Epilogue: the demise of the Second KKK

What originally appeared to be an effective politically charged, highly popular movement turned out to be one of the shortest-lived national movements in our nation’s history.  It began a national appeal around 1921 and by 1926 membership was rapidly declining.  Why this movement disintegrated so quickly has been speculated upon by historians since the 1930s, and many explanations have been offered.  Not surprisingly, often local circumstances played a major role in the Klan’s downfall.  But general trends have been identified, and local circumstances both affected these trends and were affected by them:

  1. Internal conflict was a major factor in the decline of the Klan.  The two greatest contributors to this were scandals involving Klan leaders and financial quarrels.  Klan leaders scathed by scandals and corruption led to disillusionment among Klan members and a desire to disassociate from the Klan.  The most famous scandal, and the one most harmful to the Klan’s image, involved the Grand Dragon (head of the state Klan) of Indiana,  D. C. Stephenson.   In 1925 Stephenson was charged with the rape and murder of one of his clerical aides, Marge Oberholtzer.  this scandal rocked the nation, repelling citizens and irreparably marring the Klan’s reputation (Moore, 1991).  Elsewhere in Indiana, Governor Ed Jackson, a professed Klansman, was indicted for bribery and accepting illegal campaign contributions.  Similar scandals happened in many other states, mostly involving local leaders, frequently over the misuse of public funds and other illegal dealings.
  2. Corruption and struggles over financial matters within the Klan’s hierarchy took a huge toll.  Upon joining the Klan, each inductee paid a $10 membership fee that went to the central treasury and was doled out to both national and local leaders.  Maintaining membership required no additional fee.  Therefore, disbursement of funds as membership declined became a major issue.  National, state, and local leaders quarreled over how to use the dwindling resources, and this became a major issue among leaders following the scandalous year of 1925.
  3. Counter attacks by anti-Klan groups also contributed to the KKK’s demise.  In every place the Klan existed, counter-groups did too.  These groups fought diligently against Klan agendas.  Sometimes Chambers of Commerce and other business groups who opposed Klan ventures gained enough support to defeat the Klan in politics.  Other counter groups heckled them at Klan parades and rallies and even fought vigilante violence with their own vigilante justice.  Public officials and private citizens drove Klansmen away.
  4. The Klan was based on emotion, rather than reason, and emotional appeals can last for only just so long.  The Klan appealed to people’s fears, warning them that unless they took immediate action, their whole lifestyle would be undermined by invading forces, be it foreigners, or Catholics, or modernity, or business and industry.  However, when life continued and they adapted to changes in their community and society at large, the emotional appeals of the Klan seemed shallow and misguided.
  5. The lack of elected officials to carry through with promises to enact policy changes also led to the Klan’s downfall.  Time and again Klan members got elected and failed to act (has politics changed at all in the last 100 years, we are led to ask?).
  • Anaheim, CA:  the only visible changes  were local traffic law enforcement (Cocoltchos, 1992).
  • Indiana:  Anti-Catholic bills and bills regulating religious practices in public schools were promised, but the only one passed required only that all students study the Constitution (Moore, 1991).
  • Colorado:  lack of agreement among leaders led to no substantive political changes at all (Goldberg, 1981).

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