Dr. Rawlings explained that the Klan of the 19th century did not have standard robes or uniforms. The organizers of the second Klan purloined their robes and the symbol of the burning cross directly from The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 motion picture directed by D. W. Griffith.
By Hank Hollensbe
The assignment was to attend a lecture at the Funk Heritage Center at Reinhardt University on February 16 and report. One look at the center, both exterior and interior, and I was sure the experience would be worthwhile. It was.
William Rawlings, MD, spoke about his latest book, The Second Coming of the Invisible Empire—the mid-life of the Ku Klux Klan. At the close of his presentation I asked him the question I should have asked at the beginning: Why did he select this subject? He asked if I knew he was a novelist who had turned to writing non-fiction history? I did (thanks to Wikipedia—he has five novels and an award-winning history book available at Amazon). Did I know what made a good novel? Before I could reply he answered his own question: Basically, a good tale with a little violence, sex and murder thrown in. These were what made the story of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s so fascinating.
Dr. Rawlings is an accomplished speaker. That skill and his slide show made the presentation most enjoyable. Never mind that the story began a hundred years ago, the audience was with him all the way as we witnessed the organization ceremony on top of Stone Mountain in 1915.
He explained that his subject was neither about the anti-black, anti-governmental Klan that appeared at the close of the Civil War nor the activities of the scattered members of today. Rather, the Second Coming commenced in the World War I era when the nation was concerned with immigration, inflation, disaffection of returning veterans, and blacks moving north. The organization was initially designed and instituted by a failed minister, William J. Simmons, and later managed by Edward Young Clarke as a classic money-making, multi-level marketing scheme, with additional income for the organizers from initiation fees and the sale of regalia.
Fraternalism—the Masons, the Elks, the Woodmen of the World—was in style in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Klan was originally organized as a similar organization, with costumes, organizational secrets and codes, and a hierarchy headed by a variety of Wizards. Its avowed goals were the sanctity of the home and the chastity of womanhood, white supremacy, to teach and faithfully inculcate a high spiritual philosophy through an exalted ritualism, and, by a practical devotedness, conserve, protect and maintain the distinctive institutions, rights, privileges, principles and ideals of a pure Americanism. Its workaday agenda was anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, prohibitionist, and anti-Semitic.
Soon the Klan turned to vigilantism in support of these goals. There was intimidation, kidnapping, flogging, mutilation and even murder. The Klan spread nationwide and into Canada. Membership grew quickly - 100,000 by 1921, then 1.1 million in 1922, and 5 million or more by 1925. There were visions of glory - an attempt to win the presidency in 1924, and in 1925 a march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC featuring 150,000 robed Klansmen.
Indiana became one of the bastions of the movement in the early 1920s. One of the more infamous happenings was the 1925 trial for rape and murder of former Indianapolis Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson. It was events like this that helped destroy the Klan’s professed image as a positive force for law and order.
After its peak in 1925, Klan membership in most areas had dropped sharply. By 1930, it had ceased to be a major force in American life. The formal end came in 1944 under IRS pressure for payment of back taxes.
My assignment to cover the lecture was pure happenstance, but near the close of the lecture I briefly captured (I imagine) the audience’s attention by reporting that my father, born 1903 in Indiana, had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan before his college days. He was never proud of his membership, but the indoctrination he received stayed with him for the rest of his life.
With Stephenson’s trial as one example of many, I saw that Dr. Rawlings’s requirements for a good story were met. The Second Coming of the Invisible Empire, published by Mercer University Press, will be available on March 1st on Amazon.com and at other booksellers. Read more about this and Dr. Rawlings’s other books on his
The Funk Heritage Center is to be congratulated for its provision of lectures such as Dr. Rawlings’s presentation today.