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The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s

Mississippi Ku-Klux in the disguises in which they were captured, 1872. Library of Congress

The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by ex-Confederate soldiers and other Southerners opposed to Reconstruction after the Civil War. In the waning years of Reconstruction the Klan disbanded. Nearly 50 years later, in 1915, "Colonel" William Joseph Simmons, revived the Klan after seeing D. W. Griffith's film Birth of A Nation, which portrayed the Klansmen as great heroes. Simmons made his living by selling memberships in fraternal organizations such as the Woodmen of the World, and looked to the Klan as a new source of membership sales. In his first official act, he climbed to the top of a local mountain and set a cross on fire to mark the rebirth of the Klan.

In its second resurgence, the Klan moved beyond just targeting blacks, and broadened its message of hate to include Catholics, Jews and foreigners. The Klan promoted fundamentalism and devout patriotism along with advocating white supremacy. They blasted bootleggers, motion pictures and espoused a return to "clean" living. Appealing to folks uncomfortable with the shifting nature of America from a rural agricultural society to an urban industrial nation, the Klan attacked the elite, urbanites and intellectuals. 

LeRoy Percy's passionate speech at the Klan's recruitment session convinced towns people to support a resolution to condemn the Klan. Library of Congress.

Their message struck a cord, and membership in the Klan ballooned in the 1920s. By the middle of the decade, estimates for national membership in this secret organization ranged from three million to as high as eight million Klansmen. And membership was not limited to the poor and uneducated on society's fringes. Mainstream, middle-class Americans donned the white robes of the Klan too. Doctors, lawyers and ministers became loyal supporters of the KKK. In Ohio alone their ranks surged to 300,000. Even northeastern states were not immune. In Pennsylvania, membership reached 200,000. The Klan remained a clandestine society, but it was by no means isolated or marginalized.

In the 1920s, the Klan moved in many states to dominate local and state politics. The Klan devised a strategy called the "decade," in which every member of the Klan was responsible for recruiting ten people to vote for Klan candidates in elections. In 1924 the Klan succeeded in engineering the elections of officials from coast to coast, including the mayors of Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon. In some states, such as Colorado and Indiana, they placed enough Klansmen in positions of power to effectively control the state government. Known as the "Invisible Empire," the KKK's presence was felt across the country.

But when the Klan came to recruit in the town of Greenville, Mississippi, LeRoy Percy, moved to keep the Klan out of his town. His passionate speech at the Klan's recruitment session convinced townspeople to support a recolution to condemn the Klan. 

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