The Ku Klux Klan was a secret organization that promoted white nationalism in the name of patriotism and Christianity. Originally organized in the South after the Civil War to deny economic and political advancements to former slaves, its members intimidated, terrorized and often carried out physical attacks on black families. Members conducted meetings in secrecy and wore white robes and pointed masks that disguised their faces when they demonstrated in public. The symbol most associated with the Klan was the burning cross lighted in the yards of those they desired to intimidate. Law enforcement officers in the South rarely intervened to challenge them.
Although as an organization, the KKK membership declined, the robes, masks, burning crosses continued as the South imposed restrictive Jim Crow legislation. In 1914, a popular movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” depicted a view of the Klan during Reconstruction as a positive force, especially protecting white women from perceived sexual threats by black men. President Woodrow Wilson praised the movie for its depiction of American history. When the movie played in Des Moines in 1916, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protested in one of its first public actions. While it would be a stretch to credit the movie with the birth of a 20th C. KKK in Iowa and emergence of an NAACP chapter in Des Moines, the two occurred at the same time.
The KKK reappeared as a social and political force during WW I, this time in the Midwest as well as the South. The war had whipped patriotism to a white-hot fervor to demand absolute loyalty, “100% Americanism”, to the United States. In Northern states, immigrants, Catholics, and Jews were added to blacks as KKK targets. KKK members began with the assumption that America was for white, native-born Protestants. They were suspicious of immigrants who might harbor loyalties to their homelands. The U.S. is a Christian nation, they maintained, and therefore Jews could never be fully American. KKK members also assumed that blacks were intellectually and morally inferior to whites.
Across the Midwest, Catholics became the principal target. The war had brought on changes, and white Protestants felt threatened. The Klan espoused a Protestant moral code, condemning drinking and bootlegging, drug use, prostitution, sexual immorality, violation of Sunday social activities, and other shortcomings. They linked the rising immigrant populations in the cities and radical political groups as a source of the conflict. The long-standing distrust of Protestants to what they saw as blind allegiance of Catholics to is priesthood hierarchy and foreign Pope grew into conspiracy theories of Catholic plots to overthrow the government and establish a Catholic theocracy.
The national KKK organization paid organizers to recruit members across the Midwest, including Iowa. Its secret and elaborate rituals appealed to some. The organization built hierarchies with elaborate titles, like the Imperial Wizard as a chief officer, Imperial Kleagle as chief of staff, or Klectoken as membership fee. Local organizations were called klaverns.
In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan experienced a resurgence in popularity including the Midwest, including Iowa. Klaverns organized in 1922 were the first of an estimated 100 over the next four years. Klan membership increased across the state, reaching its peak in 1925/1926, when there were an estimated 40,000 members statewide, although exact numbers are difficult to establish because of its secretive nature. During this period the Klan had its own newspaper published in Des Moines, first The Iowa Fiery Cross, then The Iowa Klan Kourier, and finally The Iowa Kourier.
Iowa klavens sponsored marches of white-robed, hooded Klansmen in cities and small towns across the state. A large rally in Cedar Rapids attracted 1,000 members. A Klan officer reported that a private gathering in the area drew an unsubstantiated 10,000. In Sioux City, Manly, Perry, and Centerville and many other towns recorded public Klan appearances. While there were many local Klan cells, there is little evidence of evidence of physical violence against targeted groups as there had been in the South, although there were instances of cross burnings and vandalism. In elections in the early 1920s, some KKK-backed candidates won election to local city councils and school board and promoted policies hostile to its targeted groups, including elections in small towns, Des Moines and other larger Iowa cities.
Individuals and groups pushed back against the Klan and its philosophy. Many local newspapers denounced it as un-American for its secrecy and intolerance. The American Legion (veterans), the Masons, and the Iowa Farm Bureau all came out against it. The peak of its strength came in 1924, and it declined rapidly after that.
There have been several eras after WWII when cross burnings against blacks and others made news, but while that is a well-known Klan symbol, there is no evidence of official Klan organization. Dubuque, for example, was the scene of racial tensions and cross burnings in the 1990s, but the general public was not supporting bringing back the KKK and pushed back at the discriminating actions.
White nationalism again became a national focus after the 2016 elections. The Ku Klux Klan was a visible expression of those who envision the United States as a nation for white people. With or without the Klan, that perspective remains a potent force in American society.
For Further Reading
This article relied heavily on an essay for Iowa Pathways by Jeremy Brigham and other works he cited below as sources for his article.
- Brigham, Jeremy. “Civil Rights Organizations in Iowa.” Chapter 13 in Outside In: African-American History in Iowa: 1838-2000. Des Moines, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa. 2001.
- Chalmers, David. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. New York, New York: New Viewpoints-A Division of Franklin Watts. 1981.
- Chase, Hal. “Chapter 6: You Live What You Learn: The African-American Presence in Iowa Education, 1839-2000.” ,Outside In: African-American History in Iowa: 1838-2000. Des Moines, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa. 2001.
- Fisher, Allen and David Hay. In The Heart of the City: A History of First Presbyterian Church, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1847-1997. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: First Presbyterian Church. 1997.
- William J Maddix, “Blacks and Whites in Manly: An Iowa Town Overcomes Racism.” The Palimpsest, 1982: 130-137.
- Randel, William Peirce. The Ku Klux Klan: A Century of Infamy. New York, New York: Chilton Books. 1965.