The Klan of the 1920s represented something frightening in America, frightening because it ran so close to the mainstream. Across the country, lawyers, doctors, and ministers—successful men, ambitious men, middle-class men—supported the Klan.
The Klan’s target was not really blacks. No politician was proclaiming racial equality. Even Calvin Coolidge, raised in Vermont, stated, “Biological laws shows us that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.” The Klan’s target was change. Out of fear, the Klan enforced a populist conformity. In addition, as in Greenville [Mississippi], Klansmen generally tried to pry power out of the hands of the strongest and wealthiest men in a community, the men who had always run things. [MS Senator LeRoy] Percy was tired of fighting this battle. He even blocked plans to locate the new Delta State College, a normal school, in Greenville because he expected it to attract poor whites who would strengthen his enemies. Instead, in 1925 the school went to Cleveland, in neighboring Bolivar County.
In the larger sense, Percy sarcastically compared “the Klan virus” to “the good old days when [William Jennings] Bryan was the demagogue” and the Klan of the 1920s does fit uncomfortably close to America’s populist tradition.
American populism has always been a complex phenomenon containing an ugly element, an element of exclusivity and divisiveness. It has always had an “us” against a “them.” The “them” has often included not only an enemy above but also an enemy below. The enemy above was whoever was viewed as the boss, whether a man like Percy, or Wall Street, or Jews, or Washington; in the 1920s the enemy below was Catholics, immigrants, blacks, and political radicals.
The Klan continued to run strong nationally after Percy’s rare victory over it [in Washington County, MS]. It was in 1924 that it elected the mayors of Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine. That same year Percy tried to address the 1924 state Democratic convention; after complex parliamentary maneuvers finally gained him recognition, the convention erupted in tumult and he was shouted down.
He turned his attention to “mak[ing] it more difficult for the Democrats to evade the Klan proposition” at their national convention. The Democrats had hoped to avoid the issue, as the Republicans had. But William Pattangall, attorney general of Maine, proposed a platform plank condemning the Klan. His proposal lost by a vote of 542-3/20 to 541-3/20. The fight split the party and made the Democratic presidential nomination worthless. It took 103 ballots to nominate John Davis, who was crushed by Coolidge. Pattangall himself lost reelection.
A year later the Klan remained strong. In 1925, Colorado Judge Ben Lindsay wrote Percy, who was advising him on anti-Klan tactics: “I really believe there is nothing in the entire history of the South that shows such sudden and devastating sweep as [the Klan] has achieved in Colorado. This secret order has functioned as almost the entire state government from state militia to the last constable.”
Yet the 1920s Klan did collapse. It did so because it was not conceived as a political movement but as a scheme to make money selling memberships and regalia. It brought terrible forces together, like a magnifying glass concentrating the sun’s rays, but no leader with a political vision emerged to focus that power and make it explode into flame. Instead, its leaders wrestled scandalously over profits, embarrassing its members. Then David Stephenson, Indiana’s Klan leader who had amassed $3 million, was convicted of rape and murder; expecting a pardon and not receiving it, he revenged himself by revealing the corruption of dozens of Klan-backed politicians, including the governor and the mayor of Indianapolis, several of whom were also jailed. The Klan faded away.