Women of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's

Despite operating under the same name, the first and second rises of the Klan were extremely different in their tactics, impact, and expanse. While much of their ideology remained consistent, rooting in racism, white supremacy, and violence against the non-white and non-Protestant population, though their bigotry extended to additional groups in an attempt to recruit from a larger base. While the first rise of the Klan primarily targeted black Americans, the second rise preyed upon blacks, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and “aliens” or non-Klan citizens ; essentially anyone who was not white, Protestant, and following Klan ordinances.

The post-Civil War Klan primarily focused on racial terrorism towards black men and women, while the Klan of the 1920’s shifted from the concept of a secret organization into the political sphere to exploit the rampant racism prevalent in mainstream society through nativist and racialized politics to gain power.

Each rise utilized the imagery of innocent white women as a unifying symbol to protect, which made the politics of the second Klan unique as women became active participants.

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. The first rise of the Ku Klux Klan began in 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War. The Klan originally began as a social club organized by Confederate veterans who were unwilling to accept the outcome of the war. The group became a secret organization that functioned as an underground resistance to Reconstruction and other forms of progressive reform through terrorizing newly freed blacks with lynchings, torture, and rape. In this rise, men were the main actors in this Klan, while women witnessed from the sidelines as supportive wives, daughters, and sisters.

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They contributed to the movement through making klansman costumes for their husbands, birthing white children to continue the racial destiny, and being a good model of white female vulnerability and morality.

The abolition of slavery was a catalyst for the beginning of the Klan, as white men viewed newly freed black men as a threat to their livelihood in a traditionalist Southern moral code. Gender and sexuality were driving forces for the rise and expanse of the Klan, as Klansmen who mobilized against the fictionalized menace of black men saw the end of slavery as “both the loss of sexual access to black women and as the potential loss of exclusive access to white women.” Klan propaganda insisted that black men sought full equality through marrying a white woman, and if necessary, by force. White women were portrayed as victims, as Klan indoctrination pushed the idea that black men used physical coercion to force them into marriage, making black men unforgiving rapists. The first Grand Wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest, made an appearance before the U.S Senate in 1871 arguing that “ladies were ravished by some of these negroes, who were tried and put in the penitentiary, but were out in a few days afterwards.” This rise has been characterized by its fraternity-like secrecy and juvenile rituals that bound members together.

The Reconstruction era Klan lacked focus in politics, and instead committed its ideology in racial terrorism. Their belief that white women were being taken by black men explains the violent sexual torture and emasculation that the Klan regularly propagated in night rides, gang terrorism, and lynchings. Raids were also a large part of Klan activity, and comprised of Klansmen brutally raping and sexually torturing women in their own homes; particularly black women, and white women they deemed to be race traitors. By doing so, Klansmen validated their claim that masculinity, or “real manhood”, and the ability to protect loved ones was a prerogative exclusively for white men to enjoy. By the late 1860’s, the Klan had become a chaotic, unorganized gang of terrorists and as a result, the Grand Wizard formally dissolved the organization. The second rise of the Klan began with the same goal of protecting white, Protestant women from minorities, blacks, and Jews, but transformed into something completely new with the introduction of women as active participants.

Catalysts for this second movement were immigration of Jews and Catholics from Eastern Europe and the migration of black Americans from the South to the North seeking a higher quality of life. The movement amassed its large following due to the addition of Catholics, Jews, and other local menaces to its enemy list, alongside African Americans. This was built upon by concepts in the 1915 film “A Birth of a Nation”, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force against sexually aggressive black men who sought to harm white women. This film in its entirety was propaganda based, and utilized the fears of white protestants to mobilize them against what was portrayed as a common enemy and commit to the “100% American” values of the Klan. However, the film style was reminiscent of a documentary, and much of the population took it as historical truth; the “confrontation between White good and Black evil stirred every man, woman, and child…People not only believed everything they saw about the Ku Klux Klan but they might have been ready to fight for the Klan on the screen or off, had they been asked.” It was extremely popular when it came out, making over 80 million in box office revenues and acted as a way to reintroduce the Klan into what they projected to be a needy society requiring law and order.

Women’s Voting Rights After gaining the right to vote in 1918, white women became emboldened to participate in the political arena as a way to exercise their newly acquired power. Ideas born from the struggle for the nineteenth amendment carried over into many movements, typically progressive reform and further acquisition of women’s equality. However, women of the Klan make up a group who exemplified “involvement of post-suffrage women in reactionary and right-wing political movements.” that were reflective of race alliance between whites, but strengthened by the campaign for women’s rights. After the suffrage movement, “issues that had united women with different backgrounds and politics disappeared. Women’s political goals and ideologies had grown more diverse.” White women who had been a part of the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum from acquiring political power, and adhered to what is known today as white feminism- advocating only for the rights of white, and in this case, Protestant women. These women who had interpreted the fight for their vote through the framework of racial, class, and ethnic privilege transitioned relatively easily into the widely spread white supremacist, nativist, and racist movements of the 1920’s.

The contradictory scavenger ideology that selectively adheres to rhetoric from the left and right making the political ideology of women in the Klan unique to its time. Beginning of Women’s Klan The second rise of the Ku Klux Klan has been characterized as the largest right wing mobilization movement in the history of the United States, though it began as a small reactionary group without a way to adapt past practices of racial terrorism to changes in society. Numbers began to dwindle and become stagnant by 1920, as the craze following the film “The Birth of a Nation” became passe. On the brink of collapse, Imperial Dragon Simmons hired Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Clarke to reinvent their public image and revive public sentiment that aligned with Klan values.

The 1920’s showed the Klan immense affluence, due almost exclusively to the addition of Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Clarke who ran the Southern Publicity Association, an organization that specialized in promotion and publicity. They became involved the the Ku Klux Klan after Tyler’s son-in-law joined, and saw an opportunity for advancement within a highly visible movement. Tyler was the first female leader within the Klan with such a major role, as she contributed to reshaping their public image and was largely responsible for the recruitment and building block for expanse within the 1920’s. Other clients of theirs were the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the Anti-Saloon League.

Clarke and Tyler’s success in part was reliant on their own experience with fraternal-like organizations that mirrored the Ku Klux Klan’s hierarchical organization and ritualistic practices. Tyler was a member of the Daughters of America, a secret nativist organization that was a branch of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics. Clarke had been a part of Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization that sought to “minister to the afflicted to relieve distress; to cast a sheltering arm about the defenseless living… to encourage broad charitable views…” Tyler’s experience in particular gave her insight on how the Ku Klux Klan could expand their base; in order to do so, they broadened their scope of the “enemy”. In the Reconstruction era Klan, targets were primarily newly freed blacks, however this hatred encapsulated only a part of the population, and typically demographics in the South.

Tyler shifted the Klan to a more ‘diverse’ hatred, which included Catholics, Jews, nonwhites, Bolsheviks, and immigrants, and black Americans and other local “menaces” as groups that promoted vice and immorality. However, the Klan in many cases denied hating the aforementioned groups claiming to defend traditional moral standards. In introducing these hatreds into Ku Klux Klan ideology, Tyler published weekly newsletters that encouraged Kleagles (recruiters and organizers) to scapegoat local enemies to create unique cul de sacs that upheld white superiority regardless of the ascribed adversary. Examples of this would be Mormons in Utah, labor unions in the Northwest, and Asian Americans of the Pacific Coast. Together, Tyler and Clarke restructured the Klan with contemporary marketing techniques that catered to twentieth century capitalist consumerism that promoted racism as a product that every white Protestant should have in their homes.

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Women of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's. (2022, Apr 30). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/wome-of-the-ku-klux-klan-in-the-1920-s-essay

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