In the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri that followed the shooting of Michael Brown just over a year ago, members of the Ku Klux Klan began distributing flyers warning of violent repercussions against protestors. Klan literature has reportedly been circulated recently in New Jersey and Vermont, and this past July 18, the organization gathered a high-profile – albeit sparsely attended – rally in support of the Confederate battle flag in Columbia, South Carolina.
At the same time, as part of what they are calling #OpKKK, the “hacktivist” collective Anonymous has declared war on the Klan, taking down Klan websites, reportedly hacking a Klan twitter account, and, most recently, releasing the names of more than five hundred alleged Klan members on November 5 to mark the anniversary of Guy Fawkes Night and the organization’s larger “Million Mask March.” This is hardly the first time that opponents of the Klan have tried to use the organization’s fetish for secrecy against it. The idea of both literally and figuratively unmasking members of the self-proclaimed Invisible Empire has long held a visceral thrill. Yet it has also often proven an ineffective and even counterproductive tactic.
The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, for example, was far stronger than its modern counterpart and it cast a wide net. Local recruiters appealed not only to white supremacist and nativist sentiment (with a particular hatred of Catholic immigrants), but also to widespread concerns about moral collapse, law enforcement, public schooling, and Prohibition. By the middle of the 1920s, the self-proclaimed Invisible Empire attracted more than four million members from around the country to its banners and became a major political force in the United States. In comparison, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are only around five to six thousand members in various splinter Klans today.
Much of the controversy that surrounded the Klan of the 1920s was over the issue of secrecy. Many white Americans held positions on race and religion like those of the Klan, but they disapproved of the Klan’s anonymous vigilantism. Thus, much of the opposition to the Invisible Empire centered on local anti-masking laws and on efforts to reveal the identities of Klan members. Public censure, anti-Klan activists argued, would surely bring a halt to the group’s heinous activities. Members would be named and, presumably, shamed.
The largest of these activist groups was the American Unity League (AUL), a coalition of religious community leaders in Chicago. To bring down the Klan, the AUL’s weekly Tolerance newspaper was prepared to name names. Its first issue, in September 1922, named more than a hundred and fifty Chicagoans as Klan members. Within five months, the newspaper had printed the names of four thousand alleged Klansmen in the Midwest and was seemingly having an impact. Salesman William R. Toppan declared that after his name was published, many of his previous customers deserted him. J. William Brooks, an undertaker, claimed that after being named, his business was nearly ruined. Augustus Olsen, one of the rising stars of Chicago’s business world, was forced to step down from his position as president of the Washington Park National Bank.
Despite claiming a circulation of a hundred and fifty thousand, though, Tolerance did not publish for long and was unable to destroy the Chicago Klan. In large part, this was due to the difficult task of being absolutely certain the names printed were those of Klan members. Misspellings, near-identical names, and decoy membership rolls all led to problems, but the biggest mistake came when the newspaper named millionaire gum manufacturer William Wrigley Jr. as a member. Wrigley promptly filed a successful fifty thousand dollar lawsuit against the AUL, showing that the signature on his alleged application was a clear forgery. Heavily publicized, the gum manufacturer’s action inspired a flood of similar successful suits and saw the editorial board collapse into infighting. Embarrassingly, the newspaper’s editor left and began writing for the Klan instead and accusing AUL members of being the real intolerant fanatics. Anonymous is already dealing with a comparable situation, as a number of news outlets last week wrongly credited the group for poorly sourced claims that a number of U.S. senators and mayors were current members of the Klan, even though those allegations were actually leveled by an unaffiliated activist going by the name “Amped Attacks.”
The anti-masking laws of the 1920s rarely translated into significant defeats for the Invisible Empire either. These ordinances were difficult to pass, with lawmakers having to contend not only with the Klan’s political power but also with the thorny question of whether anyone could wear masks for any reason, including Halloween and Mardi Gras. Where the laws were adopted, meanwhile, local Klans often complied without any significant loss of membership. By 1923, newspaper reports of parades and initiations frequently noted that participants were unmasked, and a 1926 march through Washington, D.C., one of the organization’s most overt shows of strength, featured tens of thousands of members parading with their hoods up. There were many who simply did not fear public disapprobation. Many boasted that being condemned for their affiliation simply proved that they had the “right enemies.”
The ultimate failure of efforts to destroy the Klan with exposure in the 1920s provides an object lesson for opponents of the Klan today. Undeniably, some members then felt compelled to leave the group once they feared their identities would be revealed. Public embarrassment, though, was not enough to take down the Klan. Instead, the active and vehement opposition of Catholic and Jewish community leaders in the AUL simply gave credence to the Klan’s dire warnings of a growing threat to white Protestants in the United States. Moreover, the unrelenting assaults against the Klan in the press kept the organization in the public eye, amounted to free publicity, and kept new members flooding in. The Klan did finally crumble by the end of the 1920s, but that was due more to internal conflict and self-inflicted scandal than it was to activists like those who published Tolerance, and before collapsing, thousands rallied to the group. As the AUL and similar groups found – and as Anonymous may find – the spotlight was exactly what the Invisible Empire wanted.