Although the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is perhaps best known as a small fringe group advocating racism and violence, in the 1920s the group galvanized millions of men and women across the nation through populist appeals that pitted white, native-born, Protestant Americans against a dizzying array of “others” including Catholics, Jews, blacks, immigrants, foreigners, bootleggers, and alleged immoralists of every kind.
Klan membership requirements, for both men and women, included three key demographic features—members had to be white, Protestant, and born as citizens in the United States. Applicants were also evaluated to determine if they were morally upright members of their communities. Accepted members then had to pay a fee between $10 and $25, or approximately $115 to $287 adjusted for inflation, which made some degree of affluence a de facto membership requirement. Once initiated, Klanspeople were officially citizens of what they termed the “Invisible Empire” that operated inside the United States. All people who were not citizens were “Aliens” who inhabited an “Alien World.” This imagined empire spawned a host of related organizational terms, and so, for example, the Klan's leader had the title imperial commander or emperor, and this person could issue instructions called imperial proclamations and call for conventions called Imperial Klonvokations. This rhetorical concept of the Invisible Empire is the core term for arranging the Klan's populist appeals: members of the Invisible Empire were true and pure, while Aliens endangered American heritage, liberties, and rights.
This constellation of threats was adaptable. In fact, scholars have suggested that the KKK's success in the 1920s was due in part to its ability to adapt its ideological emphases to match the concerns of local communities. Klan newspapers from the Chicago, Illinois, area, for example, show heightened concerns about bootlegging, the Klans in Texas were interested primarily with the enforcement of law and order, while Indiana Klans emphasized the dangers of Catholicism. Klan populism also reflected changes in the political landscape. Thus, Klan materials in the 1930s reflect issues absent from earlier texts such as communism and membership in the World Court.
The KKK's influence on political and social society occurred on several levels. The Klan's populist efforts to organize racism and discrimination had materially negative outcomes. For example, Klans organized boycotts against businesses owned by “Aliens,” and an uncountable number of violent crimes were committed in the name of the Klan, particularly in the South and Southwest. The Klans also exerted symbolic influence on society through the promotion of virulent and divisive discourses as well as public spectacles such as cross-burnings and parades.
Abigail Selzer King
See also: Dixon, Thomas, Jr. (1864–1946) ; Griffith, D. W. (1875–1948), and The Birth of a Nation (1915) ; New Woman ; Prohibition (1919–1933) ; Scopes Trial (1925)
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