The Not-So-Invisible Empire
Imagine a political movement created in a moment of terrible anxiety, its origins shrouded in a peculiar combination of manipulation and grass-roots mobilization, its ranks dominated by Christian conservatives and self-proclaimed patriots, its agenda driven by its members’ fervent embrace of nationalism, nativism and moral regeneration, with more than a whiff of racism wafting through it.
No, not that movement. The one from the 1920s, with the sheets and the flaming crosses and the ludicrous name meant to evoke a heroic past. The Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, they called it. And for a few years it burned across the nation, a fearsome thing to behold.
In “One Hundred Percent American,” Thomas R. Pegram, a professor of history at Loyola University Maryland, traces the Invisible Empire’s meteoric rise and equally precipitous fall. The ’20s Klan was born, he explains — or more precisely was reborn — on Thanksgiving evening 1915, when 16 Southerners trooped up Stone Mountain, in Georgia, for a bit of ritual bunkum inspired by D. W. Griffith’s incendiary film “The Birth of a Nation.” The group’s leader, a one-time Methodist minister named William Simmons, hoped to turn the men into a fraternal organization that night: sort of a Rotary for white supremacists. But he had no idea how to do it. So for five years the Klan stagnated, until Simmons handed the operation over to a couple of publicity agents, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke, who knew a thing or two about the dark art of marketing.
Tyler and Clarke kept the costumes and crosses and secret signs that Simmons loved. But they broadened his bigotry. No longer would it be enough to target African-Americans, not when there were Catholics, Jews and immigrants to hate as well. They also added an aggressive political pitch, seizing on the hyperpatriotism of the recently concluded World War to turn the Klan into the champion of “one hundred percent Americanism,” staunch defender of law, order and traditional values.