A patron recently told me about his grandfather’s involvement in the KKK. It wasn’t something he was proud of, but he felt it was something he needed to acknowledge, the darkness within his family, the darkness within America’s past. Talking about the Ku Klux Klan is incredibly difficult. For African-Americans, it can be a traumatic reminder of oppressive violence. For whites, it is often something shameful. Still, it is something which we, as Americans, need to discuss precisely because it is difficult.
In the years following the Civil War, previously enslaved blacks began to educate themselves, acquire wealth and even hold elected office. For the whites who used to own them, this was deeply troubling. The Ku Klux Klan was formed as a way to reestablish and maintain power over newly freed blacks through intimidation, violence and murder. With the end of Southern Reconstruction and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, the Klan started to die out.
In 1915 pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation based off of the 1905 novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Both the film and the book portrayed the Klan, not as a terroristic organization, but as valiant knights fighting to protect virtuous white women from scary black men. When the film came to Elmira’s Lyceum Theatre, local African-Americans drafted a resolution condemning it and asking that it be banned in the city. After previewing the film, Mayor Hoffman told the theatre to cut certain scenes which he found particularly offensive and wound up being sued by the film’s producers. The Elmira Advertiser printed a rather scathing indictment of the movie, but none of it stopped the theatre from showing it or Elmirans from flocking to see it.
Following the release of the film the Klan had a massive resurgence, not just in the South, but in the nation as a whole. This time, the focus was not only on blacks, but also the perceived threat to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony posed by Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. The new Klan was part social-fraternal order and mutual aid society, part political organization and part violent criminal and terrorist organization. At its peak in the 1920s, there were over 4 million members.
|KKK Song Book, ca. 1920s|
The Klan was quite active in the Southern Tier during this period. In July 1925, Elmira was host to a Klorero, or annual gathering of New York State Klansmen, which lasted for days. The event included tours of area historic sites, lectures, marching band and drill competitions, a parade down Church Street and a cross burning at the Fairgrounds. Over 6,000 people attended and numerous local business and organizations, including the Elmira Association of Commerce, took out ads in the event program.
|Elmira Klorero program, 1925|
The history of the Ku Klux Klan is uncomfortable and unsettling. How could otherwise decent people participate in an organization which was explicitly racist and anti-immigrant? How did their activities impact the people around them? How did others respond and fight back? All of these are important, if difficult, questions which need answering. To do that, we must be willing to talk about those parts of history most people would rather not discuss.