There is a substantial difference between the 1920s Ku Klux Klan and the movements with the same name of 1800s and 1960s. While the letter were more of ideological movements, the 1902s Klan was more of a big, powerful marketing operation.
The Twenties was a time of massive, fast, often shocking change, and as it will happen, this kind of change instigate anxiety and sometimes downright fear in people.
The divide between rural and city life was significant in the building of this anxiety. Lifestyle and ways of thinking moved fast in the cities, fuelled by the availability of new items and people general opened to new morals and social attitudes.
While legging behind, rural America saw all of this as an attack to their traditional way of life.
Newly arrived immigrants shaped part of the social life in the cities with their original culture. A part of them ended up in warring gangs and bootlegging. Men and women traditional roles were completely rethought, bringing about a new morality and new accepted social mores in terms of sex relation, gambling and alcohol that especially rural America – but not only – was unwilling to accept ‘without a fight’. They felt besieged by radicals, gangsters, bootleggers, fast-car loving youngsters, too explicit films, too bold young women, supermarket chains. It was an upside world.
This was the feeling in large parts of the country when in 1915, William J Simmons – who had certainly read The Clansman by Thomas Dixon and may have seen D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation that same year – resurrected the Ku Klux Klan and presented it as the paladin of ‘traditional values’ and simple, hard-working life.
Roman Catholics, Jews, African Americans, immigrants were the classic target, but now the Klan advised their members to scout every single community and find what they feared the most, whatever that be. The aim? Gathering as many paying members as possible.
In the 1920s the Klan’s leaders weren’t ideologists. They were businessmen, using all the means the new consumerism society offered. They pushed all the right buttons inducing into people needs – traditional values, more sedate women and youngsters, a straighter moral life – they said they would uphold.
With such campaign, in 1925 – the peak of its power – the Klan had gathered nearly four million members and could truthfully say to be able to sway the country’s politics. Governors were elected by the Klan as were entire city halls’ member and sheriffs. They could influence the everyday life of many communities.
It was a power to reckon with.
But that was the apex the Klan fell crashing down.
In 1924 the Immigration Act was passed, which significantly limited the entrance of new immigrants in the country, which took away one of the Klan’s stronger cries of relay. By the middle of the decade, people’s feelings about Prohibition – that the Klan had strongly supported – had changed drastically and demands for repeal became vocal.
But the fatal blow to the Klan was dealt by the Klan itself. After 1925 a few of the leaders were accused of embezzlement and one of them of murder and rape. Klan’s members who had believed in a hard-working life and in the purity of women were disgusted.
By the end of the decade, of its million members, a mere 200.000 remained.
Perrish, Michael E., Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, 1992