The 1920’s marked a period of great racial tension throughout American Society, with the period often regarded as a melting pot due to such strains and tensions. The immigration of new, non-protestant immigrants such as Catholics and Jews since the turn of the century had brought about large scale unease due to the sheer number of immigrants. Combined with Mexicans, Orientals as well as a rapidly growing black population, these minority groups were to suffer at the hands of those concerned with the values of White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, with these values playing a fundamental role in the American way of life.
Arguably, the Ku Klux Klan was formed concerning a culmination of such values, allowing for the tolerance of racist views within the media, literature alongside within formal organisations. Its popularity and influence stemmed from its appeal, which was broadened from blacks to incorporate the views of those who disliked immigrants, catholics, jews, bootleggers etc. Ultimately the KKK’s increase in popularity in the early 1920’s resulted in its influence.
It can be argued that the KKK possessed both sizable support and significant influence due to its popular revival subsequent to WW1, with this having a notable popular impact well into the 1920s. The growing spirit of intolerance which spread across much of America became apparent due to the wartime revival of the the Ku Klux Klan. The organisation was remodeled and reorganised with new techniques used by both Edgar Clark and Elizabeth Taylor in order to sell the Klan to America. A key reason for its rise in popularity came as a result of D.W Griffiths film ‘The Birth of A Nation’ of 1915, due to the fact that it idolised and highlighted previous american values, and although those portrayed in the film were outdated, many americans were reminded of a ‘better america.’
This ultimately increased hatred towards blacks and black american due to an alteration in attitudes, with this film resulting in the view that the American way of life was threatened, with this blame placed upon Negroes, Catholics, Atheists, Bootleggers, Jews and immigrants as a whole. Ultimately, Griffiths film provided a form of ammunition towards those who were not white, anglo-saxon protestants, thus allowing for the ideology of the KKK to become more populous and apparent throughout much of American Society. The group emphasised the notion of 100% Americanism, thus appeal to those who classed themselves as protestant fundamentalists as well as those who believed the traditional moral values reflected in Griffiths film were a key element of American society due to the overwhelming feeling of invasion and being inundated, stimulating a desire to restore the America they knew and loved.
Furthermore, it can be argued that the roots of the Klan were based in the small towns and communities of the Southern states of the Confederacy, thus proving a popular support base through states such as Tennessee and Alabama. The ideology of the party appealed to those who has gone against the abolition of slavery and the libration of blacks, which arose from a sense apparent within rural protestant america in order to act on the defensive before an influx of new immigrants was allowed into the country. This ideology, combined with the war, fed the growth of support for the Klan. The war engendered a form of nationalism, sparking hatred towards those to were not seen as true Americans.
This appeal, and popularity was highlighted by the Klans popularity in 1921, which stimulated the development of a structure for the Klan due to the rapid growth in the number of members joining. The movement had 100,000 members, which were each pare of a Klavern, or branch, of the Klan. Furthermore, due to the fact that the KKK’s appeal was mainly sited in the Southern states, where the majority of black people lived, and the powerful idea of ‘white supremacy’ went unquestioned, attempts were made to broaden the Klan’s appeal to the western and northern states, where Catholics and Jews became the targets.
Throughout the 1920′s the Klan’s membership saw an increase, estimates at the time ranged from 3-5 million and profits rolled in from the sale these memberships, regalia, costumes and rituals. The Ku Klux Klan used intimidation, threats, beating and even murder in their quest for a “purified America”, thus appealing to many Americans due to their proactive approach, which had not been mirrored by that of the republican government during the period. An example of such influence is the alleged election of governors in Maine, Colorado and Louisiana who had KKK support.
Additionally, the Klan arguably aimed to defend the American way, reflecting fear amongst many Americans who feared the emergence of more radical, especially socialist ideas, which had spread from Eastern Europe due to the influx of immigrants during the early 20th Century. The Red Scare is a key proponent of this fear, thus providing the perfect breeding ground for bigotry. Many Americans had either witnessed, or heard of the Bolshevik Russia, which was ultimate seen as a threat to the capitalist society america has formed upon. In 1919 there were 3,600 strikes involving over 400,000 workers, possibly highlighting a feeling of tension and fear amongst a considerable proportion of the population.
Ultimately, this scare has proved that the KKK was a defender of such ideology, considerably suggesting that the Klan prospered in areas along sides small communities which had been formed by early pioneers where fears regarding different ethnic groups, religions, political ideas and cultural taste were ever apparent. Due to certain areas regarding these fears, those of farmers, artisans and shopkeepers of small-town america were also addressed, consequently resulting in an increase in popularity leading to the KKK having roughly 5 million members by 1925. Furthermore, membership was not simply restricted to the poor, downtrodden American population who felt marginalised, but also increasingly involved middle classes citizens.
Equally it was not exclusively a rural, southern organisation, due to the fact that there were drastic increased in membership from north and central states such as Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. In many locations the local police seemed Klan-dominated, with judges also not remaining to seem impartial. Arguably therefore this suggests that the post-war revival of the Klan led to a drastic increase in the number of members, thus gaining support and influence as an increase in the number of members an organisation has ultimately leads to a greater support base within a population, thus representing a larger number of the population making it more influential as a consequence.
Moreover, the influence of the KKK continued to grow throughout the early 1920s as the the Federal Government did little to alleviate poverty and socio-economic disadvantage amongst the rural population, instead focusing interest and funds on urban locations such as New York where a considerable number of immigrants and blacks were focused. Although there were rare instances where President Warren Harding spoke out against racial segregation, for example in Birmingham, Alabama, many have argued that he did so primarily to win the electoral support of northern blacks. One historian even claimed that Harding had been inducted into the Ku Klux Klan in the White House during his presidency. Moreover the various administrations throughout the twenties seemed to condone racial discrimination.
A half-hearted attempt to introduce an anti-lynching law in 1921 was defeated, with Southern Senators using a range of tactics to prevent the legislation from being passed. Despite acknowledging the issue of lynching in his first address to Congress in 1923, Coolidge subsequently did not act on the problem. Moreover, on the 18th August 1925 the Ku Klux Klan was able to stage a 40,000 man parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C with no intervention from state officials. Furthermore, the segregated facilities in government buildings introduced in the first decade of the century remained unchanged. The fact that the American government during the twenties was seen to be continually ignoring and avoiding issues related to ethnic minorities did not help to improve the hostile attitudes of its people, thus allowing for the KKK to gain a larger support base from which it could increase its influence.
However, the influence of the KKK varied geographically to a considerable degree. In its peak year of 1925 around 40% of its members were based in three states; Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. Furthermore, another 25% were found in the old south. Conversely in states along the pacific coast such as New England (except Maine), the KKK was relatively irrelevant. Although its point of greatest popular political influence was at the 1924 Democratic Convention, highlighting its influence at the very top, the representatives of the KKK in the form of Senators and Congressmen simply represented a pocket in the Deep South.
Therefore, it can be argued that the KKK did not achieve notable influence on a national level. Instead, it was simply one among many pressure groups supporting prohibition and restriction upon immigration. Furthermore, although those groups discriminated against were classed as ‘ethnic minorities’ as a whole they represented a considerable proportion of the population. Surely, the KKK could not have notable influence if a large proportion of the US population did not agree with its ideology, and were instead being attacked and victimised? The racial discrimination towards ethnic minorities during the twenties highlighted the lack of popularity amongst many regarding the KKK. Blacks, Mexicans, and the recent immigrants clustered as the bottom of the wage scale. All were usually the last hired and the first fired and performed menially jobs. Mexicans were employed as cheap labour on Californian farms.
Wherever the minorities worked the ‘native’ Americans saw them as a threat to their livelihood, as they normally accepted jobs that the whites did not want. Despite emancipation from slavery after the Civil War, the former slaves remained at the bottom of the social scale in the southern states, where the majority of blacks lived. Many were lacking economic independence, since they largely worked in white-owned land. Many poverty stricken Blacks migrated from the south to the north during the twenties, to fill the demand for unskilled labour in the North. Although this spread some KKK ideology Northwards the popularity of the KKK remained relatively low due to higher levels of assimilation within the North. Therefore it can be argued that although in many areas of the USA popularity for the KKK rose during the early 1920’s, its popularity was limited to various geographical areas.
Furthermore, even though popularity for the organisation increased, this did not necessarily lead to an increase in influence. Yes, in some states KKK members found their way into the legal system, or in states such as Indiana some became Senators and Congressmen. However, the sharp fall from popularity of the organisation suggests a lack of overwhelming support and belief within the party. The fall of David Stephenson, the gGrand Dragon of Indiana Klans and Governor of the state, highlighted a lack of true ideals amongst leaders of the KKK. Surely if an organisation was to succeed and gain influence those at the top of its hierarchy needed to support all beliefs? Stephenson was convicted of rape of a 28 year old secretary on an overnight train, thus going against protestant concepts.
Ultimately this showed numerous characteristics far removed from ideals publicly espoused This, combined with financial scandals within other Klans has led to a sharp fall in membership by 1930, to a figure of roughly 200,000. This meant that the Klan were no longer a player on the national state, losing all significant influence and support. However, despite this sharp decline in popularity in 1929/1930, the support and more importantly the tolerance that many American people showed for the Ku Klux Klan during the twenties serves as evidence to show that attitudes towards ethnic minorities had been very much altered, thus allowing for the Klan to capitalise on this widespread ideology in order to gain some support an influence in a handful of states, which were typically confederate.