How the KKK Became America's Most Photogenic Hate Group

What KKK members wore before the white hoods came along, and how Hollywood boosted the hate group's popularity

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Robes featured in the Ku Klux Klan's 1925 catalog.
Robes featured in the Ku Klux Klan's 1925 catalog.
Noa Manheim
Noa Manheim

Forty dollars. That was the price of a yellow satin Grand Dragon robe, including silk cord and tassels, delivery extra. A red Hydra or Great Titan robe went for $20, but for just $6 you could be the proud possessor of an Exalted Cyclops robe. A good deal, available only through the glamorous “Catalogue of Official Robes and Banners: Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” – the 1925 edition.

But the white robes and hoods, which have over the years become the symbol of the most photogenic hate group in America, weren’t always part of the picture.

In 1865, at its inception, the Klan consisted of “disgruntled poor white farmers, wartime guerrilla bands… coercive moral reformers, sadists, rapists” and others of that ilk, the historian Elaine Frantz Parsons wrote in a 2005 article, “Midnight Rangers,” in the Journal of American History. And, as Sherlock Holmes explains in the story “The Five Orange Pips,” the organization’s diverse goals included “the terrorizing of the negro voters and the murdering and driving from the country of those who were opposed to its views.”

More broadly, the group’s members sought liberation from the yoke of Reconstruction that the North forced upon the South, or perhaps simply an opportunity to air violent impulses.

To perpetrate their vicious acts, they dressed up as animals, Indians, women and even as blacks, smearing their faces with burned cork like the minstrels, which allowed them to point an accusing finger directly at the victims. The costumes projected an image that was perceived as inferior, and sometimes also as wild and innately unrestrained.

“Blackfaced Klansmen appropriated the lawless violence they attributed to those outside civilization even as their decision to commit their atrocities in easily shed costumes distanced them from their violent deeds,” Parsons explains.

From the “Catalogue of Official Robes and Banners: Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” (1925). Credit: Knights of the Ku Klux klan inco

The inspiration came from three of the six founders of the Ku Klux Klan, veteran soldiers from the Confederate army who appeared in minstrel shows and in local theater productions just preceding and after the Civil War. Their last documented appearance took place just a few months before the organization’s establishment. They weren’t ready to leave the stage. For them, the show had to go on – and on.

“The Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan movement was intimately intertwined with, and completely dependent on, contemporary popular cultural forms and institutions,” Parsons writes in her article, which is subtitled, “Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan.”

But in the early 1870s there was no longer a need for this form of perverse masked ball in order to impose terror and use violence. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law what was dubbed the “Ku Klux Klan Act” to subdue the organization. But the Jim Crow laws in the South, introduced in 1877 following the end of the era of Reconstruction, as the racist “separate but equal” legislation was popularly known – the name deriving from a minstrel act – meant that the white supremacists no longer had to color their faces or otherwise disguise themselves: They were part and parcel of the institutions of power and operated openly, without masks. And they weren’t alone.

Journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) estimated that 10,000 African Americans were lynched in the 25 or so years following the war. In 1880, lynching events drew crowds of more than 15,000 white viewer-participants, who sometimes took body parts of the victims as souvenirs and had their photographs taken next to the mutilated corpses, which they then sent out as Christmas greetings to family and friends.

None of them wore a robe and hood, “because they didn’t need to,” Alison Kinney writes in “Hood” (2016). The authorities ignored the acts of lynching: In fact, their representatives took part in them actively. In one such incident, in Georgia in 1915, the perpetrators included a former governor, a judge, a mayor, a sheriff, a district attorney, a lawyer and a banker – the pillars of the community. In 1907, the governor of Mississippi, James K. Vardaman, stated proudly: “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.”

In the face of this unfathomable cruelty, the Ku Klux Klan, whose members at least took the trouble to invest in a costume before setting out to burn churches, looked almost like the apex of virtue and morality. That, at least, is what Thomas Dixon, Jr., thought when he wrote “The Clansman” (1905), a novel rife with nostalgia and yearning for the glorious days of the Old South and a lamentation for their violent passing. The cover illustration shows a Klan member as a medieval knight, garbed in white, kitsch and death. The book, and more particularly its subsequent stage adaptation by Dixon, became a sensation in the South. But it was not until the director D.W. Griffith adapted the novel as the first full-length feature film made in America, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), that its fame spread across the country – indeed, it was even screened in the White House.

The Ku Klux Klan in their regalia parading through the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma, September 21, 1923.Credit: AP

The Ku Klux Klan got the full Hollywood treatment, with members of the organization appearing in white robes and hoods with eye slits. The tremendous success of “The Birth of a Nation” provided free advertising and also inspired the standardized garb of the organization’s members from that moment on. Within five years, 100,000 new members joined the organization.

The Jim Crow laws and the lynch mobs “dealt with” the black population, but who would put the Jews, the Catholics and the other filthy immigrants in their place?

In World War II, when others did the dirty work for the Ku Klux Klan in Europe, the organization made do with showy marches. But when it tried to raise its head and burn crosses afterward, in order “to show these niggers that the war is over and the Klan is taking matters into its hands,” there was someone to stop them. He, too, like the Klan, emerged from the bowels of popular culture. He was brought into being by two young Jews and he wore tights. With no Nazis left to trounce, the creators of “The Adventures of Superman,” a radio serial based on the comic-book character, looked for a new villain for the Man of Steel to fight. A courageous human rights activist and author named Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Klan under a false identity and provided the shows’ writers with inside information about the organization’s structure, the inflated titles of its leaders and in particular about the wealth they had amassed.

The result was a series of radio episodes in 1946 titled “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” exposing the organization as being composed of greedy white men who were raking in a fortune wearing sheets with a hole – or, as the “Grand Dragon” says in one episode, “We deal in one of the oldest and most profitable commodities on earth: hate.” The programs, which are discussed extensively in Rick Bowers’ book “Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan” (2012), drew an audience of four million and did much to reverse public sympathy for the Klan.

But with the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the Klan hydra sprouted a new head. In a 1966 cult film directed by Ted V. Mikels, titled “I Crossed the Color Line” (aka “The Black Klansman”), a black man (played by a white actor) whose daughter is killed in a KKK church firebombing, disguises himself as a white man in order to infiltrate the organization and exact revenge.

In 1979, a black police officer in Colorado Springs named Ron Stallworth turned the history of the Klan on its head when he posed as a white man – with the aid of a Jewish police officer, Philip Zimmerman – and succeeded in joining the Ku Klux Klan and in torpedoing its plots. His is one of those true stories that are so extraordinary that they need to be turned into a feature film, in this case “BlacKkKlansman,” directed by Spike Lee, released earlier this month.

But beneath the iconic white robes, a product of Hollywood, which are so well known that they serve as a comic motif in films such as Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” or “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” by the Coen brothers – the old venom continues to flow. The ritual and the performance, the theatricality and the affinity with popular culture that helped glorify the name of the Ku Klux Klan are today being used to ridicule it.

The Klan may have declared in 2014 that it was opening its ranks to blacks, Jews, gays and Hispanics – as long as they are ready to take a vow of self-hatred, apparently – but the alt-right and numberless hate groups have now assumed its original mission: to ensure the supremacy of the white race in America.

Spike Lee’s film, which ends with contemporary news footage, reminds us that some things never change, which makes the words of Superman himself eternally relevant: “Remember this as long as you live. Whenever you meet up with anyone who is trying to cause trouble between people, anyone who tells you that a man can’t be a good American because he’s a Catholic, a Jew, a Protestant or whatever, you can be pretty sure he’s a rotten American himself. Not only a rotten American but a rotten human being. Don’t ever forget that!”