Linda Gordon is the author of the new book The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition. Her other books include Dorothea Lange and Impounded. She is the Florence Kelley Professor of History at New York University, and she lives in New York and Madison, Wisconsin.
Q: You’ve noted that this book was originally a chapter in a larger book about 20th century social movements in the United States. How much was the 2016 election an impetus for you to write this book?
A: The impetus to expand the chapter into a book was that [factor], but I had already written the chapter in the larger book, so it was a little of both.
Q: What accounted for the Klan’s rise in the 1920s, and how strong was its influence during that decade?
A; There are two factors. First is the rise in the volume of immigration starting in the 1880s. They were not mainly Protestants—you have all these Catholics, Jews, Greek and Russian Orthodox people, who were made to seem like a threat.
The second happened directly after World War I—a real rise in prosecution and persecution of dissenters with many deportations. It set a precedent for the idea that dissent should be repressed. That is a lot of what the Klan is about—the notion that we should all be alike. It was very uncomfortable with diversity….
Q: How does it compare with other movements of the time?
A: The film Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915. The Klan used that as an enormous tool in recruitment…It was oriented toward the South and toward scurrilous stigmatizing of African Americans. One of the things I felt from writing about this was that one kind of bigotry builds another.
Q: Did you need to do a lot more research for this book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: I had to do a lot more. There is no central archive of Klan material in this country. I was benefiting from previous articles that were very specific about the Klan in various locations.
From the beginning, what was clear to me was that I wanted to do a general survey, but I [did focus on particular locations; for example,] Oregon; there’s no way someone could travel all over.
Q: What did you see in terms of regional differences or similarities?
A: The Klan was extremely flexible and opportunistic. In the West, they went after Mexican Americans in California and Japanese Americans in the Upper Pacific states.
Also, they were completely unprincipled. In California, they cooperated with the Irish Catholic Church against the Mexican Catholics, despite the Klan’s general anti-Catholicism.
In one of the Klan manuals, directed to small chapters, one of the first instructions is to research your region and see what issues and grievances are in your region. These were very sophisticated people.
Q: In Clay Risen’s review of the book in The New York Times, he says, “It’s hard to finish a single page in Gordon’s book without a slight tingle of fearful familiarity, of reverberations in rhetoric and public opinion—a recognition that, maybe, it has always been thus.” What do you think of that comment?
A: I have no particular expertise on the hate groups of today. I know what I read in the newspapers and from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In terms of the Klan today, there are some Klan groups but they’re very small, a tiny part of the growth of white nationalism and the alt-right. We can’t judge it by asking how many people are in the Klan. That was true in the ‘20s as well. People were not members, but shared the Klan’s values.
The Klan today and white nationalist groups have no central leader; no Imperial Wizard gives directions to all these groups. That is both good news and bad.
Good because they don’t have the strength a central organization might give, and bad because there’s no control over them. My sense is a lot of white nationalist groups are appealing to young men. That was not true of the Klan. These young guys are just itching for a physical fight, and that’s dangerous, that lack of any central control.
Q: Where do you see the movement going in the future?
A: I wish I could say I hope they’re going to decline, but they have a bully pulpit from the president. In one way, the president does what the Imperial Wizard did in the 1920s. Dogwhistling. He’s constantly putting out messages that encourage racism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant [sentiments].
I don’t want to have to write a book like that again. It gets you down.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The book engendered a lot of publicity for all the bad reasons. I’m doing lectures, publicity, op-eds.
Q: Anything else we should know about the book?
A: One of the things that’s most controversial is about the role of women in the Klan. I gave a talk [recently] and a young person asked, How can you call these women feminists?
A lot of people want to assume that to be a feminist you have to be relatively liberal or progressive. I know the way I wrote that chapter would evoke controversy, but we need to understand that no particular tendency owns feminism.
There are certain versions of feminism that are compatible with this kind of bigotry. When I was doing the research, I found not the slightest indication that any of the women were critical of what the male Klan [members were] doing.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb