Editor’s note: The Time Machine will now explore the themes that Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discuss on each week’s episode of Now & Then

By David Kurlander

Republican Senators two weeks ago filibustered a House bill to establish a January 6 commission, torpedoing the initially bipartisan efforts to investigate the insurrection. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Investigating Democracy,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman examined the partisan rancor that has consistently plagued congressional commissions. Heather and Joanne zoomed in on the 1871 Ku Klux Klan hearings, which resulted in volumes of wrenching testimony by victims of Klan vigilantism, but ultimately led to a fierce divide in the investigating committee. Fifty years after these initial Klan hearings, the House Rules Committee convened another investigation into the revived KKK. These 1921 hearings further showcase the polarized nature of congressional inquiries, while providing a disturbing mirror through which to view today’s right-wing movements. 

In 1915, a white supremacist Atlanta preacher named William J. Simmons, inspired by D.W. Griffith’s revisionist film Birth of a Nation, ascended Stone Mountain with 15 allies and burned a cross. The Ku Klux Klan, largely nascent in the previous decades, had returned. The Klan remained small until 1920, when Simmons, calling himself the “Imperial Wizard,” contracted the Southern Publicity Association, a group led by marketers Edward Young Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler, to “propagate” the organization. Clark and Tyler set up a system of salespeople called “Kleagles,” who increased membership to 100,000 by August 1921. 

 In response to the sudden burst in Klan popularity, the New York World began publishing a 21-article exposé of the “new Klan.” The series emerged from a partnership between NAACP leader Walter White and iconic World editor and Algonquin Table mainstay Herbert Bayard Swope

 The World’s leading investigative reporter, Rowland Thomas, revealed how the Klan, centering their critiques on Black Americans, Catholics, and Jews, had distributed nativist literature, engaged in secret baptism rites, and sometimes committed outright vigilante retribution. In one such event, The World reported, Klansmen in Beaumont, Texas, tarred and feathered a doctor who was accused of performing abortions. 

 Thomas also reported that Young and Tyler had likely become near millionaires by taking majority commissions on all membership fees. In the midst of the series, Thomas discovered evidence that the duo—although espousing the rigid moral strictures of the Klan ideology—had been arrested for frequenting a “notorious underworld resort” two years earlier.

 Three Northern congressmen introduced resolutions to investigate the Klan’s extrajudicial and economic practices. Congress voted in favor of Massachusetts Representative Peter Tague’s proposal. Tague, famous for his narrow and contested 1919 victory over Boston machine politician John Fitzgerald, offered a scathing statement for why he felt the investigation was necessary: “If the light of publicity is turned upon the grotesque, fantastic, ludicrous garb and ceremonies of this intolerant organization, which presumes to take the law in its own hands and holds sway through appeal to superstition, it will be found the sponsors have reaped a rich harvest.” 

 Simmons responded by sending telegrams to a slew of legislators encouraging them to support the investigation. He argued that the controversy stemmed from “the absolute unreliability and untruthfulness of men launching signed newspaper articles” and assured the legislators that his group would “be fully exonerated from all slanders and charges.” 

 The House Committee on Rules convened to hear testimony about the Klan on October 11, 1921. Thomas, the World investigative reporter, gave a summary of his findings before offering a broader denunciation of the organization, saying, “The Ku Klux Klan and American institutions established by our founders and guaranteed by our constitution, cannot both survive…Either this organization, born of greed and bigotry, operating with grotesque degeneracy in the darkness, must be blotted by legal process from our American life, or our constitution must become meaningless.” 

 Simmons entered the hearing room accompanied by his own District’s representative, Georgia Democrat William Upshaw, an evangelist and prohibition advocate who was dubbed the “Billy Sunday of Congress,” after the popular preacher. On the eve of the hearings, Upshaw stirred up controversy when he suggested that all secret societies should be investigated: “Inasmuch as there are many oath-bound organizations led by officials with weird, high-sounding titles, and only one of these societies has been named for investigation, we ought to treat them all alike…The American people believe in fair play.” 

 Upshaw denied that his statement was racist, arguing, “All the hysteria of un-American criticism will not budge me one inch from my known duty.” He glowingly introduced Simmons: “Knowing his sterling character, as I do, I am prepared to underwrite his every utterance as the truth of an honest and patriotic man.”

Simmons sat before the Committee for three days, delivering consistent flattery of its members and painting the Klan as a benign and fraternal organization. Near the end of his second day, Simmons turned his ire on the media, delivering an anti-Semitic screed against the paper that had exposed his Klan. “The attacks against the Klan were originated and started by the New York World, which is owned or controlled by a Jew, Mr. Pulitzer, whose main purpose is circulation and revenue.” Ralph Pulitzer was Episcopalian. Simmons later looped the Democratic Party into his alleged journalistic conspiracy: “The World is the stronghold of the Democratic newspapers and the Democratic Party.” When he finished his oration, Simmons copiously thanked the committee before physically collapsing on the hearing table in a show of possibly feigned exhaustion. He quickly recovered.

The hearings did not destroy the new Klan, nor did they lead to any broad-based legal consequences for the group. In fact, Simmons received a sharp uptick in membership applications upon his return to Atlanta. Colliers criticized the Committee, arguing, “Congress, by failure to act, gave Simmons a chance to say that it had put its stamp of approval on the strange new order.” In her 2017 book The Second Coming of the KKK, historian Linda Gordon wrote, in a poignantly relevant analysis of the popularity surge: “Testimony that liberals would find appalling appealed, by contrast, to many Americans.”

 Over the next few years, Klan membership continued to skyrocket to at least 2 million members. At the 1924 Republican National Convention, an anti-Klan plank failed. Incumbent President Calvin Coolidge—who had been catapulted to the presidency following Warren Harding’s fatal heart attack the previous year—decided to avoid speaking out publicly against the Klan. In 1925, 40,000 Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

 It took a series of scandals to send the Klan into decline. The most serious involved D.C. Stephenson, a high-level Indianan recruiter (“Imperial Dragon”) who was convicted in a sensational 1925 trial for the rape and murder of a young woman on a train. After his conviction, Stephenson agreed to share with the media a list of elected officials from Indiana who were in the Klan. The resultant Indianapolis Times report won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for Journalism.

 The Klan would resurge again during the Civil Rights movement, and still has 22 state organizations today. The contentiousness of the 1921 hearing—and the success with which Simmons and Upshaw harnessed the politics of the spectacle—showcase a strategy of committee maneuvering that is still, clearly, a venomously effective method of obfuscation today. As Republicans attempt to stop further investigations of January 6th, to downplay the coterie of far-right groups involved, and to blame the media for the political divisions in the country, 1921 feels much more recent than 100 years ago. 

Linda Gordon’s aforementioned scholarship informed much of the research in this piece. For contemporaneous coverage of the Klan’s rise and controversies, read New York World staffer Henry Peck Fry’s 1922 The Modern Ku Klux Klan, available for free on Google Books. 

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