Paper: Book Summary, Behind the Mask of Chivalry

My 20th Century History course involved writing many papers on our readings. Many of them were supposed to be, not so much reviews or critiques as summaries. This was the first on Behind the Mask of Chivalry — The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan, by Nancy MacLean.

The Ku Klux Klan. The name alone evokes images of burning crosses, hooded vigilantes, and racial terror. Inspecting the organization of the 1920s, one expects to find simple racism and extremist individuals. Nancy MacLean’s Behind the Mask of Chivalry — The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan paints a radically different image.

What MacLean’s original research finds is at once frightening and illuminating. The typical Klansman in her case study was a middle-class man who had worked his way up the economic ladder, if only slightly. He had a wife and children and attended church — probably Methodist or Baptist, certainly Protestant. Some were ministers (who weren’t required to pay dues); many were in law enforcement; a significant few were governors and judges.

The Klan of the early 1920s was not a fringe group; it was a mainstream organization. It counted Supreme Court justices among its ranks; it had at least one million members at its height, possibly as many as five million. Churches announced meeting times for and accepted mission money from the Klan. It was such a powerful group that only one of the fifty governors at a convention would denounce it; even that one was timid. Yet despite these mainstream appearances, the Klan was still an extreme group. They were a highly militaristic society, with supreme authority at the top of the organization in the style of the United States armed forces. They openly admitted a white supremacist policy and a belief that non-whites should not be considered citizens.

It is this seeming disparity that MacLean’s book seamlessly unites. She demonstrates how changes at every level of society prompted fairly ordinary white men to join such an extreme group as the Klan, and the impulses that then drove them to violence against not just blacks but fellow whites as well. The overwhelming theme throughout is that middle-class white men — especially those in the Klan — consistently lost power throughout the 1910s and 1920s.

First, Klansmen lost economic power in the early twenties. Whereas nearly all of them had achieved moderate gains in wealth from 1900 to 1915, nearly all experienced losses in the years following World War I; some lost as much as 90%. But even more than this direct loss of money, white men were losing the economic priority they had once enjoyed. More and more women were working outside the home; blacks were starting to rise up from sharecropping, and the return of black World War I veterans was fomenting new discontent; the pressures of industrialization were forcing white men from their former prominence as a true middle class down towards the bottom of the wealth pyramid. White men were for the first time becoming economically stuck in jobs at mills and as tenants or sharecroppers for richer farmers.

Second, women and children were beginning to act far differently. Working outside the home and experiencing different kinds of life caused “skyrocketing” divorce rates — up to 40 per year in the Clarke County. Children were becoming less obedient as parents lost their land and couldn’t use the prospect of an inheritance to induce cooperation; young women were beginning to go to college, had gotten the vote, and were starting to smoke and dress more sexually than ever before.

These two painful losses in power led men to join the Ku Klux Klan as a form of “reactionary populism” in an attempt to regain the status they had lost. These fears led them to fear both the rich capitalist bankers (who came to be identified with Jews) they felt were squeezing them dry and (more importantly) the black underclass which was beginning to compete with them for jobs. Communism was added to the list of evils because it endorsed equality among all men, blacks included. In one of the KKK’s odd dichotomies, the same Jews who were evil capitalist bankers were also responsible for communism. In the same vein, the KKK sought to reconcile labor and capital despite its disdain for the lower working class and the elites who exploited everybody; they considered materialism and selfishness to be moral failings yet were motivated primarily out of concern for the status they no longer enjoyed.

The KKK also had a strong belief in self-determination of white propertied men and “prided themselves on their fidelity to the vision of the founding fathers.” They tied themselves to Jefferson’s vision of America as a country of small farmers and skilled craftsmen and exalted possessive individualism to the point that they believed only the propertied white man should have suffrage. Mostly, the Ku Klux Klan simply feared change and rationalized a reaction to it by whatever means were possible.

The views of the KKK manifested themselves most terrifyingly in night riding and mob violence. For despite all the ceremony surrounding their violent actions (officers of the Klan claimed that they never took “stands” without a “supervis[ing]” “officer of the law”), any action involving obscured men in masks is mob violence. And despite claims that the Klan never took part in illegal violence, there is ample evidence that the night riding, beating violence was institutionalized. Night-riding and beating procedures were almost identical throughout the United States; officials from the Imperial Palace reportedly tutored regional leaders on conducting “rough stuff;” and regardless of whether the Klan endorsed such violence they had an amazing knack for getting members out of trouble in trials — the Klan could usually stack the jury, the lawyers, the judge, and the governor of the state in any given trial; certainly they had a great deal of access to law enforcement personnel.

The ways in which the Klan employed violence are remarkably demonstrative, however. Black men were of course routinely targeted; more interesting is the Klan’s interest in beating whites as well. But there was a difference in reason and degree: White men were targeted as a corrective measure, generally only after warning (often by letter) had already been given, and often at the request of family members. The reason could be most any moral failing (adultery, not providing for one’s dependents, etc) but was always about maintaining the standing and purity of the white race. Blacks were generally beaten for improper conduct with a white woman (notice the fairly primal fear of losing mating females) or selling moonshine or otherwise trying to bring down the white race, often with the intention of driving the black in question out of town; such beatings and raids served a secondary purpose of keeping the black community in fear of their white “superiors.” And while the Klan may or may not have officially sanctioned full-on lynching, their members were certainly present at more than a few — witness the case of the Lowman family (pp 171-173).

Thus, the picture that ultimately emerges of the Klan is as a reaction against the eroding powers of white men in the United States, and a willingness to employ violence based on an idyllic memory of the past and a twisted version of America’s principles that MacLean says must be evaluated in terms of the worldwide conservative fascist movements.