BOOK REVIEW | "THE SECOND COMING OF THE KKK: THE KLU KLUX KLAN OF THE 1920s AND THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION" BY LINDA GORDON
photo & text by nacrowe
this book is concerned with the resurgence of the KLU KLUX KLAN in the 1920s, not to be confused with the original iteration which itself was a response to the emancipation of slaves by order of then-president ABRAHAM LINCOLN. that organization petered out in influence during the RECONSTRUCTION period after successfully economically and legally limiting the new rights afforded the newly freed black slaves in the AMERICAN SOUTH.
what i would consider the most shocking insight of NYU history professor LINDA GORDON's book THE SECOND COMING OF THE KKK: THE KLU KLUX KLAN OF THE 1920s AND THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION (LIVERIGHT, 2018) is how mainstream this second iteration proved to be at the time. during that period a plurality of AMERICANS seemingly shared or sympathized with their extreme nativist, right-wing populist dogma that promoted an anti-intellectual, anti-cosmopolitan and anti-scientific belief system, not to mention the explicit call for the subjugation and ouster of JEWS and CATHOLICS.
its hard to believe but the KLU KLUX KLAN did not stand out in the least. they were very much consider just another male social club like your average local ELKS, LIONS or ROTARY club. they even made a point when entering a new area to seek out FREEMASONS to join their ranks. apparently this even included future president HARRY S TRUMAN who "joined when he though it was 'just' a patriotic group." in terms of its political sway in the 1920s, the KLAN had in its ranks two SUPREME COURT justices (HUGO BLACK and EDWARD DOUGLASS WHITE), "eleven of the thirteen men elected to the US HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES" in INDIANA as well as "the majority of TEXAS and COLORADO congressmen." They also helped flex their political muscle by "electing governors in INDIANA, OKLAHOMA, OREGON, COLORADO and TEXAS."
reading this book is very much like witnessing an OBAMA-era TEA PARTY convention or a present-day TRUMP rally. indeed that is probably the point. echos of SARAH PALIN populist assertions of promoting "real AMERICANS" can be seen in the KLAN's promotion of what they deemed to be "100% AMERICANS" (i.e. white PROTESTANTS). the amount of nativist and racist MISINFORMATION, PROPAGANDA spewed at the time initially had a hard time being countered due in part to the sympathies of the public at the time, as well as BRANDOLINI'S LAW which is basically that "the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order or magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it." its a scenario that is even more relevant today than at any point in the past due to the sophistication of modern online communication and networking technologies.
ultimately internal corruption and hypocrisy destroyed the organization, which rose again in another iteration during the civil rights movement a generation later, but that is besides the point. the compelling nature of this book is the fact that our real national legacy is one of exclusion and violence. the culprits are numerous and plentiful make up a wide swath of AMERICAN religious, political and business leadership. for example, collusion by local "ministers struggling to keep their churches in repair, rarely refused to cooperate" with the KLAN as they offered funds and congregates. it is this type of corrosive and transactional dealmaking that insidiously made the KLAN part of the landscape of the period. their later economic boycotting of JEWISH and CATHOLIC stores and the building of political machines pushing for reduced immigration from non "NORDIC" countries (successfully i may add) worked because of how well they implanted themselves into AMERICAN daily life, especially in the MIDWEST, PLAINS and SOUTHWEST.
long story short, the methods and rhetoric used to ingratiate themselves with a sympathizing public in both tone and tenor is remarkably similar to that of the currently outgoing TRUMP ADMINISTRATION. maybe most startling of all is how much such doesnt shock me in the least. TRUMP is a truly horrendous person who like the KLU KLUX KLAN made visible an undercurrent of RACIST and NATIVIST attitudes and opinions that has always colored our political discourse from inception.
this book is pretty depressing but reveals quite a bit i didnt know about how mainstream and explicitly public HATE has been in our politics, even ironically outside of the KLU KLUX KLAN itself. such an environment only made their racist belief structures insidious by degree, which is beyond distressing. makes me pause to consider of what else we have shoved under the carpet, even today in a soon-to-be post-TRUMP AMERICA.
photo & text by nacrowe
i was suggested this book by a history teacher in high school. it was the end of my sophomore year at a NEW ENGLAND boarding school and i had made the decision to join my parents the next year in KUWAIT. i had previously attended middle school in NIGERIA and had some familiarity with PAN-AFRICAN politics but none of that prepared me for THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X: AS TOLD TO ALEX HALEY (GROVE PRESS, 1965).
this was a book that pulled no punches and described an upbringing spent in the midwest under the thumb of segregation and overt racism. MALCOLM X, so self-monikered later in life from his birth-name MALCOLM LITTLE as a means of denying the name imposed on his family by a past slave master, was a man constantly in search of an identity which mirrored that of his following and really, AMERICA writ large. this book describes a leader and intellectual with a singular gift for oration and a sense of well-placed fiery righteous indignation. he is an interesting counterpoint to MARTIN LUTHER KING JR in his pre-HAJJ period in that he called for revolution. with a more than a hint of MARCUS GARVEY, he called for using all available instruments of persuasion and even coercion, a fight fire with fire strategy to ensure political rights. to some he is a patriot and others an insurrectionist. i side with the former.
again, for me the context of reading this book was my move to a MUSLIM country for the first time. whats interesting about MALCOLM X is that he belonged to the NATION OF ISLAM, an ISLAMIC-adjacent religious community that followed the controversial teachings of ELIJAH MUHAMMAD. given his background it makes sense that MALCOLM X would find a home within a community that promoted BLACK NATIONALISM and the political, economic and cultural empowerment of such therein. now the NATION OF ISLAM is well outside of the mainstream of modern ISLAM, and this book gets into that friction which to me was the most interesting aspect of his life's trajectory.
when i arrived in KUWAIT in the late summer of 2000, it was around the same time i got to the part of the book when MALCOLM X goes on his HAJJ to MECCA. for those that are not familiar, a pilgrimage to the holy city of MECCA in SAUDI ARABIA and bearing witness to the KAABA, or "The House of God," is mandatory religious duty of all MUSLIMS that have means and are physically able to do so at least once in a lifetime. for MALCOLM X this journey was a revelation. his religious and political belief system was very much intertwined with perceptions rooted in internal AMERICAN politics, attitudes and deep-seated beliefs regarding RACE. on pilgrimage he was stunned to see MUSLIMS of all ethnicities joining together as one religious community. like i said, this was a revelation and changed the tone of his politics until his death. it also marked his second conversion, this time to SUNNI ISLAM. with that conversion came a more muted political outlook that sought nonviolent means of persuasion in the pursuit of personal and political freedoms which found him more in line with the teachings of KING. this was his evolution.
for me this book was an introduction to the politics with ISLAM, something that provide a point of empathy in the post 9-11 period as well as my later time spent in MUSLIM-majority communities in ALBANIA and KOSOVO as a PEACE CORPS volunteer. this book gave me some sense of how religion cane be a deeply unifying and positive force fo connecting with others, even those that wish you harm. religion cane be a base of empathy. my time visiting SARAJEVO (BOSNIA) as well as KUKES (ALBANIA), PRIZREN and GJAKOVA (KOSOVO) taught me that in spades. this book only becomes more prescient and relevant as AMERICA continues to navigate and negotiate a tension within ourselves and our body politic to come to terms with our RACIST and SEGREGATIONIST past. to me MALCOLM X is a manifestation of that tension and his evolution serves as a reminder of what we can accomplish with a collective sense of moral strength and personal courage to evolve together.
i recommend this book to anyone interested in history that is complicated, counter-intuitive, entangled, passionately debated and highly instructive. could not recommend it any more strongly.