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.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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