About 1980 I took an introductory journalism course called something Media History or other, and read that one of the first silent moving pictures was D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," released in 1915. There was no information regarding content or context. Years later, though not yesterday, I discovered that it was based on a play called "The Clansman" and told an American story from the perspective of the Ku Klux Klan. (Imagine; a whole roomful of young people ostensibly interested in journalism and not one shred of curiosity in the bunch. Is college not wasted on the young?)
What I did discover yesterday or so is that the movie was very controversial at the time. Or at least, that part never struck me as remarkable before. There was public outrage; there were attempts to censor it. Griffith had to go to court to save its premier showing. Kind of like what you'd expect today.
By 1921, the Klan numbered almost 100,000 members and money flooded its coffers. At its peak in 1924, 40,000 uniformed Klansmen paraded through the streets of Washington, D.C., during the Democratic National Convention. Like a modern political lobby, the group was so influential that many politicians felt compelled to court it or even to join, particularly in the Midwestern states. Senators, congressmen, governors, judges at all levels, even future President Harry Truman donned the hood and robe (though Truman shortly quit, apparently disgusted by an anti-Catholic tirade).
A few years ago, during a chat with my grandmother about our family history, she mentioned that my grandfather had been a Mason and a Klan member when they lived in Chicago. I stared at Gran, speechless. "Everybody was back then," she said.
So there you have it. Sometime between 1915 and 1921, thousands began either to fear or to embrace the mighty Klan. What happened in those intervening years to turn disapproval or only tacit approval into open and wide acceptance? I have teased out four factors that I believe were necessary for the KKK to flourish as it did in the 1920s--factors that would be necessary for the current nativist movement to succeed in the same way. Following are two of them (the rest in Part 3).
Factor A: Immigration/migration--but not how I thought. One of the obstacles to realizing that Klan history in the early 20th century has relevance right now is that I got the immigration-economics-hate crime equation wrong. Conventional wisdom favors the "bad economic times plus immigration/migration equals hate crime" connections. Also, I've been geared to think that higher poverty rates always correlate with higher crime rates. That is true for some crimes but turns out not to be true (PDF alert) for hate crimes. Or terrorist acts, for that matter.
The original empirical support for the "economic deprivation hypothesis" stemmed from historical evidence on anti-black lynchings in the southern part of the United States. In his 1933 classic study, TheTragedy of Lynching, Arthur Raper documented a correlation of _0.532 between the number of lynchings in a year and the value of an acre of cotton (a measure of economic conditions) using annual time series data from 1882 to 1930. A landmark study by Green, Glaser and Rich (1998) overturns that conclusion. First, they find the correlation between lynchings and economic conditions vanished once secular trends in both variables were taken into account. That is, apart from the long-term tendency for the number of lynchings to decline and the economy to grow, lynchings were unrelated to year-to-year economic fluctuations. Second, when they use Simon Kuznets's measure of real per capita GNP growth (which was unavailable to Raper) as a measure of economic conditions instead of the price of cotton, they find that lynchings and economic conditions are virtually uncorrelated. Third, lynchings did not rise during the Great Depression, despite the dramatic deterioration in economic conditions. Raper's sample in Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection? measured incidence of hate crimes against blacks, Jews, Asians and gay men and lesbians using data from New York City each month from 1987 to 1995. They found that the incidence of these crimes was unrelated to the city's unemployment rate.
I'm relieved in at least one way. It means we're not helplessly trapped with growth in hate every time the economy tanks.
What actually triggered the xenophobic epidemic was a huge number of people moving both into and around the country at once. This was boom-time at Ellis Island and also, as it turns out, the height of the Great Migration internally.
The "Great Migration" increased dramatically in the years between about 1910 and the early 1920s. Between 300,000 and 1,000,000 African-Americans moved north during this period, largely in response to an increased number of unskilled factory job openings as northern manufacturers boosted production for World War I. Black migration between 1916 and the 1960s remained strong, except during the Great Depression. More than 6 million southern blacks made the move to the North during this period.
There's got to be a stronger word than "dramatic." Look at these numbers:
Black Population Trends
Southern 90.3% 10%
Rural 90% 5%
Northern 9.7% 90%
Urban 10% 95%
Now, this is not to say that minorities haven't been blamed for things like, say, job-stealing, or that anything like economic competition hasn't happened. I'm saying that it's the pure fear of large numbers of people different from you that underlies and kick-starts the ugliness. It doesn't matter if it's hard times or not. It doesn't matter how rich you are. It does have to do with rapid ethnic and social changes in a given community and how well that community is coping with the resulting anxiety.
Although it's still fashionable in right-wing circles to hate blacks and Jews, the targets of the most of the newest extremist movements are Latino immigrants and gays. No mystery here, considering the perception of out-of-control illegal immigration plus rapidly growing Latino populations in many cities, and a gay community that has "migrated" from the closet. In "response" we've gotten the Minuteman anti-immigration vigilante group that has--in only one year--multiplied with copycats to over 40 such organizations today. We also have an annual hate crime rate against gays that is six times higher than that of any other target group.
Factor B: Group leadership/organization
More from the ADL report:
Since its inception shortly after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan has seen several cycles of growth and collapse. The periods of growth are typically related to times of rapid social change, while the collapses generally stem from corrupt or ineffectual leadership.
In 1915, the KKK got lucky.
William J. Simmons, a lifelong joiner of clubs, was inspired to reorganize the Ku Klux Klan after seeing the movie "Birth Of A Nation"... Simmons sought to establish his own organization dedicated to "comprehensive Americanism." When "Birth Of A Nation" opened in Atlanta, he ran an advertisement for the Klan next to the movie's ad in the Atlanta newspaper.
The timing was perfect. The United States was struggling to meet the challenges imposed by a massive influx of immigrants, many of whom were Catholic or Jewish and few of whom spoke English. Appealing to the middle class and claiming to be a "purely benevolent" club, the Klan drew members immediately.
During WWI, the Klan promoted itself as the protector of the home front. Gee.
Today's nativist movement has been looking for leadership and for political clout for over 10 years. They were attracted in droves to Ross Perot's Reform Party in the 90s, and figured they hit the jackpot when Patrick Buchanan ran for president on the Reform ticket in 2000.
Far-right activists hoped that the Reform Party, with Buchanan at the helm, would become an American version of Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National, the neofascist organization that commands close to 20% of the vote in France.
Buchanan's campaign included members of the secretive Council for National Policy described in my "Part 1" diary and other diaries at DKos.
When Buchanan quit the Reform Party after the 2000 election, it shattered the nativists' dreams, and the pieces--believe it or not--have not been picked up by the neocon Republican Party. Typically they hate the Bush administration, calling it the "party of big government and big oil." What's left of the Reform party vigorously opposed Bush's re-election in 2004. A Reformer who also belongs to the Christian Identity group explains:
"In terms of 2004, we have one goal," [Jerome] Heinemann insists, "and that is to defeat Bush. I wouldn't care if Hillary Clinton became president. At least when Bill Clinton was in the White House, the so-called conservatives or constitutionalists or whatever they call themselves did everything they could to obstruct the federal government. Now they do nothing, while Bush acts like a dictator and the government spies on American citizens under the pretense of homeland security."
Get this: Heinemann's quote was made in 2002.
Fractured, fragmented and fractious, the Reformers and other nativists nevertheless are united in the goal to stop nonwhite immigration, and they are capable of coordinated effort. In the fall of 2003, the Southern Poverty Law Center realized, due to its ongoing monitoring of the nativist movement, that anti-immigration hard-liners were trying to turn the traditional environmentalist Sierra Club into a vehicle for that movement.
...hard-liners within the Sierra Club were moving to elect  directors to the board in an effort to get the Club to adopt a platform calling for cutbacks on immigration into America.
At the same time, hate groups began calling on their members to join the Club in an effort to sway the board elections...
...The Club is important to anti-immigration activists because of its well-respected voice, its political pull on Capitol Hill, a budget of some $83 million a year and its large membership. These activists believe their message would be taken more seriously if delivered by the Club.
What did the SPLC do? First, they sent a letter warning Sierra Club leadership of the potential coup. In part, it read:
...we do not believe that the debate should be controlled or shaped by bigoted activists and hateful ideology; rather, it should be discussed and decided by citizens within our democratic forums.
Then, they sent SPLC founder Morris Dees to become a board candidate, so that he could alert the rest of the membership in his candidate statement. The goal was to get as much of the membership (750,000) as possible to vote; the usual voting rate is only 8%, possibly not enough to override the anti-immigration vote. Dees asked that Sierrans not vote for the extremist candidates, nor for him since his intent was only to inform them of the hostile takeover attempt.
The result? Sierrans voted 10-to-1 to reject the nativist board candidates in its highest voting turnout ever. But, this may not be over. There was a more feeble attempt in 1998, and
Intelligence Project staffers have been monitoring anti-immigration attempts to gain control of the Sierra Club for several years. John Tanton, leader of the anti-immigrant hate group The Social Contract Press and architect of the modern anti-immigration movement, has been strategizing to take over the Club since 1986.
Mr. Tanton seems a little obsessed. I wouldn't count him out.
Not so lucky were the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SVC). A heritage group of 31,400 members that in the 1990s condemned the KKK and "all others who promote hate," it was infiltrated by neo-Confederate extremists who, after a massive power struggle, have now purged the organization of its anti-racists and moderates.
Factor C: Failures in enforcing laws
Factor D: Media messages
in Part 3: Superman to the Rescue
Note to self: time to send a few more bucks to the SPLC.