Happy 90th, Klan Deuce!
December 3, 2005 3:52 PM   Subscribe

Hooded Progressivism: The secret reformist history of the Klu Klux Klan.
"Today the Federal Reserve is more likely to be the object of a Klan conspiracy theory than the source of its favored candidate for president. Today, for that matter, when a movie inspires people to create odd organizations and dress up in costume, they're more likely to end up at a convention devoted to Star Trek than a convention devoted to nominating a presidential candidate. A lot can change in 90 years. "
posted by Sticherbeast (27 comments total)
Can there be any doubts that Lou Dobbs would be in the Klan if he were around in the 20s?
posted by delmoi at 4:11 PM on December 3, 2005

As this was posted, I was listening to "Ku Klux Klan" by Steel Pulse. Koincidence? Or konspiracy?
posted by Dr. Wu at 4:25 PM on December 3, 2005

The gist seems to be "Yes, they were racists, but so was everyone else, so they were 'mainstream'."

This will probably be digested in many people's minds as "The Klan was a mainstream group!"

It will be regurgitated by some of them as "The Klan IS a mainstream group!"
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 4:26 PM on December 3, 2005

I'm sorry, I just can't find a reason to care about (or finish reading) that article.

A bunch of racist morons happened to be slightly more progressive than I used to think. Whoopty.
posted by InnocentBystander at 4:31 PM on December 3, 2005

Perhaps that helps explain this fashion innovation? Hooded sweatshirt for grafers, ugly people, snow-boarders, fetichists... or simply the Grand Wizard
posted by grobstein at 4:36 PM on December 3, 2005

After reading the whole thing, I think it does establish that there were some minor amibiguities/contradictions within the second-wave (1910s/1920s) KKK on matters of economics, war, etc. But they were still vile racists.

There's nothing presented to indicate that the Klan was at all "progressive" in the contemporary sense of the word.

The only shocking fact presented was that Harry Truman, of all people, was once a Klansman.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 4:37 PM on December 3, 2005

The article was simultanously very interesting and very muddled. *shrug*

It served to remind me that the two party dichotomy sometimes masks that fact that, in practicality, America has had many, many different political parties in its history. Many of them happen to be called "Democrats" and "Republicans." One party, called Democrats, will gradually become an almost entirely different party, called Democrats, over a period of years. It will be clear that modern and historical uses of that label "Democrat" for that party is an overloading of the term. But it won't be obvious, exactly, when the party ceased being the former and became the latter.

It makes for really confusing history.
posted by teece at 5:27 PM on December 3, 2005

posted by caddis at 5:51 PM on December 3, 2005

My very long two cents:

The article isn't claiming a connection between the Klan of then and the progessives of now, nor does it deny the Klan's obvious racism, nor does it strike much of a tone of defense.

The point as I saw it was in how the Klan and the Progessives of the Progressive Era came from similar places, believed in similar principles, and took pains to accomplish similar goals. It's easy to divide the accomplishments of the Progressives into the Good pile and the vile racism of the Klan into the Bad pile, but the two aspects were very, very much two sides of the same coin, much more than we would generally like to admit now, and much more than I'm sure many would have liked to admit at the time.

The Klan were open about their racist views, and known for being open, and proud of their symbolism as such, but the volume, and not the content, of that message may have been most of the difference between them and many moderates and liberals of the era.

It's easy to attribute the similarities to some impersonal, free-floating racism that haunted the time. One could also point to the anti-racist individuals and groups within the Progressive movement, as if that made the less enlightened rank and file go away. The reality, however, is thornier than that. The good and evil of the time, as they are in all times, were in many ways one and the same, and were not simply good and evil qualities mixed and matched among the populace, but rather full-blown, intertwining traits.

There's a certain squick factor in comparing the Klan to the Progessives. The Klan invite knee-jerk feelings of disgust, and why not? Their beliefs are the beliefs of racist morons. You don't need me to tell you that. What's more, the way the Klan operates, the pageantry of it all, especially in that second time around, inspired as they were by the motion pictures, leaves them wide open as a symbolic dumping ground. As such, ascribing to them any sort of qualities of moderation or civic action sounds like a whitewash.

Perhaps, however, that squick factor interferes with a more honest portrait. Perhaps using the Klan as that dumping ground for the evil of the time - not that they weren't and aren't vile racists who deserve the treatment - acts as a whitewash for the era, in cordoning off one section as being the most racist. That cordoning off, that squick factor, separates them from the rest of the population, even though the horror should come from the fact that they weren't all quite so separate.

And so getting back to why I found that article interesting: tying together the Klan and the Progressives is not about being nice to the Klan, but about getting over that squick factor and looking at that era from above, to a point where maybe it's not so shocking that someone like Truman could have belonged to the Klan. The line between the Klan and the era itself was quite gray and fuzzy, and I think this article brought up some interesting points with regard to how fuzzy that line was, and how intertwined they were with the politics of the time, all the way to the top and bottom.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:01 PM on December 3, 2005

Yeah, I was shocked to hear it when he told me but my little brother the history guy explained to me how the KKK was a manifestation of Progressivism (and this is when he was still in high school) and his argument as I remember it hit the major points the article does (only his was clearer and more focused -- he was and still is a very smart kid.) As Artifice_Ethernity points out, meanings of words change over time -- a 1950s conservative wouldn't recognize much about the folks who call themselves "conservatives" today. What I remember about the progressive movement from AP American History 20+ years ago is that it was pro-"little guy" -- it was a populist movement*. In the case of the Progressives that meant being against established government and class privilege, being pro-labor and being very anti-immigration.

And yeah, the Democratic Party in the South was the established party for a long, long time and teeming with virulent racists (they never could forgive Lincoln or those responsible for Reconstruction,) which is why stooges like Rush Limbaugh love to point out how awful the Dems were during the Civil Rights Era. What Rush he conveniently neglects to mention is that as Kennedy and then LBJ started to push civil rights Southern Democrats fled the party in droves; ultimately most of them ended up Republicans.

As for the Harry Truman thing, I think he talked about the Klan and his relationship to them in Merle Miller's great Truman oral (auto)biography Plain Speaking**. I'm not entirely sure but I think Truman felt that Klan membership was a requirement for those involved in Missouri politics when he was starting out as a County Judge.***

Even giving him the benefit of the doubt in consideration of the times that seems like a lame justification, but Truman redeemed himself by doing more for civil rights than any President since the Reconstruction era: He was responsible for making lynching a federal crime, and pursuing fair housing and employment rights (I don't think he got those through, though -- maybe I'm wrong.) Most significantly, he integrated the U.S. Armed Forces and he did all this despite heavy, heavy resistance from his fellow Southern Democrats.

FDR, for all the good he did, never did much for civil rights (I think he integrated the Post Office) because as a New Yorker he already had one strike against him with the Southern Democrats and he needed their support, plus thanks to his social status (old NY Dutch family of means, Groton->Harvard->Columbia Law) he didn't really know that much about the plight of Southern Blacks. Maybe he knew and didn't care. When Father Divine, a wealthy Black religious leader bought an estate across the Hudson from FDR's home in Hyde Park, FDR didn't do anything to welcome him to the community and in fact fought him (possibly in court) over Divine's use of the name "Krum Elbow" for his estate.

In any event Harry Truman was petitioned with the same requests that FDR had been for most of his 12 years in office, only Truman had the guts to stand up and do the right thing.

Thanks, Sticherbeast, for an interesting article!

*Which means that Al Sharpton has something in common politically with the 1920s Klan.
**Every American should read this book.
**County Judge was really more of an executive office than a judicial one -- probably what we'd call a County Clerk today -- he never graduated college or law school.

posted by Opposite George at 6:06 PM on December 3, 2005

The Klaning of Kolorado
posted by hortense at 6:21 PM on December 3, 2005

The point as I saw it was in how the Klan and the Progessives of the Progressive Era came from similar places, believed in similar principles, and took pains to accomplish similar goals.

It's even true today, at times -- progressive MeFites often praise Pat Buchanan and his paleoconservative ilk, for example, because of their obvious discomfort with (and within) the neocon-dominated Republican party, and their mutual opposition to the Iraq war.

The lesson is that outsiders of any stripe will have some things in common, chiefly being arguments for opening up the political process so that they won't be left so much outside.

If you want a striking modern example, compare progressive vs. racist skinheads.
posted by dhartung at 6:26 PM on December 3, 2005

Having one or two traits in common with a more intelligent and thoughtful group does not make the Klan any less vile. What is the point of this most lame of posts?
posted by caddis at 7:12 PM on December 3, 2005

History, and knowing where things come from, that's the point. The Klan came out of the Progressivist movement of the first half of the twentieth century. That's important to know, for many, many reasons.

1) You could take it as a historical example that political movements do not always create foreseeable outcomes

2) You could take it as an exercise in seeing political ideas and their relationships to one another are not as deterministic as we might think (i.e., maybe what we now call "conservative" and "liberal" ideas could be rearranged in different, yet consistent, ways)

3) You could simply take it to deepen your understanding of the complexities of history.
posted by jefgodesky at 7:53 PM on December 3, 2005

The Klan came out of the Progressivist movement of the first half of the twentieth century.

The Klan came out of a bunch of crackers hating "niggers." Give me a break.
posted by caddis at 7:59 PM on December 3, 2005

The Progressive movement also gave up prohibition and a lot of the support for eugenics. It was a big enough tent that it could encompass plenty of undesirable elements. Tying the KKK in doesn't seem too off the mark to me.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:51 PM on December 3, 2005

It's funny, because when I read this thread I can tell who here has studied the history of the Klan and who hasn't.
posted by keswick at 9:20 PM on December 3, 2005

this article wasn't terribly surprising for me in Georgia; here you understand how populism (anti-'carpetbaggers') and racism go hand in hand.

and the 'urban' nature of the klan is obvious--it was the moral pillars of the Cobb County community that lynched Leo Frank, and the Knights of Mary Phagan that became the second Klan. It was the Mary Phagan incident and Leo Frank trial that I was always told brought the Klan back.
posted by eustatic at 11:26 PM on December 3, 2005


Eugenics -- I'd forgotten all about that! When my father was in school in NYC in the 1930s and 40s they still taught it. The kids studied the Kallikaks and the Jukes. The Jukes -- a family of criminals -- and the Kallikaks -- a family of retarded people -- were presented as examples of how anti-social behavior and mental feebleness were heritable traits detrimental to society's interests.

What's extra-creepy to me about the "science" of Eugenics isn't its well-known associations with Nazi Germany but these two things: how pervasive it was in American society and how little people today know about its powerful influence -- at least in NY its biggest boosters were some pretty important, no, THE important people. And oh yeah, like you said, it was pretty much an application of Progressive ideals.

The godfather of the eugenics movement was a piece of walking filth by the name of Madison Grant. Grant went to Yale for undergrad and then Columbia Law, sat on the Bronx Parkway Commission (another Progressive initiative partially to clean up a filthy river and partially an excuse to kick poor undesirables out of their settlements,) helped found the Bronx Zoo and was on the board of the American Museum of Natural History. He was also a prominent conservationist and was involved with creating Denali and Glacier National Parks. All in all a fine and important contibutor to society.

Well, except for the fact that he was a vile, disgusting racist. By today's standards, anyway. By the standards of his day and his peers he'd have been seen as an insightful, scientific proponent of maximizing the human race's finest qualities.

The Wikipedia article (yeah, I know) about him stands pretty well on its own. Here are some highlights:

*Grant outlined his take on "racial history" and the superiority of the "Nordic Race" in his popular 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race. He even had fans across the great pond: in a letter to Grant, Adolf Hitler wrote "this book is my Bible."

*He felt strongly about eliminating "undesirable traits" and "inferior races." Also he had a hard-on for segregation of races and authoritarianism.

*He predicted the impending demise of the superior "Nordic Race" -- Hey, they were being outbred by the inferior "Mediterraneans" (that would be O.G.'s homies) and "Alpines" (who somehow despite their inferiority still manage to crank out superior chocolate and timepieces -- go figure.) Of course, the greatest race on Earth couldn't be allowed to disappear so he came up with all sorts of nifty ideas to level the playing field:

*Like strict immigration control -- his work was used to justify that gem the Immigration Act of 1924 as well as the Commonwealth of Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 which codified the "one-drop rule." He bitched after the Immigration Act went through because it didn't go far enough for him.

*At the same time this repulsive viper was spewing his venom the great Franz Boas was busy inventing the science of cultural anthropology. They'd meet in debate from time to time, Boas the trailblazer facing Grant, the intellecual heir to phrenology, but Grant would never shake Boas's hand because Boas was Jewish.

And now for the creepiest part -- Grant's influence among NY society of the 1920s. He had the ear of Teddy Roosevelt and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Good, scientific people, nay the BEST people, read his widely-published books and swallowed them as gospel. And the central message of the gospel was to deny "undesirables" of their humanity.

I'm not sure when exactly people came to their senses about this stuff and obviously some never did. Even though the central ideas of eugenics fell out of favor in the U.S. after WWII, they continued to influence public health and immigration policy in some cases for decades after that. For example, some U.S. states forced sterilization of the mentally retarded into the 1960s.

I guess it was harder for most people to take this crap seriously after we'd just finished fighting a war to defeat its ugliest manifestations. But anyway, that's another historical abomination we can partially blame on the Progressives -- Grant's eugenics contributed directly to the development of Hitler's theories of racial hygeine. Grant drew the dots and left it to Hitler to connect them.

Just writing this has got me so worked up I feel like driving to Tarrytown, digging up his bony corpse and punching it in its permasmirking teeth over and over until there's nothing left but dust...

Okay, I'm better now.

What kills me about the Progressives (and what makes them so interesting) is how the forces of their time came together to create a movement that did so many good things but at the same time so many things completely antithetical to our current conception of humanity -- or at least the understanding of crazy left-wing pinkos like me.
posted by Opposite George at 12:00 AM on December 4, 2005

P.S.: Grant never married and didn't have any offspring. That was probably his greatest contribution to the state of the Human gene pool.
posted by Opposite George at 12:05 AM on December 4, 2005

Opposite George - you might want to look into the "Pioneer Fund", and also the support of the Manhattan Institute for Murray's and Hernstein's "The Bell Curve".

There's a good bit of raw material on this on Metafilter 34848 thread ( http://www.metafilter.com/mefi/34848 ) . Personally, I'm not so interested now in researching this territory : not because it's unimportant or speculative - far from it - but because that project could be likened to "noodling" for catfish on the Mekong river where catfish can occasionally grow very large, large enough even to take off an arm or swallow one whole.
posted by troutfishing at 5:30 AM on December 4, 2005


you brave anti-racist warrior, you! (I'm not picking on you caddis, but come on.)

I don't think the articles' defending the Klan in any way shape or form, just doing some historical investigation. If we don't learn what gives rise to organizations like this than our chances of changing things isn't very good. And too often, scholarship from progressives about the Far Right is similar to Christian research about Satanism, afraid to look too closely lest one be infected.

Peoples veiws about racism, sexism, homophobia et cetera, boreder on the superstitious when it comes to investigating origins. I'm not sure why.
posted by jonmc at 7:36 AM on December 4, 2005

jonmc - perhaps people fear change and the re-examination of previously held positions ?
posted by troutfishing at 8:41 PM on December 4, 2005

I get the sense that people view racism as being so wholly odious that only monsters and buffoons could ever have a trace of it. It's a taboo trait, invested with a magical sort of evil. It is not a trait reasonable adults can have, and should you display even a hint of it, then you must extirpate it completely from your being post-haste.

All well and good in that racism is a foul trait, but the taboo mentality fosters an immature way to look at things. It causes people to deny it and not deal with it. What, me, racist? No way. Or, even if one is willing to admit its pervasiveness, it gets smeared into just this inert cloud of white guilt, and not just as another dumb fucking trait that produces dumb fucking results that most people - even good people - have and need to actively work out, preferably over some beers, and not just to push back in the mind.

That goes for sexism and homophobia and xenophobia so on. Everyone and everything's tainted by prejudice, and treating that prejudice as just a pair of devil horns that only demons wear blinkers us from dealing with how people and the world actually work, and how very close we usually are to the people we may call The Enemy.

The abyss is closer than we think.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:33 PM on December 4, 2005

well said, stitcher.

(only I did it with less words. nyah ;>)
posted by jonmc at 6:29 AM on December 5, 2005

(only I did it with less words. nyah ;>)

Zing! :)

I ain't copyin', just agreein'...
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:54 AM on December 5, 2005

I know. And actually being more articulate than I managed to. Sadly, I have a feeling we'll both fall on deaf ears, though.
posted by jonmc at 9:50 AM on December 5, 2005

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