The study of the Klan is a perpetual exercise.  The Klan of the 1920s has long since disappeared, but interest in the Klan continues for several reasons.

First, the KKK still exists in small pockets in twenty-first century America.  While it certainly cannot be considered mainstream, it exists enough that it’s presence still inspires strong reactions, both in support of and in harsh reaction against them, as seen in this video (warning:  contains profanity).

Second, the images of the KKK throughout time are extremely compelling and intricately tied to the view of the Klan as an extremist, hateful, and violent movement.  Burning crosses and ominous white robes are associated with racism, bigotry, violence, vigilantism, and lynchings.  Stories and images intermingle to the point that the stories conjure up mental images, and the images conjure up horrendous stories.

It is precisely the dominance of images and the ways in which they evoke meaning about the KKK movement that makes the 1920s Klan such an interesting topic of study.  Very few people are aware that a movement that swept the nation for several years during the 1920s even existed in the form that it did:  as a largely non-violent movement reacting to the perceived moral degradation of post-WWI society; a movement focused on moral reform by challenging business elites and unresponsive local government leaders viewed as perpetrators and supporters of immorality.  It is the images, and the stories that accompany them, which make this such a compelling topic of study.  “Like the touch of the hand of the artist, the photograph, in these accounts, is regarded as conveying the “touch” that guarantees the scene as an authentic record of the filmed object’s or scene’s having been there.  In this sense, the photograph is empirical in both an epistemological sense (it provides knowledge of what has been) and an ontological sense (it guarantees that something has, in fact, been)” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009, p. 193).  The KKK existed in the 1920s, and it existed in a way that challenges our traditional ideas of what the KKK means; yet the existence is undeniable because of it’s imaged documentation.

Just as the images from the post-Civil War era KKK confirm the existence of the organization as a movement of terror, hate, and violence, images from the 1920s Klan confirm the existence of a movement identifying with the power and influence of the earlier Klan, but a movement with a different scope, different focus, different membership, and different images.  Images which challenge us to consider whether the KKK were a group of self-appointed shock troops of white supremacy”, or citizen Klansmen”


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