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Labor Action, 14 October 1946


Jerry Todd

The First of Two Articles on the Ku Klux Klan

The Native Fascists in Nightshirts


From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 41, 14 October 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Liberals of the United States, and the many union officials who are saturated with middle class idealism, are highly indignant these days because the Committee on Un-American Affairs of the House of Representatives has refused to investigate the Ku Klux Klan, which has again sprung up in many states.

On all sides – from Senators, from AFL central labor unions, from CIO leaders – one hears that the Klan is “un-American.”

Yet there is no question but that in a way the House committee is on sound grounds in refusing to investigate the Klan.

Webster’s dictionary defines “un-American” as not characteristic of, or consistent with American customs, principles, etc.

BY THIS DEFINITION, the Klan passes muster as a 100 per cent American institution. For eighty years, it has been a factor in the life of the United States, appearing at times of particular social and economic tension.

The Ku Klux Klan is as American as the belief of many white, Protestant, native citizens that they constitute a privileged and ruling stratum of the population.

The Klan is as American as the belief of the southern cracker that there is nothing wrong about the odor of the old black mammy, but that the odor of the most refined, delicate, clean colored person is offensive if that colored person chances to meet one upon terms of equality.

One Part of America

The prejudices upon which the Klan rests are part of the American credo – that a Negro’s vote may always be readily bought for a dollar; that nobody knows so well as the Southerner how to handle a colored person; that whenever a Negro is educated he refuses to work and becomes a criminal; that no atheist has read the Bible or pondered upon the stars; that all immigrants come to America in search of liberty, and that when they attempt to exercise it they should be immediately sent back; that people of Oriental blood always have very wily natures and that they glide about without making a sound; that all male Negroes secretly hanker after every white woman, they see, etc., etc.

The Klan is as American as the use of brutality and violence by the employing class (who own everything and create nothing), against the class of workers (who possess nothing and create everything).

Yes, only a liberal, a man with “penetrating eyes,” would deny that the Ku Klux Klan, with its anti-labor, anti-Negro bias, is part of the American tradition, though, of course, not all of it.

Wherever there is a class society, wherein one class exploits other classes, there you have a Ku Klux Klan, or its counterpart. It was so in the early slave-trading America. It is so today, wherever imperialism holds sway. So long as capitalism rules, the ruling minority will always seek, by terror and by prejudice, by legal and by extralegal means, to divide the exploited, to set one group of slaves against the others, to keep alive and nurture the vilest and meanest superstitions.

Klan Organized in 1866

The original Ku Klux Klan was organized in the South, as an aftermath of the Civil War, in 1866, by a group of young Confederate soldiers. They called their secret society by the Greek name, Kuklos, meaning the circle. Other secret societies, organized for the same purpose, to terrorize the Negroes and to oppose the reconstruction measures of the northern radical Republicans, were the Knights of the White Camelia (larger than the Klan), the White League, the Invisible Circle, the Pale Faces, etc.

But the anti-alien, anti-Catholic aspects of the Klan platform had their counterparts in other periods of American history – in the American Party (the so-called “Know Nothings”) of the 1850’s, and later, in the American Protective Association, organized in 1887.

The original Klan was modeled after the federal government. The entire South was the Invisible Empire, under a Grand Wizard; each state was a Realm under a Grand Dragon; several counties formed a Dominion under a Grand Titan; each county was a Province under a Grand Giant; the smallest division was a Den, also ruled by someone grand, a Grand Cyclops.

It is American to love mystery, fable, spookery – witness the businessmen luncheon clubs and fraternal orders, even the rituals of many unions. The Klan with its mystery has ever attracted the ignorant and superstitious. In the post Civil War period the Klan at its height had 550,000 members, that is, nearly the entire adult male white population of the South. It effectively terrorized the Negro, forcing his retreat into political subservience to the white man. The North finally capitulated to the South, and the Klan dwindled after 1872, leaving in its stead a number of local organizations, like the White League of Louisiana.

Revived After First World War

After the First World War there arose a great social crisis, marked by vast strikes such as the steel strike of 1919, the railroad shopmen’s strike, the packinghouse strike; by the demobilization of hundreds of thousands of veterans who had learned to defend themselves and to use arms; marked by the emigration northward of many thousand Negroes to better paying war-time jobs; and marked by the depression and unemployment of the early 1920’s.

Of course the Klan revived. In 1915, heralded by a big mass meeting on Stone Mountain near Atlanta, Ga., similar to the recent publicized meeting held on that same mountain by the Klan, it revived. Big Business needed an extra-legal organization like the Klan. It bought and paid for it.

The new Klan professed various motives. In the South, it appealed to the fundamentalist beliefs in morals and religion, and whipped up the anti-Negro prejudices of the populace. In the North it was more blatantly anti-labor, anti-Bolshevik, anti-alien.

It utilized mass meetings, cross burnings, anonymous threats, whipping, tarring and feathering, burning and murder to achieve its ends. From October, 1920, to October, 1921, one year, the New York World tabulated the Klan’s violent actions as follows: four killings, one mutilation, one branding with acid, forty-one floggings, twenty-seven tarrings, five kidnappings, forty-three persons warned to leave town, fourteen communities threatened by posters, sixteen parades of masked men, etc.

Why the Klan Declined

There is an interesting article on the Klan in the Social Science Encyclopedia, written by M.S. Sandman. It is interesting because it exposes the lack of understanding and the distortion of truth by the author.

The author attributes the dying out of the post-war Klan to a series of articles. which began in the N.Y. World in September 1921, exposing the Klan as a money-making machine, and to a Congressional investigation of the Klan.

The liberal longs to believe that all that is required to stop an organization like the Klan is to “expose” it.

But the facts about the Klan give the lie to the author. The Klan was exposed in 1921. It didn’t die. It continued to grow by leaps and bounds, and its membership by 1924 reached 6,000,000. It became a political factor in many states, electing a Senator in Texas, and wielding considerable political power in Arkansas, Connecticut, Indiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia and Oregon.

It died down in the late 1920’s – not from exposure, not from liberal righteousness, but from a more potent medicine – relative prosperity.

When there is almost enough to go around for everybody, when all are eating and drinking and are being sheltered, and have jobs, the Klan can’t prosper. Human nature changes a little, during the course of such periods (increasingly infrequent in our society).

This, incidentally, is why we socialists believe that in a socialist society that will provide an abundance for all, racial prejudice and many other prejudices and fountainheads of irrational behavior, will wither and disappear.

Came the depression of the 1930’s and the Klan revived again. Many readers will remember the Klan murder of Frank Norman, organizer of the United Citrus Workers’ Union, in Florida. More will recall the brutal Klan murder of Joseph Shoemaker, socialist, and the flogging of his associates, on November 30, 1935, in Tampa. You may recall other cowardly atrocities by the Klan against labor in the Northern states. You all remember the rise of similar organizations to the Klan in the 1930’s – Father Coughlin, the Silver Shirts, etc. Only the artificial wartime prosperity caused them to relapse into a period of dormancy.

(The second half of this article will appear next week.Ed.)

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