- The Nineteenth Amendment
- 1920s urbanization and immigration
- The reemergence of the KKK
- Republican ascendancy: politics in the 1920s
- The presidency of Calvin Coolidge
- 1920s consumption
- Movies, radio, and sports in the 1920s
- American culture in the 1920s
- Nativism and fundamentalism in the 1920s
- America in the 1920s
The reemergence of the KKK
Disbanded after Reconstruction, the KKK returned to national prominence in the 1920s to direct its hatred against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.
- The Ku Klux Klan first arose in the South during the Reconstruction Era, but experienced a resurgence in the period immediately following the end of the First World War.
- The KKK was a viciously racist organization that employed violence and acts of terror in order to assert white supremacy and maintain a strict racial hierarchy.
- Although most of the KKK’s savagery was aimed at African Americans, their hatred extended to immigrants, Catholics, Jews, liberals, and progressives.
- The revival of the KKK in the 1920s was demonstrative of a society coping with the effects of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.
A brief history of the KKK
The Ku Klux Klan was a viciously racist white supremacist organization that first arose in the South after the end of the Civil War. Its members opposed the dismantling of slavery and sought to keep African Americans in a permanent state of subjugation to whites. During Reconstruction, the Klan employed violence and terror in the hopes of overthrowing Republican state governments in the South and maintaining the antebellum racial hierarchy.
The first Ku Klux Klan declined in the 1870s, partly due to the passage of federal legislation aimed at prosecuting the crimes of Klansmen, though some local cells continued to operate. The institutionalization of Jim Crow segregation in the South, moreover, meant that the KKK’s desire to maintain the antebellum racial hierarchy had been fulfilled.
The revival of the KKK
Although the KKK had reemerged in the South in 1915, it wasn’t until after the end of World War I that the organization experienced a national resurgence. Membership in the KKK skyrocketed from a few thousand to over 100,000 in a mere ten months. Local chapters of the KKK sprang up all over the country, and by the 1920s, it had become a truly national organization, with a formidable presence not just in the South, but in New England, the Midwest, and all across the northern United States.
The members of the Ku Klux Klan were mostly white Protestant middle-class men, and they framed their crusade in moral and religious terms. They saw themselves as vigilantes restoring justice, and they used intimidation, threats of violence, and actual violence to prevent African Americans, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, liberals, and progressives from attaining wealth, social status, and political power.
KKK members wore elaborate costumes with distinctive white hoods to mask their identities, and held nocturnal rallies to plot acts of terror and foment hatred against people deemed not “truly” American—basically, anyone who was not white and Protestant. The activities of Klansmen ranged from issuing threats and burning crosses to outright violence and atrocities such as tarring and feathering, beating, lynching, and assassination.
The revival of the KKK in the early twentieth century reflected a society struggling with the effects of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Klan chapters in major urban areas expanded as many white Americans became bitter and resentful about immigration from Asia and Eastern Europe. Klansmen complained that these immigrants were taking jobs away from whites and diluting the imagined “racial purity” of American society. Given that the country had been populated by immigrants from the beginning, such ideas of racial purity were complete myths.
Propaganda and protest
D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, was a sympathetic portrayal of the Klan, and was hugely popular with American audiences. President Woodrow Wilson even arranged for a private screening of the film at the White House. The film both reflected and boosted the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan.
Movie poster for The Birth of a Nation, featuring a hooded man riding a horse and carrying a burning cross.
Many influential people and organizations came out in opposition to the KKK. Religious and civic groups launched campaigns to educate American society about the crimes and atrocities committed by Klansmen. Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, and Jewish rabbis stepped forward to condemn the organization in no uncertain terms. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was at the forefront of efforts to educate the public about the threat posed by the KKK. Such anti-Klan activism was highly effective, and the organization’s membership declined dramatically in the late 1920s.
The Ku Klux Klan would experience another revival in the South during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
What do you think?
What were the goals of the Ku Klux Klan? What sorts of tactics did they use to achieve those goals?
Why do you think the KKK experienced a resurgence in the 1920s?
How do you explain the rise and fall of the Klan in different periods of US history?
Want to join the conversation?
- "Although most of the KKK’s savagery was aimed at African Americans, their hatred extended to immigrants, Catholics, Jews, liberals, and progressives."
Is the word liberals here referring to laissez faire free market, advocates for capitalism?
If not, and the word is instead intended to reference the more recent retooling of the word as liberal is used in common parlance today in American English, then I would think it is redundant with mentioning progressive as well, given that these two words are nearly synonymous in most modern parlance. If of course liberal here is referring to the definition that goes along with classical liberalism, then it would make sense.(19 votes)
- I think here we're talking about progressives as in the Progressive Party, which advocated for a lot of industrial and social reforms, like ending child labor.(26 votes)
- is kkk still alive today and is why have nobody stop them(3 votes)
- Yes, in different forms, the KKK is still around today, and is legally registered in some places. Why? Because haters gotta hate.(14 votes)
- How did activists refuse to let KKK violence stop them from their goals?(3 votes)
- Civil rights activists pursued their goals.
KKK thugs opposed those activists.
Activists gathered support from good willed people nationwide.
KKK thugs were deterred.
Activists persisted, but so does racism.(9 votes)
- Does the KKK still exist?(4 votes)
- Sadly and tragically, yes. The KKK (in many guises and incorporated in many different ways) continues to exist in White America in 2021.(6 votes)
- Members of the KKK showed up in Charlotte, VA at the University of VA.(2 votes)
- That was in 2017 or 2018, wasn't it? I recall that the man who was president of the USA of that time called them good people, but maybe I misunderstood him.(5 votes)
- What are the odds that the KKK served as another contributing factor to the great migration of African-Americans from rural to urban areas in the North at the time?(4 votes)
- Was the NAACP (and other opposition groups) completely responsible for the decay of the KKK in the 1920s? If not, what were the other factors that made the KKK's membership decline so rapidly?(3 votes)
- The KKK collapsed of its own internal contradictions. It's difficult for an organization based on hate to exist for very long before its members find reasons to hate each other.(2 votes)
- Was there a specific cause for the resurgence of the clan after WWI or was it just general turmoil that grew from the growing diversity in American culture from flappers to immigrants?(2 votes)
- Racism and fear were among the causes. Xenophobia was another. Remember that the Klan (with a K) was anti immigrant, anti Catholic, anti Jewish and anti African-american. They were just terrible.(4 votes)
- How do you explain the rise and fall of the klan in different periods of US history?(3 votes)
- When the KKK expirienced a resurgence, it was thanks to the movie that made them seem like heroes that made them loved by people. Nowadays, you won't find them because how society has been influenced to look at the minorities that they were targeting in a positive light. Hope this helps.(1 vote)
- when and why did the kkk experience surges and declines(0 votes)
- The second Klan of the KKK had a resurgence in 1915 with the film "The Birth of a Nation" which romanticized the white supremacist cult. During the 20's the Klan along with it's auxiliary "Women of the Ku Klux Klan" and the three KKK youth groups spread across the USA arguing the rhetoric that Catholics and immigrants were breaking prohibition, and only their cult could put an end to it. Prohibition lasted for 15 years and the chaos that it created during the 20s' eroded it's support in the 30s. The Klan came to an end in 1933.
The Klan once again received a third resurgence during the Civil Rights Movement and saw an uptick of activity. Now the Klan according to the The Southern Poverty Law Center has an estimated size of 5,000 - 8,000 members, a century after prohibition.(7 votes)