The New KKK

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.

10 LEGO Sets For Every Type of LEGO Builder 

Amazon
Amazon

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If you’re looking for a timeless gift to give this holiday season, look no further than a LEGO set. With kits that cater to a wide age range—from toddlers fine-tuning their motor skills to adults looking for a more engaged way to relax—there’s a LEGO set out there for everyone. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite sets on Amazon to help you find the LEGO box that will make your loved one smile this year. If you end up getting one for yourself too, don’t worry: we won’t tell.

1. Classic Large Creative Gift Box; $44

Amazon

You can never go wrong with a classic. This 790-piece box contains dozens of types of colored bricks so builders of any age can let their inner architect shine. With toy windows, doors, tires, and tire rims included in addition to traditional bricks, the building possibilities are truly endless. The bricks are compatible with all LEGO construction sets, so builders have the option of creating their own world or building a new addition onto an existing set.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Harry Potter Hogwarts Express; $64

Amazon

Experience the magic of Hogwarts with this buildable Hogwarts Express box. The Prisoner Of Azkaban-inspired kit not only features Hogwarts's signature mode of transportation, but also Platform 9 ¾, a railway bridge, and some of your favorite Harry Potter characters. Once the train is built, the sides and roof can be removed for play within the cars. There is a Dementor on board … but after a few spells cast by Harry and Lupin, the only ride he’ll take is a trip to the naughty list.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Star Wars Battle of Hoth; $160

Amazon

Star Wars fans can go into battle—and rewrite the course of history—by recreating a terrifying AT-AT Walker from the Battle of Hoth. Complete with 1267 pieces to make this a fun challenge for ages 10 and up, the Walker has elements like spring-loaded shooters, a cockpit, and foldout panels to reveal its deadly inner workings. But never fear: Even though the situation might look dire, Luke Skywalker and his thermal detonator are ready to save the day.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Super Mario Adventures Starter Course; $60

Amazon

Kids can play Super Mario in 3D with LEGO’s interactive set. After constructing one of the courses, young designers can turn on the electronic Mario figurine to get started. Mario’s built-in color sensors and LCD screens allow him to express more than 100 different reactions as he travels through the course. He’ll encounter obstacles, collect coins, and avoid Goomba and Bowser to the sound of the Mario soundtrack (played via an included speaker). This is a great gift for encouraging problem-solving and creativity in addition to gaming smarts.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Gingerbread House; $212

Amazon

Gingerbread houses are a great way to enjoy the holidays … but this expert-level kit takes cookie construction to a whole new level. The outside of the LEGO house rotates around to show the interior of a sweet gingerbread family’s home. Although the living room is the standout with its brick light fireplace, the house also has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and outdoor furniture. A LEGO Christmas tree and presents can be laid out as the holidays draw closer, making this a seasonal treat you can enjoy with your family every year.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Elsa and Olaf’s Tea Party; $18

Amazon

LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Collectible Art Set Building Kits; $120

Amazon

Why buy art when you can build it yourself? LEGO’s Beatles and Warhol Marilyn Monroe sets contain four options for LEGO art that can be built and displayed inside your home. Each kit comes with a downloadable soundtrack you can listen to while you build, turning your art experience into a relaxing one. Once you’re finished building your creation it can be exhibited within a LEGO brick frame, with the option to hang it or dismantle it to start on a new piece. If the 1960s aren’t your thing, check out these Sith and Iron Man options.

Buy it: Amazon

8. NASA Apollo Saturn V; $120

Amazon

The sky (or just the contents of your LEGO box) is the limit with LEGO’s Saturn V expert-level kit. Designed for ages 14 and up, this to-scale rocket includes three removable rocket stages, along with a command and service module, Lunar Lander, and more. Once the rocket is complete, two small astronaut figurines can plant a tiny American flag to mark a successful launch. The rocket comes with three stands so it can be displayed after completion, as well as a booklet for learning more about the Apollo moon missions.

Buy it: Amazon

9. The White House; $100

Amazon

Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Volkswagen Camper Van; $120

Amazon

Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

Buy it: Amazon

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How It's a Wonderful Life Went From Box Office Dud to Accidental Christmas Tradition

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Director Frank Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life is sacred in the holiday movie pantheon. It's not as quotable as A Christmas Story (1983) or as lyrical as 1966's How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, but the story of George Bailey has a universal message behind it that endures more than 70 years later. Though the movie is the quintessential Christmas tale today, when it was first released in 1946, audiences and critics were lukewarm toward the picture, resulting in a box office disappointment that killed Capra's nascent production company, Liberty Films. In a strange twist, decades after it was first released, an unlikely clerical screw-up managed to turn It's a Wonderful Life into the Christmastime staple we know today.

In the 1930s, Capra became a magnet for Academy Awards, directing movies like the screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). After Pearl Harbor, Capra knew he could contribute something to the war effort, so he took a post in Washington overseeing the development of U.S. propaganda films for the government—most notably the award-winning Why We Fight series of documentaries.

Upon returning from Washington in 1945, Capra—along with other wartime directors William Wyler and George Stevens—helped finance Liberty Films, an independent production company poised to give filmmakers the one thing they all dreamed of: freedom. The company's first film would be an adaption of a short story titled "The Greatest Gift," which would also appear in Good Housekeeping under the title "The Man Who Was Never Born," and would be adapted for the screen as It's a Wonderful Life. It's one of the few movies Capra also received a screenwriting credit for, and with a proposed budget of $2 million, it was a huge gamble for Liberty.

Something akin to a nightmare

In the book Five Came Back, writer Mark Harris describes It's a Wonderful Life's production process as something akin to a nightmare. Script rewrites, a bloated shooting schedule, and an ever-changing crew cost the studio nearly all of the original $2 million budget—well before filming was even wrapped. The spending became such a concern for Capra's partners at Liberty that George Stevens remarked, "Why the hell couldn't it be springtime?" when he saw how much it cost the production to produce fake snow for shots. Capra bet Liberty's future on audiences looking for some comforting nostalgia after the war, but he was about to see firsthand just how much the world had changed since he came back.

The original plan was to release It's a Wonderful Life in January 1947, after the Oscar deadlines, but when RKO—the film's distributor—needed a movie to release in time for Christmas, Capra's project was the easy solution. It opened just weeks after William Wyler's major studio film The Best Years of Our Lives, a hard-hitting drama about a U.S. soldier coming home after the war to pick up his life again. The two films couldn't be any more different, and the reviews reflected that.

Even at nearly three hours long, The Best Years of Our Lives was an absolute hit with critics and at the box office, recouping its budget multiple times over. It's a Wonderful Life, with its inflated budget and saccharine tale touting old-timey values, was met with a whimper, making only an estimated $3.3 million against a $3.7 million budget. Wyler beat Capra in every way: reviews, box office, and awards. The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, while It's a Wonderful Life received only a lone technical award—ironically for the fake snow Stevens loathed.

Liberty Films had borrowed more than $1.5 million to make the film, and with such a disappointing box office return, the production company was soon sold off to Paramount. Capra only directed five feature films afterwards, none of which ever reached the heights of his pre-war work. As unlikely as it seems today, It's a Wonderful Life was seen as a flat disappointment destined for anonymity—until a clerical error changed its fate.

A Wonderful free-for-all

In 1974, the movie entered the public domain after the film's copyright holder simply forgot to file for a renewal. This meant that TV stations everywhere could play It's a Wonderful Life all day and all night and not have to pay a cent for it. Networks aren't necessarily shy about exploiting free Christmas content, and the film's reemergence on television gave Capra's story new life. While a post-World War II crowd may have rejected the movie's sentiment, subsequent generations seem to revel in the opportunity to visit the nostalgic whimsy of it all.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra once told The Wall Street Journal about the film's revival. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud ... but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

Legalities rewrote the history of It's a Wonderful Life yet again in 1993. The Supreme Court's previous ruling in Stewart v. Abend established a precedent that allowed the film's original copyright owner—Republic Pictures—to regain its ownership of the movie. The ruling claimed that since Republic owned the copyright on the original short story which the movie was based on, and the score for the film, they, in essence, still owned the movie. So what was once a near barrage of networks airing It's a Wonderful Life has since been pared down to just one: NBC.

The network paid for exclusive rights to air the movie, which is why you'll only see It's a Wonderful Life on TV once or twice during the holidays. But the movie's modern appeal exists because of that scarcity. The film that killed a production company 70 years ago is now an annual television event and part of countless family traditions around the globe. It turns out Capra always knew what audiences wanted, he just needed to wait for the right clerical error to prove it.

This story has been updated for 2020.