One hundred years ago this week, The New York World began to publish a 21-part explosive exposé on the inner workings of the Ku Klux Klan.
It was a sensation. At least 18 other newspapers across the country ran The World’s bombshell reporting. According to The Columbia Journalism Review, “The series drew two million readers nationwide. New Yorkers stood in line for copies. And the Justice Department and several congressmen promised to investigate the group.”
The World would win a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts.
But, as I read through that coverage to write this column, I was struck by just how resilient Klan ideology has been in the years since The World exposed the group’s systems and rituals; its ideas have been repackaged and dressed up — or, disrobed, as it were — but the core tenets remain the same. I was even struck by how many of the same tactics are still being used to preserve white supremacy and subjugate racial, ethnic and religious minorities in this country.
It proves to me that Klan thinking is not really about the organization itself or its tactics — the night riding or cross burning — but about the very meaning of America and who controls it.
As one of the Klan’s “grand goblins” put it in a 1921 speech: “America for real Americans! Guardianship against the alien, the anarchist and all who would subvert that banner, be they white or black or yellow!”
It is that widening of the scope of hatred and oppression that first jolted me as I studied the Klan’s history. By the early 1920s, its leaders had moved on from primarily anti-Black hatred. To grow the brand, they had to grow the ring of bias. As one of The World’s articles put it, “Now the negro has become a side issue with it. Today it is primarily anti-Jew, anti-Catholic, anti-alien, and it is spreading more than twice as fast through the North and West as it is growing in the South.”
That is not dissimilar from today, when xenophobia and Islamophobia have taken a more prominent role.
In fact, The World wrote that at times the Klan would tailor its message of hate by region, appealing to Japanophobes on the Pacific Coast, framing itself as a bulwark against radicalism in the “Central West,” fanning hatred of immigrants on the Atlantic Coast and stoking fears about Jews and Catholics throughout the country. As The World put it, “Wherever a prospective member lives, he has been promised that his pet aversion will be made an object of Klan action.”
This sounds eerily similar to the successful campaign that Donald Trump ran in 2016.
Many of his supporters view America not as a grand idea, malleable and expandable, but as a white man’s invention in which the displacement and slaughter of Native people and the enslavement of Africans was a necessary evil.
So they demand a strict deference to that idea of America because, to them, it promises a society bowing at their feet, a nation defined by its reverence for whiteness.
At one of the Klan’s initiations, members were told to say, “All men in America must honor that flag — if we must make them honor it on their knees!”
Anyone else remember how Trump supporters treated Colin Kaepernick?
Furthermore, the Klan realized, much as Trump did, that hate was an industry and that the right — or wrong — man could milk it for profit. As The World wrote at the time:
The original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc., modestly begun five years ago, has become a vast enterprise, doing a thriving business in the systematic sale of race hatred, religious bigotry and “100 percent” anti-Americanism.
Perhaps the last lesson and similarity between the Klan of the 1920s and Trump’s legion of supporters are that exposure doesn’t necessarily lead to eradication. After The World’s exposé, the Klan didn’t shrink; its membership surged.
Just four years later, in 1925, anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000 Klan members marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C., in what The Washington Post called at the time “one of the greatest demonstrations this city has ever known.”
In 1913, eight years before The World’s articles, Louis D. Brandeis, soon to be nominated as a Supreme Court justice, wrote a piece in Harper’s Weekly under the headline “What Publicity Can Do,” arguing that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
But in journalism, this idiom is more complicated. Sometimes, the infected court the infection. Sometimes, the light you shine on evil also illuminates the path to it. Sometimes, publicity is advertising.
Consider how this continues to manifest today. Over the past few years, we’ve seen how the press has amplified all manner of conservative fictions and fever dreams, from election denial to the rise of QAnon conspiracy theories to the lunacy of the anti-vax movement.
Sometimes people are drawn to these, and what we believe to be fact and logic repels them. Sometimes when we expose evil, we create or amplify its allure. Sometimes people willfully plunge into — and are consumed by — the flame that provides the light.
The core ideology of the Klan lives on in a more palatable form, in suits and uniforms, among lawmakers and judges, pushing back against progress and forward in the form of gentrification.
One hundred years later, pointy-hat white supremacy has evolved into soft-shoe white supremacy: same goal, less gauche.“