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.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

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The 15 Best Netflix Original Series

Tim Robinson stars in I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.
Tim Robinson stars in I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.
Netflix

Netflix is a cultural Rorschach test. In addition to being a revolution of the way we watch movies and television, it's a prestige factory that's helping to bring Oscar-quality entertainment to your home. And it's massive enough to be whatever you need it to be at whatever time you need it.

Seven years after House of Cards changed our perceptions of what streaming content could look like, Netflix has amassed a library of more than 100 original series (and that's only counting the English language stuff). Here are 15 of the best of them.

1. Russian Doll (2019- )

Nadia (Natasha Lyonne, who also co-created the series) is a game developer stuck in a time loop that keeps killing her and depositing her back at her own birthday party. If you roll your eyes at Groundhog Day situations, roll them back, because this incredibly inventive take from Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler is deeply funny, strange, sad, and celebratory all at once. One woman's existential crisis is our binge-worthy content. As a bonus, Harry Nilsson's "Gotta Get Up" will be permanently stuck in your brain.

2. Dear White People (2017- )

Based on his (also excellent) 2014 feature, Justin Simien takes us back to prestigious Winchester University, where social justice bard Samantha White (Logan Browning) navigates the growing pains of collegiate romance and friendship while trying to make her classmates recognize the social divisions at their school. Through three seasons (with a fourth coming in 2020), the show has faithfully delivered outrageous humor with its singular blend of satire and soap opera.

3. GLOW (2017- )

Anchored by Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and a stellar ensemble cast, GLOW follows a group of women who launch a wrestling show backed by a trust fund kid and a cranky cult horror director (brilliantly played by Marc Maron). It scored laughs from how awkward everything was early on, but the show really sailed when Brie and her cohorts began to fully own the weird, wonderful spandex assault they were creating. Now it's about keeping that show, their group, and their personal lives intact.

4. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (2019- )

Tim Robinson is a Saturday Night Live alum whose sketch show couldn't be further from that mainstay's sensibilities. Where SNL is the McDonald's of comedy, I Think You Should Leave is the hole-in-the-wall place only you and your friends love because it keeps changing the menu with new dishes you can't get anywhere else. It's fair to call the show outlandish, but its comic brilliance stems from the simplicity of its setups and the deranged lengths that the characters go to in order to stick with that premise. Learn nothing else and dive in.

5. BoJack Horseman (2014-2020)

It's the silly cartoon show here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff. Like emo music for grownups, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt's brilliant series focuses on the addiction, self-loathing, and career envy of its titular anti-hero as he attempts to crawl out of the cheesy '80s sitcom stardom of his past and into something more respected. No other show can get away with this many animal puns while exploring the depths of despair that result from trying to fill a bottomless pit in your soul.

6. Master of None (2015- )

Allora! Although it has dipped its toe into experimentation, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang's relationship comedy works largely because of the likability of Dev Shah (its main character, played by Ansari). It's buoyant and feels like you're hanging out with friends but, fair warning, it will make you deliriously hungry for pasta.

7. Sex Education (2019- )

Plenty of high school comedies have focused on how awkward sex and romance is for high schoolers, but this fantastic show from Laurie Nunn wanted to raise the stakes by making the young, sexually ambivalent main character's mom a sex therapist. In another ingenious move, they hired Gillian Anderson to play that sex therapist mom, and she delivers all the frank, embarrassing talk you could possibly ask for. So what happens when the insecure son of a sex therapist starts his own sex therapy side hustle to help his high school friends? An excellent, empathetic series that uses its laughs as a release.

8. Sense8 (2015-2018)

Eight strangers living all over the world discover they are emotionally connected to each other. They can feel what others in their cluster are feeling and can communicate with each other despite physical separation. Teaming with comic book and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, the Wachowskis have pulled another big-think, sci-fi rabbit out of their hats with this globetrotting thriller that's never met a third-rail issue it didn't want to explore. When they're not running from a mysterious entity bent on their destruction, the fascinatingly diverse crew of connected characters break down everything you're not supposed to talk about at the dinner table. So maybe we should be talking about them around the dinner table?

9. Orange is the New Black (2013-2019)

One of Netflix's original originals is still one of its best. Jenji Kohan found a perfect follow-up to Weeds with this adaptation of Piper Kerman's memoir about a young suburban woman going to a minimum-security prison. The fish-out-of-water comedy, drama, and horror only lasts as long as it takes for the show to blossom into a gorgeous, emotional roller coaster that shines the spotlight on all of its women—from the surly cook Red (Kate Mulgrew) to the sweet/troubled Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba)—to humanize them beyond the personas they adopt to survive. The show is a hilarious self-peeling onion, tears and all.

10. Astronomy Club (2019- )

Within the first two minutes of Astronomy Club, a talking garlic bulb shoots a gun at Dracula and shouts "Tryin' get this money in 2020, baby!" Fortunately, it gets weirder. This sketch show from some Upright Citizens Brigade alums is framed around a fake reality show that wisely lets us get to know these new performers while mocking every Real World descendant and the cast themselves. The comedy ranges from self-aware and absurdist to straightforward and even socially-conscious, and it all blends together smoothly. A one-of-a-kind winner.

11. The Crown (2016- )

Peter Morgan's historical drama has taken advantage of the new format and the lengthy reign of Queen Elizabeth II to craft a charming, devilish exploration of the scandals and triumphs of her adult life. As The Crown has covered decades and decades, it has shifted from Claire Foy playing the young queen (post-WWII) to Olivia Colman playing her through middle age (Winston Churchill's death and Soviet espionage intrigue) and will eventually star Imelda Staunton as the older queen closing out the show in the early 2000s (the years, not her age). It's an anglophile's delight with keen dramatic instincts and a huge list of world events to tackle.

12. Mindhunter (2017- )

Based on Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, the series—created by Joe Penhall and executive produced by David Fincher—uncovers our earliest understanding of serial killers and the pioneering research conducted by letting FBI agents interview the country's most notorious murderers about their crimes. The fictionalized team played by Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, and Anna Torv battle bureaucracy and old paradigms in order to get their fledgling, vital program to succeed in using the criminal mind to help solve future cases. It's a delicate, gorgeous show exploring our worst impulses, and, chillingly, uses real serial killers' own words to describe their acts.

13. Stranger Things (2016- )

If there were an Audience Choice Award winner for this list, this nostalgia-bomb from the Duffer Brothers would score it. An absolute phenomenon that stuffs Steven Spielberg, The X-Men, and D&D into a blender and pours the results into a Trapper Keeper, the adventures of the psychokinetic Eleven and her band of merry young men are wondrously creepy fun. Perfect PG-13 horror where puberty and a Cthulhu-esque behemoth from a different dimension are equally strong villains.

14. The OA (2016-2019)

After being missing for seven years, a blind woman named Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) resurfaces with the ability to see and calling herself the Original Angel. The series is a stunning blend of sci-fi and fantasy that explores past trauma and near-death experiences with the backdrop of dimension-hopping adventure. It's an epic, intimate story that's truly unlike anything else, and diving into the magnetic first episode comes with the risk of getting addicted to a series that (for now) ends on a cliffhanger.

15. American Vandal (2017-2018)

American Scandal is undoubtedly the best show ever made about misdemeanor penis drawings. What might have been a crass, surface-level parody of our obsession with true crime stories is elevated to the highest of comedic heights due to the unwavering dedication to taking its juvenile crimes seriously. The first season focuses on a high school slacker who swears he's innocent of drawing the aforementioned phalluses on dozens of cars in the school parking lot while the second uncovers the truth about who spiked cafeteria lemonade with a laxative to cause an event known as "The Brownout." Imbued with all the twists and obsessively granular details of Serial, it's a miracle that they filmed any of it with a straight face.