In “When Bigotry Paraded in the Streets,”Josh Rothman (a friend and colleague at University of Alabama) describes the surge of membership in the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s.
“Most Americans today likely think of the Ku Klux Klan as an organization whose heyday came in the civil-rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, and of its members as lower-class white Southern men—ones who concealed their identities while waving the Confederate flag at pro-segregation rallies, burning crosses on the lawns of their enemies, or brutalizing their innocent victims. Others are perhaps familiar with the Klan of the 1860s and 1870s, which was a white and distinctively Southern terrorist organization composed of men who tortured and murdered people under cover of darkness in an effort to undermine the political and economic freedoms accorded to formerly enslaved people during Reconstruction.
“But the Klan was easily at its most popular in the United States during the 1920s, when its reach was nationwide, its members disproportionately middle class, and many of its very visible public activities geared toward festivities, pageants, and social gatherings. In some ways, it was this superficially innocuous Klan that was the most insidious of them all. Packaging its noxious ideology as traditional small-town values and wholesome fun, the Klan of the 1920s encouraged native-born white Americans to believe that bigotry, intimidation, harassment, and extralegal violence were all perfectly compatible with, if not central to, patriotic respectability.”
He’s a historian, so he doesn’t make direct parallels with contemporary politics. But it’s scary to think that these same processes are at work today. Maybe it isn’t the Klan itself that is becoming mainstream again, but middle class respectability and traditional values are being aligned with Klan-like sentiments–fear of immigrants, minorities, feminists, and Jews.
The article leaves me with a lot to think about and a feeling of dread.