My dad was watching a C-SPAN talk about the Ku Klux Klan. The speaker was James Madison who is a professor from Bloomington, Indiana. My parents are from Indiana which once was a major center of KKK activity. The Indiana Klan became its own separate organization at one point and it was very powerful:
“At the height of its power the Klan had over 250,000 members, which was over 30% of state’s white male population. The highest concentration was around the central part of the state. Klan membership was discouraged in some parts of the state; in New Albany, city leaders denounced the Klan and discouraged residents from joining. Other cities, including Indianapolis, were almost completely controlled by the Klan, and election to public office was impossible without their support. Street fights occurred in Indianapolis between the Klan members and minority groups. Statewide, estimates of native white male Indiana Klan membership ranged from 27 to 40%.
“The Klan had a large budget, based on a percentage of membership fees and dues. With more than 50,000 dues-paying members in Indianapolis, the Klan had access to tens of millions of dollars. A large part of these funds went to helping the poor, but millions were also poured into bribing public officials, paying off enemies, purchasing weapons, and contributing to political campaigns.”
I notice the mention of Indianapolis as a stronghold. That is where Bobby Kennedy gave his moving speech where he told an unaware crowd about the death of Martin Luther King jr. He was warned about doing that because it was a crowd of black people and the police thought it might turn into a riot, and such worries are understandable given this KKK history.
My parents grew up in central Indiana which is precisely where the Klan was most concentrated.
Oddly, as the map shows, Southern Indiana had the weakest Klan concentration. In the quote above, it mentions that some parts of the state such as Albany at the Southern border actively discouraged the Klan. That is where my mom’s family originally lived when they came to Indiana from Kentucky. So, it is hard to blame the Southern influence on Indiana.
However, the first KKK headquarters in Indiana was set up in Evansville which is in Southern Indiana. Evansville is only a county away from where Abraham Lincoln lived as a boy and right next door to the county where the German Harmonists built their community, later to be bought and used by a Welsh socialist whose family was in the same social and political circles as Abraham Lincoln.
Anyway, none of that is the point of my bringing this up.
My dad is a conservative who grew up in conservative Indiana, right there in that heart of the former KKK. Now, that is what is known as red-blooded 100% American conservatism. My dad is a fairly typical American conservative or, as Todd Snider more fully describes it, “Conservative Christian, right wing Republican, straight, white, American male” (see below for the accompanying video). He is mostly a paragon of the WASP identity, although he has some genetics in him that aren’t Anglo-Saxon.
This show about the KKK was an eye-opener for him, but not in the way you might suspect. Listening to their activities, he realized they were largely a normal civic organization focused on charity work. The Second Ku Klux Klan gave money to churches, promoted public education, supported family values, etc. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if the KKK gave Christmas presents to orphans and helped old ladies across the street.
I told my dad that the KKK was basically the conservatives of their day and he agreed with me. Some months earlier, I had told him the exact same thing and he probably thought I was being unfair and mean. To most people, making a comparison to the KKK is about the same as making a comparison to Nazis.
We have a hard time seeing things for what they are or were. We put things into the context of our own time and judge them accordingly. That is problematic with something like the KKK which is easy to caricature and criticize with straw-man arguments. Most Klan members weren’t violent people who spent their every free moment thinking about how to oppress others. If anything is scary about the KKK, it is that completely normal people belonged to it and most of the time they did completely normal activities. They were good citizens, devoted husbands, loving fathers, and practicing Christians.
The KKK wasn’t necessarily all that different from any other number of civic organizations from that time. The Second KKK was even modeled on many of those other organizations:
“In an era without Social Security or widely available life insurance, men joined fraternal organizations such as the Elks or the Woodmen of the World to provide for their families in case they died or were unable to work. The founder of the new Klan, William J. Simmons, was a member of twelve different fraternal organizations. He recruited for the Klan with his chest covered with fraternal badges, and consciously modeled the Klan after fraternal organizations.
“Klan organizers, called “Kleagles”, signed up hundreds of new members, who paid initiation fees and received KKK costumes in return. The organizer kept half the money and sent the rest to state or national officials. When the organizer was done with an area, he organized a huge rally, often with burning crosses, and perhaps presented a Bible to a local Protestant preacher. He left town with the money collected. The local units operated like many fraternal organizations and occasionally brought in speakers.”
Those civic organizations have interesting histories. The KKK was created partly in response to new immigrants, but many fraternal and community organizations were created by and for new immigrants. The Germans were well known for their organizations that were a thorn in the side of those who wanted to force the non-English to assimilate. The Germans, until WWII, had more or less successfully resisted assimilation and the KKK didn’t like that. These ethnic and/or populist civic organizations, German and otherwise, were sometimes closely tied to labor organizing, another thing the KKK would have not appreciated.
Interestingly, the Second KKK arose at the same time and for the same reasons fascist movements arose in Germany and Italy. In the US, Germans formed the German American Bund which supported Nazi Germany before WWII. Like the KKK, the Bund formed large marches in cities where Germans were concentrated. Fascism was in the air. The characteristics of fascism included reactionary populism, social conservatism, folk religiosity, patriotic nationalism, ethnocentric nativism, etc. Despite their differences, the KKK and the Bund were expressions of the same basic shift within society at that time.
These organizations weren’t evil incarnate. They were simply people trying to bring order back to what felt like the chaos of a changing society. Industrialization challenged every aspect of traditional communities and traditional religion. There was a mass migration of people from rural areas to urban areas, especially from the rural South to the urban North. The turn of the century brought new international movements of socialists and anarchists. Bombs were exploding in public places and assassination attempts, some successful, became more common. Corporations were becoming brutally oppressive. Fights and shootings broke out between unions, Pinkertons, police and sometimes even federal troops. Then WWI came along and totally shook up the social order, forcing diverse people into contact with another and overseas giving black soldiers their first taste of real freedom.
This was the culture war that formed the groundwork for the culture war of today. And like today it was a generational conflict. This was the era when the Lost Generation came of age. They were a generation that largely grew up in the cities, many of them born there and many others moved there as small children.
I’m reminded of my mom’s family since all of her grandparents were of the Lost Generation. Her paternal grandfather, Willie Clouse, was born in Spring Mill. At the time of his birth, it was an abandoned water-powered mill town which industrialization had made obsolete, especially since the railroad tracks had bypassed it. At age five, his family moved to nearby Mitchell which was a city that grew larger because of the railroad. As a young man, he followed the railroad jobs to Lafayette where my mom was later born. Born poor rural white trash, he had become a respectable working class man in the big city and his grandchildren would go to college.
I don’t know too much about his experiences during this time, but a lot of change was happening. The change probably seemed positive to him for it was all he knew. The older generation, however, was a lot less happy. Most of the founders and leaders of the Second Ku Klux Klan came from the generation before the Lost Generation and some from the generation before that.
The Lost Generation worked in factories as children or, in the case of Willie Clouse, he might have been working in the Mitchell Quarry where he was later working at when he got married. That generation had to grow up fast. They didn’t get much parenting or other supervision for their parents were working and extended families weren’t what they used to be back in the small towns. They also didn’t get much education.
However, because of their childhood labor, the Lost Generation had their own money and so weren’t dependent on anyone else. They were the first consumer generation. It was because of the competition of child labor that the KKK promoted public education. They thought it unfair that a grown man had a hard time finding a job because employers could simply hire a kid for a fraction of the cost. That is why the GI Generation grew up with such a relatively cushy childhood, no child labor and plenty of public education. The KKK helped make the Great Generation so great.
The Lost Generation didn’t know such greatness. They had their own world war, of course, but it was an ugly, violent and pointless war. Still, it made them the first generation of Americans to see the larger world. This created the expatriate community of artists and writers in Paris. They may have been a doomed generation, but they knew how to express themselves and they had clear opinions to be expressed. What they saw of America was, as Ernest Heminway wrote, “Broad lawns and narrow minds”. That was the description of the older generation who formed the Second KKK, an organization filled with all the respectable people of society: businessmen, police officers, judges, politicians, and most important of all lots of ministers.
The members of Lost Generation were many things, but respectable they were not. They were immigrants and the children of immigrants, hoboes and migrant workers, gangsters and bank robbers, socialists and anarchists, drunks on Cannery Row and Bonus Army veterans camped out in Washington, DC. The Lost Generation members of my mom’s family in Southern Indiana included moonshiners and moonshine runners. They were born into a rough world, lived rough lives and often had rough endings. They were what the KKK so feared, what the older generation saw as a threat to the American Way.
These younger Americans didn’t have respect for tradition and social order, especially not the young blacks and the young women who demanded equal rights, the women even gaining the right to vote in 1920. It was in this early twentieth century era when the NAACP was founded and when the IWW was organized. This is when the Triangle Factory Fire occurred and when the Scopes Trial took place. This is when the Russian Revolution succeeded and the Red Scare began in force. This was also a time of the largest wave of immigration in US history, specifically the first decade of the new century; and in response it was during this decade that the idea of the Melting Pot first appeared, assimilation no longer being seen as a natural process and instead as a forced action of melting the individual down into a collective American identity.
With the ending of rural life, it was the end of the independence of the small family farmer. Americans worried that men would lose their manliness and women would forget their place. The Boy Scouts were founded, national parks created, fishing and hunting promoted. The middle class life of domesticity and family was also put forth as an ideal. The nuclear family became the new national standard with clearly demarcated gender roles.
The Lost Generation tried to navigate this new society that was forming out of all this change. Maybe this is why so many of them aspired toward being great writers and artists. They were seeking to portray what society was and what it could be. From the Lost Generation, you had on one hand Grant Wood with his American Gothic and on the other hand Norman Rockwell with his illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post.
It was maybe inevitable that the KKK wouldn’t last. The new generation wasn’t going to embrace their vision of society, although racism would continue on in many new forms.
I wanted to write about this because I’ve been interested in that era for a long time. My dad just reminded me of it again with his telling me about what he had learned of the KKK. It got me thinking again of the Lost Generation.
History seems to go in cycles. In the generation theory of Strauss and Howe, my generation of GenX has played the same role as did the Lost Generation. In recent decades, we have found ourselves in a similar time of change. Instead of Prohibition, we have a War on Drugs. Instead of a mass wave of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, we have a mass wave of immigrants from outside Europe. Instead of the Great Depression, we have a Great Recession. Instead of Progressive Era reform, we get healthcare reform. Instead of a new generation of optimistic GIs, we have a new generation of optimistic Millennials.
With that in mind, I’ll offer you a song by Todd Snider who is on the older end of GenX. He was born in Oregon, the Northwest having once been another stronghold of white supremacy, nativism and the KKK. There were many sundown towns in the US, but Oregon was a sundown state into the 1920s. In the following song, Todd Snider explains his rejection of the social role the older generation had expected of him, instead embracing an alternative lifestyle: