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“An Amorphous Code”: The Ku Klux Klan and Un-Americanism, 1915–1965

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 September 2013

Abstract

On 1 June 1965, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) announced that it would hold hearings into the Ku Klux Klan, fifty years after the organization had appeared before the House Rules Committee. Whereas the 1925 investigation allowed the Klan to continue to claim a “100% Americanism,” HUAC unequivocally declared the Klan of the 1960s to be entirely un-American. This essay seeks to explain that turnaround in the understanding of the Klan and its activities, on the one hand, and the contested ideas of un-Americanism and Americanism on the other. It is only within the context of that struggle over un-Americanism's evolving definition, it is argued, that the official decision of civil rights organizations such as COFO and SCLC – whose members had suffered personally from Klan violence – to oppose the proposed HUAC investigation of the Klan can be understood. Similarly, that ongoing contest explains how it was that, after almost three decades of investigating left-wing organizations that often included those fighting for greater civil rights, HUAC was finally moved to turn its attention to the right. Finally, this essay seeks to determine what it was, precisely, about the Klan in 1965 that was deemed “un-American” rather than simply criminal.

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Un-American Articles
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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References

1 “Memo: From Philip R Manuel, Investigator, to Francis J. McNamara, Director, June 1, 1965, Subject: Klans – General Information,” in “Klans – General: Investigative memos, etc.,” Box 29, House Committee on Un-American Activities 1965 Ku Klux Klan Investigations (hereafter “1965 Klan Investigations”), Records of the US House of Representatives, Record Group 233, National Archives, Washington DC (hereafter “HUAC Papers”). Manuel estimated a further 7,000 active Klansmen in other states.

2 “SUMMARIES, February 2, 1966,” in “Klans – General: Investigation by HUAC (Authorization of funds, subcommittees, subpoena lists, and witness lists),” Box 29, 1965 Klan Investigations, HUAC Papers.

3 COFO workers' letter to Willis, 7 April 1965, in “Com./Press Releases 1964–1965,” Box 1045, Public Perception of the HUAC Committee, 1945–1975 (hereafter “Public Perception Files”), HUAC Papers.

4 The first bombing was on King's home in Montgomery in 1956, the second at the Gaston Motel in Birmingham in 1963. Clipping, Evening Star, 3 April 1965, in “Com./Press Releases 1964–1965,” Box 1045, Public Perception Files, HUAC Papers.

5 Ad hoc investigatory committees which targeted particular forms of American radicalism, such as Hamilton Fish's 1930 Special Committee to Investigate Communist Activities, transformed into committees with specific mandates to investigate the idea of a broader un-Americanism, from temporary committees such as the McCormack-Dickstein Special Committee on Un-American Activities of 1934, to the Dies committee on the same subject in 1936 and, finally, to the establishment of a permanent House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1946. HUAC did not finally dissipate until the early 1970s.

6 See, for example, testimony of the American Legion's Stephen F. Chadwick, Veterans of Foreign Wars' Eugene I. Van Antwerp, and the DAR's Mrs. Henry M. Robert Jr., Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States: Hearings before a Special Committee on Un-American Activities, House Of Representatives, 75th Congress, 3rd Session, Volume 4, 2951, 2963, and 2999.

7 The American Legion developed a National Americanism Commission as one of its first standing committees in 1919, and by the 1930s was in a position to published a 207-page dossier on the subject, ISM'S, which drew the acclaim of federal un-American investigators and was repeatedly reproduced and read into the Record. Somewhat incongruously, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was also often cited by Dies, not least AFL president William Green's Reports on Communist Propaganda in America, which sought to distance the group's members from an un-American radicalism that was often tied to the AFL's rival, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Committee Reports and Resolutions Adopted at the First National Convention of the American Legion, 10, 11 and 12 Nov. 1919, Minneapolis, Minnesota (Unofficial Summary), 39; 1920s Annual Convention Reports & Digests, the American Legion Archives; Chaillaux, H. L. and Wilson, C. M. (eds.), ISM'S: A Review of Revolutionary Communism and Its Active Sympathizers in the United States (Indianapolis: National Americanism Commission of the American Legion, 1936)Google Scholar. Green, William, Report on Communist Propaganda in America as Submitted to the State Department, United States Government (Washington, DC: AFL, 1935)Google Scholar. Green in particular targeted the ACLU, who responded with Who's Un-American? An Answer to the ‘Patriots’ (New York: ACLU, 1937).

8 For a full list of hearings and reports, see Cumulative Index to Publications of Special Committee on Un-American Activities (Dies Committee), and the Committee on Un-American Activities, 1938 through 1954, Inclusive (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Offices, 1962); Supplement to Cumulative Index to Publications of the Committee on Un-American Activities, 1955 through 1968 (84th through 90th Congresses) (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Offices, 1970). The NAACP named in particular Mississippi's US Congressman Rankin, John and Eastland, Senator James O.. NAACP: An American Organization (New York: NAACP, June 1956), 4Google Scholar.

9 William Simmons telegram to William Harding, 28 Sept. 1921, The Ku Klux Klan: Hearings before the Committee on Rules, House of Representatives, 67th Congress, 1st Session (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1921), “Exhibit 1”, 127.

10 Simmons, William Joseph, The Klan Unmasked (Atlanta, GA: W. E. Thompson Publishing Co., 1923), 2627, 28–29Google Scholar. Simmons closely echoes Madison Grant, who wrote in 1916 that the nation was in the process of committing “race suicide.” For a later edition see Grant, The Passing of the Great Race or the Racial Basis of European History, 4th edn (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons , 1936)Google Scholar.

11 See Kazin, Michael and McCartin, Joseph A., “Introduction,” in Kazin, and McCartin, , eds., Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006), 121Google Scholar.

12 For a contemporary critique see Brooks, C. Harry, The Practice of Autosuggestion by the Method of Emile Coué, 3rd edn (London: Allen & Unwin, 1923)Google Scholar.

13 The Ku Klux Klan: Hearings before the Committee on Rules, 88–89, 94. For A Sacred Duty see “Exhibit G,” 121; for the testimonies of C. Anderson Wright, a former “klan kleagle” from New York, and Paul S. Etheridge, an Atlanta attorney and “One of the imperial officers” of Simmons's Klan, see 19 and 61.

14 For details on the Lanier University project see The Ku Klux Klan: Hearings before the Committee on Rules, Simmons testimony, at 70; and Exhibit D “Lanier University,” at 107–11.

15 Mecklin, John Moffat, The Ku Klux Klan: A Study of the American Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1924), 13, 113, and 239Google Scholar, New York World quote at 13–14.

16 For Trotter's testimony, see The Ku Klux Klan: Hearings before the Committee on Rules, 48–49.

17 See testimony of Rev. S. E. J. Watson, Rev. David Simpson Klugh, Rev. N. A. N. Shaw and Albert G. Wolff, The Ku Klux Klan: Hearings before the Committee on Rules, 50–54.

18 Lusk was particularly concerned that the Socialist Party was in effect operating in the thrall of the Soviet Union. See Revolutionary Radicalism: Its History, Purpose and Tactics. Final Report of the Joint Legislative Committee Investigating Seditious Activities, Filed April 24, 1920, in the Senate of the State of New York, 4 vols. (Albany, NY: J. B. Lyon Co., 1920).

19 Trotter testimony, The Ku Klux Klan: Hearings before the Committee on Rules, 48–49.

20 Wright and Garrett exchanges, The Ku Klux Klan: Hearings before the Committee on Rules, 46.

21 Although sufficiently radical to have resigned from the NAACP because he felt it was run by whites, here Trotter talked of the “harmony of races we have.” The Ku Klux Klan: Hearings before the Committee on Rules, 48, 49, 50 and 51. For Trotter's radicalism, see Jonas, Gilbert, Freedom's Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle against Racism in America, 1909–1969 (New York: Routledge, 2007), 402Google Scholar.

22 Simmons concluded by asking, “Gentlemen of the committee, how can any man speak the truth and say this is an un-American, anti-American, anarchistic crowd or gang?” The Ku Klux Klan: Hearings before the Committee on Rules, 89 and 93.

23 As revisionist historians have begun to suggest, this was not a “pathological society of social deviants” from the margins of society. See Moore, Leonard J., “Historical Interpretations of the 1920s Klan: The Traditional View and Recent Revisions,” in Lay, Shawn, ed., The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 1738, esp. 23–24Google Scholar.

24 For the Klan's mainstream appeal and electoral strength see McVeigh, Rory, The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan: Right-Wing Movements and National Politics (Social Movements, Protest, and Contention, 32) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), esp. 34, 6, 26–27Google Scholar; McLean, Nancy, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), esp. 18Google Scholar; and Blee, Kathleen, Women of the Ku Klux Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

25 For a damning indictment of Dies's methods see what remains the only monograph on the committee, Ogden, August Raymond, The Dies Committee: A Study of the Special House Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities, 1938–1944, 2nd revised edn (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, Inc., 1945)Google Scholar.

26 The murder trial of Indiana Klansman David C. Stephenson in 1925, the ebbing of charismatic and effective leadership at both the national and local level, and the perceived decline of its effectiveness as a local political pressure group were all contributors to the Klan's relative decline in the mid-1920s. See Lay, Shawn, “Introduction,” in Lay, The Invisible Empire in the West, 811Google Scholar.

27 Rollins, Richard, I Find Treason: The Story of an American Anti-Nazi Agent (New York: Morrow & Co., 1941), 184Google Scholar.

28 Young gave testimony on 1 Oct. 1940. Hearings before a Special Committee on Un-American Activities, House Of Representatives, 75th Congress 3rd Session, Vol. 14.

29 For numerical strength see Rollins, 192.

30 See Report of the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, read into Congressional Record, 76th Congress, 1st Session, Vol. 84 Part 1, on 3 Jan. 1939.

31 Rankin made HUAC permanent by offering an amendment to the rules of the temporary committee, which, under Congressional rules, could not be referred to a committee for further discussions but had to be voted upon in the chamber. For the debate see Congressional Record, 79th Congress, 1st Session, XCI, Part II (Jan. 1945), 1–13 ; for McCormack's quote see 12; Voorhis quote 51; Celler quote 148.

32 Voorhis penned his own minority report in 1942. Voorhis, Jerry, Confessions of a Congressman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1947), 225, 217–18Google Scholar.

33 Mundt, Karl E, “What Is Un-American Activity?”, Liberty, 22 Sept. 1945, 19, 9297Google Scholar. Roosevelt quoted at 93–94, Wallace 95, Mundt 94.

34 See “Filing Memo, 27 Oct. 1947, CIO News, p. 8,” and “Filing Memo, 27 Oct. 1947, CIO News, pp. 8–10,” both in Folder “Com./Action Against, 1947–1959,” Box 1031. Full-page advertisement clipping, 20 Jan. 1948, Washington Post, all in “Folder: Com./Complaints – Abolition 1955–58,” Box 1040, Public Perception Files, HUAC Papers, clipping, “Secret Plans Laid for Drive to Attack Thomas Committee,” New York Sun, 22 Jan. 1948; clipping, “Committee of 1,000 Defers Meeting as Aims Are Exposed,” Washington Times Herald, 23 Jan. 1948; Committee on 1,000 “Statement on Proposed ‘Subversive Activities Control Act of 1948,’ 23 April 1948,” in “Folder: Org./Committee of One Thousand,” Box 520, File Relating to Organizations 1945–1975, HUAC Papers.

35 The tactic of equating the goals of the civil rights movement with Americanism was not new, but the success that King and others achieved most certainly was, for they managed to forge a movement that routinely appropriated its symbols and values. As Mia Bay has argued, it followed a long-standing tradition in the black freedom struggle dating back to the mid- to late nineteenth century Bay, Mia, “See Your Declaration Americans!!! Abolitionism, Americanism, and the Revolutionary Tradition in Free Black Politics,” in Kazin and McCartin, Americanism, 2552Google Scholar.

36 “Statement of Clarence Mitchell, Labor Secretary for the NAACP, before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Opposition to HR 7595, May 3, 1950,” in “Folder: Org./NAACP 1950–51, Box 612, File Relating to Organizations 1945–1975, HUAC Papers.”

37 “Statement on the Velde Committee Hearings in Seattle, William Undewood, Northwest Area President, NAACP, Vancouver, Washington, in Box 612, Folder Org./NAACP 1952–54, File Relating to Organizations 1945–1975, HUAC Papers; NAACP: An American Organization (New York: NAACP, June 1956).”

38 Clipping, “The Un-American Activities Committee Should Be Abolished, Not Reorganized and Expanded,” 19 Dec. 1958, “Folder: Com./Complaints – Abolition 1955–58, Box 1040, Public Perception Files, HUAC Papers.”

39 Original footage of the March on Washington, as well as contemporary news reporting of the event, is freely available. See, for example, Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream” (No Director: US, 2005). Lancaster's choppily energetic speech is often omitted from historical accounts of the March on Washington, which prefer to focus on the rancorous debates that surrounded John Lewis's radical speech, and the magnificent climax represented by Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” Speech. See, for example, Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 876–87Google Scholar. Lewis believed that the line between civil rights, which he supported, and civil liberties, upon which the tough HUAC impinged, should be blurred. Clipping, “SNCC Joins Anti-HCUA Drive,” “Folder: Com./Complaints – Abolition March–Dec 1963,” Box 1039, Public Perception Files, HUAC Papers.

40 President Lyndon B. Johnson, Televised Remarks Announcing the Arrest of Members of the Ku Klux Klan., March 26, 1965.” Transcript available at www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=26836#axzz1jFjUUeg5.

41 Willis Press Release, 30 March 1965, in “Com./Press Releases 1964–1965,” Box 1045, Public Perception Files, HUAC Papers.

42 An editorial in the Baltimore Sun agreed: HUAC had “outlived its special usefulness” and the Klan investigation “could be performed better by other standing committees or by specially created committees.” Editorial, San Francisco Sun Reporter, 10 April 1965, both in “Com./Press Releases 1964–1965,” Box 1045, Public Perception Files, HUAC Papers.

43 Weltner believed that whilst all the other apparatus of the South's massive resistance had slowly dissipated or been rendered ineffective by 1966, the KKK “offers another alternative – terror. And with the decline of other forces, the Klan has grown in numbers and activities.” Weltner, Charles Longstreet, Southerner (Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1966), 180–82Google Scholar.

44 Editorial, Washington Post, 4 Feb. 1965; “Around the Nation,” Washington Post, 13 Feb. 1965; New York Times, 13 Feb. 1965, all in “Com./Press Releases 1964–1965,” Box 1045, Public Perception Files, HUAC Papers.

45 As one Louisiana-born Anti-defamation League stalwart explained to a HUAC investigator in November 1965, the Magnolia State harboured “the most secretive and the most violent of Klan groups.”A. I. Botnick memo to Sherman Harris, 5 Nov. 1965, “Folder: White Knights of the KKK – Mississippi (Investigative Memos) [1 of 2],” Box 42, 1965 Klan Investigations, HUAC Papers.

46 Marquis Childs of the Washington Post reported in April, “Of a staff of 48, the committee presently has six investigators. Not one has previous FBI experience [and] … they are mostly patronage appointees.” Childs, “Headline Hunting in the Klaverns,” Washington Post, 21 April 1965; San Francisco Chronicle, 15 April 1965. Life magazine noted in June, “Nobody wants to testify. Active Klansmen and even former members insist their lips are sealed by the KKK oath of secrecy on even the smallest details about organization or recruitment.” What was more, “Victims of Klan terrorism are too scared to talk because the committee, which has no local police authority, is powerless to insure their safety.” Life , 25 June 1965, 36. As the New York Post reported a month later, “Congressional investigators are finding it difficult to enlist the cooperation of knowledgeable witnesses … ‘People who know anything are reluctant to talk,’ sources said here. This has become a major problem for investigators from the [HUAC].” William McGaffin, “The Klan Inquiry,” New York Post, 8 July 1965. All clippings in “Com./Press Releases 1964–1965,” Box 1045, Public Perception Files, HUAC Papers.

47 Ashbrook quoted in Activities of Ku Klux Klan Organizations in the United States Part I: Hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, 89th Congress, 1st Session (Washington, DC: US Govt Printing Office, 1966), 1598.

48 Sullivan memo to Appell, 6 July 1965, “RE: INTERNATIONAL PAPER COMPANY, Natchez, Mississippi, KLANSMEN EMPLOYED,” in “Klans – Mississippi (Investigative Memos) [1 of 2],” Box 39, 1965 Klan Investigations, HUAC Papers.

49 Appell letter to Sullivan, 2 Aug. 1965, in “Klans – Mississippi (Investigative Memos) [1 of 2],” Box 39, 1965 Klan Investigations, HUAC Papers.

50 On police work against the Klan see, for example, Sullivan memo to Appell, 18 Oct. 1965, “Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers and Officials Involved in Investigation of Klan Activities”; Appell letter to Sullivan, 2 Aug. 1965, both in “Klans – Mississippi (Investigative Memos) [1 of 2],” Box 39, 1965 Klan Investigations, HUAC Papers.

51 Sullivan, handwritten note, c. Sept. 1965, “International Paper Co, Natchez, Miss,” in “Klans – Mississippi (Investigative Memos) [1 of 2],” Box 39, 1965 Klan Investigations, HUAC Papers. They included a file for Charles M. Edwards, who was implicated in the Dee, Henry and Moore, Charles murders. The Present-Day Ku Klux Klan Movement: Report by the Committee on Un-American Activities (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1967), 123–24Google Scholar.

52 For this particular case see testimony of Miss Betty Ann Shoemake, 21 March 1966, Jackson Mississippi, 9–page memo (unsigned), “RE: JAMES EDGAR SWAN RACIAL MATTERS (KLAN),” in “Klans – Mississippi (Investigative Memos) [1 of 2],” Box 39, 1965 Klan Investigations, HUAC Papers.

53 It was only after considerable FBI involvement that arrests, and finally grudging convictions, were made. For obvious reasons, where the historiography has covered the event, it has focussed on the lack of judicial due process that followed the bombing. See Dittmer, John, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 306–9Google Scholar. For the most recent example see Newton, Michael, The Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi: A History (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Co., 2010), 156–58Google Scholar. Dittmer, who interviewed Quinn, spells her surname “Quin,” although it appears in HUAC and FBI records as “Quinn.” Appell noted that “in view of Mr Wilson's refusal to answer committee questions, invoking his constitutional privileges, I would like to present a résumé of the committee's investigation as it relates to Mr Wilson.”Activities of Ku Klux Klan Organizations in the United States Part 4, p. 3020. Although Zeeck is not mentioned, the bombings of Wilson's “wolf pack” are detailed in The Present-Day Ku Klux Klan Movement, 111–14.

54 “I think the main thing they wanted to do was those people to quit helping those KOFO [sic] workers so they would go on about their own business,” he concluded. Ernest F. Zeeck, 16 Sept. 1965, Executive Session Transcripts, 577–78, Box 60, 1965 Klan Investigations, HUAC Papers.

55 Willis quoted in The Present-Day Ku Klux Klan Movement, 143.

56 “He wanted you members to vote in the elections? Is that right?” repeated Hitz. “That's right, sir,” concluded Wilson. In an indication of the perceived importance of the strand of questioning, Hitz and Willis returned to it after a brief recess. Asked to clarify his testimony, Wilson declared that “if there were enough members in the Klan, that when we went to vote, see, at the polls to vote, that there would be enough of our own votes to —” Willis: “Influence the election.” Wilson: “Well maybe not …” Willis: “Influence or to carry the election.” Wilson: “That's right.” Billy Earl Wilson, 21 Sept. 1965, Executive Session Transcripts, 682–83, 695–96, Box 61, 1965 Klan Investigations, HUAC Papers.

57 UAC was able to trace IRS violations thanks to an Executive Order (11217) decreed by President Johnson on 24 April 1965, which specifically gave the committee the right to inspect income tax returns, and also by direct witness testimony. See, for example, Billy Earl Wilson, 21 Sept. 1965, Executive Session Transcripts, 790–92, Box 61, 1965 Klan Investigations, HUAC Papers.

58 The White Knights of the KKK declared that “A citizen of the klan dedicates himself to preserving the ‘constitution of the United States of America as originally written’.” Unsigned “KU KLUX KLAN” document, 8 March 1965, in “Folder: Klans – General: Investigative memos, etc.” Box 29, 1965 Klan Investigations, HUAC Papers. Underlining in original.

59 HUAC's final report berated the Klan for conspiring “to deprive certain citizens of rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” not least due process of the law. For, as the report noted, “The secrecy which cloaks a klan organization is essential to the success of klan vigilantes who take it upon themselves to accuse, convict and punish fellow citizens for behavior disapproved of by the klan.” The Present-Day Ku Klux Klan Movement, 136–37, Opinion, 1 Dec. 1965, by US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, New Orleans division, quoted at 137.

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