by Bill Castanier
March 19, 2011
Michigan residents may remember the strife a few years ago when several Ku Klux Klan robes and other regalia were offered for sale at auctions in the mid-Michigan communities of Howell and Mason.
Although one robe sold for $1,450 and the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University purchased one for $700, the auction and a later one that was cancelled made it clear that any mention of the word “Klan” still triggers a vitriolic reaction. Maybe that’s one reason that until now there has been a paucity of books on the Klan and virtually no books on the history of the Klan in Michigan.
That has ended with the publication of a new book, Everyday Klansfolk: White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan, by British author Craig Fox and published by Michigan State University Press.
Maybe it takes a Brit to step away from the inherent controversy, raw images and disturbing history of the Ku Klux Klan to write about the nation’s largest secret society and one whose influence and popularity held Michigan in a tight grip during the 1920s. Craig Fox is a self-described independent scholar of American history and culture who as a doctoral student spent two years studying in the United States, including doing archival research in Michigan for one year.
Fox was attracted to Michigan because of a single shoebox filled with Klan records from Newaygo County that is held in the Archives of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University. Fox also used Klan collections in the Michigan State University Special Collections and the Labadie Collection that is part of the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan for his exhaustive research.
The shoebox held membership records of the Newaygo County Klan organization from the 1920s and was purchased, oddly enough, at an auction in the 1990s by Frank Boles, the director of the Clarke Library. The records were part of a much larger cache which had been hidden in an attic by the secretary of the local Klan organization for more than 70 years. The local collection was broken up and sold piecemeal to collectors. The membership records, along with a collection in the Clarke of scholarly material gathered by a CMU professor who was working on a Klan history when he died, form the basis of Fox’s research.
Boles said that for a few short years in the 1920s, the Klan exerted a strong political influence on Michigan and was close to electing Klan members to the highest political offices. A referendum on banning private education was even proposed by the Klan.
“Opposition to it may have resulted in the oddest political coalition in Michigan history, including Conservatives, Dutch Reformed and Catholics,” Boles said.
Boles also understands that shining the light of history on the Klan membership may be disconcerting for families in Newaygo County, but he said that the survival of records from there was “sheer happenstance.” “They are no more guilty [than residents in other areas] — there were Klan chapters all through Michigan, and Newaygo was not unique.”
He also pointed out that the 1920s Klan was not entirely like the original violent organization of the 1860s South or even the latter 1960s versions. “It was a broadly based organization which was mostly anti-immigrant and anti Catholic. A lot of people felt that way, and they were not perceived as fringe or kooks,” he said.
At the height of the Klan’s power in the 1920s, the “Invisible Empire” had what Fox called “staggering membership numbers” exceeding six million members nationwide. Although Michigan membership is extremely difficult to pinpoint, Fox cites reports as varied as 265,000 and 875,000.
Boles points out that the photographs of Michigan Klan members used to illustrate Fox’s book even show the faces of the members. The records also show that all sectors of society were members, including doctors, lawyers and even the sheriff.
Boles believes that it is important for an accurate assessment of history that people remember these times. “Every moment in history wasn’t a happy moment,” he said. “This group was regularly joined by regular people. Sometimes memories are not happy.”
In his new book, Fox details a Klan that is far from the popular perception of the secret organization that counted hundreds of thousands of members in Michigan during the 1920s. He shows that at that point in history, the Klan was as likely to be a social organization sponsoring community picnics as it was a hate-mongering secret society. Fox said that one gauge of the popularity of the Klan in the ’20s was the emergence of the “faddish Klan-themed merchandise,” including flags and knives.
Scholars also are quick to point out that it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents have a Klan member in their genealogy. After all, someone must be related to those 15,000 Klansmen who paraded through Lansing on Labor Day in 1924. Rumors still abound in Lansing that a major local industrial leader was active in the Klan. The suspicions are fueled by the disappearance of any newspaper coverage of the 1924 Labor Day parade. In addition to his well-written but not overly academic history of the Klan in Michigan, Fox has provided a treasure trove for future scholars in the form of an extensive bibliography and notes.
Quoting another Klan historian, Fox says that “the second Klan was far more ensconced in American life than many of us would like to admit.”
From his home in northern England, Fox graciously agreed to answer my questions about the Klan in Michigan and about his new book.
Q. Did you set out to disprove some of the previous writings which stressed how the Klan was for the lower class and uneducated only? Where was the Klan’s power base located in the 1920s, and was the Michigan Klan organization typical of other states?
Fox: I hadn’t really set out with that intention, no. In fact, there had been a spate of really excellent studies done in the early 1990s which had, I think, pretty much made that point already. Loosely referred to as the “populist-civic” school of thought on the 1920s KKK, they tended to stress the idea of a more mainstream Klan movement than had previously been acknowledged.
Based squarely on examining the local scene, they looked with fresh eyes at the Klan in Indiana, Oregon, California, Colorado, Texas, Utah and New York State, and called for future scholars to do the same in other regions, wherever and whenever the scarce and scattered materials allowed. With the discovery of new membership records in Michigan (uncovered in an ex-member’s attic in 1992), it was certainly time to take a look here. So my overriding intention was never to prove or disprove anything, it was more to add a new regional study to a growing national picture of a movement, and see how the results compared.
I’d say that in many important respects — the types of people who joined, and the types of appeals that were made by the KKK — Michigan was pretty typical of most other states where the Klan was a presence. The organization was actually most powerful in the North at this point, and the biggest stronghold of Klan activity in the ’20s was the neighboring state of Indiana, so I guess it’s not so surprising that Michigan’s Klan should be similar.
Having said that, the KKK came relatively late to Michigan (outside of Detroit, where it had some presence earlier), only really taking hold statewide in the summer of 1923. Perhaps as a consequence, it never really succeeded in gaining the political clout that it had managed to muster up in Indiana, and in places like the Pacific Northwest. As a national movement, the Klan peaked in 1924 and was all but dead by 1926, so Michigan’s flirtation with it, whilst enthusiastic, was probably shorter than most.
The Klan phenomenon was national in scope, but there were regional variations in the way it manifested itself. In the South, it inevitably turned its vitriol upon African Americans. In the Southwest it often targeted Mexicans, and on the Pacific coast, Asians. In northern, still largely white, locations like Michigan, it instead denounced “Romanism” and set up its stall very definitely against what it saw as its greatest threat: immigration, and more specifically, the specter of Catholicism.
Q. Since the Klan model was basically a pyramid scheme — Klan mobilizers were paid a per-head fee for attracting new members — did that contribute to its undoing?
Fox: In a word, yes. As well as being key to the Klan’s huge growth, it was very definitely also a factor in its steep decline. Whilst hugely successful in spreading the movement’s influence across the nation, traveling Klan recruiters were eventually labeled by journalists who opposed the KKK as “salesmen of hate.” It’s a term which has stuck, and the fact that so much money was involved invited a good deal of corruption.
Greed and graft were rife in a system where regular members paid dues and everyone above them in the hierarchy seemed to take a cut on the way up. At the local, branch level, money to run the organization grew increasingly tight, whilst the men at the top seemed to benefit greatly in terms of personal wealth. In almost every place the ’20s Klan has been studied, financial scandals of one sort or another contributed to internal factionalism, low morale, and often dramatic drop-offs in membership.
Q. Do you think that the 1920 Klan was an anomaly or more typical of the Klan from the violent eras of the 1860s and 1960s?
Fox: Historically, terror and violence have been, and remain, the norm with the Klan. So in that sense the ’20s organization is something of an anomaly. That the Klan appealed to so many people in this era alone is what makes it so interesting to study.
I certainly think that the 1860s and 1960s versions have much more in common with each other (and with the splintered modern versions of today) than they do with the 1920s Klan. Both the Reconstruction and Civil Rights era Klans were undeniably extremist, fanatical, racially violent, and primarily Southern-based. Whilst the Jazz Age KKK shared the infamous robes and regalia of its namesakes, it was an altogether different kind of beast.
Rather than an overt reliance upon vigilantism (though that’s not to say that there wasn’t any), this “second” Klan made wide-ranging popular appeals to Protestant morality, to law and order, to legal restriction of immigration, and to Prohibition enforcement. Along the way, and in the context of a socially anxious postwar America, it achieved staggering support, boasting membership figures numbering well into the millions. In doing so, it also transcended the borders of the old South to attain widespread national prominence for the first time.
Q. I talked to numerous individuals about this article and, generally, they grimaced when I told them what I was doing. Why do you think it is important to write about unpopular topics such as the Klan?
Fox: History is a “warts and all” kind of business, and my view is that if it happened, then surely it’s worth knowing about. You can’t simply edit out the chunks you don’t like, and I’m not sure how ignoring the murkier parts of the past is supposed to benefit anyone. Who was it that said “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I read a great article on exactly this topic — “you can’t burn history” by Allen Safianow, who was looking at the Klan in Indiana. Certainly worth a look.
Though it’s admittedly not always so easy with more evocative material, the aim with any kind of history, I think, has to be to approach your subject as objectively as possible, to document it, and ultimately to arrive at some kind of understanding that you didn’t have on the way in. I might not have written the-book-to-end-all-books on the KKK. That, though, isn’t really the point. If, by my interpretation of what I’ve found, I’ve added to or called into question even a small section of what we thought we knew, or even made somebody else wonder about it, then I figure I’ve done my job.