Christianity and the KKK (by Kim Thoday)
On a cold wintry November night in Georgia, William Joseph Simmons and fifteen other chartered members of the newly formed Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, climbed Stone Mountain, a high granite outcrop, situated some eighteen miles from Atlanta. Simmons a failed Methodist preacher, ex-salesman and self-designated leader (Imperial Wizard) of the Klan, carried a sixteen foot cross on his back to the top of the mountain. An alter was made of rocks and a Bible and American flag placed upon it. Simmons lit the upright cross that was saturated in flammable liquid. It erupted into flame and the onlookers were bathed in its glow. Simmons pondered the sacredness of the event. In reality an old nightmare had been revived. The smoldering embers of intolerance and bigotry, white America’s original sin, were fanned yet again into flames of violence and hostility. The fiery cross would become the Klan’s most potent icon, a spectre of terror and ultimate inhumanity for many and a symbol of truth, patriotism and fraternity for others. During the 1920s, subsequently, such crosses would be burning in many parts of the United States. The old Klan of the 1860s was born again but its growth was far more rapid and dangerous than the first incarnation.
By 1925 the new Klan (KKK) had at least six million members across the US.(i) Whereas the old Klan was largely a Southern rural reaction to Civil war defeat, black emancipation and Republican rule, the new KKK became a city – rural movement. The KKK seemed to be everywhere; chameleon-like in its ability to fuel itself on different regional issues. In the South the KKK repressed the black communities; in the Midwest – Catholics, Jews and immigrants were persecuted; and in the Far West, Asians and immigrants became the objects of race hatred.(ii) In the words of a commentator from the period the KKK had become ‘… at once anti-Negro, anti-Alien, anti-Red, anti-Catholic, anti-Jew, anti-Darwin, anti-Modern, anti-Liberal, Fundamentalist, vastly Moral, militantly Protestant.’ Perhaps the feature that the 1920s KKK shared most closely with the old version was it’s doctrine of ‘white supremacy.’
The social, political and cultural factors influencing the rapid growth of the KKK between 1921 and 1925 are very complex and go beyond the scope of this brief article. Suffice to say that it was likely the acidic forces of modernity eroding away the fabric of the traditional beliefs and lifestyles of White Anglo Saxon Protestant communites , that explains much about the rise of the KKK. The forces of modernity gathered momentum exponentially following WW1, revolutions in transport, communication, mass media, agriculture, industry, Hollywood – sex had somehow escaped the bedroom to the back seats of automobiles!
The KKK offered disoriented people simple answers to complex problems. It articulated decisively what many conservatives, nativists and also some liberals were already concerned about – and it called them out of their apathy into organised action. The KKK would receive much tacit support from local and state governments. However, a major platform in the rise of the KKK was Conservative Protestant Christianity.
Simmons and his right hand man Clarke shared an evangelical heritage. They were acutely aware of the power of evangelical Christianity over the Protestant masses and the vast inroads that Christian Fundamentalism had been making. Both the old and new Klan defined itself as Protestant. The issue which the KKK won most support from the churches was its vehemently anti-Catholic stance. Nationally, one of the KKK’s main strategies was to win over the Protestant clergy. It should, I believe, remain an indictment upon American Protestantism that it did this so easily. While more liberal clerics and theologians were often outspoken against Klan activities, the KKK won remarkable support amongst local churches and ministers. The KKK was supported most notably by Methodists, Baptists and the Disciples of Christ; all of which had been the most susceptible to Fundamentalism. These were the three largest Protestant denominations in the U.S; between them numbering millions of adherents. This provided the KKK with a huge audience to sow their “gospel” of hate, racism and intolerance. This occurred in cities but had most effect in towns and rural centres where most people went to church. It was an era too when a minister or pastor carried a high community status. By 1925, the KKK had proselytised over 40, 000 clergy and a significant number became Klan officials.(iii) This in turn resulted in whole communities becoming pro-Klan.
By the mid 1920s the mid-West had become “klanified.” The KKK dominated the state governments of Oregon, California, Indiana, Oklahoma and Colorado. In Denver, Colorado, the KKK with big business backing, succeeded in having two KKK members elected as U.S. senators. Furthermore, Denver’s governor, mayor and chief of police were all KKK by this time. In 1922, a Klansman was elected as a senator to represent Texas and in this state particularly, KKK membership was ” … literally a who’s who of business.”(iv) According to historian Wyn Wade, as early as 1921, just as a congressional investigation of the KKK’s violent and racist activities was being carried out , the Klan had already eaten its way into the ultimate seat of U.S. power. President Warren G. Harding agreed to be sworn in as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Accordingly, a five man Klan team, presided over by Simmons, conducted the initiation in the Green Room of the White House.(v)
I write this important piece of history as both an evangelical Christian and one who belongs to the Australian Churches of Christ – whose heritage is partly tied to the Disciples of Christ movement in America. I am a great believer in historical perspective. I think it was Socrates who said that without history we remain eternally dumb. This history teaches me that no matter how correct we might think our denomination or theological flavour is, given certain circumstances, we can be easily drawn away from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It is important for the Church to face up to its terrible past mistakes of collaboration with the “principalities and powers.” More important is that we pro-actively learn from history. We always live in dangerous times. Certain styles of Protestant Christianity are again, I believe, in danger of losing their essential “Christian distinctiveness” by flirting and aligning too closely with corporatist, pragmatic, de-regulated, self-styled, managerial, church models that use all the politically correct missional terminology but its somehow hollow or superficial.
C.S. Lewis once remarked: “The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens of evil that Dickens loved to paint but is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.”
Blessings in Jesus’ name,
HEWETT COMMUNITY CHURCH OF CHRIST, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
i Randel, William The Ku Klux Klan: A Century of Infamy, 1971, p.194.
ii Smith, Page Redeeming the Time: A People’s History of the 1920s and the New Deal, vol.8, New York, 1987, p.3.
iii Wade, Wyn Craig The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America, New York, 1988, p.86.
iv Sher, Julian White Hoods: Canada’s Ku Klux Klan, Vancouver, 1983, p.26.
v Wade, op.cit, p.165. This appears to be a little known fact. Wade cites as his sources: case file 28, Calvin Coolidge Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; also an interview with a member of the KKK’s ‘Presidential Induction Team.’