the Klan of the 1920s in his views on immigration. Indeed Trump’s call for a moratorium on immigration sounds remarkably like a 1923 statement by a South Carolina Grand Dragon to restrict immigration for a decade while the US took “an inventory of human assets and liabilities” with its border. His view of Mexicans resembles those of Klan quoted above.
In the 1920s the Klan was concerned primarily with Jewish and Catholic immigration and secondarily with Japanese immigration. Muslim immigration was insignificant and the Klan never mentioned it. The prevailing infatuation with the Orient at the end of the 19th century may even have played some role in the Klan’s ritual meetings which, unlike cross burning, took place indoors. Citizens of the “invisible empire” entered a separate space from the “alien” world of everyday America when the Klavern assembled. The Klan constitution was officially known as the Kloran and the sergeant-at-arms was a Klaliff which may have been a portmanteau of bailiff and caliph.
Anti-Semitism and anti-Catholic animus, major themes of the klancraft of religion, were more than mere personal prejudice although they certainly included it. The persistence of anti-Semitism in countries such as the US and Germany which had relatively tiny Jewish populations owes more to its role as a discourse of mobilization than as a lived experience for most people. Modern anti-Semitism is a way of transforming economic grievances into ethnic ones. As the German social democratic leader August Bebel once put it, anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools. Anti-Catholic sentiment was more directly aimed at mobilizing sentiment against institutions that necessarily sought to expand pluralism and what we would today call “multi-culturalism” in American society. Many Protestants perceived the Church as an enemy to their dominance of society and as recently as the 1960 presidential election it was possible to argue that John Kennedy would, if elected, take orders from the Pope about how to govern the US.
Anti-Catholicism is no longer a main theme in American politics and anti-Semitism, while significant, has not been a primary motivating tool of the American right. The religion most in the public eye today in American politics is Islam and Trump has echoed many themes of the older anti-Catholic discourse when he speaks of Islam. This sounds peculiar because antagonism to Islam and to Arabs is often described as similar to anti-Semitism. Considering the nature of the Klan’s antagonism to the Catholic Church (and indeed the history of conflating anxiety about Catholic and Muslim challenges to Protestant polities going back to the 16th century) it should be clear that much of what is called “Islamophobia” resembles anti-Catholic sentiment. Muslims, like Catholics, are said to be incapable of integrating into the American political community: they are beholden to religious leaders outside our national territory; they are subordinate to a particular textual tradition; they have not experienced the Reformation; in addition to their religious incapacity to assimilate they are members of equally problematic ethnic groups; they seek to transform American institutions through subjecting them to alien religious norms. These complaints are rarely if ever addressed to Jews in the United States but they have been commonly applied both to Muslims and Catholics.
What then of education? If Trump spoke the fears of the Klan to a new generation of white Protestants (and of course to some other Americans as well) his embrace of Betsy DeVos shows how different our world is than that of the 1920s. The struggles to integrate and secularize the public schools in the 1960s ended the dream that they could be used to create a citizenry steeped in white supremacy and Protestant religiosity. Catholics increasingly turned to the public schools to educate their children as did Jews and school boards and local governments increasingly withdrew Bible reading from morning exercises. Teaching became both a profession with a pluralist workforce and increasingly committed to cultural pluralism as a value.
The rise of private schools as a safe space for the values of middle as well as upper class white Protestants grew in tandem with the integration of the public schools. In the south, but less so in the north, the Klan existed in tension with an older, wealthier oligarchy frequently rooted in land ownership. That oligarchy also believed in white supremacy and required cheap Black labor. Conflicts between the Klan and the oligarchy frequently arose over education and the leasing of convict labor. Because much of the prison population was Black, convict leasing threatened the wages of impoverished white workers. Not until 1928, with the support of the Klan, did Alabama finally eliminate convict leasing. It was the last state to do so. Schools remained chronically underfunded, however, and the same literacy tests and poll taxes that prevent almost all African Americans from voting also limited white electoral participation. The public schools were the only possible path for upward mobility.
The Klan hoped, with some success, to force all Americans into the public school system and also hoped, with some success, to control the curriculum. White supremacists and the political activists from the far right of the political spectrum can no longer hope to accomplish that. Nor indeed do they, as did many of their predecessors, send their own children to public schools. Whether today’s wealthy constitute an oligarchy is an open question, but the wealthiest Americans send their children to private schools and sponsor the privatization of public schools as an ideal. Thus Betsy DeVos will play an important role in making education policy for the next several years.
If white supremacists have turned against a public school system they can no longer control, the schools remain an important locus for political power. They continue to shape citizens and provide many young Americans with whatever skills and human capital they can acquire as they seek to find employment. Another way to look at the most recent election is to realize that although unions in the private sector have been largely eliminated those in the public sector remain potent economic and political actors. In the 1920s many lower level civil servants were attracted to the Ku Klux Klan but that has ceased to be true. Today public employees are divided into two main groups: those who deal with security and those who deal with human services. There are about 1.3 million police in the US and about 3.1 million teachers. Police unions appear to have endorsed Trump and teacher’s unions supported Clinton. Transforming the public schools has an ideological purpose but it also will have political consequences. Unions that are no longer primarily white and no longer have primarily white constituencies no longer benefit from the support of organizations, mainstream or extreme, that further white supremacy. Privatizing schools will decrease organized support for public schools by teachers as well as among parents. Strong support for the police will have the opposite effect.
Although Americans at large and some supporters came to distrust the Klan as its leaders grew wealthy and engaged in egregious acts of self-aggrandizement one of the most important causes of the collapse of the Klan was the 1925 abduction of Madge Oberholtzer by Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson. In a horrific incident that was once widely known but is now largely forgotten Stephenson kidnapped Oberholtzer and held her at his mansion where he raped her repeatedly. Stephenson released her after her attempt to escape him by committing suicide failed. Stephenson returned Oberholtzer, bruised and bloodied, to her mother’s house. Her death several weeks later was attributed to a combination of infected deep bites by Stephenson and kidney failure from the suicide attempt. Stephenson was convicted of rape and second degree murder.
Stephenson’s conviction led tens of thousands of men to leave the Klan and, after being denied a parole, he provided evidence that led to the conviction of Indiana officials, including the governor, Ed Jackson, on bribery charges. Within two years the Klan, which in 1924 had nearly a quarter of a million members, ceased to exist as an organized force in Indiana.
The leaders of the second Klan came to believe they could act with impunity, but the Madge Oberholtzer’s death and the subsequent revelations showed their limits. Donald Trump is not D.C. Stephenson and it remains to be seen if his administration will show similar venality to Jackson’s. Like the Klan, however, he has ridden a cresting wave of populist white supremacy, religious discrimination, anti-immigrant politics into office claiming to be the opponent of a financial oligarchy. Trump’s use of social media to incite violence that he then claims to oppose resembles the Klancraft of the 1920s which was seriously concerned about the dissemination of their message and dealing with the public media. The Klan is an insignificant organization today but its ideas, appeals, and base of support appears to live on. Whether its weaknesses will prove to be Trump’s as well remains to be seen.