Monday, June 20, 2005


Lots of bad words about Bob Byrd and the Klan here. But it seems to me people are confusing the three distinct major incarnations of the Ku Klux Klan.

The one Byrd joined was neither the Democratic Party terrorist wing that fought Reconstruction in the 1870s, nor the modern-day coven of hard-core white racist ding-a-lings, equal parts cowardly and incompetent. He took part in the second incarnation of the Klan, which had a wider program than just white supremacy and had a nationwide appeal.

This Ku Klux Klan wanted to be seen as a patriotic organization. Specifically, it wanted to hold on to the American status quo, which seemed under siege in the 1920s by rapid change. It saw itself as another social organization that stood for stable community values, and it succeeded in its goal to become a mainstream conservative movement.

At its peak in the mid-1920s its membership was estimated at 4 million to 5 million. It had a ladies' auxiliary. It was militantly patriotic, charitable, Christian fundamentalist, and focused on the North more than the South. It marched under the American flag, not the stars and bars. It was politically prominent in Texas and Oklahoma, but also in Indiana, Oregon, and Maine. Moonlight-and-magnolias jokes don't work in this case.

Here in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a Klan rally on Oct. 29, 1923, at the Lancaster Fair Grounds drew 10,000 people. One of the speakers, reportedly a minister from Pittsburgh, called the Ku Klux Klan movement the greatest reformation of the century. He was also quoted as saying, "Jesus Christ is a Klansman of the first criterion," and "The only symbols of the Klan are the Cross and the American flag. What these stand for the Klan stands for."

The Klan also had friends in the local pulpits. The preacher of the Laurel Street Mission invited 300 Klansmen to his church in July 1924. During the offering, each of the masked, robed Klansmen threw a silver dollar into the offering plates, making a loud jingling sound that could be heard outside the church. The Klan referred to this as a "bell-ringing ceremony." At the end of the service, the Klansmen filed out of the church behind a cross and an American flag.

The Klan of the early 20th century preached tenets of exclusion: anti-foreign, anti-Catholic, anti-Jew, anti-Black and anti-urban. If it has an analogy in American history, it might be the Know-Nothing party of the 1850s, which later merged into the Republican Party.

None of this is anything to be proud of, and Byrd is right to apologize for his past connections. But people writing about him do a disservice to the truth when they fail to distinguish one incarnation of the Klan from the others.

That Byrd could have done better is illustrated by the case of future president Harry Truman. Tempted by the political advantage it might provide him in conservative Missouri, Truman gave 10 dollars dues to a Klan organizer. A Klansman then insisted that Truman (running for a position equivalent to county commissioner) would have to agree, if elected, to hire no Catholics. Truman took back his 10 dollars.

Locally here, the American Legion took the lead in opposing the Klan. Local Klan members showed up before the Legion's patriotic ceremony in the Court House plaza on Armistice Day, 1923, and placed a floral cross bearing the letters "KKK." A Legion member ripped the letters off the tribute before the ceremony began. When the Klan returned and replaced the letters, another Lancaster veteran kicked over the Klan's floral cross in the confusion of the two groups, and he was arrested for disorderly conduct. The charges later were dropped.

By 1928 the national Klan had imploded in scandals over criminal behavior and corruption. The Klan never disappeared entirely, but it shrank back to the poorest hill country, where it lingered when Robert Byrd found it.