Citizen Klansman?

Posted: May 20, 2012 in Introduction

Unknown photographer.  (1924). KKK March on Washington. [Photograph].  Retrieved from

http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2010/april/klan2_042910/image/kkk500.jpg

As an undergrad history major, I had to choose a research project for my capstone class.  Keenly interested in local history, I headed to the small public library in my hometown of Grand Haven, MI, on the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan, to see what interesting small-town history I could uncover and research. 

I stumbled upon one newspaper article from 1924 which stunned me:  an image of a burning cross, purportedly placed  by the KKK, at the top of the sand dune opposite downtown — the most visible and recognizable spot in the city!  I couldn’t believe that my quiet hometown, steeped in religious history and known for accepting refugees and adoptees from all over the world, would have been home to the KKK. 

Thus began my study of the KKK in the 1920s, and it was a fascinating project then, as it is now.  What I discovered was that the KKK in the 1920s, while rooted in the Reconstruction-area KKK, was largely a different movement with different goals, members, aspirations, and even symbols.

Sturken and Cartwright (2009) observed that “we look at images of the past differently today than they were viewed during the time in which they were created” (p. 143).  This by no means implies a rewriting of history; rather, images are viewed as they were then — in context — as well as in a larger historical context that stretches both behind and in front of that point in time which in turn revises the original meaning of the image.  Such is the case with the KKK.    Revisionist historians, utilizing an extensive cache of both historical documents and recorded images, began over time to see the 1920s Klan as a movement which morphed the strong connotations associated with nineteenth century Klan imagery — most notably the head-to-toe white regalia — with an entirely new populist agenda, a blending of past and present captured in images meant to manipulate emotional reactions, but for a far more diverse and populist agenda.  

When you look at the image above from a march on Washington in 1925, do you see a group of “shock troop(s) of white supremacy” or do you see “citizen Klansmen?”  

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