The June issue of the Forum features Kelly J. Baker’s essay, “The Artifacts of White Supremacy.” Discussions about racism—and white supremacy in particular—tend to treat it as a matter of belief, while there’s considerably less talk of how racialized hate becomes tangible and real. And yet, we know the Ku Klux Klan, the oldest hate group in the U.S., by their hoods and robes. Artifacts signal (and often embody) the racist ideology of the Klan, along with their particular brand of Protestantism and nationalism. Robes, fiery crosses, and even the American flag were all material objects employed by the 1920s Klan to convey their “gospel” of white supremacy. The Klan’s religious nationalism, its vision of a white Protestant America, became tangible in each of these artifacts, and each artifact reflected the order’s religious and racial intolerance. Nationalism (or “100% Americanism”), Protestant Christianity, and white supremacy became inextricably linked in these material objects. Examining the historical artifacts of white supremacy helps us to better understand how white supremacy manifests today and might also help us better identify and analyze the presence and effect of racism in American life and politics.
Over the next few weeks, scholars will offer responses to Baker’s essay. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.
- Jason C. Bivins (North Carolina State University), “What am I afraid of?”
The Artifacts of White Supremacy
by Kelly J. Baker
The second Ku Klux Klan (1915-1930) began with a dream. William J. Simmons, an ex-Methodist minister, fraternal organizer, and founder and eventual Imperial Wizard of the Klan’s Invisible Empire, claimed that his recreation of the Klan began with a vision on a summer night in Alabama.1 As he looked out a window, Simmons saw “something mysterious and strange in the sky”: horses “galloping across the horizon” with riders dressed in white robes. Then, “a rough outline of the United States appeared as the background.” Simmons watched as each “big problem” in “American life” shifted across the celestial map, and he “fell to his knees and offered a prayer to God.”2
He prayed to “solve the mystery of the apparitions he had seen in the sky” and vowed to build “a great patriotic fraternal order” as “a memorial to the heroes of our nation.” Those heroes were the members of the first Klan (1865-1870).3 Simmons believed these Southern Klansmen triumphed against the supposed evils of Reconstruction in the South by affirming white supremacy and racial order, though he did attempt to distance his Klan from their predecessor’s vigilantism and terrorism. For Simmons, the first order saved the South from racial equality, which he believed would lead to the destruction of white homes and white Southern masculinity. Once again, the nation was in peril, and America needed a new generation of defenders, a new order of Klansmen, to save the nation. His religious visions and adoration of those first Klansmen, as well as the theatrical release and popularity of Birth of a Nation (1915), led Simmons to create the second Klan, a fraternity dedicated not only to white supremacy and social order but also nationalism and religious faith.
On November 25, 1915, Simmons and 16 men climbed atop Stone Mountain, Georgia and lit a large wooden cross on fire. At midnight on that Thanksgiving night, these men pledged allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, American ideals, and “the tenets of the Christian religion.”4 The fiery cross marked the official start of the second order of the Klan. Simmons and his successor as Imperial Wizard, H.W. Evans, imagined and crafted the new Klan as a patriotic, Christian, and white supremacist order distinct from the violent legacy of the earlier Klan. What we imagine, however, isn’t always what we get. The 1920s Klan couldn’t easily escape the history of the first order, even as they tried to.
These new Klansmen shifted their attention from the South to the nation as a whole, and they looked for threats to white supremacy, Protestantism, and patriotism. They claimed that Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and African Americans were all threats to the nation. The burning cross atop Stone Mountain marked the beginning of the second Klan’s fight to save America as a nation for only white Protestants. Just nine years later, in 1924, the order’s membership peaked at four million members in all 48 of the continental states.5 The changing social climate in the U.S., including immigration, urbanization and the migration of African Americans, made the Klan’s white, patriotic and Protestant message appealing to white men and white women. Their popular nativism was a backlash to the changing demographics and changing culture of the nation. The Klan told a story of importance of white Protestants from the nation’s founding until the 1920s, and their artifacts—the robes, the fiery cross, and the American flag—materialized the order’s commitment to Protestantism, white supremacy, and 100% Americanism.
It’s noteworthy that Simmons’ vision included figures in robes and that the order started with a fiery cross. These are the most recognizable objects of the Klan past and present. His retelling of that vision and recreation of the order points toward an often-overlooked part of the history of the 1920s Klan: the reliance on artifacts in the order’s daily operations, meetings, naturalizations, marches, picnics, and other public events. These artifacts communicated the order’s ideals—Christianity, white supremacy, and patriotism—as well as their vision of America as a nation created and maintained solely for white Protestants.
The Klan wanted a homogenous, white, Protestant America, free from the corrupting influences of “diversity,” whether political, religious, or racial. These artifacts showcased that desire and presented the order’s brand of white religious nationalism to themselves and outsiders. The robes, cross, and flag documented the order’s intolerance of any group, people, or movement that challenged the Klan’s version of America as exclusively for white people. Klan artifacts give us examples of how faith, nationalism, and racism work together to bolster, promote, and perpetuate white supremacy.6
Yet, the meaning of an object is never settled, and often the story the Klan wanted objects to tell was not the one that everyone else heard. Robes, fiery crosses, and the American flag ended up telling competing narratives about the Klan’s idealized vision of white Protestant America and their promotion of intolerance and racism. The Klan couldn’t control how other people interpreted their actions or their objects, but that didn’t stop them from trying.
May the God in Heaven . . . find every Klansman worthy of the robe: Klan Robes
The infamous white uniforms were, and continue to be, the most distinctive feature of the Klan. The Reconstruction Klan created the distinctive outfit: long, white robes decorated with various occult symbols and tall hoods with aprons, or masks.7 The uniforms evoked the ghosts of the Confederate dead, and Klansmen employed them to terrify African Americans and sympathetic white people. The 1920s Klan adopted the uniform from the Reconstruction Klan, but also changed it to mimic the Klansmen in Birth of a Nation.
Imperial Wizard Simmons admitted that his initial purpose in adopting robes “was to keep in grateful remembrance the intrepid men who preserved Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the South during . . . Reconstruction.”8 However, the uniform’s importance grew and its meaning changed. Simmons wrote:
Every line, every angle, every emblem spells out to a Klansman his duty, his honor, responsibility, and obligation to his fellow men and to civilization . . . All of it was woven into the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan for the purpose of teaching by symbolism the very best things in our national life.9
No longer a ghoulish disguise, the robes became a sacred object.
Despite its importance, the average Klansman’s uniform was simple: a belted white robe with cross patch, hood, and mask. The robe was long and shapeless, and its shapelessness was important, covering bodies from neck to wrist and from wrist to feet. Only the wearer’s hands, calves, and feet appear visible. A deep red patch on the chest interrupts its whiteness. Inside the patch resides a cross with a teardrop shape in its center. The cross symbolized the order’s commitment to Christianity while the teardrop symbolized the blood Jesus shed to redeem humanity. The color of the robes displayed the requirements for membership: white, Protestant, and “native-born” American, all rendered as white.10
According to an Exalted Cyclops (a Klan leader) from Texas, Klansmen wore “this white robe to signify the desire to put on that white robe which is the righteousness of Christ, in that Empire Invisible, that lies out beyond the vale of death.”11 Putting on their uniforms, then, commemorated the life and death of Jesus.
But more than that, to wear the robes was to wear Christ’s example on one’s body, to embody it. Each robed Klansman wasn’t supposed to appear terrifying, frightening, or dangerous, but Christ-like. The theology of the robes tried to counter the violent legacy of the robes’ use in the Reconstruction Klan’s terrorism. Klansmen imagined themselves as Christian Knights, who supposedly were beyond the violent legacy of the artifact.
The Exalted Cyclops continued:
Who can look upon a multitude of white robed Klansmen without thinking of the equality and unselfishness of that throng of white robed saints in the Glory Land? May the God in Heaven, Who looks not upon outward appearance, but upon the heart, find every Klansman worthy of the robe and mask that he wears. Then when we ‘do the things we teach’ and ‘live the lives we preach,’ the title of Klansman will be the most honorable title among men.12
While the Texas Klansmen looked upon the faceless, white multitude and saw Christ’s example, others noted the weird, spectral image of Klansmen in full regalia.13 Imperial Wizard Simmons admitted that some found the uniforms “grotesque and ghostly, designed to intimidate and terrify persons against whom the displeasure of the Klan might be directed.”14 And intimidation was part of the robes’ purpose whether Simmons wanted to be honest about it or not.
The mask concealed the members’ faces, wiped away the last traces of the individual, and allowed each Klansman to become part of the larger Klan community. While the mask protected the identities of members, the Klan also claimed that it symbolized the Klan’s dedication to selflessness. In the minds of the order’s leadership, each individual Klansman sacrificed a sense of self to become an active and valued member of the order.
The motto of the Klan—“not for self, but others”—was realized in the indistinguishable multitude. The Klan claimed that if the uniform terrified, it was only because the robes and mask conjured images of Christianity, Americanism, and white supremacy. The enemies of nation, particularly the Klan’s vision of the nation, would have rightly felt terror upon glimpsing the hooded Klansmen because of what they stood for. The uniforms did represent exclusion, after all. Unsurprisingly, the order favored its own interpretation of the Klansman’s uniform as an artifact of Christian brotherhood and selfless service rather than outsiders’ claims about terror and intimidation.
But, there was also a problem here for the Klan. If the uniformed Klansmen reflected the collective, an individual Klansman’s action could make the order appear more honorable or terrible. The collective, after all, was made up of men who didn’t always commit to all the Klan required. The order’s control was never quite complete, which bedeviled both Simmons and Evans. Imperial Wizard Evans warned that unofficial use of regalia was “a direct violation of the rules of this Order and must be discontinued.” The Night-Hawk, the Klan’s national newspaper, reminded that “untold damage might easily result from such practices.” One man’s actions could put the organization’s large messages of white Protestant nationalism in danger.
Klansmen did not always practice what the Klan preached. The Klan’s artifacts, however, continued to preach anyway, though not always messages that supported the Klan’s view of their own order.
While the robe and mask symbolized Jesus and the importance of Christian love, the paths of love and intolerance were not so different for Klansmen. An anonymous Klansman wrote:
The purpose of the Klan is to capitalize love—to promote goodwill and the spirit of kindness…but it strikes without mercy or compromise the pernicious foreign influences which are undermining liberty and seeking to dominate American institutions.15
The order didn’t recognize the contradiction between claiming love and goodwill in one breath and striking without mercy in another. Klansmen and Klanswomen often comprehended the intolerance directed at them but not the intolerance they created. The Klansman’s love of his race, his religion, and his America became his intolerance for other races, religions, and perceived threats to white America. The uniforms personified this dichotomy; the garments represented distinctly different values to Klansmen and their enemies. The robes manifested spiritual purity, conceptions of Protestant love, equality, and assimilation as well as terror and exclusion. The story of the robes was not simply the Klan’s story; it never could be.
The American flag emerged as another Klan artifact that communicated who the Klan claimed belonged in the American nation and who did not.
Purchased by the blood and suffering of American heroes: The American Flag
In local klaverns, Klansmen dressed in white uniforms gathered in front of altars dedicated to Americanism, which was symbolized by the American flag one side and the cross on the other. Like the robes, the flag was of the one of the seven symbols of Klan. Despite its connection to patriotism, the flag came to represent nation and faith for the order. Various Klan leaders, lecturers, and contributors to the news magazines, took the time to describe the spiritual character of the national emblem.
Harold Edwin Dickins, in a speech on the history of the American flag reprinted in a Klan newspaper, claimed: “God gave man his first banner, unfurling in the sky in the flood days and man’s first flag [was]…the rainbow.”16 Under a flag, a nation shifted from groups of disparate peoples to a united people ready to fight and sacrifice, if necessary.
In the Klan’s story, the flag became a powerful artifact created by a people’s love of their nation. The American flag, particularly, was an emblem of not only patriotic devotion but also the freedom and liberty of Americans granted by the founders. It was the physical symbol of the peculiar history and destiny of Americans, particularly white Americans. A Texas Klansman wrote:
When we look upon the flag, we see not the cloth merely, but there rises before the mind the aspect of that land whose people, in their thoughts of loyalty, love and hard wrought sacrifice, have chosen that flag as emblematic of their love of nation and their fireside.17
For the Reverend W.C. Wright, a Klan minister, the flag was “purchased by the blood and suffering of American heroes,” which was the “price paid for American liberties.” For the Klan and other Americans, it was a symbol of liberty, democracy, the Constitution, free speech, freedom of worship, and the rights of citizens. Wright noted how the colors of the flag represented American values and history. Red symbolized “the bravery and blood” of all those who fought for liberties. White represented “the sacrifice and tears of American womanhood whose husbands and sons paid the price” and “the purity and sanctity of the American home.” Blue was “but a path of America’s unclouded sky, snatched from the diamond-studded canopy that bends above our native land,” and finally, the stars illuminated the union of the states.18 The colors of the flag offered a nostalgic view of the nation and its citizens. For the Klan, America was great because of the bravery of men, the domesticity of women, and the union of the states.
The Kourier, a Klan national newspaper, demonstrated how faith was also a key component of the flag. The red stripes manifested patriotic devotion, even if this required “the shedding of blood.” The monthly noted, “We love Jesus because He shed his blood for us, and we love the Flag because it represents the blood shed for our freedom.” The stars in the field of blue came to represent “Him [God] Who is back of the stars in Heaven above.” The Kourier continued:
We may not all understand God alike, but we do believe there is a God, and we must admit that the bases of America’s Laws are the great moral laws of God. When any man turns his back on God [,] he turns his back on the Flag.19
For the Klan, belief in God was essential to citizenship. Yet, the Kourier wasn’t promoting a universal God that would be inclusive of citizens of all faiths, but rather understood Christianity as essential to Americanism. The monthly continued, “Pure Americanism can only be secured by confidence in the fact that the Cross of Jesus Christ is the wisest and strongest force in existence.”20 For the editorial staff of the Kourier, American nationalism couldn’t exist without Christianity. Under the Star-Spangled Banner, Americans might claim unity, but the Klan’s unity was narrowly limited to those people they thought qualified as truly American—only white Protestants. The flag, a symbol of America, was instead the symbol of one version of the nation, in which intolerance was a virtue and any diversity was suspect.
To turn against God was to turn against nation. The flag stood for the Klan’s vision of what the nation should be, not what the nation was. The Klan’s vision of America erased the history of non-white and non-Protestant peoples, except as threats to the order and the nation. For the Klan, the American flag, then, was not a banner for all Americans. What is striking is that we tend to forget about the Klan’s use of the flag as an exclusive symbol to claim white Protestant dominance and power. Today, we tend to imagine that the American flag is a symbol for all Americans, but the Klan’s use of it suggests that hasn’t always been the case.
The fiery cross further demonstrated who remained outsiders in the Klan’s America and showed once again how exclusive faith and nation could be.
By This Sign We Conquer: The Fiery Cross
Imperial Wizard Simmons added the fiery cross to 1920s Klan’s rituals, but it was Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman (1905) that introduced the idea of the burning crosses as a part of Reconstruction Klan’s mythology. In the novel, the burning cross was a tool for Klansmen to communicate with each other, an attempt to connect the order to the Scottish clans of lore and larger history of Anglo-Saxons. The 1920s Klan adopted the artifact for ritual and as a warning.
The cross, which also appeared on Klan uniforms, echoed the order’s Protestantism and the magnitude of Jesus’s redemptive sacrifice. Interestingly, most Protestants viewed the cross as a potent symbol of “Romanism” until the middle of the nineteenth century, and Protestant churches avoided the object as a symbol of their faith.21 Despite the cross’s ambivalent history, the Klan claimed it was “the symbol of heaven’s richest gift and earth’s greatest tragedy.”22 It thus became for the Klan another sacred symbol. In their minds the cross was:
[s]anctified and made holy nearly nineteen hundred years ago by the suffering and blood of the crucified Christ, bathed in the blood of fifty million martyrs who died in the most holy faith, it stands in every Klavern of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan as a constant reminder that Christ is our criterion of character…23
The wooden artifact became a memorial of Christ’s debt, clearly attached to the Klansman’s version of Jesus. An Iowa Klansman wrote a poem about the fiery cross, claiming its light revealed that God controlled the universe. Its flames guaranteed that God would “redeem and regenerate the world.”24 For this particular Klansman, the cross promised that a “good” Klan would triumph over any “evil”: immigration, alcohol, threats to the public school, attacks on Protestantism, Catholicism, Bolshevism, and Judaism to name several. The Klan emerged as a force of good that would triumph in an increasingly unsafe world.
However, the artifact was not just a cross, but a cross set on fire. For the Klan, the fire signified that Christ was “the light of the world” that vanquished darkness and evil. It was a beacon of truth given for Klansmen alone. An Exalted Cyclops reflected:
Who can look upon this sublime symbol, or sit in its sacred, holy light without being inspired with a holy desire and determination to be better man? ‘By this sign we conquer.’25
The Klan leader believed the fiery cross helped Klansmen become better men and confirmed that they were Knights ready to conquer forces that opposed their nation.
To conquer, or re-conquer, the nation for Protestantism, white supremacy, and “100% Americanism” was a clear aim of the Klan. Perhaps Christ’s light did emanate from the burning cross, but lifting up the fiery cross as a central symbol of the Klan was also an attempt to “rally the forces of Christianity” to take back the nation. Conquering required purging the “hordes of the anti-Christ” and the “enemies” of Americanism from America.26 The cross served as beacon and warning. For Klansmen, its glow provided comfort, but for those “enemies,” the fire terrified. The fiery cross was a warning. While the Klan hoped the fiery cross illuminated the light of Jesus, it also documented the terror the order caused too.
In August of 1926, Walter Rodin, of Haworth, New Jersey, found a burning cross on his front lawn. Six men built and then lit the cross while Rodin’s neighbors watched. One neighbor, Mrs. J.D. Kruse, noted that the fiery cross was “a beautiful sight that everyone should have seen.” Rodin, however, didn’t find the beauty in this spectacle that his neighbor did. He knocked the cross to the ground before the flames had died down. He told the New York Times that he was probably targeted because of business dealings, but Rodin couldn’t quite understand how this led to a burning cross on his lawn.27 The Klan’s warning might have proved effective if Rodin had actually known what the dramatic display was about. What’s clear is that he didn’t see the cross as a testament to Christ’s love, but as an artifact of the Klan’s intolerance. The fiery cross made material the order’s disapproval and their exclusivist claims to faith and nation.
In its flames, the cross symbolized both the Klan’s commitment to Jesus and the Klan’s threat to all people who weren’t white, Protestant, or 100% American. The fiery cross was an unmistakable warning to all of those people whom the order believed were threats to the nation. Faith and white supremacy helped build the exclusionary boundaries of the order’s nation, in which certain religious traditions and races were unassimilable; Catholics, Jews, and African-Americans all fell outside the Klan’s limited view of what America included.
Imperial Wizard Evans wrote, “Pre-eminence is enjoined upon us by God and by our obligations to the world. If the Klan aspires to purify America and make her impregnable, it is not any selfish reason.”28 The reason was, instead, divinely ordained. The Klan thought that America needed to maintain white Protestantism, or the future of the nation might be in peril. Evans and his Klan hoped to protect faith and race to preserve their version of America, the only one they considered actually legitimate.
The Klan’s attack on immigration, its religious intolerance of Catholics and Jews, the campaign to keep the Bible in the public schools, and even the threat of evolution were all concerns about faith and nation. Many of the Klan’s “enemies” of Americanism were challenges to the predominantly white Protestant culture of 1920s America.
Imperial Wizard Simmons sounded the alarm early in the second Klan’s history: “The cross of Christ must be exalted and sustained, or our splendid civilization might be doomed.”29 Imperial Wizard Evans continued to emphasize that the only way to protect America was for Klansmen to step forward and protect their religion, race, and nation.
The Klan’s artifacts and their religious and racial nationalism illuminate the nefarious aims of the order, even when the order tried to claim they didn’t. The Klan strove to be the savior of the nation, but their nation had exclusionary limits that encouraged intolerance of anyone who wasn’t white or Protestant.
And yet, millions of Americans found resonance in the Klan’s vision of white, Protestant America and wore robes (and assembled fiery crosses) while preaching religious intolerance and racism. The Klan favored exclusion over inclusion, intolerance over tolerance, and racial supremacy over racial equality, and they attempted to control portrayals of nation and nationhood to guarantee the cultural and political dominance of white Protestants. Klan artifacts were the symbols of both the order’s commitment to Protestantism and their white supremacy—theology, nationalism, racism, and terror, standing side-by-side.
By wearing white robes under the light of the fiery cross, the 1920s Klan hoped to save America. Robes, crosses, and the American flag materialized their hope. The fiery cross and robes were also artifacts of fear and terror to the Klan’s victims. But, we should remember that the meanings of artifacts are always contested. Sometimes the meaning you choose is not the one that lasts. The meanings the Klan instilled into their artifacts didn’t quite stand the test of time.
White Nationalism Lives On
In recent years, the robes and fiery cross appear shorn from the Klan’s Protestantism. And yet they both remain ready symbols of the Klan’s racism. The historical legacy of Klan terrorism imbues robes and fiery crosses with meaning that signals them as some of the most obvious artifacts of white supremacy while the American flag’s association with the order is hardly ever mentioned. Burning crosses and robes are essential to how we interpret and understand the Klan historically, and yet many people seem unable to abide such obvious signs of racial hatred in the twenty-first century. (But, to be clear, some still do!) Instead, we now have dog-whistles and subtler forms of race-baiting that appear commonplace. The Klan still attempts to rebrand every few years, but their artifacts always betray their attempts. As soon as Klansmen and Klanswomen slip on the hood and robe, we quickly remember the order’s long association with white supremacy. None of their attempts to rebrand convince us otherwise. The scorn directed at the Klan’s artifacts is here to stay, but so is the Klan.
The 1920s Klan boasted membership numbers in the millions, but recent estimates suggest that modern Klans only total between 3000 and 5000 members. The modern Klans, unlike the 1920s order, lack national organization, but consist of many smaller Klans. There are local and regional chapters, websites and newsletters, but the only thing that connects the groups are the use of the Klan name, material culture, and the continued defense of white supremacy. As of 2016, there are only 130 known chapters in the U.S., which is down from 221 reported chapters in 2010. The Klan is no longer culturally dominant, and many would like to claim that the Klan is also marginal and fringe. Other white supremacist movements, however, are gaining members. Writing at Slate, Brian Palmer claims that younger racists imagine the Klan as “their grandather’s hate group.” While their influence has declined steeply, the Klan refuses to cede their place in the cultural landscape. They appear in news cycles when they pass out fliers, burn crosses, and rally in support of the Confederate flag. The Klan continues to exist, even as some pretend they don’t. Their overt racism and reliance on artifacts historically tied to previous incarnations of the Klan marks them clearly as a hate group.
The robes and fiery crosses remain too, and these artifacts still contain elements of the original faith. In 2008, photojournalist Anthony Karen followed “Ms. Ruth,” a contemporary seamstress of Klan robes for Mother Jones. Ms. Ruth is an Aryan outfitter while fostering relationships with her clients, whom she tells Karen are “good people” and “Christian.” Ms. Ruth takes the time to explain that the Klan remains a force of good, which continues to protect the rights of white citizens. In several of Karen’s photos, Ms. Ruth blesses each robe by holding it in her thin arms, pressing it to her chest, and closing her eyes. She says: “God bless the person who wears this robe.”
Religion remains a prominent part of the Klan, though many would like to pretend that it’s not. Examining modern and historical Klans demonstrates the continued presence of white Christian nationalism and its commitment to promoting exclusion. Consider the shock and surprise that pervaded discussions of white nationalism that dominated the news cycle leading up to and after the 2016 presidential election. White nationalism was supposed to a be a relic of the past, and yet the Klan and the alt-right (a newer form of white nationalism) supported a presidential candidate whose slogan was “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). White Americans (almost exclusively) donned red hats emblazoned with the slogan and waxed nostalgic about a past America that was supposedly great. I couldn’t help but notice echoes of the 1920s Klan. An America that was great was an America that privileged white people. The red MAGA hat became yet another object of white nationalism, not so far removed from the hood and robe as some might imagine. Through the creation, maintenance, and revival of artifacts, the second Klan, Ms. Ruth, and Trump supporters today imagine and promote a national landscape in which white Christians must fight to save their nation. Their voices become stronger and their racist agendas clearer in the examination of their artifacts.
These artifacts continue to tell the story of white Protestant nationalism, which promotes supremacist visions of the nation through exclusion and redefinition. The Klan’s use of objects to communicate exclusive faith, white supremacy, and “100% Americanism” continue to resonate with current pairings of religion and nation: bumper stickers that quote Ronald Reagan and firmly place America as “one nation under God”; Christian fine art productions like Tapestry Productions Heroes series of soldiers; portraying firefighters and a former president (George W. Bush) as being led by the divine; and a superabundance of t-shirts, bumper stickers, websites, and cartoons that seek to demean, marginalize, and exclude Muslims from American life. Artifacts tell our national and religious history. And they challenge the familiar, dominant (and oftentimes comforting) narratives of American pluralism and progress.
The Klan’s America became real through the use of objects as do other competing visions of nationhood. The order’s envisioned (and notably religious) nation became visible and tangible in hooded faces, robed bodies, and burning crosses, all draped in the American flag. Familiar symbols of patriotism and faith become unfamiliar in the Klan’s material culture. (Or do they?) The order dressed members in religious virtue, 100% Americanism, and intolerance. Their darker version of nationhood persists still today. White nationalism is here to stay. The robe—the Klan’s most identifiable object—still communicates a remarkable yearning to return to America’s fabled white Protestant origins. Their vision inspires hope precisely for those who yearn for a white Zion in America. For the rest of us, this vision is terrifying.
While white Americans might find the Klan’s robes and burning crosses less compelling than they once did, it is perhaps not too surprising that many white Americans found no problem with “Make America Great Again” hats or the white nationalist rhetoric of now President Trump. White supremacy isn’t going anywhere, even if the “stuff” of the Klan shifts and changes. White people might not join the Klan in record numbers anymore, but they still join racist groups. They still purchase white nationalist hats and t-shirts, and they voted for a presidential candidate endorsed by the Klan. The Klan might be out of fashion, but white supremacy persists in subtler-but-no-less-sinister ways. The robes, fiery crosses, and American flag bear witness to that truth. They remain artifacts of white supremacy, a collection of racism that grows still. ♦
Kelly J. Baker is the editor of Women in Higher Education and the author of Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture, and Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces. She’s also a freelance writer with a religious studies Ph.D. (American religious history) who covers religion, higher education, gender, labor, motherhood, and popular culture. She’s written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Rumpus, Chronicle Vitae, Killing the Buddha, Religion & Politics, Washington Post, and Brain, Child. When she’s not wrangling two kids, a couch dog, and a mean kitty, she writes about zombies, apocalypses, and other bad endings.
* Header image: “The City” by Vincent Valdez. The featured image is comprised of the middle third of Valdez’s six-panel, 43-foot-long black and white painting titled “The City.” He painted it over 11 months between November of 2015 and September of 2016. In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Valdez said of the painting, “It’s almost too predictable, too easy, to portray these very menacing, overly aggressive, these guys who are snooping around, up to no good. I was much more curious about presenting them as, underneath those hoods, they’re everyday Americans, working jobs, picking up their kids from school, paying their taxes. Just hanging out, like most families would do on a Sunday. But once they put these masks on they completely change their persona, their vision. In this case, they are strategizing, planning, plotting to continue to keep a stranglehold on the city.”
- William J. Simmons founded the second incarnation of the Klan, and he composed the Kloran, the fraternal manual, and several books defending the Klan, including The Klan Unmasked (1923). In January of 1924, Hiram Wesley Evans became the second Imperial Wizard of the order. ↩
- Winfield Jones, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: The Toscin Publishers, 1941), 76. ↩
- Ibid., 77. ↩
- William J. Simmons, Official Message of the Emperor of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, to the Initial Session of the Imperial Klonvokation (Atlanta: Webb & Vary Print, 1922), n.p. ↩
- Wyn Craig Wade, Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 253. ↩
- While there’s still a tendency to discuss racism as an issue of personal beliefs and individual intentions, we still need to pay attention to how racism is created and maintained beyond personal prejudice. White supremacy structures our lives, and studying white supremacists, those people who openly avow and act on their racism, can give us clues about the creation and maintenance of white supremacy not only by white supremacists, but also by other white people. The maintenance of white supremacy becomes particularly obvious in the artifacts that white supremacists, like the Klan, create and use. ↩
- Ibid., 33-34. ↩
- William J. Simmons, The Klan Unmasked. (Atlanta: W.E. Thompson Publishing Company, 1924), 87. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- “Louisiana Klansman Outlines the Aims, Purposes and Principles of His Order,” Imperial Night Hawk, May 30, 1923, 6. ↩
- Exalted Cyclops of Texas, “The Seven Symbols of the Klan,” Imperial Night-Hawk, December 26, 1923, 7. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- “Klansmen Conduct Weird Ceremonials While Throng Watches in Wonderment…,” Miami Herald, February 8, 1922, 1. ↩
- Simmons, The Klan Unmasked, 87. ↩
- “The True Spirit of American Klansmen.” Imperial Nighthawk, May 16, 1923, 7. ↩
- “Origin of the Flag” Kourier Magazine, July 1925, 11. ↩
- “The Klan and the Flag” Kourier Magazine, July 1925, 14. ↩
- W.C. Wright, Religious and Patriotic Ideals of the Ku Klux Klan. (Waco, TX: W. C. Wright, 1926), 33. ↩
- “Patriotism,” Kourier Magazine, July 1926, 14-15. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ryan K. Smith, “The Cross: Church Symbol and Contest in Nineteenth Century America.” Church History 70 (2001): 705-734. ↩
- “Texas Klansman Outlines Principles Upon Which the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is Founded,” Imperial Night-Hawk, April 4, 1923, 5. ↩
- “Seven Symbols of the Klan.” Imperial Night-Hawk, December 26, 1923, 6. ↩
- “The Symbol of the Fiery Cross.” Imperial Night-Hawk, February 6, 1924, 8. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Simmons, The Klan Unmasked, 33. ↩
- “Burn Fiery Cross At Citizen’s Home,” The New York Times. August 5, 1926, 33. ↩
- “Dr. Evans, Imperial Wizard, Defines Klan Principles…” Imperial Night-Hawk, January 23, 1924, 2. ↩
- Simmons, Official Message, 12. ↩