Religious roots

The KKK of the 1920s is recognized by both traditional and revisionist historians as an almost exclusively Protestant movement.  Some disagreement exists regarding fundamentalist influence on the Klan, but no historians contend that the Klan did not emerge from white Protestant culture.  And as the Klan recruited only native-born Americans, these Protestants generally came from well-established communities.  Regardless of living in cities or rural towns, their backgrounds were almost exclusively Protestant.

Muskegon Chronicle.  (1925).  [Photograph Charles Rice’s Funeral].  Retrieved from

This photo, taken in a small town 30 miles north of my hometown, is of a funeral for a local Klansman.   The stately hometown church in the background, the Klan in the foreground … this part of my faith history was not taught in catechism or in church history courses!  As I delved into Klan research, however, I learned that the Klan in Michigan, Indiana, and most mid-western states operated mainly as a fraternal society dedicated to combating perceived moral problems like drinking and gambling.

It is the religious symbols combined with Klan images that I find most difficult to rectify in my own mind.  Bibles, burning crosses, and church buildings shown in photos with hooded Klansmen are difficult images to wrestle with.  Yet, the photographs do not lie:  those images were purposeful and historically accurate.  “The photograph, unlike the drawing or painting, has the unique quality of conveying a guarantee that something ‘has been’ because of the medium’s requirement of being copresent, of sharing space and light with the object it represents” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009, p. 193).  Once accepting of the reality they depict, though, deciphering the meaning of images becomes a much more difficult task because it involves trying to shed the layers of history that cloud our current interpretation of the images, layers that include the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Little Rock Nine, Emmett Till, and Rodney King, among many.  But to fully understand the images and to understand the historical context surrounding them requires us to look past our own layers, shed our own historical lenses, and look at the images as if time stopped at that point.


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