Ku Klux Klan and the Lost Generation

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.

Population of white male residents of each Ind...

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:

9 thoughts on “Ku Klux Klan and the Lost Generation

  1. Now I understand those silly costumes. However, that said, knowing that they were/are civic-minded, I’m still unimpressed with the KKK. They sound like today’s tea party to an extent, but while the tea party is not overtly racist, they are more self-seeking therefore in competition with everyone, even in each other.
    Slavery has been around in one form or another for centuries, but it was the Europeans who implemented chattel slavery and made it their business model. I have always wondered why is it that the white man, and when I say white, I mean Europeans and their descendents on foreign shores, able to justify such abhorrent behavior? I keep coming back to Christianity. The Spaniards, the British, the Portuguese and European- Americans, all found a hall pass in Christianity. And for added measure, they installed an either you’re with us or against us litmus test when they demand that you take Jesus Christ as you lord and savior or else.
    You see, the Jews don’t believe in hell, nor do they proselytize.They don’t compete with each other either. They actually pull each other up. Imagine that. This is how they continuously rebound after one calamity after another. Therein lies the rub.
    Full disclosure: I’m not down on Jesus, but freely admit I’m not religious. I do, however, find value in his story like I do other virtue fables.

    • How’s it going?

      “However, that said, knowing that they were/are civic-minded, I’m still unimpressed with the KKK.”

      What!?! I didn’t impress you with how wonderful was the KKK! I have failed and now I will close down my blog forever.😦

      Just kidding. Yeah, I’m also still unimpressed. That was sort of my point. They weren’t anything special, just a bit more well known. Everything they did and believed in was mostly commonplace back then in various other organizations. It was the way the world once was and it is the way the world still is in many ways.

      “I have always wondered why is it that the white man, and when I say white, I mean Europeans and their descendents on foreign shores, able to justify such abhorrent behavior?”

      I regularly contemplate such questions. It does seem there is something about Christianity or at least what Christianity became. Maybe Christianity in the first few centuries was different than what we know now, but that old time religion is long gone at this point. If there was some guy named Jesus who was teaching something worthy, I think it was lost on most Christians.

      There is definitely something different about Judaism, but not entirely so. All the monotheistic religions seem to have a bit of an obsession with a polarized, combative and sometimes violent worldview. Maybe the Jews are less bad about it or less successful so far in oppressing others. Give them some time. I’m sure if Israel becomes a global superpower someday, they could be as oppressive as any Christian nation.

      However, maybe that lack of an evangelical element is the very thing that would keep them from becoming a global superpower in the first place. Christianizing the world was a major impetus behind all the greatest of Christian Empires, but oddly this seems to be something they inherited from the pagan Romans who inherited it from the Pagan Hellenists. So, what is it exactly that Christianity inherited from the Pagan worldview? Jews were part of that same world. In fact, many of those early Christians were Jews. What happened to form Christianity as a distinct Jewish-Pagan hybrid of globalist aspirations?

      • Christians were less threatening until Constantine converted, and with good reason – they were executed. But once under his wing, it seems they picked up some of his nasty habits; expansionism being one of them.

  2. Another point of my post went beyond not being impressed by the KKK. This other point was more central to my thinking at least in relation my dad’s thinking.

    I like the moments when I can come to mutual understanding with my dad. He is conservative and I’m more liberal, but… I can appreciate some of the social order aspects of social conservatism. And he can appreciate some of the liberal values that are core to American society. Plus, both of us have some libertarian tendencies; of course, his tendencies are right-libertarian and mine left-libertarian.

    Civic organizations satisfy that traditional conservative ideal of community. I think it is important to see this aspect, even within the racist KKK and the pro-Nazi Bund. This is something our society has lost and we are the lesser for it.

    Civic organizations also satisfy the libertarian, although more left-libertarian, ideal of local democracy and self-governance. These organizations did many things that now the government does. In some cases, the government was stepping in where these organizations failed by letting people fall through the cracks. But these organizations also did many things that the government isn’t as good at such as community-building.

  3. Two earlier posts:


    Much of the political foment following the Civil War involved the German population or was in reaction to the German population. Germans fought for workers’ rights and farmers’ rights, the two coming together within the Populist movement. Germans fought against corporatocracy in the way they fought against empire back in Europe. More importantly, they won many of the political battles they fought and we today benefit from their struggle such as with the 8 hour work day and 5 day work week (try working every waking moment continuously 7 days a week and then tell me you aren’t grateful for their struggle and sacrifice). On the other side, Prohibition and Sunday laws were partly enacted in order to control the influence of ethnic immigrants such as Germans and Irish who were fond of their drink.

    The ugliness of nativism became a central issue on the national stage when World War I began. The media of the day portrayed Germans as being vile and dangerous which led to mobs forming and many Germans dying. Also, the Germanic culture was nearly eliminated. German newspapers were censored, German names of buildings and streets were changed, German traditions were attacked, and German-Americans experienced political and economic oppression. They were arrested, imprisoned, and deported. They had hard time finding work. Their formerly influential culture suddenly became a liability. Along with the impact of World War II, nearly all traces of German heritage had been eliminated. Many German-Americans experienced a cultural forgetting that scoured the German culture from the collective memory of American history.


    An odd thing happened, though. The Civil War was traumatizing for both sides. There was little honor in victory, but Americans began to romanticize the honor of Southern loss and so began to romanticize Southern notions of gentlemanly honor. This, of course, led to much conflict around class and race.

    Going into the 20th century, Americans were still struggling with what honor and manhood meant. There was a mass exodus from farming communities. A new generation grew up in the cities, the largest generation of child labor and the first generation of modern consumers of all the products being built in the factories in which they worked. They were a generation without authority figures. They became known as the Lost Generation. They fought in WWI, a war worst than the Civil War. They travelled the world and became cosmopolitan in the way no group of Americans had been since the founding fathers.

    This was the beginning of the Progressive era which was strongly promoted by religious reformers such as Evangelicals. This was when the National Parks were created and when the streams were stocked with European game fish, the idea being that such things as hunting and fishing could make men out of this urbanized generation of boys.

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