The legacy of American Bigotry: History of the KKK

New York University Professor and Historian Linda Gordon. Photo by Matt Hembree (C’20).

Evans Ousley
Contributing Writer

New York University Professor and Historian Linda Gordon presented Sewanee’s nineteenth annual Goodstein Lecture on the KKK and the legacy of American bigotry.

Introduced as one of the “premier historians working today” by Professor of American History Sean O’Rourke, Linda Gordon presented a dynamic lecture on her research on the Ku Klux Klan and its impact on American history. Though American conservatism is not her field of expertise, Gordon’s animated speech gave an impression of her incredible knowledge of the Klan of the 1920s.

Gordon published her book, The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition at the end of 2017.

The lecture sparked great interest in many individuals who are becoming aware of the Klan’s presence in the South today. The Gailor Auditorium was filled with students, faculty members of various departments, and community members excited to hear the Bancroft Prize winner speak.

Explaining her inspiration for the book and the trajectory of her research, Gordon said, “When I started to think about writing about the Ku Klux Klan, I soon registered that simply denouncing the Klan was not particularly valuable because I think that anybody that would read my book would probably already share those sentiments. But I wanted to understand what made it so popular and so big.”

This exploration took patience as she began to understand more about the first Klan and the popularity of the second movement.

“The Second Klan was not at all secret, it was this mass movement,” she explained. Perhaps the most important factor of the Klan’s success in the 1920s was “a decision to fuse the traditional racism of the first Klan with religious bigotry, because the Ku Klux Klan was not only a defender of white supremacy, but of the supremacy of Protestants as opposed to Catholics and Jews.”

This second rising of the Klan resulted, in part, from a “backlash against the massive immigration [of individuals who were not Protestant] that started coming into the United States.” Detractors argued that the foreigners arriving in the United States “were not only ‘godless’ because they weren’t Protestant, but they were even Satanic,” Gordon described.

Gordon explained the ideology of both the first and second Klan: “One overarching principle rested at the core of Klan ideas: purity. Purity was not only an ideology and a theology, but it was also a structure of healing. The white costumes obviously represented the purity of the white race; purity also meant the rejection of sin; it also meant homogeneity.” The animosity towards diversity spurred the vigilantism of Klansmen in the Northern states, where the second coming of the Klan was strongest.

“To the Klanspeople, diversity was pollution, it was uncleanliness, and it would lead to chaos,” said Gordon. To combat the issue of diversity and to encourage conformity of American Protestants, members of the Klan used tactics to spark fear into the minds of non-members including false statistics to create the image of too many Catholics in positions of police and political power when they were, in fact, a minority.

In some instances, the KKK was an organized and registered fraternity. In this way, the Klan attracted men by offering “the pleasures of male bonding.” While members of the Klan proudly identified as Knights of the KKK, they kept their rituals secret. The Klan “benefited from both the lack of secrecy but also from secrecy;” and due to this secrecy, it appeared to many that “it was a privilege to become a member of the Klan.”

Further, “The Klan had a language that presents their view: a non-member was called an ‘alien,’ and an initiation was called a ‘naturalization,’” Gordon explained. The allure was evident, as the Klan boasted anywhere from four to six million members, though Gordon explains that, as with many of the Klan’s statistics, this could be an exaggeration.

Gordon’s passion for her research and sharing her knowledge with other eager learners of all ages was self-evident in her excited delivery. She spoke quickly, not only giving a broad history of the Klan but also explaining cultural references such as jokes about Jews at the time and conspiracy theories about the Pope’s plans for the United States.

When asked what sparked her interest in the topic of the Ku Klux Klan, Gordon revealed that her most recent book started as a chapter in a book she hasn’t finished yet. Due to the “rise of white nationalism and Trump.” Gordon’s agent suggested she publish a larger work on the Klan sooner than the unpublished book. 

In reflection, the historian admits she will never again take on a responsibility like writing The Second Coming of the KKK, because she does not want to read about something so unpleasant again.

One comment

  1. Would you please read this and tell me whether or not you think I am being overly critical of this speaker’s connection between the KKK of the 1920’s and Trump’s espoused immigration policy and why either way. The extent to which the proponents of the alt-America movement are willing to go to justify their wacky ideas by their repetitive efforts to link the current administration’s immigration policies to some form of past perceived evil is stunning.

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