“Is your sleep troubled by the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and related hate groups?”

This was one of the questions I (Bill) was asked  last Thursday night at the St. Joseph Parish Life Center (Wapakoneta OH), after my presentation on “Terrorizing Immigrants and Catholics: The Ohio KKK in the 1920s.” This presentation was the featured address of the Auglaize County Historical Society’s annual meeting, and was sponsored by the Ohio Humanities Council. (Sue is also a Ohio Humanities Council speaker.) More than 50 people were in attendance, and they were wonderfully receptive and lively!

As I noted in my presentation,

“The white-robed Klansmen with their fiery crosses and their fiery rhetoric seemed to be everywhere in the first half of the 1920s. While the Klan worked hard to keep its membership lists secret, historians have estimated that at its high point perhaps four million Americans were members of the Klan. And unlike the first KKK, this second KKK was a truly national organization, having more members in the Midwest and the West than in the South. Indiana was the site of the Klan’s greatest political achievements, with control of the governor’s office and other state-level positions. But Ohio seems to have had more Klan members than any other state of the Union, with perhaps 400,000 members at its peak.”

KKK Demonstration in Dayton, OH on September 21, 1923.

For the second KKK, which presented itself as the supremely patriotic organization, to be a “100% American” required that one be a white Protestant Christian. In the Midwest in general and in Ohio in particular, the Klan’s raison d’etre was the terrorizing of Catholics (many of whom were recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe). The Klan was particularly strong in cities such as Youngstown and Dayton, which had seen a great influx of Catholic immigrants in the years between 1890 and 1920. But the fact is that in the first half of the 1920s the KKK hosted innumerable rallies in cities and towns throughout the entire state.   

In the Q/A period I got some great questions, including:

Q: Why was the Klan so strong in the 1920s, when the economy was relatively good, and not the 1930s, during the Depression?

A: The Klan was very much a product of the post-World War cultural crisis, which also featured the Red Scare and the emergence of the fundamentalist movement. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that that the Second KKK consisted solely or primarily of individuals who were at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder; in many ways the Klan was quintessentially middle class.

Q: Did everyone who joined the Klan support the organization’s hateful rhetoric and actions?

A: Well, it is fair to say that some folks joined the KKK as they would join any other social club or lodge. Moreover, in certain places there was great pressure placed on people to join the Klan. That said, the KKK was a hate group, and to be a member of the Klan was – in the end – to support its hateful agenda and terrorist activities.

Q: What did the KKK think of the Mafia? (A question asked to much laughter!)

A: Well, the Klan supported Prohibition, and the Mafia made enormous money bootlegging. And many/most Mafia members had some connection with Catholicism. So, let’s say the Klan was not big on the Mafia!

Most interesting, a number of folks in the audience related family stories about the Klan. Perhaps the most amazing was from a woman whose grandfather was a Klan leader; his last name started with a “K,” and he named his son (her father) such that his initials spelled out K.K.K. But then this son married a Catholic woman. Yet another example of how love and sex triumph over hate!

Not surprisingly, I had a series of questions about the contemporary Ku Klux Klan and the alt-right movement. And in response to the questioner who asked if I was troubled, of course I said yes. Here is how I ended my presentation:

“In US history we have had an ongoing conflict over what it means to be an American. On the one hand we have those who argue that anyone can become an American: along with being able to speak basic English and having a rudimentary understanding of American history and government, one simply needs to affirm his/her loyalty to the ideas and ideals articulated in the Constitution. On the other hand we have those in this country who argue that to be truly and fully American one needs to be the right race, the right ethnicity, the right religion. The 1920s Ku Klux Klan held to the latter position. A century later, it is not clear whether they were on the winning or losing side of this argument about what it means to be an American.”