The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s

By Derfner, Jeremy | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January 2005 | Go to article overview
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The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s


Derfner, Jeremy, South Carolina Historical Magazine


The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Edited by Shawn Lay. (1992; reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Pp. xii, 230; $20.00, paper.)

This collection of essays, which first came out in 1992, made a big claim. Its revisionist authors challenged the traditional view of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan as the last refuge of "marginal men" salving their psychic wounds with bigotry and violence. On the contrary, they wrote, the Klan was a mainstream Protestant civic action group with its sights set on reform, not on flaming crosses. In this view, KKK members were "not aberrationally racist, religiously bigoted, or socially alienated," and they "avoided violent vigilantism" (p. 220). Now, with the publication of a paperback edition and a new preface, students of the secret order have the opportunity to reflect on how influential the book has been.

The volume includes an excellent (if now somewhat) dated historiographical essay and six case studies of Klan chapters in Denver, El Paso, Anaheim, Salt Lake City, and Eugene and La Grande, Oregon. The authors employed case studies because one of the keys to their reinterpretation of the KKK was how much its success depended on local conditions. They argued that while the Klan's wide-ranging attacks on Catholics, Jews, foreigners, and blacks appealed to many Protestants (whether or not they joined up), ultimately the order had to win support at the community level by organizing around issues such as public education and prohibition.

Despite the emphasis on localism, however, the authors also argued that their analysis of the KKK in the West should "serve as the initial basis of a new general synthesis" (p. 11). Herein lies the problem. In the original introduction, the editor, Shawn Lay, cited then-new work on Indiana, Ohio, and New York that seemed to support the revisionist thesis, suggesting that his interpretation might fit everywhere. But in the new preface, Lay reveals that one region, the South, is an exception to the rule. Referring to two recent books that highlight vigilantism among southern Klansmen-Nancy K. MacLean's Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the second Ku Klux Klan (1994) and Glenn Feldman's Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama, 1915-1949 (1999)-he writes that the conclusions of his book "and other revisionist scholarship may therefore not fully apply in the South, a region long plagued by exceptional violence" (p. xii).

This southern caveat is more complicated and troubling than Lay's rather easy explanation indicates. Even though the 1920s Klan was not as exclusively southern as its predecessor or its successors, it started in the South, was strong in many southern states, and relied on southern history (or Birth of a Nation's version of it) for imagery and rituals. A study of the KKK cannot fail to encompass the South; or if it does fail to do so, it at least has to explain why.

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