the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 April


An analysis following Kathleen Blee’s ‘Women of the Klan’


The second Ku Klux Klan was a movement by most reckonings, a sustained and organized socio-political trend. For specialists, though, a social movement must contain something of what Sidney Tarrow calls ‘contentious politics’. This, he says, “occurs when ordinary people, often in league with more influential citizens, join forces in confrontations with elites, authorities, and opponents” [p2]. Only by isolating elements of the definition can it be applied to the second Klan. Klansmen and Klanswomen, as shown by Kathy Blee, were ordinary people, and more influential citizens, in confrontation with opponents ― but those opponents were the marginal members of society who usually compose social movements. The opponents were insignificant in, and sometimes officially barred from, electoral politics. They were a minor force in the social and cultural life of the country overall, and especially so in the Midwest. The Klan was best understood as a countermovement, and a pre-emptive countermovement at that. The Klan was a product of the existing power structure, the social status quo, and formed in response to a largely-imaginary opposition to preserve the privileges of those who most benefitted from the status quo. It was an act of anticipatory reaction.

Thus, one of the most interesting sociological facts of the Klan was its chosen collective action frame. The Klan presented itself as an oppressed minority, as a culture under siege. Numerically the Klan represented the furthest thing from a minority; it was required, therefore, not only to “name a Devil”, but to ascribe to it the actual powers of a devil. The other significant element of Klan framing is captured in a single slogan, ‘100% American’. On its surface, this is a perfect example of frame alignment, of matching rhetoric and symbolism to the broader culture to achieve resonance. But in fact, there was no alignment needed. The Klan was selling back to people what they already owned. It was adapting the common culture, the prosaic culture even, to the romance of both a pagan mystery cult and a secret band of warriors.

While the central idea of 100% Americanism is not inherently contradictory to the idea of a culture under siege, it does suggest the contradiction in practice. The Klan was fighting a one-sided battle in defense of purity. Blee discusses in depth the (male) Klan-ideological connection of womanhood with purity; womanhood was a symbol of that purity, but clearly it was more important as an object of that purity, which was mostly a matter of the purity of the race.1 The purity of the culture was also depicted as in need of protection, in religion and in political and economic ideology. The Klan had, then, an array of ready-made devils who were essentially all the things that “pure” Klansfolk were not: blacks, Catholics, Jews, immigrants, communists.2 All of these were threats to 100% American life; all of them were portrayed as powerful opponents whose numerical insignificance was no excuse for complacency.

The one point where traditional Klan ideology had not been defending the privilege of an overwhelming majority is the subject of a significant transformation described by Blee. The Klan represented the dominant majority in race, religion, and politics; but it did not represent a dominant majority in gender.3 Though Blee outlines various motives for the formation of the WKKK ― for men, a supplement to their own power, for women, effective gender equality ― the net result was a group that now truly did represent everybody who was anybody in Midwestern society.

The Roman Catholic Church would have been a convenient Devil: it had a famous individual at its head, it was the world’s largest direct-member organization4, and one of the most powerful organizations in history.5 But its reach into the 1920s United States, particularly the Midwest of Blee’s narrative, was quite limited, and for the white Protestant establishment, and their fellows among the masses, to view themselves as under threat by the Catholic Church was nothing more than a rallying fiction. It was consensus mobilization. The United States has always been dominantly Protestant, and the Klan was attempting to take a broadly-accepted belief and make it an organizing tool. To augment that instrument, the Klan indulged in blatant fabrication, circulating stories of Catholic wiles and even atrocities that underlined the argument on purity (which, on cultural matters, generally equated to morality). But even the fabrications reveal the communication strategy being employed.

Blacks were even more marginalized in the 1920s, especially in the small-town Midwest. Their empowerment ― indeed, their enfranchisement ― was still another half a century away. Jews of the era were marginalized worldwide, and were shortly to face the bloodiest persecution ever visited upon a racial group.6 And immigrants are marginalized in their adopted societies almost by definition. The white native-born Protestants had absolutely nothing to worry about. But such an argument would not create members, membership checks, electoral strength, or a need for the Klan at all. Claims like that of Daisy Barr, “Jews had seventy-five percent of the money in the United States”, while perhaps hard to believe, would if true provide much reason for the majority population to worry. Hysterical images of the Pope riding through Indiana on a train may be the product of nothing more than insecurity. But insecurity provokes action. Complacency, of course, does not.

Because the Klan in the Midwest represented the strong majority across the board, and included many of its most prominent and “respectable” citizens, the secrecy of the Klan was a throwback, a game, and a romanticization, but it was not, in any way, a necessity. It did fit neatly with the idea of a culture under siege. The need to protect one’s identity in an enterprise makes a great deal of sense if one might be persecuted for that enterprise. That was never a possibility, but the myth of vulnerability on which Klan mobilization rested would have been undermined without secrecy. This did not, of course, stop certain Klansmen and Klanswomen from publicly identifying themselves on occasions, an act that only reinforced that they had nothing to worry about. But the leadership and the organizational rules insisted on secrecy, for the sake of the myth.

One of the most beloved idioms of science fiction, at least among writers, is to portray a future whose culture is significantly different from our own, coupled with a protagonist who knows our culture and celebrates it in isolation, often to ridicule and sometimes to persecution. He (always he) loves rock and roll, cars, Hollywood movies, and hamburgers. The writer, and the reader as well, can identify with the protagonist and imagine themselves as courageous enough to defy social conventions of taste. They do not want to think of themselves as conventional; they imagine a world where they would not be. So it was with the Klan. It would be an oversimplification to describe the Klan as a romantic game, and a disservice to the victims of Klan hatred. But the members of the Klan were unimaginative, commonplace bigots fighting against enemies with the merest fraction of their strength, and yet managed to convince themselves that they were heroic. This was truly a masterpiece of self-delusion, a brilliant example of political salesmanship.


1. This fight against miscegenation seems to have viewed racial impurity as deriving from both the sex act itself and from reproduction. The sex was generally presented as rape, though the deterrent efforts involved appear to acknowledge that this was mythical; and of course, the greatest instances of miscegenation rape were of white men against black women.

2. Communists do not play a significant role in Blee’s narrative, though they do appear by name on occasion. Prejudice against Jews, immigrants, and foreigners in the 1920s generally had communism as a subtext.

3. Men obviously were, and still are, a dominant power majority in gender. But even Klansmen’s notion of what it was to be “American” could not have a gender component. They may have wanted a patriarchy, but they still envisioned a country where half of the individuals were female. Not so, of course, with race, religion, and politics.

4. It still holds this distinction. The United Nations represents virtually all (though not quite all) of the world’s population, but individuals do not directly belong, and billions are not represented by choice. The Chinese state is an organization with relatively-few voluntary members. The Indian state may be the best comparison, but even there hundreds of thousands of members do not affiliate by choice.

5. Its size and its time-tested organizational structure make this true even today, though the resources available to some of the world’s governments, especially the United States, make such a comparison laughable. But when in its past the Church functioned effectively as a government itself, it was in rare company. And its longevity is second only to the Chinese state, which had far greater interruption in continuity. Excluding non-state organizations, there really is no comparison.

6. Given the history that was about to unfold in Germany, it is worth considering what would have taken place in the United States had the Klan survived into the Great Depression. The mainstream hatred of Catholics, blacks, and Jews in the US described by Blee is similar to the common historical presentation of anti-Jewish sentiment in Germany. Ordinary Klansmen and Klanswomen may not have thought of themselves as violent, but they did indulge a hate-filled ideology and readily tolerated the violent elements in their midst.


Kathleen M. Blee. ‘Women of the Klan: racism and gender in the 1920s’. University of California, 1991.
Sidney Tarrow. ‘Power in movement: social movements and contentious politics’, second edition. Cambridge University, 1998.


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