John Dickson’s ‘Jesus: A Short Life’: Christian Apologetics Masquerading as History

John Dickson, Jesus: A Short Life (Oxford: Lion Books, 2012).

The edition of John Dickson’s book, ‘Jesus: A Short Life’, that I read, published in 2012 was subtitled ‘Jesus: A Short Life – The Historical Evidence’. However, I notice that the first edition of this book, published a few years earlier in 2008, seemed to omit part of the subtitle referring to “The Historical Evidence”.

This is actually quite fitting, because, despite this added subtitle, Dickson himself omits to include much historical evidence supporting the biographical details he presents in the book.

Instead, Dickson relies heavily on what is referred to as the ‘appeal to authority or ‘argumentum ab auctoritate’ fallacy – albeit with a touch of the argumentum ad Populum’ fallacy thrown in too for good measure.

Thus, he repeatedly insists that ‘all serious scholars agree’ on a certain aspect of Jesus’s biography, with the clear implication that that this is reason enough for non-expert readers like myself to agree as well.

Unfortunately, he only very rarely actually takes the time to explain why all serious scholars supposedly agree on this aspect of Jesus’s life or present the actual evidence that has led the experts to agree.

Instead, he seems to imply that the reader should simply defer to expert opinion rather than taking the time to actually look at the evidence for themselves and make their own judgement.
 
For example, he observes that the claim that Jesus was publicly baptised by John the Baptist is “doubted by no one doing historical Jesus research” (p49).

However, he neglects to explain in the main body of his text why no serious scholar doubts this, or why the evidence is so compelling.

Only in an accompanying endnote does he bother to explain that the main reason all experts agree is that this episode supposedly satisfies what New Testament scholars refer to as the criterion of embarrassment.

In other words, because it seems to cast Jesus in a role subordinate to that of John, the opposite of the impression the biblical authors presumably intended to convey, it is hardly the sort of thing the gospel writers are likely to have invented (p137-8).

Incidentally, I am not entirely sure whether the so-called criterion of embarrassment is unambiguously satisfied with respect to the claim that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. After all, Jesus is portrayed as humble throughout the gospels and often adopts a subordinate role – for example, when he is described as washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:1–17).

Indeed, given that Jesus’s philosophy represents what Nietzsche called a slave morality, whereby what would usually be seen as a source of shame and embarrassment is instead elevated into a positive virtue, the entire concept of the criterion of embarrassment seems to of dubious value, at least with respect to questions regarding the historical Jesus.

Thus, Jesus’s entire life, from his obscure origin in Nazareth, through his baptism by John, to the ultimate failure of his ministry and his ignominious death at the hands of the Romans, would seem to be an embarrassment from start to finish, at least for a figure who claimed to be a saviour and ‘Messiah, who would free the Jews from subjugation at the hands of their Roman overlords and usher in a new Kingdom of Heaven. Yet, for Christians, all of this, far from being embarrassing, is reinterpreted as perverse proof of Jesus’s divinity and omnipotence.

In short, at least as applied to historical Jesus research, the so-called criterion of embarrassment seems to represent something of an embarrassment in and of itself.

Elsewhere, in rebutting the assertion of Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion that “it is even possible to mount a serious, though not widely supported, historical case that Jesus never lived at all”, Dickson again resorts to a combination of the argumentum ab auctorita and argumentum ad Populum fallacies, insisting “no one who is actually doing history thinks so” (p21).

Actually, although it remains very much a minority, maverick position, some researchers, who certainly regard themselves as “doing history”, have indeed championed the so-called mythicist’ thesis that Jesus never existed, including, for example, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty and Robert Price.

Perhaps Dickson regards these authors’ work as so worthless that they cannot be said to be truly “doing history” at all. If so, however, then this is an obvious, indeed almost a textbook, example of the no true Scotsman’ fallacy.

Thus, Dickson asserts:

Not only is Jesus’ non-existence never discussed in academic literature… but most experts agree that there are… ‘no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life’” (p10-11).

The actual evidence he cites, however, seems rather less than compelling.

Aside from the gospels themselves one of the few other sources he cites is contemporary letter written by one Mara bar Serapion referring to the Jews killing their “wise king”.

Dickson claims:

There is a consensus among scholars that Mara bar Serapion‘s ‘wise king’ was none other than Jesus. It simply strains belief to imagine that there could have been two figures in first century Palestine fitting the description of Jew, law-giver, king and martyr by his own people” (p19).

Perhaps so – but unfortunately Jesus himself doesn’t fit the bill all that well either.

After all, Jesus may indeed have been ‘wise’. This, at least, is debatable.[1]

However, he certainly does not appear to have been a king’, at least in the ordinary, familiar sense of the word.

Neither does he appear to have been killed by the Jews, as claimed of the figure described in Mara bar Serapion’s letter, but rather by the Romans. Crucifixion was, after all, a Roman, not a Jewish, method of execution.

Moreover, Dickson himself admits “Jesus of Nazareth was not the most revered religious figure of the period”, even in Palestine (p109). Might not these other religious gurus fit the bill better?

Moreover, although Dickson asserts “it simply strains belief to imagine that there could have been two figures in first century Palestine fitting the description”, actually there appears to be nothing in Mara bar Serapion’s letter that actually says anything about this “wise king” necessarily having resided “in first century Palestine”. This seems to have been entirely an invention of Dickson’s own.

What then of Jewish religious leaders, or better still actual “kings” (in the familiar sense of this word) from other periods?

Or perhaps Mara bar Serapion was just mixed up and confusing the Jews with some other people.

Who Mara bar Serapion was referring to seems to be, at best, a mystery. Certainly, his letter hardly represents the definitive proof of Jesus’s historicity.[2]

Should we Trust the Experts’?

The ‘argumentum ab auctoritate’, or appeal to authority, is perhaps a method of argumentation that naturally appeals to devout Christians. After all, they usually appeal to the ostensible authority, not of ‘experts’ and ‘reputable scholars’, but rather to that of God himself, or of ‘holy scripture’ or ‘the Word of God’).

Of course, appealing to the unanimous opinion of scholars in a given field is sometimes legitimate. If, for example, we do not have the time or the inclination to research the topic for ourselves, it is prudent to defer to majority opinion among qualified experts.

However, in a book subtitled “The Historical Evidence”, one is surely entitled to demand rather more.

Moreover, the field of study in which the experts are ostensibly deemed to be expert must itself be a reputable field of study in the first place.

Thus, if all ‘reputable homeopaths’ or all ‘reputable astrologers’ agree on a particular aspect of homeopathic or astrological theory, I am entitled to disagree simply because the entire fields of homeopathy and astrology are pseudo-scientific and therefore there is simply no such thing as a ‘reputable homeopath’ or ‘reputable astrologer’ in the first place and all are no more than charlatans or professional damned fools.

Similarly, I submit, although the case is nowhere near as clear cut as with astrology or homeopathy, that there is reason not to trust the so-called ‘experts’ in the case of historical Jesus research.

This is because those who have chosen to devote their lives to the study of the life of Jesus have typically done so because they are themselves devout and committed Christians.

Given, then, that their whole philosophy of life is predicated on the existence of a figure of Jesus resembling the one described in the gospels, it is perhaps hardly surprising that they tend to conclude that the story in the gospels is more or less accurate.

Admittedly, unlike homeopaths and astrologers, many of these researchers have important-sounding professorships at apparently reputable, sometimes even prestigious, universities.

However, this is largely an anachronistic remnant of origins of the European university system in Medieval Chrisendom, when religious scholarship was a key function, perhaps the key function, of the university system.[3]

However, this should not fool us into mistaking them for serious, secular historians.[4]

Thus, most researchers investigating the historical Jesus, at least in universities, seem to come from backgrounds, not in history, but rather in theology, seminaries and Bible studies.

Few, then, seem to have spent any time researching other areas of history, and they are therefore presumably unfamiliar with the standards of proof demanded by mainstream historians researching other periods of history or other historical questions.

Thus, the tools used by researchers into the historical Jesus to judge the veracity of gospel claims (e.g. the criterion of embarrassment, the criterion of multiple/independent attestation) do not seem to be widely used in other areas of history when assessing the trustworthiness of sources – or, at any rate, the same terms are not used.

One finds these terms only, so far as I am aware, in the index on books on dealing with historical Jesus studies – not in general books on methods of historical research, nor in works of history dealing with other times and places and other historical questions.

Certainly, analogous principles are employed, but the standards of proof seem, in my opinion, to be rather higher.[5]

I would have preferred it if Dickson had announced at the onset that he was a Christian, in the same way that politicians and lawmakers are expected to ‘declare an interest’ in a matter before they venture an opinion during a debate, let alone cast a vote regarding a decision.[6]

However, although there is no such explicit declaration in the opening paragraphs, Dickson is, to his credit, open about his own religious belief. Nevertheless, he insists that he approaches the facts of Jesus’s life as an historian not as a Christian.

Thus, Dickson insists:

The presupposition that the Bible is God’s word and therefore entirely trustworthy is perfectly arguable at the philosophical level” (p13).

To play Dickson at his own game of appealing to expert opinion in lieu of formulating an actual substantive argument, I am not sure how many contemporary philosophers would agree this statement. Certainly not Daniel Dennett for one.

Nevertheless, Dickson insists in the same paragraph:

I intend to approach the New Testament as an entirely human document” (p13).

However, we surely have reason to doubt whether a devout Christian, whose beliefs are surely at the very core of their philosophy of life, can ever perform the sort of ‘mental gymnastics’ necessary to approach a topic such as the life of Jesus with the necessary disinterest, scholarly detachment and objectivity required of a serious historian.

The Gospels as an Historical Source

At the heart of Dickson’s account of the life of Jesus is his contention that the gospels themselves are legitimate historical sources in their own right.

Thus, they are, he argues, more trustworthy than the apocrypha, because the latter are less contemporaneous and they generally date from a later period (p25). This is, indeed, according to Dickson, the main reason why the latter were rejected as non-canonical in the first place.

On researching the issue, I discovered that it does indeed seem to be generally true that the canonical gospels date back to an earlier time-frame than do the New Testament apocrypha. It is indeed perhaps the one useful thing I learnt from reading Dickson’s book – since it is indeed true that many skeptics and atheist authors do indeed seem to imply that the choice of which books to be included in the New Testament Canon was either entirely arbitrary or else reflective of the theological or political agendas of the later Christian leaders responsible for the decision.

True, Dickson acknowledges, the gospel writers were Christians, and sought to convince readers of the divinity of Jesus – but all ancient sources, he observes, have some sort of agenda, and there is therefore, he argues, no reason to give any less credence to Christian sources than to any others.

This is only partly true.

Dickson is right in so far as he asserts that most, if not all, sources, ancient or indeed modern, have some sort of bias. Thus, we should not regard any source as completely infallible, in the same way that Christians have traditionally regarded the Bible as the infallible ‘Word of God’.

But, if no source is completely trustworthy, this does not mean that all sources are equally trustworthy.

On the contrary, some sources are much more accurate and reliable than others, some of which are completely worthless as history.

The Christian gospels, with their plainly ahistorical content and frankly preposterous elements (e.g. miracles, the resurrection), are clearly unreliable.

Are there no other contemporary sources on the life of Jesus besides the Christians gospels to provide balance? What about anti-Christian writings by adherents of other faiths?

Moreover, call me naïve, but from a book subtitled “the Historical Evidence”, I expected something more than another repetition of the gospel stories so many of us were so cruelly subjected to in Sunday School from earliest infancy – albeit this time supplemented with occasional references to Josephus and, of course, ‘the unanimous opinion of all reputable scholars’.

Dickson therefore concludes:

History… demonstrates that the story at the heart of the Gospels is neither a myth nor fraud, but a broadly credible account of a short first century life” (p129).

However, the primary (indeed virtually the only) source he has used to construct this so-called ‘history’ is the gospels themselves. No other sources (e.g. Josephus) provide any details whatever beyond the faintest of outlines.

To establish that “the story at the heart of the gospels” is “a broadly credible account” surely requires an independent source external to the gospels themselves against which to judge their veracity.

To claim that we can be certain of the gospels’ historical veracity because they are consistent with all the contemporary historical sources available simply won’t do when the only contemporary historical sources available are the gospels themselves.

This is simply to state the self-evident tautological truism that the gospels are consistent with themselves.

Jesus’s Birthplace

Actually, however, the gospels are not entirely consistent with themselves – or at least not with one another.

Take, for example, the matter of Jesus’s birthplace.

Against the arguments of skeptics such as Richard Dawkins, Dickson argues in favour of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus, in accordance with Christian tradition.

Dismissing the claim that the Gospels of Luke and Matthew only relocated the nativity to Bethlehem so as to accord with Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2), Dickson demands petulantly:

What is the evidence that Matthew and Luke put him there out of some necessity to make him look messianic? None. The argument dissolves” (p37).

Instead, Dickson argues:

Just as important as the fact that Bethlehem is not mentioned in Mark or John is the fact that it is mentioned in Luke and Matthew. Surely the silence of two of the gospels cannot be louder than the affirmation of the other two” (p37).

Yet Dickson does not mention that the two gospels manage to relocate Jesus to Bethlehem by entirely different and mutually incompatible means. Thus, Matthew has the family based in Bethlehem then only fleeing to escape the wrath of Herod; whereas Luke has them only visiting Bethlehem in order to register for a census.

Nor does he mention that both stories are historically doubtful.

Whereas there is simply no evidence for the so-called Massacre of the Innocents outside of the Gospel of Matthew itself, the story in Luke is positively contradicted by the historical record.

Thus, the first census did not occur until AD 6 after the death of King Herod. Yet, just a couple of pages earlier Dickson himself has concluded:

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born while Herod the Great, the Rome appointed king over Palestine, was still alive… This leads to the broad consensus among scholars that Jesus was born around 5 BC” (p35).

At any rate, a census, even if it occurred, would apply only to Roman citizens, not Jews in Galilee, then a client state not under direct Roman rule. Moreover, even Roman citizens were not required to return to the hometowns of their remote ancestors merely for the purpose of a census – an obviously preposterous proposition given the expense and difficulty of long-distance travel during this time-period and the huge disruption and chaos such a requirement would impose (see The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible: p27-32).

Finally, given that Dickson acknowledges that Jesus was born into obscurity and attained what little prominence he did achieve within his own lifetime only as an adult, anything about his birth is likely to be legendary and made-up long after the fact. At the time of birth, on the other hand, hardly anyone was likely paying much attention.

Dickson is therefore right to conclude “one cannot prove that Jesus was born in Bethlehem”. However, given the incentive to make Jesus’s birth accord with Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2), the apparent embarrassment associated with his originating in Nazareth (John 1:46) and the contradictions and ahistorical elements in the accounts given of how ‘Jesus of Galilee’ (also known as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’) could ever have ended up being born in Bethlehemseventy or eighty miles from Galilee and Nazareth – the weight of evidence is surely strongly against the notion.

Supernatural Events, Miracles and the Resurrection

Yet perhaps the strongest evidence against the notion that the Gospels can ever be considered reliable historical sources is the fact that they contain many supernatural elements (e.g. miracles).

However, Dickson, being a Christian, obviously does not see this as a problem. Instead, he maintains:

The best sources and methods employed by the leading scholars in the field produce the unexpected – and, for some, embarrassing – conclusion that the paradoxa erga [i.e. miracles] are, as Professor James Dunn admits ‘one of the most widely attested and firmly established of the historical facts with which we have to deal’” (p77).

In this passage, Dickson admits that this conclusion is “for some, embarrassing” (p77). However, he does not mention to whom it is supposedly embarrassing.

Yet it ought to be embarrassing, not, as implied by Dickson, to skeptics, rationalists and atheists, but rather to biblical scholars themselves – since, if indeed “the best sources and methods employed by the leading scholars in the field” suggest that events such as the feeding of the 5,000’, the turning of water into wine and Jesus healing lepers by touching them are “firmly established… historical facts”, then this seems to suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with the “sources and methods employed by leading scholars” in the field to such an extent that the entire field is called into disrepute.

Of course, the reliable historical attestation of Jesus performing miracles could be interpreted differently. It might suggest simply that Jesus perhaps performed conjuring tricks, involving psychological suggestion and other chicanery of the sort employed by contemporary faith healers and similar charlatans, which, together with the well-documented placebo effect, together explain the similarly “widely attested and firmly established” eye-witness testimony regarding the ostensible miracles of these modern-day charlatans and con artists.

Similarly, resorting again to the argumentum ab auctoritate, Dickson lists various scholars who have investigated the historicity of the resurrection, claiming “All of these scholars agree that there is an irreducible core to the resurrection story that cannot be explained away as pious legend and wholesale deceit” (p110) – because “from the very beginning, numbers of men and women claimed to have seen Jesus alive after death” and that this is “a fact of history” (p111-2).

Of course, large numbers of men and women also claim to have been abducted by aliens. However, most of us do not regard this as evidence for the occurrence of alien abductions so much as it is evidence for the unreliability of eyewitness testimony and either the deceit or delusion of those making the claims.

Conclusions

I have complained that I would have preferred it had author John Dickson admitted at the beginning of his book, or, better yet, on the back cover, that he is a devout Christian and hence far from impartial with regard to the matter of the life of Jesus, just as politicians are expected to ‘declare an interest’ in a matter before casting their ballots or participating in a Parliamentary debate.

Here is my own belated disclaimer: I am an atheist.

However, I make this belated disclaimer, not so much to ‘declare an interest’ as it is to declare a lack of interest, or rather a disinterest.

I am obviously interested in the subject of the historical Jesus – otherwise I would not have taken the time to read Dickson’s book, let alone to write this review.

However, unlike Christian readers or researchers, I have no vested interest one way or another regarding the biography of Jesus. It does not challenge my fundamental beliefs whether Jesus existed, didn’t exist, lived a life roughly similar to that described in the gospels or a life very different.

Certainly, if evidence of the occurrence of miracles were discovered, this would challenge my beliefs, since it would suggest that the laws of physics as they are currently understood are somehow mistaken, incomplete or capable of temporary suspension on demand.

However, given that it is inconceivable that miracles supposedly performed some two millennia ago could ever be conclusively proven to have occurred some two thousand years after they are alleged to have happened, this is not really a problem.

Apart from this, I am in principle entirely open to the possibility that – miracles aside – the rest of the gospels is largely accurate as a description of Jesus’s life. However, on reading Dickson’s account of the “historical evidence”, it just seems to me that the evidence isn’t really there.

Certainly it is possible that (excepting miracles, virgin births, resurrections and other such patent nonsense) Jesus’s life did indeed take roughly the same path as that described in the gospels.

Moreover, since the canonical gospels, though obviously unreliable, do indeed seem to be the earliest surviving detailed accounts that we have of the life of Jesus, I am even prepared to tentatively concede that we must provisionally accept this as the most likely scenario.

However, it also seems quite possible that the course of Jesus’s life was very different and that the gospel stories themselves are largely mythical and invented after the fact.

It certainly seems probable that there existed a religious leader called Jesus who lived and was crucified by the Romans at around the time and place he is alleged to have lived and died and who provided a basis, howsoever minimal, for the stories and myths that subsequently came to be told about him.

However, I suspect that, given his relative obscurity in his own lifetime, it is doubtful much can ever be known about him today some two millennia later.

Moreover, even the most extreme form of the so-called mythicist’ thesis, namely that the gospel stories are entirely mythical and no person called Jesus upon whom the stories were based ever existed in the real world, hardly seems to be the sort of preposterous crank theory, roughly on a par with holocaust denial, as it is portrayed as being by Dickson and other Christian apologists.[7]

It just seems to me that there is so little reliable contemporary historical evidence regarding the life of Jesus that even extreme positions remain tenable – or at least cannot be definitively disproven. This is why attempted reconstructions of the historical Jesus are so notoriously divergent.

Indeed, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction in Dickson’s thesis.

On the one hand, he contends, surely rightly, that Jesus was, during his own lifetime, only, as Dickson himself puts it, quoting the title of another book about the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, who achieved prominence and historical importance only after his death.

However, at the same time, Dickson contends that there is abundant reliable evidence regarding the life of this marginal Jew. Yet, if the Jew in question was so marginal, one would hardly expect to find abundant documentary evidence regarding his life.

In short, perhaps the reason so few serious secular scholars and historians have studied the life of Jesus and the field remains the preserve of ‘true believers’ like Dickson is precisely because there is so little to study in the first place.[8]

Only those with an a priori emotional commitment to belief in Jesus as ‘messiah’ (or sometimes an a priori commitment to disbelief in this same concept), precisely those whose emotional commitment renders them unfit to undertake a disinterested and objective investigation, take it upon themselves to embark on the project in the first place.

Endnotes

[1] Actually, at least in so far as the accounts of his teachings as reported in the gospels are accurate, Jesus’s teachings do not appear to have been at all ‘wise’ in my opinion. On the contrary, they appear quite foolish. Thus, advising people to turn the other cheek when they are victims of assault (Matthew 5 39-42; Luke 6: 27-31), and to give up their worldly possessions (Mark 10:21; Luke 14:33) seems, to me, not ‘wise’ counsel, but rather very foolish advice. Corroboration for this interpretation is found in Jesus’s ultimate fate: If he had indeed been ‘wise’ perhaps he would not have ended up nailed to a tree.

[2] Another supposed early textual reference to Jesus sometimes cited by New Testament scholars, but curiously omitted by Dickson, seems similarly spurious. This is the reference by the Roman historian Suetonius in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars to disturbances during the reign of Claudius supposedly conducted at the instigation of Chrestus. After all, quite apart from the fact that ‘Chrestos’ was in fact a common name at the time, at least among Pagans, if not among Jews, the word is also the same, or very similar, to the Greek word, Khristós (Χριστός), which is itself the translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. Given that it was widely anticipated among the Jews that a ‘Messiah’ would appear among them, overthrow Roman rule and restore independence in Judea, and Jesus was only one of many claimants to this mantle, this reference to a ‘Chrestus’ or ‘Chresto’ could easily have referred to one of these other candidates for this title.

[3] The fact that the western university system traces its origins to medieval Christendom, when Christian dogma was almost unopposed, results in the paradoxical irony that, whereas many new universities often no longer even bother with courses in theology and Bible studies, the older, and hence generally more prestigious, universities often maintain a large number of professorships in these fields, and have long-established, entrenched and well-endowed Schools of Divinity.

[4] The idea that simply because someone has an impressive-sounding professorship at a prestigious university this must mean they are authoritative is, of course, another version of the argumentum ab auctoritate, or appeal to authority, that features so heavily in Dickson’s book, and the criticism of which is a major theme of this review. In fact, however, today as in the medieval age, there are many tenured and well-credentialled professors at ostensibly prestigious universities who are little more than ‘professional damned fools’. In a former age they were mostly theologians; today, meanwhile, they are mostly professors of women’s studies, gender studies, cultural studies, black studies, and other aspects of what has been aptly termed the grievance studies’ industry. These fields, indeed, arguably represent the modern ‘cultural Marxist’ equivalent of what theology represented in the medieval age, and are today even more entrenched in academia.

[5] Of course, this may depend on the area of history in question. Obviously, sources are more abundant for certain historical periods than for others. Thus, as a crude generalization, ancient history tends to be more speculative than modern history.

[6] Had Dickson began with a declaration to this effect, then, I must confess, I would probably never have bothered to read his book in the first place. This might perhaps be dismissed as a prejudice on my part. However, as explained above, I simply do not believe that a devout Christian can ever be capable of investigating the historical Jesus with the necessary scholarly detachment, disinterest and objectivity required for such an endeavour.

[7] Indeed, it is bizarre to read Christian apologists like Dickson pouring scorn on mythicism as a kind of crankish, kookish conspiracy theory or form of pseudo-scholarship, while at the same time insisting that miracles are among “the most widely attested and firmly established of the historical facts” about Jesus (p77), and that there is an irreducible [historical] core to the resurrection story that cannot be explained away as pious legend and wholesale deceit” (p110). Is Dickson really trying to have us believe that the idea that Jesus never existed is more preposterous than the idea that he cured lepers by touching them and later rose from the dead?
I am reminded of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2006 Easter Sermon, where he dismissed The Da Vinci Code book and film, then just released, as a preposterous conspiracy theory (as indeed it was), contrasting it with what he had the audacity to call the prosaic reality – the latter presumably a reference to the gospel accounts with all their virgin birth, resurrection and miracle stories. The phrases pot calling the kettle black and people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones very much spring to mind in both these cases.

[8] These ‘true believers’ include, it must be acknowledged, not only Christians like Dickson, but also many virulently anti-Christian cranks and conspiracy theorists, who often seemingly have almost as strong an a priori commitment to their own pet theories (e.g. mythicism) as the Christians do to the veracity of the gospel stories.

The Decline of the Klan and of White (and Protestant) Identity in America

Wyn Craig Wade, The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987

Given the infamy of the organization, it is surprising that there are so few books that cover the entire history of the Ku Klux Klan in America. 

Most seem to deal only with only one period (usually, but not always, either the Reconstructionera Klan or the Second Klan that reached its apotheosis during the twenties), one locality or indeed only a single time and place

On reflection, however, this is not really surprising. 

For, though we habitually refer to the Ku Klux Klan, or the Klan (emphasis on ‘the’), as if it were a single organization that has been in continuous existence since its first formation in the Reconstruction-era, there have in fact been many different groups calling themselves ‘the Ku Klux Klan’, or some slight variant upon this name (e.g. ‘Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’, ‘United Klans of America’), that have emerged and disappeared over the century and a half since the name was first coined in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

Most of these groups had small memberships, recruited and were active in only a single locality and soon disappeared altogether. Yet even those incarnations of the Klan name that had at least some claim to a national, or at least a pan-Southern, membership invariably lacked effective centralized control over local klaverns.

Thus, Wade observes: 

After the Klan had spread outwards from Tennessee, there wasn’t the slightest chance of central control over it – a problem that would characterize the Klan throughout its long career” (p58). 

It is perhaps for this reason that most historians authoring books about the Klan have focussed on Klan activity in only a single time-frame or geographic locality.

Indeed, it is notable, besides Wynn Wade’s ‘The Fiery Cross’, the only other work of which I am aware that even purports to cover the entirety of the Klan’s history (apart from the recently published White Robes and Burning Crosses, which I have not yet read) is David Chambers’ Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan

Yet even this latter work (‘Hooded Americanism’), though it purports in its blurb to be “The only work that treats Ku Kluxism for the entire period of it’s [sic] existence”, actually devotes only a single, short, cursory chapter to the Reconstruction-era Klan, when the group was first founded, arguably at its strongest, and certainly at its most violent.

Moreover, ‘Hooded Americanism’ is composed of separate chapters recounting the history of the Klan in different states in each time period, such that the book lacks an overall narrative structure and is difficult to read. 

In contrast, for those with an interest in the topic, Wade’s ‘The Fiery Cross’ is both readable and informative, and somehow manages to weave the story of the various Klan groups in different parts of the country into a single overall narrative. 

A College Fraternity Turned Terrorist? 

If, today, the stereotypical Klansman is an illiterate redneck, it might come as some surprise that the group’s name actually bears an impressively classical etymology. It derives from the ancient Greek kuklos, meaning ‘circle’. To this was added ‘Klan’, both for alliterative purposes, and in reference to the ostensible Scottish ancestry of the group’s founders.[1]

This classical etymology reflected the social standing and educational background of its founders, who, far from being illiterate rednecks, were, Wade reports, “well educated for their day” (p32). 

Thus, he reports, of the six founder members, two would go on to become lawyers, another would become editor of a local newspaper, and yet another a state legislator (p32). 

Neither, seemingly, was the group formed with any terroristic, or even any discernible political, aspirations in mind. Instead, one of these six founder members, the, in retrospect, perhaps ironicallynamed James Crow, claimed their intention was initially: 

Purely social and for our amusement” (p34). 

Since, as a good white Southerner and Confederate veteran, Crow likely approved the politics with which the Klan later became associated, he had no obvious incentive to downplay a political motive. Certainly, Wade takes him at his word. 

Thus, if the various Klan titles – Grand GoblinImperial Wizard etc. – sound more like what one might expect in, say, a college fraternity than a serious political or terrorist group, then this perhaps reflects the fact that the organization was indeed conceived with just such adolescent tomfoolery in mind. 

Indeed, although it is not mentioned by Wade, it has even been suggested that a then-defunct nineteenth-century fraternity, Kuklos Adelphon, may even have provided a partial model for the group. Thus, Wade writes: 

It has been said that, if Pulaski had had an Elks Club, the Klan would never have been born” (p33). 

White Sheets and Black Victims 

However, from early on, the group’s practical jokes increasingly focussed on the newly-emancipated, and already much resented, black population of Giles County

Yet, even here, intentions were initially jocular, if mean-spirited. Thus, the white sheets famously worn by Klansmen were, Wade informs us, originally conceived in imitation of ghosts, the wearers ostensibly posing as: 

The ghosts of the Confederate dead, who had risen from their graves to wreak vengeance on [the blacks]” (p35). 

This accorded with the then prevalent stereotype of black people as being highly superstitious. 

However, it is likely that few black victims were taken in. Instead, the very real fear that the Klan came to inspire in its predominantly black victims reflected instead the also very real acts of terror and cruelty with which the group became increasingly associated. 

The sheets also functioned, of course, as a crude disguise.  

However, it was only when the Klan name was revived in the early twentieth century, and through the imagination of its reviver, William Joseph Simmons, that this crude disguise was transformed into a mysterious ceremonial regalia, the sale of which was jealously guarded, and an important source of revenue for the Klan leadership. 

Indeed, in the Reconstruction-era Klan, the sheets, though a crude disguise, would not even qualify as a uniform, as there was no standardization whatsoever. Instead:  

Sheets, pillowcases, handkerchiefs, blankets, sacks… paper masks, blackened faces, and undershirts and drawers were all employed” (p60).  

Thus, Wade reports the irony whereby one: 

Black female victim of the Klan was able to recognise one of her assailants because he wore a dress she herself had sewed for his wife” (p60). 

Chivalry – or Reproductive Competition? 

Representing perhaps the original white knights, Klansmen claimed to be acting in order to protect the ostensible virtue and honour of white women. 

However, at least in Wade’s telling, the rapes of white women by black males, upon which white Southern propaganda so pruriently dwelt (as prominently featured, for example, in the movie, Birth of a Nation, and the book upon which the movie was based, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan) were actually very rare. 

Indeed, he even quotes a former Confederate General, and alleged Klansman, seemingly admitting as much when, on being asked whether such assaults were common, he acknowledged: 

Oh no sir, but one case of rape by a negro upon a white woman was enough to alarm the whole people of the state” (p20). 

Certainly, the Emmett Till case demonstrates that even quite innocuous acts could indeed invite grossly disproportionate responses in the Southern culture of honour, at least where the perceived malfeasors were black. Thus, Wade claims: 

“Sometimes a black smile or the tipping of a hat were sufficient grounds for prosecution for rape. As one southern judge put it, ‘I see a chicken cock drop his wings and take after a hen; my experience and observation assure me that his purpose is sexual intercourse, no other evidence is needed’” (p20). 

Likewise, such infamous cases as the Scottsboro boys and Groveland four illustrate that false allegations were not unknown in the American South. Indeed, false rape allegations remain common to this day

However, I remain skeptical of Wade’s claim that black-on-white rape were quite as rare as he makes out. 

After all, American blacks have had high rates of violent crime ever since records began, and, as contemporary racists are fond of pointing out, today, black-on-white rape is actually quite common, at least as compared to other victim-offender dyads. 

Thus, in Paved with Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America, published in 1992, Jared Taylor reports: 

In a 1974 study in Denver, 40 percent of all rapes were of whites by blacks, and not one case of white-on-black-rape was found. In general, through the 1970s, black-on-white rape was at last ten times more common than white-on-black rape… In 1988 there were 9,406 cases of black-on-white rape and fewer than ten cases of white-on-black rape. Another researcher concludes that in 1989, blacks were three or four times more likely to commit rape than whites and that black men raped white women thirty times as often as white men raped black women” (Paved with Good Intentions: p93) 

Indeed, the authors of one recent textbook on criminology even claim that: 

Some researchers have suggested, because of the frequency with which African Americans select white victims (about 55 percent of the time), it [rape] could be considered an interracial crime” (Criminology: A Global Perspective: p544).[2] 

At any rate, Southern chivalry was rather selectively accorded, and certainly did not extend to black women. 

Indeed, Wade claims that Klansmen themselves, employing a blatant double-standard and rank hypocrisy, actually themselves regularly raped black women during their raids: 

The desire for group intercourse was sometimes sufficient reason for a den to go out on a raid…. Sometimes during a political raid, Klansmen would rape the female members of the household as a matter of course” (p76). 

As someone versed in sociobiological theory who has studied evolutionary psychology, I tempted to see these double-standards in sociobiological terms as a form of reproductive competition, designed to maximize the reproductive success of the white males involved, and indeed of the white race in general.

Thus, for white men, it was open season on black women, but white women were strictly off-limits to black men: 

In Southern white culture, the female was placed on a pedestal where she was inaccessible to blacks and a guarantee of purity of the white race. The black race, however, was completely vulnerable to miscegenation. White men soon learned that women placed on a pedestal acted like statues in bed, and they came to prefer the female slave whom they found open and uninhibited… The more white males turned to female slaves, the more they exalted their own women, who increasingly became a mere ornament and symbol of the Southern way of life” (p20). 

Klan Success? 

The Klan came to stand for the reestablishment of white supremacy and the denial of voting rights to blacks. 

In the short-term, at least, these aims were to be achieved, with the establishment of segregation and effective disenfranchisement of blacks throughout much of the South. Wade, however, denies the Klan any part in this victory: 

The Ku-Klux Klan… didn’t weaken Radical Reconstruction nearly as much as they nurtured it. So long as an organized secret conspiracy swore oaths and used cloak and dagger methods in the South, Congress was willing to legislate against it… Not until the Klan was beaten and the former confederacy turned to more open methods of preserving the Southern way of life did Reconstruction and its Northern support decline” (p109-110). 

Thus, it was, Wade reports, not the Klan, but rather other groups, today largely forgotten, such as Louisiana’s White League and South Carolina’s Red Shirts, that were responsible for successfully scaring blacks away from the polls and ensuring the return of white supremacy in the South. Moreover, he reports that they were only able to do so only because the federal laws enacted to tackle the Klan had ceased to be enforced precisely because the Klan itself had ceased to represent a serious threat. 

On this telling, then, the First Klan was, politically, a failure. In this respect, it was to set the model for later Klans, which would fight a losing rearguard action against Catholic immigration and the civil rights movement. 

Resurrection 

If the First Klan was a failure, why then was it remembered, celebrated and ultimately revived, while other groups, such as the White LeagueRed Shirts and Knights of the White Camelia, which employed similar terrorist tactics in pursuit of the same political objectives, are today largely forgotten? 

Wade does not address this, but one suspects the outlandishness of the group’s name and ceremonial titles contributed, as did the fact that the Klan seems to have been the only such group active throughout the entirety of the former Confederacy

The reborn Klan, founded in the early twentieth century, was the brainchild of William Joseph Simmons, a self-styled professional ‘fraternalist’, alumni of countless other fraternal organizations, Methodist preacher, strict prohibitionist and rumoured alcoholic. 

It is him to whom credit must go for inventing most of the ritualism (aka ‘Klancraft’) and terminology (including the very word ‘Klancraft’) that came to be associated with the Klan in the twentieth century. 

Birth of a Nation’ and the Rebirth of the Klan 

Two further factors contributed to the growth and success of the reborn Klan. First, was the spectacularly successful 1915 release of the movie, The Birth of a Nation

Both deplored for its message yet also grudgingly admired for its technical and artistic achievement, this film occupies a curious place in film history, roughly comparable to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. (Sergei Eisenstein’s Communist and Stalinist propaganda films curiously, but predictably, receive a free pass.) 

In this movie, pioneering filmmaker DW Griffith is credited with largely inventing much of the grammar of modern moviemaking. If, today, it seems distinctly unimpressive, if not borderline unwatchable, this is, not only because of the obvious technological limitations of the time period, but also precisely because it invented many of the moviemaking methods that cinema-goers, and television viewers, have long previously learnt to take for granted (e.g. cross-cutting). 

Yet, if its technical and artistic innovations have won the grudging respect of film historians, its message is, of course, wholly anathema to modern western sensibilities. 

Thus, portraying the antebellum American South with the same pair of rose-tinted spectacles as those donned by the author of Gone with the Wind, ‘Birth of a Nation’ went even further, portraying blacks during the Reconstruction period as rampant rapists salivating after the flesh of white women, and Klansmen as heroic white knights who saved white womanhood, and indeed the South itself, from the ravages of both reconstruction and of Southern blacks. 

Yet, though it achieved unprecedented box-office success, even being credited as the first modern blockbuster, the movie was controversial even for its time. 

It even became the first movie to be screened in the White House, when, as a favour to Thomas Dixon, the author of the novel upon which the movie was based, the film received an advance, pre-release screening for the benefit of the then-President, Woodrow Wilson, a college acquaintance of Dixon – though what the President thought of it is a matter of dispute.[3]

Indeed, such was the controversy that the movie was to provoke that the nascent NAACP, itself formed only a few years earlier, even launched a campaign to have the film banned outright (p127-8). 

This, of course, puts the lie to the notion that the political left was, until recent times, wholly in favour of freedom of speech and artistic expression

Actually, even then, the Left’s commitment to freedom of expression was, it seems, highly selective, just as it is today. Thus, it was one thing to defend the rights of raving communists, quite another to apply the same principle to racists. 

The Murders of Mary Phagan and Leo Frank 

Another factor in the successful resurrection of the Klan were two murders that galvanized popular opinion in the South, and indeed the nation. 

First was the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old factory girl in Atlanta, Georgia. Second was the lynching of Leo Frank, her boss and ostensible murderer, who was convicted of her murder and sentenced to death, only to have this sentence commuted to life-imprisonment, only to be lynched by outraged locals. 

His lynching was carried out by a group styling themselves ‘The Knights of Mary Phagan’, many of whom would go on to become founder members of the newly reformed Klan. 

It was actually this group, not the Klan itself, which would establish a famous Klan ritual, namely the ascent of Stone Mountain to burn a cross, a ritual Simmons would repeat to inaugurate his nascent Klan a few months later.[4]

Yet, in the history of alleged miscarriages of justice in the American South, the lynching of Leo Frank stands very much apart. 

For one thing, most victims of such alleged miscarriages of justice were, of course, black. Yet Leo Frank was a white man. 

Moreover, most of his apologists insist that the real perpetrator was, in fact, a black man. They are therefore in the unusual position of claiming racism caused white Southerners to falsely convict a white man when they should have pinned the blame on a black instead.

It is true, of course, that Frank was also Jewish. However, there was little history of anti-Semitism in the South. Indeed, I suspect there was more prejudice against him as a wealthy Northerner who had come south for business purposes, and hence as, in Southern eyes, a ‘Yankee carpetbagger’.

Moreover, although his lynching was certainly unjustified, and his conviction possibly unsafe, it is still not altogether clear that Frank was indeed innocent of the murder of which he stood accused.[5]

Wade himself admits that there was some doubt as to his innocence at the time. However, he refers to a deathbed statement by an elderly witness some seventy years later in 1982 as finally proving his innocence: 

Not until 1982 would Frank’s complete innocence come to light as a result of a witness’s deathbed statement” (p143). 

However, a claim made, not in court under oath, but rather to the press for a headline (albeit also in a signed affidavit under oath), by an elderly, dying man, regarding things he had supposedly witnessed some seventy years earlier when he was himself little more than a child, is obviously open to question.

At any rate, it is interesting to note that Frank’s lynching played an important role, not only in the founding of the Second Klan, but also in the genesis of another political pressure group whose influence on American social, cultural and political life has far outstripped that of the Klan and which, unlike the Second Klan, survives to this day – namely the Anti-Defamation League of of B’nai B’rith or ADL

The parallels abound. Just as the Second Klan was a fraternal organization for white protestants, so B’nai B’rith, the organization which birthed the ADL, was a fraternal order for Jews, and Frank himself, surely not uncoincidentally, was president of the Atlanta chapter of the group. 

The organizational efforts of B’nai B’rith to protect Frank, a local chapter president, from punishment can therefore be viewed as analogous to the way in which the Klan itself sought to protect its own members from successful prosecution through its own corrupt links in law enforcement and government and on juries. 

Moreover, just as the Klan was formed to defend and promote the interests of white Christian protestants, so the ADL was formed to protect the interests of Jews.

However, the ADL was to prove far more successful in this endeavour than the Klan had ever been, and, unlike the Second Klan, very much survives, and prospers, to this day.[6]

Klan Enemies 

Jews were not, however, the primary objects of Klan enmity during the twenties – and neither, perhaps surprisingly, were blacks. 

This was, after all, the period that later historians have termed ‘the nadir of American race relations’, when, throughout the South, blacks were largely disenfranchised, and segregation firmly entrenched. 

Yet, from a white racialist perspective, the era is misnamed.[7] Far from a nadir, for white racialists the period represented something like a utopia, lost Eden or Golden Age.[8] 

White supremacy was firmly entrenched and not, it seemed, under any serious threat. The so-called civil rights movement had barely begun.

Of course, then as now, race riots did periodically puncture the apparent peace – at Wilmington in 1898Springfield in 1908Tulsa in 1912Rosewood in 1923, and throughout much of America in 1919

However, unlike contemporary American race riots, these typically took the form of whites attacking blacks rather than vice versa, and, even when the latter did occur, white solidarity was such that the whites invariably gave at least as good as they got.[9]

Thus, in early-twentieth century America, unlike during Reconstruction, there was no need for a Klan to suppress ‘uppity’ blacks. On the contrary, blacks were already adequately suppressed.  

Thus, if the Second Klan was to have an enemy worthy of its enmity, and a cause sufficient to justify its resurrection, and, more important, sufficient to persuade prospective inductees to hand over their membership dues, it would have to look elsewhere. 

To some extent the enemy selected varied on a regional basis, depending on the local concerns of the population. The Klan thus sought, like Hitler’s later NSDAP, to be ‘all things to all men’, and, for some time before it hit upon a winning strategy, the Klan flitted from one issue to another, never really finding its feet. 

However, to the extent the Second Klan, at the national level, was organized in opposition to a single threat or adversary, it was to be found neither in Jews nor blacks, but rather in Catholics. 

Anti-Catholicism 

To modern readers, the anti-Catholicism of the Second Klan seems bizarre. Modern Americans may be racist and homophobic in ever decreasing numbers, but they at least understand racism and homophobia. However, anti-Catholicism of this type, especially in so relatively recent a time period, seems wholly incomprehensible.

Indeed, the anti-Catholicism of the Second Klan is now something of an embarrassment even to otherwise unreconstructed racists and indeed to contemporary Klansmen, and is something they very much disavow and try to play down. 

Thus, anti-Catholicism, at least of this kind, is now wholly obsolete in America, and indeed throughout the English-speaking world outside of Northern Ireland – and perhaps Ibrox Football stadium for ninety minutes on alternate Saturdays for the duration of the Scottish football season. 

It seems something more suited to cruel and barbaric times, such as England in the seventeenth century, or Northern Ireland in the 1970s… or, indeed, Northern Ireland today. But in twentieth century America? Surely not. 

How then can we make sense of this phenomenon? 

Partly, the Klan’s anti-Catholicism reflected the greater religiosity of the age. In particular, the rise of the Second Klan was, at least in Wade’s telling, intimately linked with the rise of Christian fundamentalism in opposition to reforming practices (the so-called Social Gospel) in the early twentieth century.

Indeed, under its first Imperial Wizard, William Joseph Simmons, a Methodist preacher, the new Klan was initially more of a religious organization than it was a political one, and Simmons himself was later to lament the Klan’s move into politics under his successor.[10]

There was, however, also a nativist dimension to the Klan’s rabid anti-Catholicism, since, although Catholics had been present among the first settlers of North America and numbered even among the founding fathers, Catholicism was still associated with recent immigrants to the USA, especially Italians, Irish and Poles, who had yet to fully assimilate into the American mainstream. 

Catholics were also seen as inherently disloyal, as the nature of their religious affiliation (supposedly) meant that they owed ultimate loyalty, not to America, but rather to the Pope in Rome.  

This idea seems to have been a cultural inheritance from the British Isles.[11] In England, Catholics had long been viewed as inherently disloyal, and as desirous to overthrow the monarchy and restore Britain to Catholicism, as, in an earlier age, many had indeed sought to do

This view is, of course, directly analogous to the claim of many contemporary Islamophobes and counter-Jihadists today that the ultimate consequence of Muslim immigration into Europe will be the imposition of Shariah law across Europe.

However, even in the twenties, during the Second Klan’s brief apotheosis, their anti-Catholicism already seemed, in Wade’s words, “strangely anachronistic”, to the point of being “almost astounding” (p179).

Thus, as anti-Catholicism waned as a serious organizing force in American social and political (or even religious) life, it soon became clear that the Klan had nailed their colours to a sinking ship. Thus, as anti-Catholic sentiments declined among the American population at large, so the Klan attempted to distance itself from its earlier anti-Catholicism.[12]

First, anti-Catholicism was simply deemphasized by the Klan in favour of new enemies like communism, trade unionism and the burgeoning civil rights movement. 

Eventually, in the Sixties, the United Klans of America, the then dominant Klan faction in America, announced, during “an all-out crusade for new members”, that: 

Catholics were now welcome to join the Klan – the Communist conspiracy more than made up for the Klan’s former anti-Catholic fears of Americans loyal to a foreign power” (p328). 

Today, meanwhile, the Second Klan’s anti-Catholicism is seen as an embarrassment even by otherwise unreconstructed racists and Klansmen. 

The decline of anti-Catholicism provides, then, an optimistic case-study of the remarkable speed with which (some) prejudices can be overcome.[13]

It also points to an ironic side-effect of the gradual move towards greater tolerance and inclusivity in American society – namely, even groups ostensibly opposed to this process have nevertheless been affected by it. 

In short, even the Klan has become more tolerant and inclusive

Losing Land and Territory

For many nationalists, racial and ethnic conflict is ultimately a matter of competition for territory and land.

It is therefore of interest that the decline of the Klan, and of white protestant identity in the USA, was itself presaged and foreshadowed by two land sales, one in the early-twenties, when Klan membership was at a peak, and a second just over a decade later, when the decline was already well underway.

First, in the early-twenties, the Klan’s boldly envisaged Klan University had gone bankrupt. The land was sold and a synagogue was constructed on the site. 

Then, under financial pressure in the 1930s as the Depression set in, the Klan was even forced to sell even its main headquarters in Atlanta. 

If selling a Klan university only to see a synagogue constructed on the same site was an embarrassment, then the eventual purchaser of the Klan headquarters was to be an even greater Klan enemy – the Catholic Church. 

Thus, the erstwhile site of the Klan’s grandly-titled Imperial Palace became a Catholic cathedral

Perhaps surprisingly, and presumably in an effort at rapprochement and reconciliation, the new cathedral’s hierarchy reached out to the Klan by inviting the then-Grand Wizard, Hiram Evans, who had outmanoeuvred Simmons for control of the then-lucrative cash-cow during the Klan’s twenties heyday, to the new Cathedral’s inaugural service. 

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Evans actually accepted the invitation. Afterwards, even more surprisingly still, he was quoted as observing: 

It was the most ornate ceremony and one of most beautiful services I ever saw” (p265). 

More beautiful even than a cross-burning!

Evans was forced to resign immediately afterwards. However, in deemphasizing anti-Catholicism, he correctly gaged the public mood and the Klan was later, if belatedly, to follow his lead. 

The Turn to Terror 

The Klan is seemingly preadapted to terror. However benign the intentions of its successive founders, each Klan descended into violence. 

If the First Klan was formed, as a sort of college fraternity, the Second Klan seems to have been conceived primarily as a money-making venture, and hence, in principle, no more inherently violent than the Freemasons or the Elks

Yet the turn to terror was perhaps, in retrospect, inevitable. After all, this new Klan had been modelled on what had been, or at least become, a terrorist group (namely, the First Klan), employed masks, and, from the lynching of Leo Frank, had associated itself with vigilantism from the very onset. 

Interestingly, although precise data is not readily available, one gets the distinct impression that, during this era of Klan activity, most of the victims of its violence were, not blacks nor even Catholics, but rather the very white protestant Christians whom the Klan ostensibly existed to protect, or, more specifically, those among this community who had somehow offended against the values of the community, or simply offended Klansmen themselves. 

Of course, lynchings of blacks continued, at least in the South. But these were rarely conducted under the auspices of the Klan, since these were a longstanding tradition that long predated the Klan’s re-emergence, and the perpetrators of such acts rarely felt the need to wear masks to conceal their identities, let alone don the elaborate apparel, and pay the requisite membership dues, of the upstart Klan.[14]

But Klan violence per se did not always deter new members. On the contrary, some seem to have been attracted by it. Thus, Klan recruiters (‘Kleagles’) at first maintained that newspaper exposés amounted to free publicity and only helped them in their recruitment drive. 

Instead, Wade claims, more than violence, it was the perceived hypocrisy of Klan leaders which ultimately led to the group’s demise (p254).  

Thus, it purported to champion prohibition, temperance and Christian values, but had been founded by Simmons, a rumoured alcoholic, while its (hugely successful) marketing and recruitment campaign was headed by Edward Young Clarke and Mary Elizabeth Tyler of the Southern Publicity Association, who were openly engaged in an extra-marital affair with one another. 

However, the most damaging scandal to hit the Klan, which, as we have seen, purported to champion Prohibition and the protection of the sanctity of white womanhood, combined both violence, drunkenness and hypocrisy, and occurred when DC ‘Steve’ Stephenson, a hugely successful Indianna Grand Dragon, was convicted of the rape, kidnap and murder of Madge Oberholtzer, herself a white protestant woman, during a drunken binge. 

In fact, by the time of the assault, Stephenson had already split from the national Klan to form his own rival, exclusively Northern, Klan group. However, his former prominence in the organization meant that, though they might disclaim him, the Klan could never wholly disassociate themselves from him.  

It seems to have been this scandal more than any other which finally discredited the Klan in the minds of most Americans. Thus, Wade concludes: 

The Klan in the twenties began and ended with the death of an innocent young girl. The Mary Phagan-Leo Frank case had been the spark that ignited the Klan. And the Oberholtzer-Stephenson case had put out the fire” (p247). 

Decline 

Thenceforth, the Klan’s decline was as rapid and remarkable as its rise. Thus, Wade reports: 

In 1924 the Ku Klux Klan had boasted more than four million members. By 1930, that number had withered to about forty-five thousand… No other American movement has ever risen so high and fallen so low in such a short period” (p253). 

Indeed, in Wade’s telling, even its famous 1925 march on Washington “proved to be its most spectacular last gasp”, attracting, Wade reports, “only half of the sixty thousand expected” (p249) 

The National gathering of thirty thousand was less than what [DC Stephenson] could have mustered in Indiana alone during the Klan’s heyday” (p250). 

Not only did numbers decline, so did the membership profile. 

Thus, initially, the new group had attracted members from across the socioeconomic spectrum of white protestant America, or at least among all those who could afford the membership dues. Indeed, analyses of surviving membership rolls suggest that the Klan in this era was, at first, a predominantly middle-class group representing what was then the heart of Middle America

However, probably as a consequence of the revelations of violence, the respectable classes increasingly deserted the group.

Klan defections began with the prominent, the educated and the well-to-do, and proceeded down through the middle-class” (p252). 

Thus, the stereotype of the archetypal Klansman as an uneducated, semi-literate, tattooed, beer-swilling redneck gradually took hold. 

Indeed, from 1926 or so, the Klan even sought to reclaim this image as a positive attribute, portraying themselves as, in their own words, “a movement of plain people” (p252). 

But this marketing strategy, in Wade’s telling, badly backfired, since even less well-off, but ever aspirant, Americans hardly wanted to associate themselves with a group that admitted to being uneducated hicks (Ibid.). 

As well as the membership narrowing in its socioeconomic profile, Klan membership also retreated geographically. 

Thus, in its brief heyday, the Second Klan, unlike its Reconstruction-era predecessor, had had a truly national membership. 

Indeed, the state with the largest membership was said to be Indiana, where DC ‘Steve’ Stephenson, in the few years before his dramatic downfall, was said to have built up a one-man political machine that briefly came to dominate politics in the Hoosier State. 

However, in the aftermath of the fall of Stephenson and his Indiana Klan, the Klan was to haemorrhage members in not just Indiana, but throughout the North. The result was that: 

By 1930, the Klan’s little strength was concentrated in the South. Over the next half-century the Klan would gradually lose its Northern members, regressing more and more closely towards its Reconstruction ancestor until, by the 1960s, it would stand as a near-perfect replica” (p252) 

Thenceforth, the Klan was to remain, once again, a largely Southern phenomenon, with what little numerical strength it retained overwhelmingly concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy. 

Death and Taxes – The Only Certainties in Life 

The Second Klan was finally destroyed, however, not by declining membership, violent atrocities, bad publicity and inept brand-management, nor even by government prosecution, though all these factors did indeed play a part.  

Rather, the final nail in the Klan’s coffin was dealt by the taxman. 

In 1944, the Inland Revenue demanded restitution in respect of unpaid taxes due on the profits earnt from subscription dues during the Klan’s brief but lucrative 1920s membership boom (p275). 

The Klan, which had been haemorrhaging members even before the 1930s Depression, and, unlike the economy as a whole, had yet to recover, was already in a dire financial situation. Therefore, it could never hope to pay the monies demanded by the government, and instead was forced to declare bankruptcy (p275). 

Thenceforth, the Klan was no more. 

Ultimately, then, the government destroyed the Klan the same way had did Al Capone – failure to pay their taxes! 

The Klan and the Nazis – A Match Made in Hell? 

In between recounting the Klan’s decline, Wade also discusses its supposed courtship of, or by, the pro-Nazi German-American Bund

Actually, however, a careful reading of Wade’s account suggests that he exaggerates the extent of any such association. 

Thus, it is notable, if bizarre, that, in Wade’s own telling, the Bund’s leader, German-born Fritz Julius Kuhn, in seeking the “merging of the Bund with some native American organization who would shield it from charges of being a ‘foreign’ agency”, had first set his sights on that most native of “native American organizations” – namely, Native Americans (p269-70). 

When this quixotic venture inevitably ended in failure, if only due to “profound indifference on the Indians’ part”, only then did the rebuffed Kuhn turn his spurned attentions to the Klan (p270). 

Yet the Klan seemed to have been almost as resistant to Kuhn’s advances as the Native Americans had been. Thus, Wade quotes Kuhn as admitting, somewhat ambiguously:

The Southern Klans did not want to be known in it… So the negotiations were between representatives of the Klans in New Jersey and Michigan, but it was understood that the Southerners were in” (p270). 

Yet, by this time, in Wade’s own telling, the Klan was extremely weak in Northern states such as New Jersey and Michigan, and what little numerical strength it retained was concentrated in the Southern states of the former Confederacy. 

This suggests that it was only the already marginalized northern Klan groups who, bereft of other support, were willing to entertain the notion of an alliance with Bund. 

If the Southern Klan leadership was indeed aware of, and implicitly approved, the link, it was nevertheless clear that they wanted to keep any such association indirect and at an arm’s length, hence maintaining plausible deniability

This is perhaps the only way we can make sense of Kuhn’s acknowledgement, on the one hand, that “the Southern Klans did not want to be known in it”, while, on the other, that “it was understood that the Southerners were in” (p270). 

Thus, when negative publicity resulted from the joint Klan-Bund rally in New Jersey, the national (i.e. Southern) Klan leadership was quick to distance itself from and disavow any notion of an alliance, promptly relieving the New Jersey Grand Dragon of his office.

On reflection, however, this is little surprise.

For one thing, German-Americans, especially those who willing to flagrantly flaunt their ‘dual loyalty’ by joining a group like the German-American Bund, were themselves exactly the type of hyphenated-Americans that the 100% Americans of the Klan professed to despise.

Indeed, though they may have been white and (mostly) protestant, German-Americans own integration into the American mainstream was, especially after the anti-German sentiment aroused during the First World War, still very much incomplete. 

Today, of course, we might think of Nazis and the Klan as natural allies, both being, after all, that most reviled species of humanity – namely, white racists.

However, besides racialism, the Klan and the Nazis actually had surprisingly little in common. 

After all, the Klan was a Protestant fundamentalist group opposed to Darwinism and the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools.

Hitler, in contrast, was an ardent social Darwinist, who was reported by his confidents as harbouring a profound antipathy to the Christian faith, albeit one he kept out of his public pronouncements for reasons of political expediency, and some of whose followers even championed a return to Germanic paganism.[15]

Indeed, even their shared racialism was directed primarily towards different targets.

In Germany, blacks, though indeed persecuted by the Nazis, were few in number, and hence not a major target of Nazi propaganda, animosity or persecution – and nor were Catholics among the groups targeted for persecution by the Nazis, Hitler himself having been raised as a Catholic in his native Austria.[16]

Yet, if Catholics were not among the groups targeted for persecution by the Nazis, members of secret societies like the Klan very much were. 

Thus, among the less politically-fashionable targets for persecution by the Nazis were both the Freemasons and indeed the closest thing Germany had to a Ku Klux Klan. 

Thus, in 1923 a Klan-like group, “the German Order of the Fiery Cross”, had been founded in Germany in imitation of the Klan, by an expatriate German on his return to the Fatherland from America (p266). 

Yet, ironically, it was Hitler himself who ultimately banned and suppressed this German Klan imitator (p267). 

The Third Klan/s 

The so-called Third Klan was really not one Klan, but many different Klans, each not only independent of one another, but also often in fierce competition with one another for members and influence. 

They filled the vacuum left by the defunct Second Klan and competed to match its size, power and influence – though none were ever to succeed. 

From this point, it is no longer really proper to talk about the Klan, since there was not one Klan but rather many separate Klans, with little if any institutional connections with one another. 

Moreover, the different Klan groups varied more than ever in their ethos and activity. Thus, Wade reports: 

Some Klans were quietly ineffective, some were violent and some were borderline psychotic” (p302) 

With no one group maintaining a registered trademark over the Klan ‘brand’, inevitably the atrocities committed by one group ended up discrediting even other groups with no connection to them. The Klan ‘brand’ was irretrievably damaged, even among those who might otherwise be attracted to its ideology and ethos.[17] 

Indeed, the plethora of different groups was such that even Klansmen themselves were confused, one Dragon complaining: 

The old countersigns and passwords won’t work because all Klansmen are strangers to each other” (p302). 

Increasingly, opposition to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, rather than to Catholicism, now seems to have become the Klan’s chief preoccupation and the primary basis upon which Klaverns, and Kleagles, sought to attract recruits. 

However, respectable opposition to desegregation throughout the South was largely monopolized by the Citizens’ Councils.

Indeed, in Wade’s telling, “preventing a build-up of the Ku Klux Klan” was, quite as much as opposing desegregation, one of the principal objectives for which the Citizens Councils had been formed, since “violence was bad for business, and most of the council leaders were businessmen” (p299). 

If this is true, then perhaps the Citizens Councils were more successful in achieving their objectives than they are usually credited as having been. Segregation, of course, was gone and did not come back – but, then again, neither did the Klan. 

Yet, in practice, Wade reports, the main impact of the Citizens Councils on the Klan was: 

Not so much eliminating the Klan as leaving it with nothing but nothing but the violence prone dregs of Southern white society” (p302). 

Thus, the Klan’s image, and the characteristic socioeconomic status of its membership profile, declined still further. 

The electoral campaigns of the notorious segregationist and governor of Alabama George Wallace also had a similar effect. Thus, Wade reports: 

Wallace’s campaigns… swallowed a lot of disaffected Klansmen. In fact, Wallace’s campaigns offered them the first really viable alternative to the Klan” (p364). 

Political Cameos and Reinventions 

Here in Wade’s narrative, the myriad of disparate Klan groups inevitably fade into the background, playing a largely reactive, and often violent but nevertheless largely ineffective, and often outright counterproductive, role in opposing desegregation. 

Instead, the starring role is taken, in Wade’s own words, by: 

Two men who were masters of the electronic media: an inspired black minister, Martin Luther King, and a pragmatic white politician, JFK, who would work in an uneasy but highly productive tandem” (p310). 

Actually, in my view, it would be more accurate to say that the starring role was taken by two figures who are today vastly overrated on account of their respective early deaths by assassination, and consequent elevation to martyr status. 

In fact, however, while Wade’s portrait of King is predictably hagiographic, that of Kennedy is actually refreshingly revisionist. 

Far from the liberal martyr of contemporary left-liberal imagining, Kennedy was, in Wade’s telling, only a “pragmatic white politician”, and moreover only a rather late convert to the African-American civil rights movement

Indeed, before he first took office, Wade reports, Kennedy had actually endorsed the the Dunning School of historiography regarding the Reconstruction-era, was critical of Eisenhower having sent the National guard into Arkansas to enforce desegregation, and only reluctantly, when his hand was forced, himself sent the National Guard into Alabama (p317-22). 

Meanwhile, another political figure making a significant cameo appearance in Wade’s narrative, ostensibly on the opposite side of the debate over desegregation, is the notorious segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace

Yet Wade’s take on Wallace is, in many respects, as revisionist as his take on Kennedy. Thus, far from a raving racist and staunch segregationist, Wade argues: 

In retrospect… no one used and manipulated the Klansmen more than Wallace. He gave them very few rewards for their efforts on his behalf: often his approval was enough. And in spite of his fiery cant and cries of ‘Never!’ that so thrilled Klansmen, Wallace was a former judge who well understood the law – especially how far he could bend it” (p322). 

Thus, Wade reports, while it is well-known that Wallace famously blocked the entrance to the University of Alabama preventing black students from entering, what is less well-known is that: 

When the marshals asked for the black students to be admitted in the afternoon, Wallace quietly stepped aside. Instead of being recognized, at best, as a practical politician or, at worst, a pompous coward, Wallace was instead hailed by Klansmen as a dauntless hero” (p322). 

Thus, if Kennedy was, in Wade’s telling, “a pragmatic white politician”, then Wallace emerges as an outright political chameleon and shameless opportunist. 

As further evidence for this interpretation, what Wade does not get around to mentioning is that, in his first run for the governorship of Alabama in 1958, Wallace had actually spoken against the Klan and been backed by the NAACP, only after his defeat vowing, as he was eloquently quoted as observing, ‘never to be outniggered again’ again, and hence reinventing himself as an (ostensible) arch-segregationist. 

Neither does Wade mention that, in his last run for governor in 1982, reinventing himself once again as a born-again Christian, Wallace actually managed to win over 90% of the black vote

Yet even Wallace’s capacity for political reinvention is outdone by that of one of his supporters and speech-writers, former Klan leader Asa ‘Ace’ Carter, a man so notorious for his racism that even the Wallace denied employing him, but who was supposedly responsible for penning the words to Wallace’s infamous segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech

Expelled from a Citizens’ Council for extremism, Carter had then founded and briefly reigned as tin pot führer of one of the most violent Klan outfits – “the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, which resembled a cell of Nazi storm troopers” (p303). 

This group was responsible for one of the worst Klan atrocities of the period, namely the literal castration of a black man, whom they: 

Castrated… with razor blades; and then tortured… with by pouring kerosene and turpentine over his wounds” (p303). 

This gruesome act was, according to a Klan informant, performed for no better reason than as a “test of one of the members’ mettle before being elected ‘captain of the lair” (p303). 

The group was also, it seems, too violent even for its own good. Thus, it subsequently broke up when, in a dispute over financing and the misappropriation of funds, Carter was to shoot two fellow members, yet, for whatever reason, never stood trial (Ibid.). 

Yet what Wade does not get around to mentioning is Asa ‘Ace’ Carter was also, like Wallace, to later successfully reinvent himself, and achieve fame once again, this time as Forrest Carter, an ostensibly half-Native American author who penned such hugely successful novels as The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales (subsequently made into the successful motion picture, The Outlaw Josey Wales, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood) and The Education of Little Tree, an ostensible autobiography of a growing up on an Indian reservation, and a book so sickeningly sentimental that it was even recommended and championed by none other than Oprah Winfrey! 

The David Duke Show” 

By the 1970s, open support for white supremacy and segregation was in decline, even among white Southerners. This, together with Klansmen’s involvement in such atrocities such as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, might have made it seem that the Klan brand was irretrievably damaged and in terminal decline, never again to play a prominent role in American social or political life again. 

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the Klan brand did manage one last hurrah in the 1970s, this time through the singular talents of one David Duke

Duke was to turn the Klan’s infamy to his own advantage. Thus, his schtick was to use the provocative imagery of the Klan (white sheets, burning crosses) to attract media attention, but then, having attracted that attention, to come across as much more eloquent, reasonable, intelligent and clean-cut than anyone ever expected a Klansman to be – which, in truth, isn’t difficult. 

The result was a media circus that one disgruntled Klansmen aptly dismissed as “The David Duke Show” (p373). 

It was the same trick that George Lincoln Rockwell had used a generation before, though, whereas Rockwell used Nazi imagery (e.g. swastikas, Nazi salutes) to attract media attention, Duke instead used the imagery of the Klan (e.g. white sheets, burning crosses).

If Duke was a successor to Rockwell, then Duke’s own contemporary equivalent, fulfilling a similar niche for the contemporary American media as the handsome, eloquent, go-to face of white nationalism, is surely Richard Spencer. Indeed, if rumours are to be believed, Spencer even has a similar penchant to Duke for seducing the wives and girlfriends of his colleagues and supporters.. 

Such behaviour, along with his lack of organizational ability, were among the reasons that Duke alienated much of his erstwhile support, haemorrhaging members almost as fast as he attracted them. 

Many such defectors would go on to form rival groups, including Tom Metzger, a TV repairman, who split from Duke to form a more openly militant group calling itself White Aryan Resistance (known by the memorable backronym ‘WAR’), and who achieved some degree of media infamy by starring in multiple television documentaries and talk-shows, before being bankrupted by a legal verdict in which he was held liable for involvement in a murder in which he seems to have had literally no involvement.

However, for Wade, the most important defector was, not Metzger, but rather Bill Wilkinson, perhaps because, unlike Metzger, who, on splitting from Duke, abandoned the Klan name, Wilkinson was to set up a rival Klan group, successfully poaching members from Duke. 

However, lacking Duke’s eloquence and good-looks, Wilkinson had instead to devise to another strategy in order to attract media attention and members. The strategy he hit upon was that of “taking a public stance of unbridled violence” (p375). 

This, together with the fact the fact that he was nevertheless able to evade prosecution, led to the allegation that he was a state agent and his Klan an FBI-sponsored honey trap, an allegation only reinforced by the recent revelation that he is now a multimillionaire in the multiracial utopia of Belize

Besides openly advocating violence, Wilkinson also hit upon another means of attracting members. Thus, Wade reports, he “perfected a technique that other Klan leaders belittled as ‘ambulance chasing’” (p384): 

Wilkinson… traversed the nation seeking racial ‘hot spots’… where he can come into a community, collect a large amount of initiation fees, sell a few robes, sell some guns… collect his money and be on his way to another ‘hot spot’” (p384). 

This is, of course, ironically, the exact same tactic employed by contemporary black race-baiters like Al Sharpton and the Black Lives Matter movement

Owing partly to the violent activities of rival Klan groups from whom he could never hope to wholly disassociate himself, Duke himself eventually came to see the Klan baggage as a liability. 

One by one, he jettisoned these elements, styling himself National Director rather than Imperial Wizard, wearing a suit rather than a white sheet and eventually giving up even the Klan name itself. Finally, in what was widely perceived as an act of betrayal, Duke was recorded offering to sell his membership rolls to Wilkinson, his erstwhile rival and enemy (p389-90). 

In place of the Klan, Duke sought to set up what he hoped would be a more mainstream and respectable group, namely the National Assocation for the Advancement of White People or NAAWP, one of the many short-lived organizations to adopt this rather unimaginative name.[18]

Yet on abandoning the provocative Klan imagery that had first brought him to the attention of the media, Duke suddenly found media attention much harder to come by. Wade concludes:

Duke had little chance at making a go of any Klan-like organization without the sheets and ‘illuminated crosses’. Without the mumbo-jumbo the lure of the Klan was considerably limited. Five years later the National Association for the Advancement of White People hadn’t got off the ground” (p390). 

Duke was eventually to re-achieve some degree of notoriety as a perennial candidate for elective office, initially with some success, even briefly holding a seat in the Louisiana state legislature and winning a majority of the white vote in his 1991 run for Governorship of Louisiana.

However, despite abandoning the Klan, Duke was never to escape its shadow. Thus, even forty years after abandoning the Klan name, Duke was to still find his name forever prefixed with the title former Klansman or former Grand Wizard David Duke, an image he was never able to jettison. 

Today, still railing against “the Jews” to anyone still bothering to listen, his former good looks having long previously faded, he cuts a lonely, rather pathetic figure, marginal even among the already marginal alt-right, and in his most recent electoral campaign, an unsuccessful run for a Senate seat, he managed to pick up only a miserly three percent of the vote. 

Un-American Americanism 

Where once Klansmen could unironically claim to stand for 100% Americanism, now, were not the very word ‘un-American‘ so tainted by McCarthyism as to sound almost un-American in itself, the Klan could almost be described as a quintessentially un-American organization. 

Indeed, interestingly, Wade reports that there was pressure on the House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate the Klan from even before the committee was first formed. Thus, Wade laments: 

The creation of the Dies Committee had been urged and supported by liberals and Nazi haters who wanted it used as a congressional forum against fascism. But in the hands of chairman Martin Dies of Texas, an arch-segregationist and his reactionary colleagues… the committee instead had become an anachronistic pack of witch hunters who harassed labor leaders… and discovered ‘communists’ in every imaginable shape and place” (p272).

Thus, Wade’s chief objection to the House Un-American Activities Committee seems to be, not that they became witch hunters, but that they chose to hunt, to his mind, the wrong coven of witches. Instead of going after the commies, they should have targeted the racists instead.

Yet what Wade does not mention is that perhaps the most prominent of the “liberals and nazi haters” who advocated for the formation of the HUAC in order persecute fascists and Klansmen, and who, as the joint-chairman of the ‘Special Committee on Un-American Activities’, the precursor to the HUAC, from 1934 to 1937, did indeed use the Committee to target fascists, albeit mostly imaginary ones, was congressman Samuel Dickstein, who was himself a paid Soviet agent, hence proving that McCarthyist concerns regarding communist infiltration and subversion at the highest level of American public life were no delusion.

Ultimately, however, Wade was to have his wish. Thus, the Klan did indeed fall victim to the same illiberal and sometimes illegal FBI cointelpro programme of harassment as more fashionable victims on the left, such as Martin Luther King, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party (p361-3).

Indeed, according to Wade, it was actually the Klan who were the first victims of this campaign of FBI harassment, with more fashionable victims of the left being targeted only later. Thus, Wade writes:

After developing Cointelpro for the Klan, the FBI also used it against the Black Panthers, civil rights leaders, and antiwar demonstrators” (p363).[19]

Licence to Kill?

The Klan formerly enjoyed a reputation something like that of the the Mafia, namely as a violent dangerous group whom a person crossed at their peril, since, again like the Mafia, they had a proven track record of committing violent acts and getting away with it, largely through their corrupt links with local law enforcement in the South, and the unwillingness of all-white Southern juries to hand down convictions.[20]

Today, however, this reputation is long lost.

Indeed, if today a suspect in a racist murder were outed as a Klansman, this would likely unfairly prejudice a jury of any ethnic composition, anywhere in the country, against him, arguably to the point of denying him any chance of a fair trial. 

Thus, when aging Klansmen, such as Edgar Ray KillenThomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherrywere belatedly put on trial and convicted in the 2000s for killings committed in the early 1960s, some forty years previously, I rather suspect that they received no fairer a trial then than they did, or would have had, when put on trial before all-white juries in the 1960s American South. The only difference was that now the prejudice was against them rather than in their favour. 

Thus, today, we have gone full circle. Quite when the turning point was reached is a matter of conjecture.

Arguably, the last incident of Klansmen unfairly getting away with murder was the so-called Greensboro massacre in 1979, when Klansmen and other white nationalist activists shot up an anti-Klan rally organized by radical left Maoist labour agitators in North Carolina. 

Here, however, if the all-white jury was indeed prejudiced against the victims of this attack, it was not because they were blacks (all but one of the five people killed were actually white), but rather that they were ‘reds’ (i.e. communists).[21]

Today, then, the problem is not with all-white juries in the South refusing to convict Klansmen, but rather with majority-black juries in urban areas across America refusing to convict black defendants, especially on police evidence, no matter how strong the case against them, for example in the OJ case (see also Paved with Good Intentions: p43-4; p71-3). 

Klans Today 

Wade’s ‘The Fiery Cross’ was first published in 1987. It is therefore not, strictly speaking, a history of the Klan for the entirety of its existence right up to the present day, since Klan groups have continued to exist since this date, and indeed continue to exist in modern America even today. 

However, Wade’s book nevertheless seems complete, because such groups have long previously ceased to have any real significance in American political, social and cultural life save as a media bogeyman and folk devils

In its brief 1920s heyday, the Second Klan could claim to play a key role in politics, even at the national level. 

Wade even claims, dubiously as it happens, that Warren G Harding was inducted into the organization in a special and secret White House ceremony while in office as President (p165).

Certainly, they helped defeat the candidacy of Al Smith, on account of his Catholicism, in 1924 and again in 1928 (p197-99). 

Some half-century later, during the 1980 presidential election campaign, the Klan again made a brief cameo, when each candidate sought to associate the Klan with their opponent, and thereby discredit him. Thus, Reagan was accused of insensitivity for praising “states’ rights, to which Reagan retorted by accusing his opponent, inaccurately as it happens, of opening his campaign in the city that “gave birth to and is the parent body of the Ku Klux Klan”. 

This led Grand Dragon Bill Wilkinson to declare triumphantly: 

We’re not an issue in this Presidential race because we’re insignificant” (p388). 

Yet what Wilkinson failed to grasp, or at least refused to publicly admit, was that the Klan’s role was now wholly negative. Neither candidate actually had any actual Klan links; each sought to link the Klan only with their opponent.

Whereas in the 1920s, candidates for elective office had actively and openly courted Klan votes, by the time of the 1980 Presidential election to have done so would have been electoral suicide. 

The Klan’s role, then, was as bogeymen and folk devils – roughly analogous to that played by Willie Horton in the 1988 presidential campaign; the role NAMBLA plays in the debate over gay rights; or, indeed, the role communists played during the First and Second Red Scares.[22]

Indeed, although in modern America lynching has fallen into disfavour, one suspects that, if it were ever to re-emerge as a popular American pastime and application of participatory democracy to the judicial process, then, among the first contemporary folk devils to be hoisted from a tree, alongside paedophiles and other classes of sex offender, would surely be Klansmen and other unreconstructed white racists. 

Likewise, today, if a group of Klansmen attempt to march in any major city in America then a police presence is required, not to protect innocent blacks, Jews and Catholics from rampaging Klansmen, but rather to protect the Klansmen themselves from angry assailants of all ethnicities, but mostly white. 

Indeed, the latter, styling themselves Antifa (an abbreviation of anti-fascist), despite their positively fascist opposition to freedom of speech, expression and assembly, have even taken, like Klansmen of old, to wearing masks to disguise their identities

Perhaps anti-masking laws, first enacted to defeat the First Klan, and later resurrected to tackle later Klan revivals, must be revived once again, but this time employed, without prejudice, against the contemporary terror, and totalitarianism, of the militant left. 

Endnotes

[1] The only trace of possible illiteracy in the name is found in the misspelling of ‘clan’ as ‘klan’, presumably, again, for alliterative purposes, or perhaps reflecting a legitimate spelling in the nineteenth century when the group was founded.

[2] The popular alt-right meme that there are literally no white-on-black rapes is indeed untrue, and reflects the misreading of a table in a government report that actually involved only a small sample. In fact, the government does not currently release data on the prevalence of interracial rape. However, there is no doubt that black-on-white rape is much more common than white-on-black rape. Similarly, in the US prison system, where male-male rape is endemic, such assaults disproportionately involve non-white assaults on white inmates, as discussed by a Human Rights Watch report.

[3] The then-president Woodrow Wilson (who, in addition to being a politican, was also a noted historian of the reconstruction period, of Southern background, and sympathies, whose five-volume book, A History of the American People, on the reconstruction period is actually quoted in several of the movie’s title cards) was later quoted as describing the movie, in some accounts the first moving picture that he had ever seen, as: 

History [writ] with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true” (p126). 

However, during the controversy following the film’s release, Wilson himself later issued a denial that he had ever uttered any such words, insisting that he had only agreed to the viewing as a “courtesy extended to an old acquaintance” and that:

The President was entirely unaware of the character of the play before it was presented and has at no time expressed his approbation of it” (p137).

This claim is, however, doubtful given the notoriety of the novel and play upon which the film had been based, and of its author, Thomas Dixon.

[4] Like so many other aspects of what is today considered Klan ritual, there is no evidence that cross-burning, or cross-lighting as devout Christian Klansmen prefer to call it, was ever practised by the original Reconstruction-era Klan. However, unlike other aspects of Klan ritualism, it had been invented, not by Simmons, but by novelist Thomas Dixson (by way of Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake), in imitation of an ostensible Scottish tradition, for his book, The Clansman: A Historical romance of the Ku Klux Klan, upon which novel the movie Birth of a Nation was based. The new Klan was eventually granted an easement in perpetuity over Stone Mountain, allowing it to repeat this ritual.

[5] A conviction may be regarded as unsafe, and even as a wrongful conviction, even if we still believe the defendant might be guilty of the crime with which s/he is charged. After all, the burden is on the prosecution to prove that the defendant is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. If there remains reasonable doubt, then the defendant should not have been convicted. Steve Oney, who researched the case intensively for his book, And the Dead Shall Rise, concedes that “the case [against Frank] is not as feeble as most people say it is”, but nevertheless concludes that Frank was probably innocent, “but there is enough doubt to leave the door ajar” (Berger, Leo Frank Case Stirs Debate 100 Years After Jewish Lynch Victim’s Conviction, Forward, August 30, 2013).

[6] The ADL ’s role in Wade’s narrative does not end here, since the ADL would later play a key role in fighting later incarnations of the Klan.

[7] Indeed, even from a modern racial egalitarian perspective, the era is arguably misnamed. After all, from a racial egalitarian perspective, the plantation era, when slavery was still practised, was surely worse, as surely was the period of bloody conflict between Native Americans and European colonists.

[8] Even among open racists, support for slavery is rare. Therefore, few American racists openly pine for a return to the plantation era. Segregation is, then, then next best thing, short of the actual expulsion of blacks back to Africa. Thus, it is common to hear white American racialists hold up early twentieth century America as lost Eden. For example, many blame the supposed decline of the US public education system on desegregation.

[9] It is thus a myth that oppressed peoples invariably revolt against their oppressors. In reality, truly oppressed peoples, like blacks in the South in this period, tend to maintain a low profile precisely so as to avoid incurring the animosity of their oppressors. It is only when they sense weakness in their oppressors, or ostensible oppressors, that insurrections tend to occur. This then explains the paradox that black militancy in America seems to be inversely proportional to the actual extent of black oppression. Thus, the preeminent black leader in America at the height of the Jim Crow era was Booker T Washington, by modern standards a conservative, if not an outright Uncle Tom. Yet, today, when blacks are the beneficiaries, not the victims of discrimination, in the form of what is euphemistically called affirmative action, and it is whites who are ‘walking on eggshells’ and in fear of losing their jobs if they say something offensive to certain protected groups, American blacks are seemingly more militant and belligerent than ever, as the recent BLM riots have shown only too well. 

[10] This disavowal may have been disingenuous and reflected the fact that, by this time, Simmons had lost control of the then-lucrative cash-cow.

[11] Thus, in Ireland, the Protestant minority opposed Home Rule’ for Ireland (a form of devolution, or self-government, that fell short of full independence) on the grounds that it would supposedly amount, in effect, to Rome Rule, due to the Catholic majority in Ireland.

[12] Interestingly, unlike the Klan, another initially anti-Catholic fraternal order, Junior Order of United American Mechanics, successfully jettisoned both its earlier anti-Catholicism, and a similar association with violence, to reinvent itself as a respectable, non-sectarian beneficent group. However, the Klan was ultimately unable to achieve the same feat. 

[13] Of course, other forms of intergroup prejudice have been altogether more intransigent and long-lasting. Indeed, even anti-Catholicism itself had a long history. Pierre van den Berghe, in his excellent The Ethnic Phenomenon (which I have reviewed here and here), argues that assimilation is possible on in specific circumstances, namely when the groups to be assimilated are: 

Similar in physical appearance and culture to the group to which it assimilates, small in proportion to the total population, of low status and territorially dispersed” (The Ethnic Phenomenon: p219). 

Thus, those hoping other forms of intergroup prejudice (e.g. anti-black sentiment in the USA, or indeed the continuing animosity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland) can be similarly overcome in such a short period of time in coming years are well-advised not to hold their breaths.

[14] In the many often graphic images of lynchings of black victims accessible via the internet, I have yet to find one in which the lynch-mobs are dressed in the ceremonial regalia of the Klan. On the contrary, far from wearing masks, the perpetrators often proudly face the camera, evidently feeling no fear of retribution or legal repercussions for their vigilantism.

[15] The question of the religious beliefs, if any, of Hitler is one of some controversy. Certainly, many leading  figures in the National Socialist regime, including Martin Bormann and Alfred Rosenberg, were hostile to Christianity. Likewise, Hitler is reported as making anti-Christian statements in private, in both Hitler’s Table Talk, and by such confidents as Speer in his memoirs. Hitler talked of postponing his Kirchenkampf, or settling of accounts with the churches, until after the War, not wishing to fight enemies on multiple fronts.

[16] To clarify, it has been claimed that the Catholic Church faced persecution in National Socialist Germany. However, this persecution did not extend to individual Catholics, save those, including some priests, who opposed the regime and its policies, in which case the persecution reflected their political activism rather than their religion as such. Although Hitler was indeed hostile to Christianity, Catholicism very much included, Nazi conflict with the Church seems to have reflected primarily the fact that the Nazis, as a totalitarian regime, sought to control all aspects of society and culture in Germany, including those over which the Church had formerly claimed hegemony (e.g. education).

[17] In a later era, this was among the reasons given by David Duke in his autobiography for his abandonment of the Klan brand, since his own largely non-violent Klan faction was, he complained, invariably confused with, and tarred with the same brush as, other violent Klan factions through guilt by association

[18] Duke later had a better idea for a name for his organization – namely, the National Organization For European American Rights, which he intended to be known by the memorable acronym, NO-FEAR. Unfortunately for him, however, the clothing company who had already registered this name as a trademark thought better of it and forced him to change the group’s name to the rather less memorable European-American Unity and Rights Organization (or EURO).

[19] Certainly, the Klan was henceforth a major target of the FBI. Indeed, the FBI were even accused, in a sting operation apparently funded by the ADL, of provoking one Klan bombing in which a woman, Kathy Ainsworth, herself one of the bombers and an active, militant Klanswoman, was killed (p363). The FBI was also implicated in another Klan killing, namely that of civil rights campaigner Viola Liuzzo, since an FBI agent was present with the killers in the car from which the fatal shots were fired (p347-54). Indeed, Wade reports that “about 6 percent of all Klansmen in the late 1960s worked for the FBI” (p362).

[20] Thus, former Klan leader David Duke, in his autobiographical My Awakening, reports that, when he and other arrestees were outed as Klansmen in a Louisiana prison, the black prisoners, far attacking them, were initially cowed by the revelation: 

At first, it seemed my media reputation intimidated them. The Klan had a reputation, although undeserved, like that of the mafia. Some of the Black inmates obviously thought that if they did anything to harm me, a “Godfather” type of character, they might soon end up with their feet in cement at the bottom of the Mississippi.

[21] All but one of those killed, Wade reports, were leaders of the Maoist group responsible for the anti-Klan rally (p381). Wade uses this to show that the violence was premeditated, having been carefully planned and coordinated by the Klansmen and neo-Nazis. However, the fact that they were leading figures in this Maoist group would also likely mean that they were hardly innocent victims, at least in the eyes of conservative white jurors in North Carolina. In fact, the victims were indeed highly unsympathetic, not merely on account of their politics, but also on account of the fact that they had seemingly deliberately provoked the Klan attack, openly challenging the Klan to attend their provocatively titled ‘Death to the Klan’ rally (p379), and, though ultimately heavily outgunned, they themselves seem to have first initiated the violence by attacking the cars carrying Klansmen with placards (p381).

[22] This was the same role that the Klan was to play once again during the recent Trump presidential campaigns, as journalists trawled the South in search of grizzled, self-appointed Grand Dragons willing, presumably in return for a few drinks, to offer their unsolicited endorsement of the Trump candidature and thereby, in the journalists’ own minds, and that of some of their readers, discredit him through guilt-by-association.