In the 1920s North America experienced a huge rise in immigrants from black, Hispanic and Jewish backgrounds. For the most part they settled in slums, took on poorly paid work and lived lives far removed from most white middle class families. Many traditional northern and southern white Americans were uneasy with this sudden influx and it helped create social tension, particularly in the southern states.
The Ku Klux Klan had virtually disappeared for the last part of the 19th century, so the widespread and violent resurgence of the movement took many by surprise. In its earlier incarnation, it had been only African-Americans who the Klan targeted. This time there was much more civil unrest due to the many new members of society who didn’t fit the American stereotype of white, protestant, heterosexual family man. The new arrivals included Jews, Catholics, Hispanics, Asians and homosexuals. Previously the Klan organised mainly in the southern states of America but in the the 1920s, it was the first time that the Klan had been seen in the northern states. This could explain why the movement gained so much popularity: North America was associated with liberalism and free and fair politics but at the time, these attitudes were being distorted. Even some of the most respected politicians started to show racist tendencies. The president Woodrow Wilson, during his his administration, segregated federal officers and inter-racial marriage was declared a felony. Later he declared himself part of the Klan. As people used the central Government of the US as a guideline for morality and ethical opinion, the fact that the president himself encouraged negative propaganda against minorities only further propelled the movement. At its height the movement had between four a five million members.
Another reason for the KKK’s resurgence is that many believed that African Americans were given too much respect after the First World War when they felt them to be second-class citizens. An Oregon minister, who was part of the Klan, talked of the ‘arrogance of Negros after the war’. Many people, particularly those who were not called up for national service - for example older men who did not experience the war first hand - said negros should not be respected for their war efforts. They believed they should go from the trenches back to the fields.
In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was essentially a political party (albeit extreme, fascist and violent). Also, many of the Klan members were part of state Government and even national Government. This gave the Klan considerable political influence, for example when it came to drafting Governments bills. Although many considered the Klan to be a religious group or ‘cult’, others considered it a pressure group, due to the amount of power and influence it wielded. The term ‘political party’ was rarely used, as the Klan rejected the notion of seeking political control. Yet, this did not mean they didn’t have power. In states such as Oregon and Alabama, the state Governments were made up of a majority of Klansmen. The resurgence was able to gain a hold in the country because key figures in US Government used propaganda to provoke hatred for social, religious and ethnic minorities. This network of supporters was called the ‘invisible empire’.
In the early 20th century, cinema wielded a large influence on the American public and the film, Birth of a Nation (a title changed from the original - The Klansmen - to remove the connection between the film and the KKK) had an important impact. The film chronicles the relationship of two families in Civil War and Reconstruction-era America: the pro-Union Northern Stonehams and the pro-Confederacy Southern Camerons over the course of several years. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth is...