The study of the Second KKK: Revisionist history

Studying the KKK is a somewhat difficult task.  In fact, the difficulties associated with doing research on this organization also help explain some of the variance between various interpretations of it.  The KKK was a secret organization which often destroyed evidence of membership and activities, necessitating speculation and conjecture on behalf of the historian.  For many years the only sources available were Klan propaganda and newspaper accounts of Klan activities, neither of which make for completely reliable sources.

Early interpretations of the KKK in the 1920s viewed the Klan as a rural or small-town phenomenon with Klan members being largely poor, uneducated, and fearful of anything new and foreign.  They joined the Klan out of resentment to the growing dominance of the city — and the small-town’s lack of influence — as well as opposition to the influence of modern, cosmopolitan values.  In the Klan, these people were able to lash out at racial and ethnic minorities whom they viewed as symbols of this new modernism.  Traditionalists also emphasized the prevalence of Klan violence and vigilitantism (Hawley, 1979; Mumford, 1922; Reid, 1922).

The progression of time brought about changes to the discipline of history that subsequently influenced the interpretation of the 1920s KKK, changes which focused on an what has become “the dominant trend in social and political history to approach the lives of ordinary people — whether they lived in cities, towns, or countrysides — with seriousness and respect” (Moore, 1991).  With regards to studying the KKK, historians turned to the careful examination of Klan membership lists to obtain a more accurate and complete assessment of it.  These membership lists were cross-referenced with business listings, church membership records, and a variety of other public documents in an effort to learn about the people who actually were members and leaders of the organization.  Thus, it was a combination of Klan photographs, symbols, propaganda/advertisements, newspaper stories, and a variety of primary source material that gave revisionist historians a broader picture of the 1920s KKK (Coben, 1991; Enders, 1988; Jenkins, 1990).

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