That the Ku Klux Klan was in local and national news yesterday is perhaps just a coincidence.
At the national level, Republican Congressman Steve Scalise acknowledged he had been a speaker at an event organized by a Klan group in Louisiana 12 years ago when he was a State Representative. The GOP is in damage-control mode.
Locally, the sale at auction of a KKK robe presumably worn by a Rochester NH man in the 1920s drew attention mostly as a modern curiosity. The robe was discovered by the robe-owner’s daughter in her attic. It drew $475 at auction yesterday in Dover.
Largely ignored in the press coverage is that the KKK had an active presence in the Granite State in the mid-1920s, when the white supremacist group made strides in northern states.
A 1988 article in Historical New Hampshire, the journal of the NH Historical Society, provides background. The author, Stephen H. Goetz, explained that KKK organizers, called “kleagles,” were able to “translate social tensions into simplistic, easily understood platitudes.”
Delivering highly charged emotional diatribes, the Ku Klux showmen blamed societal change on groups of scapegoats: blacks, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. It is significant to note that in those areas of the country where Klanism become most powerful, these particular groups formed only a small, though growing minority. People alarmed by social dislocation naturally held these ‘new’ elements responsible.
Spreading west from Maine, the KKK established footholds in Rochester, Portsmouth, Dover, and Somersworth before pushing further west to Manchester, Concord, and Keene. According to Goetz, major KKK rallies were held in the summer of 1914 in Concord, East Holderness, and Rochester, with the one in Rochester drawing as many as 10,000 people. Take a look at the Town of Hampton’s official history and you’ll see a pull-out black and white photo showing a huge march of Klansmen along the beach. Anti-immigrant sentiments along with anti-Catholicism were key elements of the KKK’s success in attracting members.
Nationwide, the KKK swelled to more than 1 million members in the 1920s as recruiters exploited whatever local prejudices might attract members. Wyn Crate Wade, in The Fiery Cross: the Ku Klux Klan in America, wrote:
If a town was afraid of labor unions, then Kleagles pushed the Klan’s position against alien-inspired strikers. If the Kleagle was working a dry community, he promised that the Klan and the Klan alone had the guts to deal with the dead heads and bootleggers. If a city was being swollen by immigrants, Kleagles proclaimed that the Klan stood for 100 percent Americanism, and would never allow the country to be taken over by a pack of radical hyphens (i.e. Italian-Americans, Irish–Americans, etc.)
And when the neighborhoods expressed fears over the postwar ‘New Negro,’ they were quietly reminded that the Ku Klux Klan had always known how to handle [n—–]. In short, kleagles pandered to every regional prejudice and fear, offering a scapegoat for every local tension.
It should be no surprise that members of New Hampshire’s white, Protestant, majority were just as prone to being taken in by such rhetoric as people in other states.
The KKK effort petered out by the late ‘20s for two reasons. First, the state’s Catholic minority was already large enough and well enough established that KKK ideology failed to take hold. But secondly, the KKK lost wind from its sails when Congress approved restrictions on immigration, one of its major goals.
Hooded Klansmen are rare these days. But ideologies of scapegoating based on race, religion, national origin, and immigration status live on. The recent incidents can help shine a light where it is needed.