I recently read a newly released book by Timothy Egan titled “A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them.”
Egan focuses on the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s in the United States and its nearly successful plan to control the political structure of the entire nation.
The Klan, comprising primarily defeated Confederate soldiers, first sprang up immediately after the Civil War. The group terrorized Blacks until after the election of Ulysses S. Grant as president. Grant was determined to destroy the Klan, and by 1872, he had succeeded.
In the early 1920s, the Klan resurged, swearing opposition primarily to Blacks, Jews and Catholics. By 1924, it had permeated the country. That year, the National Origins Act passed both houses of Congress overwhelmingly, setting strict immigration quotas.
The Klan charged $10 to join, terrorized non-whites and religious minorities, and intimidated white Protestants who would not join. It was said, “People paid $10 to hate, and they got their money’s worth.”
The intent of these haters was to promote a “pure race” of white Protestants. Their intentions reflected those of the Nazis, then on the rise in Germany.
The klan of the 1920s was dominated by Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson of Indianapolis. He planned to gain political control of the nation, with himself as president. Ed Jackson, who, as Indiana secretary of state, authorized the Indiana klan charter in 1921 and officially joined in 1923, was elected governor in 1924—far from the only klan governor in the country. The mayor of Indianapolis was also a klan member. Indiana and other states passed various anti-Black laws. Lynchings were rampant.
Finally, the klan fell apart, beginning when it was revealed that Stephenson, who was known as a paragon of temperance and (white) women’s virtue, drank in excess and beat and raped women. He was eventually convicted of causing the death of a woman he had raped.
While one must be careful about drawing comparisons, there are some disturbing parallels between the 1920s and today. The Klan leadership didn’t create the anti-Black, Jewish and Catholic animus; it exploited the public mood. There was a spiteful anti-immigrant mood at the time, as well as strong racist and antisemitic feelings.
The true believers were easily manipulated: Stephenson maintained that, if one repeats a lie often enough, people will believe it. This is something Hitler also practiced and that we have seen demonstrated in the U.S. recently.
Today, racism and antisemitism are again on the rise. In Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, white supremacists violently defied efforts to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee (first erected, not coincidentally, in 1924) while shouting “Jews will not replace us!” The far right of today is focused on exploiting public hatred of the “other” and attacking perceived enemies.
Mitt Romney’s new book reveals that he ran for Senate thinking he would be joining the world’s greatest deliberative body but learned that his constituents just want him to attack people they hate. He says many in the GOP knew that then-President Trump was guilty of impeachable offenses after Jan. 6, but they feared for their safety and that of their families at the hands of the far-right base if they voted for impeachment. Recently, members of Congress were threatened to gain their support for Jim Jordan’s bid for speaker of the House.
We have not rid our country of hate and terror; in fact, we are experiencing a virulent resurgence. What will break the fever?•
Daniels, an attorney with Krieg DeVault LLP, is a former U.S. attorney, assistant U.S. attorney general, and president of the Sagamore Institute. Send comments to email@example.com.
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