The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 211th installment in the series.  

November 25, 1915: The New KKK

On Thanksgiving night, November 25, 1915, sixteen men wearing white robes and hoods made the long, chilly climb up Stone Mountain, Georgia – a massive flat-topped outcropping of granite and quartz, 1,686 feet tall, located 15 miles east of Atlanta, now the scene of a massive carving honoring the Confederacy. Once they reached the top their leader, a Methodist preacher named William J. Simmons, recalled:

It was pitch dark, and we had to use flashlights. When we had struggled up to the top the wind blew so hard that you couldn’t keep your hat on. The boys took off their hats and fastened them down under stones.  I sent each man out in the darkness to get a boulder. No one knew what I was going to do. Then I held up the cross in the wind while each man placed his stone against the cross. While the men had been gathering the boulders I had secretly soaked the cross with a mixture of kerosene and gasoline. I told the men they had built an altar at the foot of the cross. My father had once given me an old American flag, which had been carried in the Mexican War, I had brought with me. I laid it across the altar, with some more remarks. Next I placed a Bible on the altar, explaining my reasons for doing… Suddenly I struck a match and lighted the cross. Everyone was amazed. And while it burned I administered the oath and talked… And thus on the mountain top that night at the midnight hour while men braved the surging blasts of wild wintry mountain winds and endured a temperature far below freezing, bathed in the sacred glow of the fiery cross, the Invisible Empire was called from its slumber of half a century to take up a new task and fulfill a new mission for humanity’s good…

With this dramatic (or melodramatic – the temperature never fell below 40°F) ceremony Simmons presided over the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, a vigilante and terrorist organization whose first incarnation, founded by Confederate veterans after the Civil War to terrorize freedmen and white Republicans and battle black political associations likes the Union League, had lasted less than decade from 1865 to 1873. 

The organization’s first Grand Wizard, the former Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, denounced the KKK’s violent methods and ordered it to dissolve in 1869; then in 1871 Congress passed the Ku Klux Act, giving military authorities in the occupied South wide latitude to suppress the secret society. But in the years that followed the ideology of white supremacy was sustained by new paramilitary organizations like the Red Shirts, while the legend of the KKK lived on in books like Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.’s novel “The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan,” published in 1905, which presented a heroic image of chivalrous nightriders protecting the virtue of white Southern women from rapacious freedmen (Dixon’s fertile imagination also invented cross burning as a KKK ritual). 

In 1915 the KKK leapt back into the national spotlight with the release of D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster silent film based on Dixon’s novel, “The Birth of a Nation,” a technical masterpiece which gripped Northern and Southern audiences alike, stoking racial animosity and glorifying the Klan in breathtaking cinematic fashion. 

Meanwhile the First World War triggered an economic boom in the industrial North and Midwest, as the Allies turned to American factories to supply the vast quantities of explosives, uniforms, ships, cars, trucks and other supplies needed for modern warfare. The surge in industrial production in turn drove demand for unskilled labor – and economically marginalized Southern blacks were more than happy to answer the call, lured by wages many times what they could earn in small-scale agriculture (especially following the collapse of cotton prices in the first year of the war). The resulting exodus was known as the “Great Migration.” 

In a pattern resembling immigration from other parts of the world, younger men would often go ahead and earn enough to bring siblings and extended family north, who then repeated the process, creating a chain reaction. This sudden extension of economic opportunity threatened to unsettle Southern social structures by freeing African-American sharecroppers from the cycle of debt and labor owed to white landowners. As Simmons himself explained: “This was in the early autumn of 1915. The World War was on, and the Negroes were getting pretty uppity in the South about then. The North was sending down for them to take good jobs. Lots of Southerners were feeling worried about conditions.” 

Simmons took great pains to emphasize continuity between the original KKK and the new secret society, for example by recruiting Forrest’s grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest II. However the new KKK embraced a range of hatreds beyond the traditional bigotry towards African-Americans: it also set out to counter the influence of various “un-American” groups including immigrants, Jews, and Catholics. In fact its founding members, all recruited by Simmons, were mostly drawn from a group calling themselves the “Knights of Mary Phagan,” who had earned notoriety in August 1915 for lynching a Jewish man, Leo Frank, wrongly accused of raping Mary Phagan, a white Christian woman.

Indeed Simmons, embracing the longstanding nativist strand in American politics, positioned the new KKK as above all a white, Christian patriotic organization, emphasizing that race-mixing of any sort would undermine the vitality of true (white) America: “Only native born American citizens who believe in the tenets of the Christian religion and owe no allegiance of any degree or nature to any foreign Government, nation, political institution, sect, people, or person are eligible… We avow the distinction between races of mankind as same has been decreed by the Creator, and we shall ever be true to the faithful maintenance of White Supremacy and will strenuously oppose any compromise thereof in any and all things.”

A savvy publicist, Simmons timed the launch of the new KKK to anticipate the premiere of “Birth of a Nation” in Atlanta, obtaining an official charter as a civic organization on December 4, 1915, two days before the movie opened at the Atlanta Theatre. He then took out ads in the Atlanta Journal proclaiming the rebirth of the secret society (clearly not that “secret” after all), touting it as “The World’s Greatest Secret, Social Patriotic, Fraternal, Beneficiary Order… A High Class Order for Men of Intelligence and Character.”

To cap it off Simmons and his followers rode through downtown Atlanta, bedecked in robes, to the Atlanta Theatre on the night of the premiere and fired their rifles in to the air in front of the crowd waiting to buy tickets for the movie; thanks to these publicity stunts, 92 new members joined over the next two weeks. However the new KKK didn’t really take off until it came under the effective control of Edward Young Clarke, an advertising and publicity impresario who was determined to make it into a paying business (in part by selling new members Simmons' copyrighted robes and regalia). 

After the U.S. went to war in 1917, the KKK played a role in enforcing “moral order” and national security during this frightening time, by intimidating foreigners and “un-patriotic” Americans, breaking strikes, and chasing prostitutes away from military camps across the South. Above all, however, its main mission was still suppressing African-American political movements, galvanized by hundreds of thousands of blacks who served in the armed forces and came away inspired to fight for their own civil rights when the war was over. 

Looking back on their service, W.E.B. DuBois described the next step to be taken: “Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our land.”

See the previous installment or all entries.