Exposé of the KKK in the 1920s
Founded in 1865, the Ku Klux Klan became a rallying point for opposition to equality for black Americans. The group fell into decline but began a resurgence in 1916 as it was reconstituted in Georgia. In 1921, The New York Post published a series of articles over 21 days revealing the Klan’s tactics and secrets.
The Klan’s Rebirth
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent movie, Birth of a Nation, introduced Americans to the Ku Klux Klan in a positive light. Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker that “The movie, set mainly in a South Carolina town before and after the Civil War, depicts slavery in a halcyon light, presents blacks as good for little but subservient labor, and shows them, during Reconstruction, to have been goaded by the Radical Republicans into asserting an abusive dominion over Southern whites.”
Inspired by the movie and the book on which it was based, The Clansman, Protestant, nativist, white people revived the Klan near Atlanta, Georgia. The new KKK didn’t restrict its hate to just black people; it also turned its venom on Jews, Roman Catholics, immigrants, communists, and organized labour.
The press were complicit in the polishing of the image of Klansmen; they were frequently portrayed as righteous vigilantes protecting Americans from godless, subversive elements.
During the summer of 1921, there was a spike in Klan violence―cross burnings, lynchings, etc.―in Texas and elsewhere. This proved to be the impetus for some journalists to look closely at the KKK.
“Secrets of the Ku Klux Klan Exposed by the World.”
The headline on the front page on The New York World on September 6, 1921 announced the beginning of a series that would shock America.
Earlier Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sought help from Herbert Bayard Swope, Executive Editor of The New York World. Swope put a front-page feature in the paper outlining the fears of Catholics and southern blacks to the growth of the Klan. The newspaper decided to press its investigations further.
In July 1921, a disaffected Klan recruiter in Tennessee offered Swope his files. Other information came from the NAACP and, as the newspaper trumpeted, from investigations “in more than forty cities in a score of different states.”
As press time approached, The World offered the series to other papers and 17 bought rights, others joined in after it became clear the story was hot.
What the Investigation Revealed
The newspaper called the KKK a “dangerous secret agency of super-government.” It chronicled the group’s oaths and secret handshakes and noted only Protestant white people born in the United States were permitted to join.
It revealed violent acts carried out by hooded men directed against blacks, Jews, Roman Catholics, and immigrants. The newspaper reprinted the Klan’s racist diatribes and listed the names of public officials who were members, most of whom issued denials, some convincing, some not.
Other newspapers began their own inquiries into the activities of the Klan. The World published a list of the Klan’s sales force and reporters everywhere hounded these people for interviews; they all went to ground.
Then, it was revealed that two prominent Klan members had been arrested in a brothel and charged with violating liquor laws and disorderly conduct. This was especially embarrassing for the KKK, which had aligned itself with the Prohibition movement.
All of this served Herbert Swope’s purpose, which was to discredit the Klan and turn public opinion against it.
In 1921, The Georgian newspaper warned that “Intolerance and prejudice is harming Atlanta,” while The Atlanta Journal said “It is high time to end this harmful intolerance.”
In June 2020, former First Lady Michelle Obama said “Race and racism is a reality that so many of us grow up learning to just deal with. But if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it.”
Reaction to the Exposé
Of course, the Klan fought back. The records of the arrest of the Klan leaders vanished from police headquarters in Atlanta. Then, that city’s council resolved to start an investigation into the Knights of Columbus Catholic fraternal order claiming it constituted a danger to America.
The Atlanta chapter of the Klan published a weekly newspaper called The Searchlight. University of Virginia history professor John Kneebone writes that the paper “hit the streets with a bloodthirsty, front-page editorial exhorting patriotic Protestants to unleash the dogs of war to stop the Catholic conspiracy against the Klan.”
Klansmen started deluging newspapers with letters saying the World’s exposé was “fake news,” although that particular phrase did not appear until several decades in the future.
Service clubs such as Kiwanis and Rotary joined with progressive faith leaders to condemn the Klan, while the hooded men claimed the publicity had boosted its recruitment. Internal divisions were weakening the group and its growth north of the Mason-Dixon Line stalled.
However, the recruitment setbacks were temporary and the KKK soon sprang back. By 1924, the racist organization hit its peak membership of between 1.5 million to four million. That represented between four percent and 15 percent of the eligible population.
Some historians say membership topped eight million.
- In 1922, The New York World was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its series exposing the racist violence of the Ku Klux Klan.
- William Joseph Simmons, self-styled colonel, climbed to the top of Stone Mountain, Georgia, on Thanksgiving night in 1915. There, he set fire to a cross to announce the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. In addition to his bogus rank of colonel, Simmons declared himself to be the Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
- In its second iteration, the Klan took aim at liquor sales, motion pictures, elites, and intellectuals, and promoted what it called “clean living.”
- The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the names of 40 people killed by the KKK between 1957 and 1966 during the civil rights campaign.
- On Sunday, June 7, 2020, a man drove his car into a crowd of people in Virginia who were protesting against violence against black people. Charged with attempted malicious wounding, felony vandalism, and assault and battery is Harry Rogers. He is an admitted leader of the KKK.
- “The Worst Thing about ‘Birth of a Nation’ Is How Good it Is.” Richard Brody, New Yorker, February 1, 2013.
- “Ku Klux Klan.” History.com, October 29, 2009.
- “Publicity and Prejudice: The New York World’s Exposé of 1921 and the History of the Second Ku Klux Klan.” John T. Kneebone, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2015.
- “Historians in Service of a Better South: Essays in Honor of Paul Gaston.” Andrew Myers and Robert Norrell (eds), NewSouth Books, April 2, 2017.
- “The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.” Public Broadcasting System, undated.
- “Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism.” Southern Poverty Law Center, March 1, 2011.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor