Hey, Girl! Don't You Just Love This Pointy Hat?
ANNETTE TELLS TALES Meet a Multilevel Marketing (MLM) Craze That Swept the US: The Ku Klux Klan
Last week, I watched the fascinating documentary series LuLaRich (I don’t do affiliate links, but it’s on the dreaded A****n Prime in the US and the UK) LuLaRich is about LuLaRoe, a company that uses multilevel marketing to sell clothes.
We all know multilevel marketing companies (MLMs). If you’re scratching your head, it’s only because you didn’t know that’s what they were called.
MLMs don’t use shops to sell their wares, but instead sell via sales events (“parties”) in customers’ houses and, increasingly, online. Sales reps are independent commission-paid “consultants”, typically middle-class women.
In online sales “parties” for MLMs, an enthusiastic seller typically greets everyone with an excited “Hey, girlfriends! Hello, hello!” or something peppy like that. She chatters, while attendees comment in the onscreen chat. There's a lot of enthusiastic greeting of new arrivals by name, and then the rep starts showing off the merchandise.
My favorite MLM Facebook party was one for the now-defunct Vantel Pearls. A rep shucked dead oysters (preserved, I hope) for watching potential and prepaid customers, many of whom hoped for a “rare” black pearl. The pearl or pearls revealed in a customer’s chosen oyster would then be sent away to be set in the company jewelry of the customer’s choice, for an additional charge, of course. And there was so much excited buzz in the chat, you’d think they'd just auctioned off a Faberge egg.
That word “rare” appears a lot in MLM World, as do the items it supposedly describes. I think most participants know that a “rare” product is about as rare as dirt, but nobody wants to be the party-pooper who points that out. Not that I've ever watched . . .
Of course I have. They’re mesmerizing, and I don’t even know why. But do I buy things? Not since my Pampered Chef phase in the 90s. Honest.
The product, as merchandise is known in MLM circles, often isn’t the point. Online parties offer instant community in a lonely age. The “product” gives strangers a focus, something to talk about in the chat that steers them all away from the dreaded politics of now.
“Product” may not be the focus for the rep, either, depending on the company. They’re always looking to recruit more sellers. Why? That’s where serious money can be made, but only for some, I rush to add, and mostly those at the top of the company pyramid.
Here’s how: A consultant recruits consultants, who recruit still others, forming what's known as a “downline”. Each member of the upline above a consultant takes a cut of the profits. The greatest share, you will be shocked to learn, goes to the owners at the top.
When recruitment rather than “product” becomes the focus, when “consultants” are required to buy a ton of inventory, and when newcomers who’ve spent serious money on inventory struggle in an overcrowded field to either recruit others or to sell product, and when the product itself is kind of rubbish, that's when an MLM becomes hard to distinguish from a pyramid scheme. Which is illegal. But most MLMs are careful to stay within the letter of the law, which is why there are so many of them.
The Most Unlikely MLM of All
No matter whether they’re selling vitamins, cookware, clothes, or, um, pearls from dead oysters, MLMs have a lot in common with each other.
They hold rah-rah conventions for sellers, featuring motivational speakers. They often suggest that they are all about good old family values, and that sellers can expect personal, spiritual, and even religious growth from hawking stuff and converting others into believers.
As I thought about how familiar this sounded, I remembered why:
The Ku Klux Klan.
I’m Sorry, Annette, I Must Have Misread That. Did You Just Say the Klan?
Yes, I did. Take a seat.
Before we continue, though, there's something crucial to know: There's more than one Ku Klux Klan in US history. Here's a quick intro.
The original Klan was formed at the end of the Civil War by former Confederate soldiers, who were determined to maintain white supremacy in the South after the abolition of slavery. To that end, they concealed their identities in homemade costumes (how very brave of them…) and then rode around in gangs, terrorizing and attacking Black people.
When Reconstruction was shut down in 1877, and the federal government returned power in Southern states to the white Southern elite, this first Klan faded away. The Jim Crow laws that now sprang up not only segregated and discriminated, but psychologically abused people. A horrific mainstream culture of anti-Black violence arose in the South: A lynching, condoned by the authorities, could literally draw thousands of white families in states like Georgia and Texas, bringing an audience of men, women, and children, who sometimes arrived on special excursion trains, to watch someone (almost always a Black man) being tortured to death.
In that unspeakable climate, the Klan was redundant.
The third incarnation of the Klan, which we won’t discuss today, grew in the 1950s, mostly in the South, in response to the civil rights movement.
It's the second Klan, the one in between, that we’re talking about today. This was the most surprising Klan of all.
After the First World War, the Klan was revived for a whole new generation, and this time, it was national, from Maine to California, and strongest in the Midwest, not the South.
Before the MLM: The Arrival of Klan 2.0
I will never forget, 25 years ago, reading 1920s school board records in Riverside, California, in which the Klan asked permission to hold a rally in the football stadium. The Board was extremely concerned by this request. Suppose, they asked, the Klansmen left a mess?
The Klan promised to pick up all the litter. Their request was approved.
There were many reasons why Klan 2.0 appeared in 1915, but it’s a symptom of the age that it was triggered by a movie, The Birth of a Nation, directed by native white Southerner and raging racist D.W. Griffith. Movies were huge around the world, yes, even though they were silent. No, people didn’t wait around for sound to appear in film. Silent movies weren’t all jerky short comedies. They were revolutionary, cheap, and increasingly sophisticated entertainment, and people flocked to see them.
The Birth of a Nation was among the first feature films. It was a pioneering technical achievement that needs its own post, even though its depiction of white supremacy was and remains jaw-droppingly repellent.
Director Griffith portrayed the original Klan as a heroic group, come to save white women from freed slaves and Black Union soldiers. His film was a huge box office smash. It was the first movie ever shown in the White House. President Woodrow “Massive Racist” Wilson loved it, and proclaimed its version of the Civil War “true”, which points to the dangers of agreeing that everyone should have their own truth.
Meanwhile, members of the newly-formed NAACP held protests outside the movie theaters where Birth of a Nation was shown. Now, that was brave.
Somewhere in a darkened cinema in Atlanta, Georgia, in the spellbound audience for Birth of a Nation, was scheming flake, failure, and enthusiastic member of fraternal clubs, William Simmons.
Watching The Birth of A Nation, William Simmons got more and more excited. He not only loved the movie: He saw dollar signs. He was a member of several fraternal organizations, including the Masons, not to mention multiple churches, none of which connections had led to him finding a lucrative career.
So Simmons decided to restart the Klan, and reinvent it as a fraternal organization, early 20th century style. He wrote rules and rituals, borrowing heavily on those of the fraternal groups to which he belonged.
Simmons then anointed himself Grand Dragon of the KKK, registered the Klan as a business, and ran an ad in an Atlanta newspaper calling for men to join him in what was (in his words) “A Classy Order of the Highest Class.”
He might as well have added “No riffraff allowed.” Actually, he did do that. The ad went on: “No Rough Necks, Rowdies, nor Yellow Streaks.”
Men who responded were called to meet at an impressive setting: The very summit of Stone Mountain, an enormous wedge of granite that rises high on the outskirts of Atlanta. Stone Mountain is about a mile long, and it can be walked up by anyone who is fit and dedicated to making the effort (even me with the help of handrails on the last steep stretch) Here’s what happened at that first gathering in 1915, according to a fawning city newspaper account:
Apart from being struck by the lack of proofreading in this brief article, you may have also noticed this: Only fifteen people showed up. We know that some of the first members were elderly former members of the original KKK. If they made it to the top, I bet some of them had to be carried back down Stone Mountain.
Four years later, Simmons’s KKK still had so few members, that when he needed folks to march for the Klan in Atlanta's 1919 Veterans’ Day parade, he paid twenty Black guys to walk, dressed in sheets.
I'll give you a second to imagine that.
The Klan's failure to thrive was especially frustrating to Simmons, because he had always seen the KKK, first and foremost, as a business. A business, indeed, to profit William Simmons.
Klan 2.1: The Birth of an MLM
Enter Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke. In 1920, Simmons meets two PR execs, who offer to help enlarge the Klan’s profile. Tyler and Clarke already see the KKK’s potential, realizing the KKK could become big, but only if they can persuade the hapless Simmons to think big.
Simmons is impressed by this slick pair. He signs a contract giving Tyler and Clarke 80% of future profits. Tyler and Clarke now set about remaking the organization. Of the two, Tyler is the most competent, not that most people at the time recognize when a woman is competent.
Yes, unknown to most people, a woman nonetheless now runs the Klan. And this is a woman from a penniless home, who has had multiple marriages (the first at age 15), who drinks whisky, and who is having an affair with Clarke, her married business partner.
This same Elizabeth Tyler is about to transform the Klan into a national organization whose missions include ending alcohol consumption, enforcing sexual morality, and guarding the nation's allegedly Protestant identity from hordes of immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color. In the process, Tyler will gather a fortune, at least enough to buy herself a mansion on 14 acres in downtown Atlanta.
The moment when William Simmons signs a contract with Tyler and Clarke in 1920, and essentially turns over control of the Klan to them, is when things start to sound astonishingly familiar to us in the 21st century.
The Klan 2.1 Creates an MLM: Uplines and Merch
In 1920, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Clark set out to expand the KKK along the lines of Simmons’s original vision, of a society dedicated to maintaining white supremacy in the South. They mail membership invites to elite Southerners, figuring those people can afford expensive dues. As well as writing to prospective members about the supposed threat of Black organizations, Tyler and Clark try something else: They also appeal to anti-Bolshevik (Communist) and anti-anarchist fears that have emerged since the First World War and the Russian Revolution. But most Posh Southerners don’t rush to sign up.
Now Tyler and Clarke push Simmons to think beyond the South. If the KKK is going to go national, they argue, it must expand its mission beyond appealing to white Southerners who want to oppress Black people, because there are few Black people in 1920 who live outside the South.
So the Klan begins to expand its targets to include many more Americans. Jews. Catholics. Immigrants (many of whom are Catholics and Jews). Plus people of color, such as Mexicans and Asians as well as African-Americans.
Who does that leave? Tellingly, in Klanspeak, a non-Klansman is an “alien”, and initiations are called “naturalization”.
This’s because, according to the Klan, the only true Americans are Klansmen. This is what the new Klan is selling: A redefinition of what it means to be an American.
First, in Atlanta, Tyler and Clarke draft a new business plan.
And here’s where the Klan becomes an MLM.
In Tyler and Clarke’s new vision, there are nine KKK districts covering the entire United States, each of which is headed by a Grand Dragon. Below him is a chief recruiter called a King Kleagle. The King Kleagle recruits ordinary Kleagles, who recruit Klan members locally. Don’t be deceived by these hilariously bizarre titles: All these men are salesmen.
Kleagles lure in recruits to the Klan. Each new member pays an initiation fee of $10 (in Klan language, a Klecktoken, and worth well over $100 today). A recruit , if he wishes, and of course he does, can now himself become a Kleagle, recruiting new members, while collecting $4 from each Klecktoken. He forwards the remaining $6 to the men above him in the pyramid (his upline, in MLM-speak). Each takes a cut, and despite all the embezzlement that goes on, the owners (Tyler, Clarke, and Simmons) make the most money of all.
In the first year, 1920-21, more than 1,000 men become Kleagles, all around the country: Being patriotic, angry, and profitable turns out to be very popular.
Klan 2.1 HQ also sells a lot of merch direct from Atlanta, starting with fancy robes and hoods. These are deliberately designed so they’re impossible to copy on a home sewing machine: The only acceptable Klan outfit is mass-produced, standardized, and commercial, and the only authorized sales are from the KKK’s own clothing company, started by Tyler and Clarke. Robes are also available for kids, and so is other merch, including a sort of Klan holy water for use in rituals. Together with initiation fees, annual dues, special building campaigns, and the like, merch brought in millions.
As a business, for its owners, it’s all fantastically and immediately successful. Of those owners, William Simmons is least successful: At Tyler and Clarke’s urging, and almost from the start, Simmons begins to “step back” from the business, as we would say today, although not exactly at his own choice. To get him out of the way, Tyler and Clarke send him on the lecture circuit. They soon try to depose Simmons altogether, but because the business belongs to him, they are eventually forced to buy him out for $180,000.
Either way, in that first year, after signing on with Tyler and Clarke, Simmons is rolling in dough. His 20% has become a huge pile of dollars as the money floods in: He buys two new fancy cars, and a big house, which he calls Klankrest. He also gets a bonus equivalent to $300,000 in 1921 dollars. But greed being what it is, Simmons never gave up trying to make more money, even after he was pushed out.
Tyler and Clarke, in that first year, may have made $850,000, and that is in 1921 dollars. Organizing hate and anger turned out to be enormously profitable. Maybe the best comment on this I can make, I have borrowed from the 1970s soap opera Dallas. In the words of the great prophet J. R. Ewing, “Once you give up your integrity, the rest is a piece of cake.”
The Appeal of Klan Product
If the Ku Klux Klan of the Twenties starts as an MLM, what’s the product?
Partly, it's what you think it is: Membership in a club for white supremacists, and a, shall we say, distinctive costume.
But the product is also what customers want it to be. As we already saw, white supremacy is broadly interpreted by Klan 2.1. The Klan excludes not only Black people, not only all people of color, but white immigrants and other white people who aren’t Protestant Christians, especially Jews and Catholics. The Klan also embraces causes like the prohibition of alcohol.
But different Klan groups in different areas have different targets and goals.
Realizing it was easier to let local groups recruit, Tyler and Clarke cleverly agree to let local Klans (called Klaverns) be independent in deciding what they will do in their communities. In some areas with many Irish or Polish immigrants, campaigning against Catholics and immigration makes most sense to Klavern members. In others, and especially for chapters of Women of the KKK, because that’s a thing, the issue that concerns them most might be prohibition of alcohol. Since Klan members held that alcohol consumption was a problem brought by foreigners, especially Catholics and Jews, and was mostly problematic when the same foreigners and/or Black Americans drank, that brought together several issues under one roof.
And here’s where Klan 2.1 as an MLM ran into a contradiction: The Klan was not just a business, or even just a national organization. It was a mass movement, full of people with different ideas and approaches for who and how to hate.
When, in 1922, the recruiting pyramid grew unstable, and Kleagles became annoyed by their inability to turn a large profit, the Klan ended commission-based recruitment. By then, Tyler, Clarke, and Simmons were out, and a new corporate CEO was in. But by then, fortunes had been made, and the Klan was a national phenomenon.
Klan 2.1 and Violence
I don’t want to push thinking of the Klan as an MLM too hard, and mislead you into imagining Klansmen as cheerful sales people. You won’t be surprised that violence (or the threat of it) was central to Klan identity. But how much violence the Klan sponsored depended on where it was.
In the South, beatings, murder, and sadistic torture, mostly of Black men, were mainstream in society, and whether men of violence wore sheets or not, many whites participated, and almost all condoned it.
The further north you went, the more the Klan’s violence was shifted to targets other than African American people, and the more it became terrorism, rather than actual physical violence. In Oregon, Klansmen subjected people (including Protestant whites) to terrifying mock hangings, and then released them, traumatized but alive.
In Midwestern areas that weren't officially part of the South, but that were culturally Southern, like Indiana and southern Illinois, the physical threat to everyone was greater: The Klan was most powerful, not in Mississippi, but in Indiana. There, as just one example, a white anti-Klan mayor was whipped by the Klan.
But to return to the MLM theme, the Klan also promised community. Communities can't just build on doing horrible hateful things. A new member’s Klan initiation (based on Masonic ritual plus loads of total mumbo jumbo) was the high point for most members of meetings that then got very boring, very fast. To keep existing members and to keep recruiting new ones, the Klan had to sell itself as, well, fun.
Steel yourself. Here comes the bit that's going to blow your mind…
Klan parties. Klan carnivals. Klan sports. And we're just getting started.
It’s Not Just About Making Money, Wearing Silly Clothes, and Hating People! Make Friends and Have Fun, Too!
One essential part of Klan 2.1 product? Community. Not just for the Dragons, Kleagles, and what have you, but to appeal to people who didn’t even belong. Has a cult ever tried to lure you in? I’ve been approached. They always grin broadly. That’s why many people, interviewed, years later, insisted that Klan 2.1 was just a fun culture. If they were still around today, they would probably try to frame what they did as a kind of cosplay.
Er, no. The Klan caused enormous harm. But most people don't like to remember themselves as hateful villains, so they recalled the part they liked best. For most people, that was community. Klan oyster roasts. Parades. Carnivals. Cross burnings.
White people, such as Catholics, who could pass for Protestants sometimes even attended Klan fairs, which featured carnival rides and parades. Klan members typically dressed in full regalia for these events, and I wish I had permission to show you a photo of Klansmen on a ferris wheel, but since I don't, go ahead and Google it. I’ll wait.
At their big “Klonvocations” (get it?) the Klan burned huge crosses that could be seen for miles, clearly aimed at non-members. Unlike the later Klan 3.0, which started during the Civil Rights era, and which used cross burnings to terrorize families and individuals, Klan 2.1 presented fiery crosses as a spectacle for the whole family and community. Surprisingly, many were lit with lightbulbs, not fire. Burning crosses were, according to historian Linda Gordon (in case you think I am making this up):
“ . . . awesome symbols—of the Klan as the army of the cross, and of an awakened and mobilized Protestantism. Many spectators saw them only as Fourth of July fireworks.”
And then there were Klan sports. At a charity fundraiser, a Klan team played several games of baseball in Los Angeles against B’nai B’rith, a Jewish fraternal organization. In Wichita, Kansas, another Klan baseball team played an all-Black team, and lost.
Baseball and other community events made the Klan seem like a normal fraternal group, like the Moose or the Elks.
When the Klan began to recruit in a community, Kleagles sometimes advertised introductory meetings, without advertising that they were the Klan. They called for men who believed in “100% Americanism”, a phrase made popular by the Klan which would creep into mainstream American thought and speech. At one such meeting in Vermont, after an introductory talk about the joys of 100% Americanism, everyone who wasn’t a white Protestant was asked to leave. And then speakers came out to rail against Catholics, Jews, and Blacks.
Klan marriages, baptisms, and even funerals, in which members appeared in regalia and followed Klan rituals, led by Klan ministers (who were real evangelical ministers), could also be effective recruiting tools among non-Klan attendees.
Did I say “evangelical”? You may need to sit down now. Most non-evangelical churches (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and the like) steered clear of the Klan. But the Klan actively recruited among ministers and laypeople in evangelical faiths.
Kleagles arriving in a new community talked up the Klan to evangelical ministers, offering to help them fill the pews, and giving them large cash contributions. This worked. About 40,000 ministers joined the Klan. In Southern California, a newly-arrived minister offered a “Bible study” which was actually a recruiting meeting for the Klan. Soon, the Klan was describing the city of Anaheim as “Klanaheim”.
Ministers who resisted the Klan? They were investigated, smeared, and vilified as people who believed in “race mixing”. People who push their cause by attacking their opponents? Not new.
Interestingly, the strictest fundamentalist churches were not keen on joining the Klan, because, in the 1920s, they steered clear of politics and other non-church activities.
To Be Or Not To Be: Klan 2.1 and Modern Life
Klan 2.1 wasn't all fun and games. It wasn't a business to most of its members, either. It was something much more profound and strange: It was a popular modern movement that opposed modern life.
How did that work?
Modern life, a way of life we recognize as familiar, arrived with shocking suddenness in the early years of the last century, and especially after World War I. Women started wearing their hair and skirts short, and putting on makeup. The Ford Model T offered millions of Americans not only transportation, but also independence, especially for teenagers, for whom a car allowed a place for sexual activity away from prying parents. Electricity arrived in more and more homes, offering light, heat, radio, records, and the possibility of less household drudgery for women (although it didn’t work out quite like that).
People were buying more stuff than ever before, as advertising, having learned a lot from WWI propaganda, shifted from “You can buy your (necessary stuff) here” to “If you don’t buy this, nobody will like you.”
Jazz music on records and radio, and Hollywood movies provided an exciting and even glamorous escape from humdrum everyday life.
America saw growing diversity as southern and eastern Europeans, Italians and Poles, Jews and Catholics, settled in large numbers, especially in the East and Midwest. In the far West, even though laws had halted Chinese immigration, other Asians, especially Japanese people, continued to arrive.
Klan 2.1 was a backlash against almost all of these things: The Klan called movies a “sea of sensuality and sewage”, and aimed attacks at Jewish movie moguls and actors, including Charlie Chaplin, who was not, in fact, Jewish, although he didn’t tell the Klan that. Klan leaders attacked teenage sex and the role that cars played in enabling it. And needless to say, diversity wasn’t Klanspeople’s cup of tea.
And yet, Klan 2.1. was also very modern. It had been launched by a movie, The Birth of a Nation. Tyler and Clarke used modern business and marketing tools, like press releases, ads with membership forms, and free memberships for influential people to recruit and grow. As an MLM, Klan 2.1 soared. Klan leaders made a fortune selling memberships and regalia. And Klansmen had no problem with driving cars or using electricity (remember the “burning” crosses lit by lightbulbs?)
The Klan started its own record label. Edward Clarke (remember him?), after he was forced out of the Klan, started a Klan-oriented movie studio. Like the record company, the studio was unsuccessful, although Clarke did okay, since he stole about $200,000 from studio funds before it folded. These things failed because most people liked modern music, radio, and movies the way they were. And likely, that included a lot of Klan members. Hypocrisy? Of course. You expected otherwise?
Certainly, Klansmen often did not share Klanswomen’s enthusiasm for prohibition, unless the only people denied booze were Catholic, Black, or Jewish.
Which brings us to Klanswomen.
The Klan, like most successful MLMs, grew so fast that people were caught by surprise. It also, like other MLMs, brought in many women. But, of course, the Ku Klux Klan was no ordinary MLM.
Congress launched an investigation into the Klan in 1921. In response to unclear allegations, Edward Clarke hurriedly resigned. But Elizabeth Tyler doubled down: she understood that there's no such thing as bad publicity, and she used the news coverage from the investigation to massively increase recruitment. She was ultimately pushed out, likely because even the sums she made weren't satisfying her greed, and she was quietly pocketing Klan funds.
If you're surprised that a woman ran the Klan, then how about a woman, involved in Klan leadership and the Klan as MLM, who was also a Quaker?
Daisy Douglas Brushwiller was prominent in the Klan in Indiana, which, to remind you, is in the Midwest, not the South, and was the state where the Klan was most popular. Daisy Brushwiller was also a Quaker. This may surprise people who think of Quakers as liberal progressives, but it’s not that simple. There's also a conservative evangelical offshoot of the Society of Friends, something I learned when I got to know a very nice conservative evangelical Quaker pastor (yes, a pastor) in California, back in the 90s.
Still, this being Quakerism, in which women had long played leadership roles, Daisy Brushwiller became a Quaker minister, and at the same time as she promoted evangelical Christianity, she also promoted the Ku Klux Klan. The two were often connected.
Daisy Brushwiller, like many socially active women in the Twenties, joined a lot of community groups. She was head of the Indiana Humane Society, founder of her local YWCA, and active in prohibition and women's rights organizations. But joining the Klan took her to a whole new level: She didn't just get influence and social advancement. She got power and money.
Women could not join KKK Klaverns: Klansmen didn't want women at their male bonding meetings. But women were eager to participate in the movement. Plus opening the Klan to women promised Klan 2.1 lots and lots of new Klecktokens (initiation fees).
So Klan leaders authorized Klan women's groups. At first, these were supposed to be auxiliaries, designed to support Klansmen, without threatening conservative Klan values about women's roles.
But Klanswomen were not content with that. They wanted to run their own groups, and pursue their own causes. They invented their own rituals, and adopted Joan of Arc (yes, a Catholic saint!) as their heroine. And, of course, the kind of women who joined also knew how to organize parties and other social events.
That's how Daisy Brushwiller became head of the women’s Klan in Indiana by 1923. She initiated 200 women at a rally she claimed was attended by thousands, and organized the most impressive Klan march ever seen in Indiana. Meanwhile, in her speeches, she promoted feminism, temperance, and other causes associated with middle-class women.
Brushwiller also made a fortune. Maybe the Klan was no longer an MLM for men, but it seems to have continued as one for women. She secured a deal to be the women Klan's lead recruiter in eight states, from Indiana to New Jersey, and pocketed a dollar (four dollars in her home state of Indiana) for every new member her downline recruited. She also cinched the exclusive contract to make and sell women's Klan merch, specifically the robes. Not content with all this, she seems to have been embezzling funds.
Brushwiller’s entrepreneurial skills knew no limits, just as with Tyler. Men in the Klan also grifted, profited, and embezzled, but the Klan's empowerment of ruthless women is especially striking, because, well, we don't expect that., do we? But maybe we should. The Klan gave a few women, at least, the opportunity to grab loot while promoting product they believed in. And they took it.
The Klan, as we have seen, was selectively against modern life. And it was also inconsistent in its endorsement of traditional women's roles. That’s because there was no “it”, thanks to Klan 2.1’s local control: Attitudes toward feminism varied from state to state, and among (and within) local Klan groups.
Despite the example of Daisy Brushwiller, most Klanswomen retained traditional interests in the family and charity. In the South, Klansmen were more likely than in the North to whip local white Protestant adulterers and abusers whom the women brought to their attention, although the men's private attitudes toward adultery and abuse, when they committed these acts, were likely very different from their public disapproval.
In the West, always more friendly to women's rights, the Oregon women's Klan urged support of women-owned businesses. Others promoted pay equity, and even birth control. Admittedly, birth control fit with the Klan's enthusiasm for eugenics, or the pseudo-science of breeding “better” (white) humans (soon to be enthusiastically adopted by Hitler). But women were also interested in contraception for more obvious reasons.
But let's be clear: Klanswomen, no matter how progressive or conservative on other issues, nonetheless supported and encouraged antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-immigrant feeling, and, of course, racism. There were local variations: in Oregon, for example, the Klan's bigotry was focused on Catholics and Japanese immigrants, with little attention to Blacks or Jews. In southern California, Irish-Americans (including some Catholic priests) condoned or supported Klan attacks on (Catholic) Mexicans.
As a national group, however, Klanswomen, like Klansmen, endorsed and enthusiastically sold the entire product line of the Ku Klux Klan. This isn't how many of us normally think of feminism, but then neither is the way that most modern MLMs represent their empowerment of women, with references to “boss babes” and whatnot. It’s complicated.
A Successful MLM, and, Unfortunately, Even More
The Klan 2.1 proved a profitable business for its leaders. But it was so much more than an MLM, of course. It was a massive social movement that acquired a life of its own, a sort of multi-headed monster whose influence has grown long after it faded away.
And monstrous it was: It drew in an astonishing number of Americans to its way of thinking, even people you might think should have had nothing to do with an organization dedicated to celebrating and promoting bigotry and hatred. But that’s the rule about such things, not the exception.
Yet most Klan members supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s successful run for the president in 1932, even though he was not a bigot or a supporter of prohibition, likely because they were terrified by what was happening to the economy. The same Klan members and former supporters listened on their new-fangled radios in the 1930s to hear anti-Semitic rants by Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest. And yes, his audience knew he was Catholic: He was even known on the air as Father Coughlin. Many remaining (and former) Klan members would now start to grudgingly see Catholics as “real” Americans, as the goalposts of bigotry shifted. And they have carried on shifting for many, many Americans ever since.
By 1940, Klan 2.1 was pretty much over: The 1927 conviction for a brutal rape of the Klan leader in Indiana, the state where the Klan was most powerful, was the beginning of the end.
But Klan 2.1 had already caused much fear and misery, and had a huge impact, including on immigration. They had never objected to white, Protestant immigrants, and their views became law. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 not only drastically limited immigration, but set up new quotas that reserved 80% of immigration for citizens of the UK, Ireland, and Germany. Immigration from all across Asia, including Japan, was ended. My Scottish cousins had no problem emigrating to New York in the 1920s. Meanwhile, Jews from Russia and eastern Europe were largely shut out, starting with this act, with catastrophic consequences when Jewish people were denied refuge during the Holocaust. The same America that once erected a statue in New York’s harbor welcoming poor immigrants had always had an uneasy relationship with immigration. The Klan helped limit US immigration mostly to white Christians for over a generation.
The Klan of the 1920s started out as an MLM, and quickly became something much larger and more harmful.
As historians love to say, because it’s our unofficial motto, it’s complicated. According to research by social scientists who love to research such things, historians think differently from other people: We embrace complexity, dive into it head first, and swim around in it, cackling gleefully. My goal at Non-Boring History is to coax you gently along the diving board, and then get you jump in to join us, holding your nose and wearing your little water wings. I’ll do my best to keep you from drowning.
Find Out More
Yeah, I know it's all nuts and I've given you a headache. But I have only selectively scraped the surface of a few Klan-related topics. And, if you want to dig deeper, boy, have I got a book for you.
Today’s post is based on The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (don’t let the title put you off) the work of historian-superstar Dr. Linda Gordon, professor of history at New York University. She is twice winner of The Bancroft Prize (The Academy Award of academic history) But Dr. Gordon is not only a big deal as a historian. She also knows how to write for an audience of non-historians! I recommend this book to all interested. It goes well beyond contemplating the Klan as an MLM, and reflects on its impact down to the present day.
As ever, I invite Dr. Gordon and any other academic historians who think I have got something wrong, to please let me know, even if just by taping a nasty note to a boulder, and sending it by drone to drop on Non-Boring House in Madison, Wisconsin.