Minutemen and Klansmen

originally posted at Imagine2050.org

By Joel Olson

I recently reviewed The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan by Rory McVeigh (University of Minnesota Press 2009) for the academic journal American Studies. The book is a little dry, but there were some notable lessons in it for understanding anti-immigration organizations today.

The Klan originated after the Civil War to restore white supremacy by terrorizing ex-slaves and antislavery whites during Reconstruction. This generation of the Klan ended when Reconstruction did in the 1870s. McVeigh’s book studies the second generation of the KKK, which started in 1915 (coinciding with the release of D.W. Griffith’s famous pro-Klan movie The Birth of a Nation) and exploded in growth from 1920-1924, with a membership of over four million people at its peak.

McVeigh argues that this version of the Klan emerged as a white Protestant response to the rise of large-scale manufacturing and retail, which squeezed small businesses and farms, diminished the political influence of the heartland, and strengthened the power of the cities—and the ethnic communities that lived in them. Klan organizers successfully mobilized White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) by playing on their fears of losing their economic, political, and social power as a result of these economic and political changes.

McVeigh argues that while the 1920s Klan was racist, its focus was not primarily on anti-Black terrorism like the Reconstruction-era KKK. Rather, the 1920s Klan was essentially an anti-immigration social movement. Most social movements, he notes, seek to win power and status for the powerless. But right-wing movements “act to preserve, restore, or expand rights and privileges of a relatively advantaged social group” (38). The 1920s Klan is an example of this. They used a populist rhetoric that attacked industrial elites above them for manipulating labor markets and the “rabble” below them (i.e. ethnic, Catholic working class communities) for flooding these markets and for being culturally alien. The top and bottom of American society, they charged, conspired to squeeze the virtuous, hard-working, upright, white Protestants in the middle.

The KKK argued that “true Americans” were losing ground to immigrants, that immigrants burdened public resources, and that they degraded American culture. The Klan mobilized anxious WASPs by presenting itself as a “one-hundred percent American” organization that promised to restore their status. The fears of these relatively privileged WASPs, combined with effective mobilization techniques by the Klan, led farmers and middle class white Protestants to join the KKK in droves.

These arguments—and many of the quotes McVeigh provides from Klan papers—could have come from the Minutemen today.

What this suggests is that the key to understanding today’s anti-immigration movement—as well as anti-Obama organizing such as the “tea parties”—is to see it as a “virtuous middle” movement. In other words, these are movements whose members see themselves as a virtuous middle—religious, moral, hardworking, patriotic and truly American—who face the threat of losing their relatively privileged social status. They fear that they are under attack by a bewildering global economy and unscrupulous corporations that are moving their jobs overseas. Even more, they feel they are being attacked by cultural elites—Harvard and Hollywood, the universities and pop culture—who undermine the moral values of this virtuous middle with moral relativism and sexual permissiveness. They also fear that they are under attack by the rabble below them—lazy people who live off public benefits paid for by the virtuous middle’s tax dollars (these folks are often secretly coded as black) and illegal aliens who are flooding the country, stealing jobs and degrading American culture (these folks are often coded as brown). The virtuous middle fears that cultural elites from above and the black and brown rabble from below are conspiring —now with the help of a black president!—to undermine their social status and by extension the moral, political, and economic foundations of America. The fall into Sodom is right behind.

This fearful “virtuous middle” (or the “silent majority,” to use Nixon’s term in the 1970s) is a commonplace in American history. Jacksonian Democrats used it in the 1830s to attack corporate elites and slaves (but not masters), populists used it in the 1890s to attack corporate elites and defend segregation, the Klan used it in the 1920s to attack economic elites and Catholics and immigrants, Nixon used it in the 1970s to attack cultural elites and Black and student protestors, and now the anti-immigrant right is using it today.

From the perspective of participants in the anti-immigration movement, this is an effective strategy that should be continued, for it has often worked in U.S. history. From the perspective of those who support immigrant rights, it seems to me that the task is to convince this middle that their true interests lie in a united front with the black and brown “rabble” below them against the capitalist elites above. That would be hard, but it would also make for interesting times.

Joel Olson is the author of The Abolition of White Democracy (University of Minnesota 2004). He is a member of the Repeal Coalition, a grassroots organization that seeks the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws in Arizona.