By Jay Moore, published in CounterPunch, Nov 23, 2017 (with extensive related readings further below)
Why are we here in the year 2017 still having to deal with racist morons flying the battle flag of a traitorous slaveowners’ rebellion that was defeated more than 150 years ago and other manifestations of white supremacy that draw on that utterly reactionary heritage? One of the main reasons, I would argue, is that the Confederacy was never put six feet under in the grave yard where it belonged. In the name of national reconciliation, the traitorous rebels were never properly punished. Moreover, they remained largely in control of their old plantations, if no longer owning human chattel.
The failure by the victorious Union to provide condign punishment for the secessionists and, even more so, to deprive them of their underlying economic power as large-scale landed property owners enabled them to make a political come-back later in the 19th century, to undo much of the progressive work of Reconstruction, and to reverse the historical verdicts against them. This history of not having been thoroughgoing and stern enough against the overthrown ruling elite holds invaluable lessons for other places today with struggles against reactionaries, such as the ongoing threats faced by Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.
Robert E. Lee resigned his commission from the U.S. military and violated his loyalty oath in order to side with the Confederacy. As head of the Army of Northern Virginia, he had been responsible for the deaths and maiming of thousands of soldiers including in two invasions of the North. If Lee after his surrender had been treated as a traitorous rebel instead of being allowed to live out his remaining five years as an honored college president, there would be no controversy raging today over the removal of his statue from a Charlottesville park (or about what to do with the name of that college in Lexington) since there would have been no such statue. After the end of the war, Lee and some of the other top Confederate generals were in fact indicted by the tough abolitionist federal judge in Virginia, John C. Underwood, for waging war against the United States. Indiana congressman George W. Julian urged the exemplary hanging of Lee and other leading Confederates and the distribution of their confiscated property to southern poor people of both races. However, former Confederate generals and politicians walked free, often later to reemerge as leaders of post-Reconstruction Southern white elite revanchism.
Arguably the most culpable of them all was Jefferson Davis, the president of the eleven Confederate States of America and a big-time Mississippi cotton plantation and slave owner who had served as the U.S. Secretary of War and as a U.S. Senator before secession. During the war to save the Union and end slavery, Union soldiers as they marched into battle had sung, “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.” Arrested while trying to flee the country, Davis was imprisoned for two years at Fortress Monroe and charged with treason. Nevertheless, his case was never to brought to trial. Allowed out on bail that was raised by some soft-hearted Northern liberals, he traveled widely including to Europe. After being pardoned under President Johnson’s blanket amnesty for Confederates at all levels in 1868, Davis lived on for many years unrepentant about secession and his own political role while upholding white supremacy as a revered figure for the die-hard Southern followers of the “Lost Cause.” Statues honoring Jefferson Davis exist on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia (along with statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Confederate cavalry General Jeb Stuart) and at many other Southern locations.
Only a handful of trials for war crimes were held coming out of the Civil War, the best-known of which was that of the commandant of the notorious Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia, Capt. Henry Wirz, who was convicted and hanged for the gross mistreatment of Union prisoners under his watch. Even though Congress conducted an investigation, no justice was ever meted out to the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a pre-war slave trader who had countenanced the wholesale massacre by his troops of surrendered colored Union troops at the battle of Ft. Pillow. Post-Civil War Forrest became the KKK’s first Grand Wizard. A statue of this foul criminal stands in a Memphis park in spite of the desires of city residents, most of whom are black, to get rid of it, and the state of Tennessee honors his birthday. Imagine Germany having statues and memorials to the defeated WWII Wehrmacht generals or to the Nazis who ran the concentration camps. Germany has done a decent job of coming to terms with its ugly past, but not here in the United States where racist rebels are regarded as great Americans.
The progressive political vanguard in the U.S. Civil War were the abolitionists and the congressional Radical Republicans (back when that term meant something quite different than it does today). Pushed by them, Congress passed two Confiscation Acts during the first two years of the Southern slave-owners’ rebellion. These authorized the confiscation of any property, including slaves, being used to support the rebel war effort. The enslaved themselves had taken the initiative by fleeing their owners for nearby Union lines where they hoped to be treated as free men and women. This had presented Union commanders, who were not uncommonly sympathetic to the plight of these runaways, with a dilemma on what to do when the slave owners showed up and demanded their return. Gen. Benjamin Butler, a cagy Massachusetts lawyer in command at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, had declared the escaped slaves to be “contraband” under the laws of war – i.e., property that was used to aid the enemy – and on that basis he had refused to give them back. Instead, he had put them to work for the Union. The Confiscation Acts were intended to turn Butler’s improvised policy into the law of the land. But President Lincoln, who had only reluctantly signed the bills and who rescinded the orders of two Union commanders for the outright freeing of slaves in the areas under their control, did not enforce them.
Although he abhorred slavery from his youthful experiences seeing slaves held in chains, Lincoln was not an abolitionist. He belonged to the Free Soil wing of the anti-slavery movement whose primary objection to slavery was that its territorial expansion posed an obstacle to the acquisition of land by white yeoman farmers and their ability to rise in the world. Lincoln promised in his Inaugural Address that he would do nothing as President to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed. To satisfy the South and forestall further secession, he said he would enforce the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Even well into the Civil War, Lincoln advocated the colonization of freed slaves in Liberia or in Central America, not the full acceptance and equal rights of them within American society (where persons of African descent had been living and contributing since at least a year prior to the showing-up of the Pilgrims), and Lincoln wanted to compensate the slaveowners monetarily for their lost “property.” When he finally issued it, Lincoln justified his Emancipation Proclamation in terms of “military necessity,” i. e., it being needed in order to undermine the South’s economic ability to wage war and in order to provide black soldiers to help fight to save the Union – not because holding other human beings in bondage was a moral wrong and blight on a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal which urgently needed to be rectified. The plan for reconstructing the post-war Southern states that Lincoln put forward toward war’s end offered generous terms to the defeated rebels, and more or less the same plan was rapidly put into effect following his assassination by his successor, Andrew Johnson. By the end of 1865, Johnson had issued thousands of pardons to individual Confederates and restored their state governments with little difference to them except that they had to repudiate the Confederate debt and accept the 13th Amendment ending slavery.
Fortunately, Radical Republicans in Congress thwarted Johnson, a former small-time Tennessee slave owner whose interest in ending slavery came not from moral principles but from his personal sense of inferiority to the wealthy planters and his desire that their political power based on slavery be curtailed. These radicals took over Reconstruction and passed a series of laws over Johnson’s veto to provide aid to and extend and protect civil rights for the ex-slaves. Johnson who had made himself odious not only through his pro-Southern policies but also because of a Trump-like inability to control his utterances was impeached and nearly removed from presidential office. Under the Radical Republicans, the South was divided up into military districts and placed under watchful control. Most people in the North supported harsh measures at that time because scarcely a few months after the war’s end the restored state governments, full of ex-Confederates, had enacted Black Codes which enforced conditions little different from slavery and violent atrocities were being committed against black and white Republicans by white southerners in the Democratic Party unable to accept their defeat. Nevertheless, in a fateful major failure, confiscation of the land from the Southern slave-owning class to fully break their power and this land’s redistribution to the freed men and women to enable them to become economically independent of their former masters, as advocated by the congressional radicals Thaddeus Stevens, George W. Julian, and Charles Sumner, was never put into effect. What arose in the South, although some of the ex-slaves did acquire land by working hard and saving and through other means, was the system of sharecropping which left many ex-slaves still laboring on the land of their former masters.
General Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 issued at the end of his epic march through Georgia to the sea had given many ex-slaves the expectation that winning their freedom would be matched with a grant of land of their own, which they felt they richly deserved as compensation for centuries of unpaid labor. Sherman’s order decreed that they could settle in a coastal belt of land of sea islands and river-side rice plantations abandoned by their white owners in South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida. Sherman’s intention in issuing the order was mainly to rid his army as it turned northward of the encumbrance of a large train of self-emancipated slaves, and their property title to the land was only provisional pending the action of Congress. However, his act was the origin of the belief widespread among the freedmen and women that they would receive 40 acres with a mule to help till the land. Lincoln endorsed Sherman’s Order. However, following Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson reversed it and, in a total betrayal of the interests of the freedmen and women, ordered the return of most of the land to its former white owners. The Union officers who had to tell them did so with great disgust.
Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania congressman and chair of the House Ways and Means Committee who earned the nickname, “Scourge of the South,” was the main architect of Radical Reconstruction. Opposed to capital punishment, Stevens introduced legislation to confiscate the estates of the upper one-tenth of Confederates who held land above 200 acres or worth $5,000 or more in value. Forty million acres of this confiscated land would then be broken down into 40 acre plots and distributed to the freedmen and families for their sustenance. The balance of the land would be sold off to help pay the nation’s immense war debt, to recompense loyal citizens North and South for their losses suffered at the hands of the rebels, and to provide ongoing support for the maimed Union veterans. Doing this, Stevens believed, would punish the members of the Southern elite who had been most responsible for the rebellion and would, at the same time, revolutionize social relations in the South providing a solid economic foundation for new and proper republican institutions. “Strip a proud nobility of their bloated estates,” Stevens cried out in a speech made to Congress in 1866 urging enforcement of the existing Confiscation Acts and overriding Johnson’s opposition. “Reduce them to a level with plain republicans; send them forth to labor; and teach their children to enter the workshops or handle the plow, and you will thus humble the proud traitors. Teach his posterity to respect labor and eschew treason.” If the Southern elite chose instead to flee the country and go overseas, then good riddance. Stevens regarded providing land for the ex-slaves as being of primary importance over according them access to voting – finally ensured legally by the 15th Amendment in 1870 – because that right could be subverted by the economically-powerful pressuring those folks dependent on them to vote in the way that they wanted.
In poor and declining health, Stevens dedicated the last year of his life to promoting this legislation. His radically democratic Jeffersonian plan to totally transform the South creating a new class of black and white yeoman farmers was supported by some other Radical Republicans and by the abolitionist and labor reformer Wendell Phillips. Unionist conventions of ex-slaves and poor whites held in the South passed strong resolutions and agitated in favor of breaking the power of the traitorous Southern elite by confiscating and redistributing their land to those who were in need. However, the Republican Party was coming to be dominated by Northern capitalists who were excited about possible investment opportunities in the post-war South with the ready availability of its cheap labor. Under the spectre of growing critiques of “wage slavery,” they also feared the precedent that such a measure might set for confiscating other property – such as their own. Radical Republican Senator Benjamin Wade had made a much-discussed speech in which he called for a more equitable distribution of property throughout the United States. News of the Paris Commune in 1871, the world’s first working-class government, compounded that fear for many Republicans. Thus were reached the limits of a bourgeois revolution.
During Radical Reconstruction while under the protection of federal troops occupying Southern states, governments consisting of blacks and poorer whites took power and enacted progressive reforms such as a more equitable tax system and the first free public education. Some African-Americans affiliated with the Republican Party were elected to represent their states in Congress. One striking example of the profundity of the South’s political transformation during this time period was that Jefferson Davis’s former Mississippi seat in the U.S. Senate was occupied for a time in 1870 by a free-born black Southerner, Rev. Hiram Revels, and Mississippi in 1875 chose Blanche K. Bruce, born a slave, as one of its Senators. Supported by most abolitionists although under fire for corruption, Grant’s presidential administration (1869-77) did make some renewed serious efforts to protect the new civil and voting rights of African-Americans in the South and to suppress the Klan’s terrorism in South Carolina and Louisiana. Klansmen were put on trial and jailed. At the same time, some of the formerly redoubtable congressional defenders of black rights among Republican politicians – including George W. Julian and Lyman Trumbull, the author of the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights bills that Congress had passed over President Johnson’s veto – abandoned their commitment and urged North-South white-to-white reconciliation instead. Most Northerners, including those who were avowedly anti-slavery, had always held racist views and had never shared the vision of Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner for full black and white racial equality. (Stevens who died in 1868 asked to have his body interred in a colored cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania as one final protest against racial segregation and inequality.)
Once protective federal troops were withdrawn from the South – the last ones being withdrawn in 1877 as part of a closed-door political bargain between the Republicans and Democrats to keep a Republican as President following a contested election – political control in the Southern states reverted largely into the hands of the former slaveocracy under the aegis of the Democratic Party. Alexander Stephens, the former Vice President of the Confederacy, was back in his old seat representing his Georgia district in Congress, and unrepentant Confederate general Wade Hampton was now South Carolina’s governor. The conservative U.S. Supreme Court aided in this back-sliding. In its 1876 Cruikshank decision, it refused to intervene in defense of the 1st amendment right of assembly and the 2nd amendment right to bear arms in a case involving black Republican Party members who had come under murderous attack from white Democratic Party supporters in Colfax, Louisiana. Following, in 1883, the Court declared unconstitutional the last piece of Reconstruction-era legislation passed by Congress, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which Charles Summer fought for as his crowning (and dying) achievement that prohibited race-based discrimination in public accommodations. Some Republicans in Congress made one final ditch effort in 1890 to protect black voting rights in the South by proposing legislation to enable federal officials to monitor elections. However, this legislation was defeated through a filibuster by Southern Senators, a tactic that would be used by reactionaries to block progressive legislation for many decades.
In the “redeemed” Southern states, restrictions were soon instituted by the elite white governments that kept most blacks from voting through literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses. Along with the ongoing racial terrorism – well over 3,000 African-Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968 — the notorious system of racial segregation known as “Jim Crow” – separate and blatantly non-equal – was deployed in practically all walks of life to keep the African-Americans population humiliated and in a subordinate position. The Supreme Court declared this to be constitutional in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Racial segregation and discrimination was also used to divide blacks and working class whites and keep them from finding common cause as they had begun to do in the South under Reconstruction. By 1913, the White House had a Southern-born occupant, Woodrow Wilson, who instituted segregation in federal government office buildings. The Reconstruction years were now being disparaged as a time of misrule in the South dominated by the alleged governmental incompetence and corruption of blacks, Northern carpetbaggers and poor whites, with Ku Klux Klan night-riders and cross-burners now being portrayed as the saviors of States’ Rights and the virtue of white womanhood, a view spread broadly by D. W. Griffith’s movie, Birth of a Nation. Inexcusably, most Caucasian historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line aided and abetted this inaccurate revisionist historical narrative (which is what I would be taught growing up and going to school in Virginia during the 1960s). It would take a handful of African-American activists and historians, most notably the great radical W.E.B. Dubois with his Black Reconstruction (1935), to begin to set the record straight. As Dubois observed, the ill consequences of an aborted revolution in the American South were felt not only in that particular section of the country and in the U.S. as a whole but indeed all over the world:
And the United States, reenforced by the increased political power of the South based on disenfranchisement of black voters, took its place to reenforce the capitalistic dictatorship of the United States, which became the most powerful in the world, and which backed the new industrial imperialism and degraded colored labor the world over. This meant a tremendous change in the whole intellectual and spiritual development of civilization in the South and in the United States because of the predominant political power of the South, built on disenfranchised labor. The United States was turned into a reactionary force. It became the cornerstone of that new imperialism which is subjecting the labor of yellow, brown and black peoples to the dictation of capitalism organized on a world basis. . .
As we all know, the 1950s and 1960s brought renewed forward motion in the field of civil rights for African-Americans in the South in the context of a worldwide wave of freedom movements waged by people of color. Liberal court rulings and new laws were made and enforced through federal actions, including the dispatch of troops where necessary to break racist resistance. And yet here we are in the year 2017 still having to deal with fucking neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis who march at night with torches, shoot off guns at anti-racist activists and run them down with speeding automobiles. Plus, we have a racist cretin of a President who finds “good people” among these idiots. Toppling the statuary honoring the Confederate losers – along with supporting our brave Antifa fighters — has to happen even more strongly under these circumstances. However, it’s likely that none of this awful stuff would have happened, or still be troubling us today, if the Southern society had been properly reconstructed in the first place with the leading racist secessionist rebels punished and with their land base confiscated and redistributed. Mao Tsetung once observed, “Make trouble, fail, make trouble again, fail again . . . until their doom – that is the logic of the imperialists and all reactionaries the world over. . .” And this is the historical lesson of the U.S. Civil War. Reconciliation with utter reactionaries is impossible. They will never go quietly from the stage of history. So they need to be put firmly down. Above all, they have to be fully deprived of the economic foundations underlying their capacity to re-exercise political power.
Jay Moore is a radical historian. He teaches at the University of Vermont. He was born and raised on a Civil War battlefield in Virginia.
Note by A Socialist In Canada:
Abolitionists in 19th century United States advocated the immediate abolition of slavery everywhere in the U.S. In the abolition movement, there were those who favoured moral resistance and electoral actions, and there were small but growing numbers who favoured direct action to destroy the institution, including assistance to runaways escaping to free states and territories, inclluding the British colonies in what was to become Canada.
Emancipation was the Civil War policy of eliminating slavery in areas in rebellion against the U.S. government. Prior to and during the early years of the Civil War, that policy did not abolish slavery and actually provided for its survival in areas under control of the Federal Army.
Book review: Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865
The publisher’s promotional description of the book is here:
Freedom National is a groundbreaking history of emancipation that joins the political initiatives of Lincoln and the Republicans in Congress with the courageous actions of Union soldiers and runaway slaves in the South. It shatters the widespread conviction that the Civil War was first and foremost a war to restore the Union and only gradually, when it became a military necessity, a war to end slavery. These two aims—”Liberty and Union, one and inseparable”—were intertwined in Republican policy from the very start of the war…
Book review, published in The New Statesman, Feb 14, 2013:
For Americans, learning about the civil war is a complicated rite of passage. As children, we’re taught that Lincoln led a brutal but ultimately heroic crusade to free the slaves. Call this the Disney World take. Then, as undergraduates, we’re set straight: not only did Lincoln not free the slaves but the hapless Republicans who pushed for emancipation only did so with their backs against the wall. Abolitionism, we’re told, was a strictly military ploy. The destruction of American slavery was mostly the work of craven northern industrialists and the slaves themselves.
James Oakes’s magisterial new book on the destruction of the North American slave society will thus come as a shock. As Freedom National makes clear, there was no shift from a war to save the union to a war to destroy slavery. It was always a war for union and liberty…
* Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, by Eric Foner, HarperCollins, 2002, 736 pages. (You can view an interview (20 minutes) on ‘Radical Reconstruction’ with historian Eric Foner, broadcast on Democracy Now! in 2015, here.)
* This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy, by Matthew Karp, Harvard University Press, 2017, 360 pp. Review by David Reynolds, in New York Review of Books, June 2017. Read pdf copy by clicking here: The Slave Owners’ Foreign Policy, book review by David Reynolds, NYRB.
The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, by Linda Gordon, Liveright, 272 pp, and Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s, by Felix Harcourt, University of Chicago Press, 272 pp. [Full text of review from New York Review of Books is below.]
* Out of sight, out of mind: The mass incarceration of Black people in the United States, book review by Adam Shatz, published in the London Review of Books, print edition of May 4, 2017. Reviewing: Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America; by James Forman; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; April 2017, 306 pp. Read the review here.
Descendant of Confederate soldiers in South Carolina speaks out against Confederate flag, video by Story of America, broadcast on You Tube, July 1, 2015
History’s emancipator: Did Abraham Lincoln have ‘a drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins’?
By Ibram X. Kendi, excerpt from his 2016 book Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racism In America, excerpt published in Truthout.org, Nov 23, 2017
Abraham Lincoln originally viewed the Civil War as “a white man’s war,” but runaway slaves and abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison insisted otherwise. In the following lightly edited excerpt from Stamped From the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi chronicles how reluctantly President Lincoln came to the idea of emancipation.
On December 24, 1860, South Carolina legislators alluded to the Declaration of Independence when stating their reasons for secession. Abolitionists were “inciting” contented captives to “servile insurrection,” and “elevating to citizenships” Blacks who constitutionally were “incapable of becoming citizens.” South Carolina’s secession from the United States did not just mean the loss of a state, and soon a region, but the loss of the region’s land and wealth. The South had millions of acres of land that were worth more in purely economic terms than the almost 4 million enslaved human beings who were toiling on its plantations in 1860. With their financial investments in the institution of slavery and their dependence on its productivity, northern lenders and manufacturers were crucial sponsors of slavery. And so, they pushed their congressmen onto their compromising knees to restore the Union.
William Lloyd Garrison called all the “Union-saving efforts” of December 1860 and January 1861 “simply idiotic.” Whether smart or idiotic, they failed. The rest of the Deep South seceded in January and February 1861. Florida’s secessionists issued a Declaration of Causes maintaining that Blacks must be enslaved because everywhere “their natural tendency” was toward “idleness, vagrancy and crime.”
In February 1861, Jefferson Davis took the presidential oath of the new Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama. In his Inaugural Address in March, Lincoln did not object to the proposed Thirteenth Amendment, which would make slavery untouchable and potentially reunite the union. But Lincoln did swear that he would never allow the extension of slavery. On March 21, the Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Stephens, responded to Lincoln’s pledge in an extemporaneous speech. The Confederate government, he declared, rested “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” This “great . . . truth,” Stephens said, was the “corner-stone” of the Confederacy. The speech became known as his “Cornerstone Speech.”
Three weeks after Alexander Stephens laid the cornerstone, the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. On April 15, 1861, Lincoln raised the Union Army to put down the “insurrection,” which, by the end of May, included Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. No matter what Lincoln did not say about slavery, and no matter what blame the Democrats put on abolitionists, to Black people and to abolitionists the Civil War was over slavery and enslavers were to blame. On the Fourth of July at the annual abolitionist picnic in Framingham, Massachusetts, William Lloyd Garrison repudiated “colorphobia” for holding back northerners from supporting a war of emancipation. “Let us see, in every slave, Jesus himself,” Garrison cried out.
The Weekly Anglo-African forecasted that the millions of enslaved Africans would not be “impassive observers.” Lincoln might deem it “a white man’s war,” but enslaved Africans had “a clear and decided idea of what they want — Liberty.”
The Weekly Anglo-African was right. First dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of runaways fled to Union forces in the summer of 1861. But Union soldiers enforced the Fugitive Slave Act with such an iron fist that, according to one Maryland newspaper, more runaways were returned in three months of the war “than during the whole of Mr. Buchanan’s presidential term.” Northerners listened uneasily to these reports of returning runaways side by side with reports of southern Blacks being thrust into work for the Confederate military.
After the Confederates humiliated Union soldiers in the First Battle of Bull Run in northern Virginia on July 21, 1861, proposals about enslaved Africans’ potential war utility besieged Congress and the Lincoln administration. Initially, Congress passed a resolution emphatically declaring that the war was not “for the purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights and or established institutions of these states.” But war demands soon changed their calculations. In early August, the Republican-dominated Congress was forced to pass the Confiscation Act over the objections of Democrats and border-state Unionists. Lincoln reluctantly signed the bill, which said that slaveholders forfeited their ownership of any property, including enslaved Africans, used by the Confederate military. The Union could confiscate such people as “contraband.” Legally, they were no longer enslaved; nor were they freed. They could, however, work for the Union Army for wages and live in the abysmal conditions of the contraband camps. One out of every four of the 1.1 million men, women, and children in the contraband camps died in one of the worst public health disasters in US history. Only 138 physicians were assigned to care for them. Some physicians called contrabands “animals” and blamed their mass deaths on inherent Black debilities, not the extreme inadequacies of sanitation, food, and medical care.
Despite the horrendous conditions, the number of Black contrabands increased every month. Slaves were running from the abysmal conditions of the plantations, particularly after Union soldiers moved into the more densely populated Deep South. The New York Times reported at the end of 1861 that enslaved Africans were “earnestly desirous of liberty.” The growing number of runaways proved that Confederate reports of contented captives was mere propaganda. This form of Black resistance — not persuasion — finally started to eradicate the racist idea of the docile Black person in northern minds. President Lincoln did not encourage the runaways in his December 1861 Message to Congress. But he did request funding for colonizing* runaways and compensating Unionist emancipators to ensure that the war did not “degenerate” into a “remorseless revolutionary struggle.” Furious, Garrison shrieked in a letter that Lincoln did not have “a drop of anti-slavery blood in his veins.”
Every week in the spring of 1862, thousands of fugitives were cutting through forests, reaching the southern Union lines, and leaving behind paralyzed plantations and an increasingly divided Confederacy. Some soldiers deserted the Confederate Army. Some of the Confederate deserters joined enslaved Africans to wage revolts against their common enemies: wealthy planters. And some upcountry non-slaveholding Whites had already become disillusioned fighting this slaveholders’ war. Alexander H. Jones of eastern North Carolina helped organize the 10,000-man Heroes of America, which laid an “underground railroad” for White Unionists in Confederate territories to escape. “The fact is,” Jones wrote in a secret antiracist circular, referring to the rich planters, that “these bombastic, highfalutin aristocratic fools have been in the habit of driving negroes and poor helpless white people until they think . . . that they themselves are superior; [and] hate, deride and suspicion the poor.”
Up north, Radical Republicans pushed through a horde of anti-slavery measures that southerners and their northern defenders had opposed for years. By the summer of 1862, slavery was prohibited in the territories, the ongoing transatlantic slave trade had been suppressed, the United States recognized Haiti and Liberia, abolition had arrived in Washington, DC, and the Union Army was forbidden from returning fugitives to the South. The Fugitive Slave Act had been effectively repealed. And then came the kicker: the Second Confiscation Act, passed and sent to Lincoln on July 17. The bill declared all Confederate-owned Africans who escaped to Union lines or who resided in territories occupied by the Union to be “forever free of their servitude.” The Springfield Republican realized the bill’s power, stating that enslaved Africans would become free “as fast as the armies penetrate the South section.” But they were not penetrating the South fast enough, and Union casualties were piling up. Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson appeared to be headed for sparsely defended Washington, DC, scaring Lincoln to death.
The Second Confiscation Act was a turning point, setting Union policy on the road leading to emancipation. The war and the failure to convince border states about the benefits of a gradual, compensated emancipation had sapped Lincoln’s patience and the patience of Congress. Lincoln had finally opened up to the idea of proclaiming emancipation because it would save the Union (not because it would save Black people). Cries of Unionist planters to salvage slavery amid the war increasingly rankled him. “Broken eggs cannot be mended,” he snapped to a Louisiana planter.
On July 22, 1862, five days after signing the Second Confiscation Act, Lincoln submitted to his cabinet a new draft order, effective January 1, 1863. “All persons held as slaves within any state [under rebel control] shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.” Lincoln’s staff was stunned and became quickly divided over the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The cabinet made no immediate decision, but word got out. Not many Americans took the proclamation seriously.
The nation’s most powerful editor, Horace Greeley, inserted an open letter to the president in his leading New York Tribune on August 20, 1862. Greeley had been as responsible for Lincoln’s election as anyone. He urged Lincoln to enforce the “emancipation provisions” of the Second Confiscation Act.
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery,” Lincoln replied in Greeley’s rival paper, Washington’s National Intelligencer. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” In the New York Tribune, rising abolitionist Wendell Phillips hammered Lincoln’s remarks as “the most disgraceful document that ever came from the head of a free people.”
With the war looking like a never-ending highway, the midterm elections approaching, and runaways crippling Confederates faster than Union bullets, Lincoln gathered his cabinet on September 22, 1862. After laying his poker face on Americans for months, he finally showed his cards — cards William Lloyd Garrison never believed he had. Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. For slaveholding Union states and any rebel state wishing to return, Lincoln once again offered gradual, compensated emancipation and colonization. For those states remaining in rebellion on January 1, 1863, Lincoln proclaimed that “all persons held as slaves … shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
“Thank God!” blared the Pittsburgh Gazette. “We shall cease to be hypocrites and pretenders,” proclaimed Ralph Waldo Emerson. William Lloyd Garrison enjoyed the sound of “forever free,” but little else. Lincoln, he fumed in private, could “do nothing for freedom in a direct manner, but only by circumlocution and delay.”
In his Message to Congress on December 1, 1862, Lincoln laid out a more detailed plan for gradual, compensated emancipation and colonization. Any slave state could remain or return to the Union if it pledged loyalty and a willingness to abolish slavery at any time before January 1, 1900. The US government would compensate such states for freeing their human property, but if they decided to reintroduce or tolerate enslavement, they would have to repay the emancipation compensation. “Timely adoption” of gradual, compensated emancipation and colonization “would bring restoration,” Lincoln pleaded. The Confederate leaders largely rejected Lincoln’s proposals, emboldened by their stunning war victories in mid-December.
Abraham Lincoln retired to his office on the afternoon of January 1, 1863. He read over the Emancipation Proclamation, “a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion,” as he termed it, that emancipated “all persons held as slaves” and allowed Black men to join the Union Army. As Lincoln read the final statement, his abolitionist treasury secretary, Salmon B. Chase, suggested that he add some morality. Lincoln acquiesced, adding, “Upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”
In the next two years, Lincoln made himself available to writers, artists, photographers, and sculptors who memorialized him for the historical record as the Great Emancipator. With his proclamation, Lincoln emancipated about 50,000 Black people in the Union-occupied Confederate areas that January. He kept enslaved the nearly half-million African people in border states, in order to maintain their owners’ loyalty. He also kept enslaved the roughly 300,000 African people in the newly exempted formerly Confederate areas, in order to establish their owners’ loyalty. More than 2 million African people on Confederate plantations remained enslaved because Lincoln had no power to free them. Democrats mocked Lincoln for “purposefully” making “the proclamation inoperative in all places where … the slaves [were] accessible,” and operative “only where he has notoriously no power to execute it,” as the New York World put it.
But enslaved Africans now had the power to emancipate themselves. By the end of 1863, 400,000 Black people had escaped their plantations and found Union lines, running toward the freedom guaranteed by the proclamation.
*The terms “colonization” and “colonizing” in this excerpt refers to the proposal to send former slaves to Africa in order both to rid the United States of its Black population and, supposedly, to bring “civilization” to Africa — one of many racist ideas that Stamped From the Beginning deals with in depth elsewhere.
Ku Klux klambakes
The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, by Linda Gordon, Liveright, 272 pp
Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s, by Felix Harcourt, University of Chicago Press, 272 pp
Most of us who grow up in the United States learn a reassuring narrative of ever-expanding tolerance. Yes, the country’s birth was tainted with the original sin of slavery, but Lincoln freed the slaves, the Supreme Court desegregated schools, and we finally elected a black president. The Founding Fathers may have all been men, but in their wisdom they created a constitution that would later allow women to gain the vote. And now the legal definition of marriage has broadened to include gays and lesbians. We are, it appears, an increasingly inclusive nation.
But a parallel, much darker river runs through American history. The Know Nothing Party of the 1850s viciously attacked Catholics and immigrants. Eugenics enthusiasts of the early twentieth century warned about the nation’s gene pool being polluted by ex-slaves, the feeble minded, and newcomers of inferior races. In the 1930s, 16 million Americans regularly listened to the anti-Semitic radio rants of Father Charles E. Coughlin.
The most notorious of all the currents in this dark river has been the Ku Klux Klan. It flourished first in the South after the Civil War, lynching and terrorizing African-Americans who tried to vote, and then gradually disbanded in the early 1870s under pressure from the federal government. After a long spell of quiescence, it reemerged into national prominence in the 1920s, reaching an all-time peak membership in 1924—a year, incidentally, that saw the dedication of various Confederate memorials, including the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, whose planned removal was the pretext for the “Unite the Right” rally there in August. After another eclipse, the Klan roared back to life a third time in protest against the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Among other acts of violence, Klansmen took part in the murder of three voter registration workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964—James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.
All along, of course, even while sticking to rhetoric of tolerance and inclusion, politicians have made winks and nods toward that dark river of which the Klan is a part. Richard Nixon had his Southern Strategy. Running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan sent an unmistakable message by giving a speech about states’ rights near Philadelphia, Mississippi. George H.W. Bush used the notorious Willie Horton campaign commercial. And now suddenly, it’s no longer just winks and nods. Only when pressed by a reporter did Donald Trump in early 2016 reluctantly disavow the support of Klan leader David Duke. “David Duke endorsed me? O.K., all right. I disavow, O.K.?” Then as president he outraged people around the world by equating antiracist protesters with the unsavory brew of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Klan members who gathered at Charlottesville, declaring that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” One of the least fine among the right-wingers rammed his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing one and injuring many others. Once again, it seems, the Klan is elbowing its way back into American public life.
The first and third incarnations of the Klan—the cross-burning lynch mobs and the vigilantes who beat up and murdered civil rights workers in the 1960s—seem beyond the pale of today’s politics, at least for the moment. But the second Klan, the Klan of the 1920s, less violent but far more widespread, is a different story, and one that offers some chilling comparisons to the present day. It embodied the same racism at its core but served it up beneath a deceptively benign façade, in all-American patriotic colors.
In other ways as well, the Klan of the 1920s strongly echoes the world of Donald Trump. This Klan was a movement, but also a profit-making business. On economic issues, it took a few mildly populist stands. It was heavily supported by evangelicals. It was deeply hostile to science and trafficked in false assertions. And it was masterfully guided by a team of public relations advisers as skillful as any political consultants today.
Two new books give us a fresh look at this second period of the Klan. Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK is the wiser and deeper; Felix Harcourt’s Ku Klux Kulture offers some useful background information but then, reflecting its origin as a Ph.D. thesis, becomes an exhaustive survey of Klansmen’s appearances, variously as heroes or villains, in the era’s novels, movies, songs, plays, musicals, and more.
The KKK’s rebirth was spurred by D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. The most expensive and widely seen motion picture that had yet been made, it featured rampaging mobs of newly freed slaves in the post–Civil War South colluding with rapacious northern carpetbaggers. To the rescue comes the Ku Klux Klan, whose armed and mounted heroes lynch a black villain, save the honor of southern womanhood, and prevent the ominous prospect of blacks at the ballot box. “It is like teaching history with lightning,” said an admiring President Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist, who saw the film in the White House. Wilson’s comment underlines a point both Gordon and Harcourt make: the Klan of this era was no fringe group, for tens of millions of nonmembers agreed with its politics.
The founder of the reincarnated Klan in 1915 was an Atlanta physician named William Joseph Simmons, who five years later fell into the hands of two skilled public relations professionals, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke. They convinced him that for the Klan to gain members in other parts of the country, it had to add Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and big-city elites to its list of villains. Tyler and Clarke in effect ran the KKK for the next several years, a pair of Bannons to Simmons’s Trump.
Simmons signed a contract giving the two an amazing 80 percent of dues and other revenue gleaned from new recruits. They are believed to have reaped $850,000—worth more than $11 million today—in their first fifteen months on the job. The whole enterprise was organized on a commission basis: everyone from the recruiters, or Kleagles, up through higher officers (King Kleagles, Grand Goblins, and more) kept a percentage of the initiation fee ($10, the equivalent of $122 today) and monthly dues. The movement was a highly lucrative brand.
Tyler and Clarke polished Simmons’s speaking style and set up newspaper interviews for him, gave free Klan memberships to Protestant ministers, and assured prominent placement of their blizzard of press releases by buying tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of newspaper advertising. To appear respectable, they made these purchases through two well-known ad agencies, one of which had a Jewish CEO. Simmons, however, spent much of his share of the take on horse races, prizefights, and drink. Several rivals who lusted after the KKK’s lucrative income stream maneuvered him out of office with the help of Tyler and Clarke.
A plump, diminutive Texas dentist, Hiram Evans, became the new Imperial Wizard in 1922. He, in turn, his eye on Tyler and Clarke’s 80 percent of revenues, was able to force them out because of a scandal—the two were sexually involved but each was married to someone else. Linda Gordon gives Tyler major credit for the Klan’s success: “The organization might well have grown without this driven, bold, corrupt, and precociously entrepreneurial woman, but it would likely have been smaller.” About other women in the Klan, such as one group called Ladies of the Invisible Empire, Gordon dryly notes, “Readers…must rid themselves of notions that women’s politics are always kinder, gentler, and less racist than men’s.”
Significantly, the new Wizard moved the Klan’s headquarters to Washington, D.C. Membership skyrocketed, reaching an estimated four million by 1924. The revenue remained enormous: beyond dues, there were sales of Klan insurance, knives, trinkets, and garb. Those robes and pointed hoods were made to an exacting pattern, sold at a big markup, and, until his ouster, could only be purchased from a company owned by Clarke. The temptations of this fountain of money led to further rivalries and embezzlement, compounded by the conviction of several Klan leaders for various sordid offenses, most spectacularly the Indiana Grand Dragon for the rape and murder of a young woman who worked for him—a crime that left his bite marks all over her body. All of this made the Klan largely collapse by the end of the decade—but not before it had helped win an enormous legislative victory, and not before there occurred a curious episode involving the Trump family.
Before we get to that, however, there’s another odd parallel between the Klan of the 1920s and the present day, which has to do with the sheer value of getting attention in the media. Many newspapers campaigned against the KKK, and no less than five such exposés won Pulitzer Prizes. The first was for an excoriating series of stories in the New York World in 1921 that revealed secret Klan rituals and code words, gave the names of more than two hundred officials, and listed violent crimes committed by Klansmen. The heavily promoted articles ran for three weeks, were reprinted by seventeen newspapers throughout the country, and provoked a congressional investigation. But instead of crushing the organization, the exposé did the opposite; one historian estimates that the series increased Klan membership by more than a million. Some people even tried to join by filling out the blank membership application form the World had used to illustrate one story.
Being denounced by a liberal New York newspaper, it turned out, gave the Klan just the political imprimatur it needed, and spread the news of its rebirth across the nation. Imperial Wizard Evans exulted that the exposés had provided “fifty million dollars’ worth of free advertising.” People loved the idea of joining a fraternal organization with secret rites and extravagant titles that included judges, congressmen, and other prominent citizens, and that legitimized combat against the forces that seemed to be undermining traditional American life.
What were those forces? Movements heavy on ethnic hatred and imagined conspiracies flourish when rapid changes upset the social order and people feel their income or status threatened. In the heyday of European fascism, the threat came from the enormous job losses of the Great Depression, which in Germany followed the humiliating Versailles Treaty and ruinous inflation that wiped out savings. Among many of Trump’s supporters today, the threat comes from stagnating or declining wages and the rapid automation and globalization that makes people feel their jobs are ever less secure.
We don’t normally think of the heady, expanding American economy of the 1920s as a period of threat, but Gordon offers a broader cultural and feminist analysis. “The Klan supplied a way for members to confirm manliness,” she writes, in an era when many traditional male roles were disappearing. “As more men became white-collar workers, as more small businesses lost out to chains, as the political supremacy of Anglo-Saxons became contested, as more women reached for economic and political rights,” the Klan “organized the performances of masculinity and male bonding through uniforms, parades, rituals, secrecy, and hierarchical military ranks and titles.” She quotes an admonition from one Oregon chapter: “Remember when you come to lodge that this is not an old maid’s convention.” A man who by day might be an accountant or stationery salesman or have a wife who earned more than he did could, in his Klan robes, be a Kleagle or Klaliff or Exalted Cyclops by night.
Not all Klan members were men, of course, and the Klan was not the only organization that offered ceremonial dress and fancy titles: it’s telling that the first place Klan recruiters usually sought members was among Masons. But Gordon’s is a thoughtful explanation of the Klan’s appeal in the fast-urbanizing America of the 1920s, which was leaving behind an earlier nation based, in imagined memory, on self-sufficient yeoman farmers, proud blue-collar workers, and virtuous small-town businessmen, all of them going to the same white-steepled church on Sunday. It was a world in which men did traditionally manly work and women’s place was in the kitchen and bedroom. Even city-dwellers—perhaps especially city-dwellers—could feel this nostalgia. (Although, as with many idealized pasts, the reality was less ideal: many late-nineteenth-century farmers and small businessmen went bankrupt or deep into debt, casualties of a string of recessions and declining world commodity prices.)
All these feelings, of course, came on top of centuries of racism. And that hostility was surely exacerbated during the 1920s when the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South was well underway, making black faces visible to millions who had seldom or never seen them before.
Demagogic movements prey on such anxieties by identifying scapegoats. One of the revived Klan’s targets is familiar to us from today’s demagogues: immigrants. By 1890, the ships streaming past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island were bringing people from new places, mainly southern and eastern Europe: Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, especially in the Russian Empire, Polish and Italian Catholics, and a continuing flow of immigrants from Catholic Ireland. The Klan wanted these new arrivals cut off and such immigrants already here to be deported.
This paranoia toward immigrants blended easily with the hostility to Catholics and Jews that many Americans already shared. Henry Ford circulated the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion; Klan officials, early experts in fake news, concocted similar forgeries about Catholic plots to take bloody vengeance on all Protestants. To WASP Klan members, Catholics seemed threatening because Irish political machines had taken control of many cities in the Northeast and Midwest. The pope was suspect because his was an international empire, based outside the United States. To make things even more un-American, mass was conducted in Latin, and many Catholics and Jews spoke foreign languages at home. In an apparently populist gesture, the Klan advocated more spending on public schools and libraries, but this was interwoven with demands to ban parochial schools.
Jews, of course, had been convenient scapegoats for centuries, and their prominence in banking, in the eyes of the Klan and many others, meant that they surely had had a sinister hand in causing the financial panics that affected millions of Americans so painfully between 1890 and 1914. Furthermore, Jews were undermining American morals through their control of Hollywood, tempting people out of Protestant church pews and into movie theaters. The Klan was particularly enraged by a 1923 silent film, The Pilgrim, in which Charlie Chaplin appeared as a hypocritical minister. A stream of manufactured stories in Klan publications also accused Jews of masterminding the white slave trade. And if you should want proof that Jews could never be assimilated in America, it was right there in the Bible: Jonah emerged from his ordeal whole, indigestible even by the whale.
From Jewish bankers and movie moguls it was a short step to another set of Klan villains: big-city “elites” who tried to dictate to salt-of-the-earth true Americans how they should live. These elites were, according to one Klansman quoted by Gordon, “a cosmopolitan intelligentsia devoted to foreign creeds and ethnic identities…without moral standards.” Another wrote, “The Nordic American today is a stranger in…the land his fathers gave him.” And of course, every condemnation of the Klan by a big-city intellectual merely confirmed this feeling. The Klan also hated professional boxing (in the 1920s dominated by Jews and Catholics), jazz (blacks), and Broadway show tunes (Jews); Klan members attacked dance halls and were suspects in the burning down of a Maryland boxing arena. Another point of controversy, inflamed by the 1925 Scopes trial, was evolution, seen as a Jewish and highbrow conspiracy to undermine Christian doctrine; the Klan pushed for state laws against teaching it. On this issue, and on many others, evangelical churches were important KKK allies.
In the South, the revived Klan stuck to its traditional vigilantism: lynchings of black Americans continued, sometimes several dozen a year. And on occasion violence spread to the North: in 1925, for example, Klan members on horseback attacked the Omaha home of Reverend Earl Little, an organizer for Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement. Little wasn’t home, but his pregnant wife and three children were. The Klansmen galloped around the house with flaming torches and shattered all the windows. In Michigan, where the family moved after the baby was born, vigilantes burned their house to the ground. The baby grew up to become Malcolm X.
Most of the time, however, in the northern states where the 1920s Klan thrived—its highest per capita membership was in Indiana and Oregon—it presented a less violent face. In 1925 forty-six chartered trains brought some 30,000 Klansmen to the nation’s capital, where they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue (robes and hoods, but no masks) and held a rally at the Washington Monument. The next day they laid wreaths on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and on the grave of William Jennings Bryan, who had argued against evolution at the Scopes trial. You can see film of the march on YouTube, with the Capitol building in the background.
Following in the public relations tradition inaugurated by Tyler and Clarke, the Klan mixed its arcane midnight rituals with everything from Klambakes to a Klan summer resort to the Klan Haven orphanage in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It sponsored sports tournaments for all ages, Bible study groups, gun clubs, and children’s camps, and had its own auto-racing stadium in Denver. Baseball, the ultimate American small-town game, was the most popular Klan sport, and in Wichita in 1925, Klan players even took on, and lost to, a local semipro all-black team. One year later, in Washington, D.C., another Klan team played the Hebrew All-Stars. It was masterful PR: who could accuse such an organization of being prejudiced?
All of these activities ensured plentiful newspaper coverage: Klan parades, beauty contests, minstrel shows, picnics, and even midnight Klonklaves (to enhance the aura of mystery, photographers were kept at a distance). Like it or hate it, readers were hungry for such news, and the result, writes Harcourt, was that an “odd kind of legitimacy” was “tacitly bestowed on the Klan.” The newly launched Time put Imperial Wizard Evans on its cover in 1924. The Klan also had an extensive press of its own: the weekly Kourier published sixteen state editions and claimed a readership of 1.5 million—although such numbers were usually inflated. Sympathizers controlled two radio stations, both, incidentally, in New York City. Klan members were a significant enough demographic that businesses found it worthwhile to come up with names like Kountry Kitchen or Kwik Kar Wash or to merely advertise themselves as “100% American.”
The Klan of the 1920s went to great lengths to polish its image because its real mission, aside from lining the pockets of its leaders, was in electoral politics. And here it was highly influential. In 1924 the organization mobilized hundreds of Protestant clergymen across the country whose sermons helped deny the Democratic presidential nomination to New York Governor Al Smith, a Catholic and vocal Klan opponent. Twenty thousand people attended an anti-Smith cross-burning in New Jersey two weeks before the Democratic convention. And in 1928, when Smith did get nominated, Klan opposition doubtless added to the margin by which he lost the general election to Herbert Hoover.
In alliance with other groups, the Klan won major victories on the state level. One of its causes, for instance, was eugenics laws, which allowed the forcible sterilization of those of “defective stock”—who all too often turned out to be nonwhite. Some thirty states adopted such legislation. In Oregon, KKK member Kaspar K. Kubli (the Klan was so delighted by his initials that it exempted him from dues) was speaker of the house. “For ten years, 1922 to 1932,” writes Gordon, “the majority of all Oregon’s elected officials were Klansmen, and opposition was so weak that Klansmen ran against one another.” In the mid-1920s, the majority of representatives elected to Congress from Texas, Colorado, and Indiana were Klan members, as were two justices of the US Supreme Court. Texas Congressman Hatton Sumners, a member, used his position as chair of the House Judiciary Committee to try to block an anti-lynching law. Sixteen senators and eleven governors in all were Klansmen, divided almost equally between Democrats and Republicans. From Wilson through Hoover, no president disavowed the Klan.
In 1924 came the great triumph of the Klan and its allies: harsh new immigration limits that virtually excluded Asians from moving to the United States, sharply reduced the number of immigrants admitted, and set national quotas ensuring that the great majority of them would come from the British Isles or Germany. (The quotas were cleverly based on what the ethnic origins of the American population had been in 1890—before the height of immigration from southern and eastern Europe.) This law, the Johnson-Reed Act, was sponsored by Congressman Albert Johnson of Washington State, whom Gordon calls a Klansman. Others are less certain of his actual membership, but in any event he was ardently supported by the Klan, and the law bearing his name helped shape the country for forty years to come.)
Sometimes what doesn’t happen is revealing. If upheavals that threaten people’s jobs and status provide the classic fuel for movements like the KKK, then in the 1930s, when the Depression threw a quarter of the American labor force out of work and left hundreds of thousands living in shacks of scrap wood and tarpaper, why didn’t the Klan come back to life stronger than ever? One answer is that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, despite its shortcomings, was a far-reaching and impassioned attempt to address the nation’s economic woes and injustices head-on, with a boldness we’ve not seen since then. It gave people hope. Another answer is that although FDR made many compromises with southern Democrats to get his programs through Congress, he was no racist. The more outspoken Eleanor Roosevelt was a fervent proponent of anti-lynching laws and of full rights for black Americans. The tone set by the White House matters; it creates moral space for others to speak and act. Perhaps it’s no surprise that these were years when the Klan lay low.
In all three of its historical incarnations, the KKK had many allies, not all of whom wanted to dress up in pointed hoods and hold ceremonies at night. But such public actions always have an echo. “The Klan did not invent bigotry,” Linda Gordon writes, “…[but] making its open expression acceptable has significant additional impact.” Those burning crosses legitimated the expression of hatred, and exactly the same can be said of presidential tweets today.
She ends her book by writing, “The Klannish spirit—fearful, angry, gullible to sensationalist falsehoods, in thrall to demagogic leaders and abusive language, hostile to science and intellectuals, committed to the dream that everyone can be a success in business if they only try—lives on.” One intriguing episode links the Klan of ninety years ago to us now. On Memorial Day 1927, a march of some one thousand Klansmen through the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York, turned into a brawl with the police. Several people wearing Klan hoods, either marching in the parade or sympathizers cheering from the sidelines, were charged with disorderly conduct, and one with “refusing to disperse.” Although the charge against the latter was later dropped, his name was mentioned in several newspaper accounts of the fracas. Beneath the hood was Fred Trump, the father of Donald.
 This story first surfaced briefly some two years ago, but drew little attention since Donald Trump—who, characteristically, denied everything—was not yet the Republican presidential nominee. The most thorough account is Mike Pearl’s ‘All the Evidence We Could Find About Fred Trump’s Alleged Involvement with the KKK’, Vice, March 10, 2016.
Related book review:
The Ku Klux Klan Of The 1920s And The American Political Tradition, book review by Clay Risen, published in New York Times, Dec 4, 2017 Reviewing: The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan Of The 1920s And The American Political Tradition, by Linda Gordon, Liveright Publishing, 269 pp
… Like the alt-right today, the Klan was never a political party, but it wielded sizable influence in politics. Klan members or Klan-endorsed politicians held the governor’s office in Oregon, Texas and Colorado; it controlled mayor’s offices from Portland, Me., to Portland, Ore. And lest we criticize the current president for being uniquely unable to condemn the alt-right, bear in mind that no president in the post-World War I era from Woodrow Wilson to Herbert Hoover would condemn the Klan either, for fear of losing public support.