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A KKK (Klu Klux Klan) mask on display at The National Museum of African American History and Culture during a media preview of the museum in Washington, DC, USA, 14 September 2016. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO
African-American History Museum

African-American museum’s Klan artifacts echo a not-so-distant past

The story behind America’s most recognizable pieces of racist iconography is full of revisionist history and opportunistic capitalism

There are two Ku Klux Klan hoods on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The white one, which curator Spencer Crew estimates is from the early 20th century, floats at eye level in an exhibition case between the Charles Carroll book The Negro a Beast …or… In the image of God and a French pamphlet documenting the Atlanta riots of 1906. Its supports are obscured by the hood itself, and against the stark black background of the display case, it greets you like a disembodied menace.

The other, bright red and from the 1950s, hangs in another case with its robe, which is draped over a mannequin. The pointed hoods stand at attention.

One of the most affecting aspects of the museum is the way its objects make history tangible, whether it be the pulley of a slave ship, the tiny dress belonging to a slave who was obviously a child, or a bill of sale for a person.

But while a bill of sale requires you to lean in closely to take in its details, the Klan hood produces a visceral reaction from a distance. It is instantly recognizable.

A glance at the description etched on the exhibition case reveals the white hood is satin. Not only does it still retain some of its shine, but up close, it appears remarkably finished. Your attention turns toward the eye holes because years of watching Project Runway have primed you to scrutinize needlework. Surprisingly, the eye holes have seams. Whoever wore this didn’t just grab a sheet and cut two holes in it. Its origin was not spontaneous. Someone took time to make this.

One of the valuable aspects of having the expanse of black American history under one roof is the way it clearly establishes a through line from African-Americans’ history of bondage to modern-day America. Perhaps that’s why the Klan regalia inspires such morbid curiosity: It’s a potent symbol of domestic terrorism, one that still lives on.

Why white?

A full-color catalog of Klan regalia from 1921 (which is not on display in the museum) reveals that Klan robes and hoods came in an array of colors that designated various ranks. But it’s the white uniform that has become a metonym for racial terror, thanks almost entirely to the popularity of The Clansman, the 1905 book by Thomas Dixon, which became a play and was later adapted by D.W. Griffith into the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.

Dixon’s book contained a detailed description of the Klan uniform far different from the Klan garb of the Reconstruction era, which was a more hodgepodge affair that included women’s dresses, flour sacks, or other clothes turned inside out and often incorporated animal horns, skins, and polka dots. Reconstruction-era Klan garb was closer to Mardi Gras or Junkanoo costumes than the later-period robes.

A member of the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan participates in the 11th Annual Nathan Bedford Forrest Birthday march July 11, 2009 in Pulaski, Tennessee.

A member of the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan participates in the 11th Annual Nathan Bedford Forrest Birthday march July 11, 2009 in Pulaski, Tennessee.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It was Dixon’s illustrator, Arthur I. Keller, who depicted the Klan of the Reconstruction era in the mythic white robes they didn’t actually wear. A few influences converged that resulted in the white robes, according to Elaine Frantz Parsons, associate professor of history at Duquesne University, and the author of Ku-Klux: The birth of the Klan during Reconstruction. In response to fears of both immigration and the loss of the country’s agrarian roots, threatened whites began to reference medieval history as a nobler, simpler time. That included the use of crosses, which were frequently emblazoned on Klan robes and the Klan’s obsession with referring to its membership as knights.

“To these racists who are drawn to it, the Klan represents some pure, white, clean, earlier time.” — professor Elaine Frantz Parsons

“To these racists who are drawn to it, the Klan represents some pure, white, clean, earlier time,” Parsons said. “That becomes this really powerful symbol. … The Suffragettes were a little bit before this time. So the 19-teens. They’re wearing their white dresses through the streets representing the moral purity that women will bring to the ballot. The Klan, they’re making a claim about white purity, often also meaning anti-black, but the Klan is saying white rule and not just any white rule, but non-ethnic, non-Catholic, non-Jewish, non-Southern European, non-Eastern European. White rule: Nordic, Aryan. We’re moving up into that period where we’re talking about the same kind of power that is going to give some energy to the Nazis just a decade later.

“What they’re really saying is that … Anglo-Saxon leadership is what’s caused our civilization to come this far as it has. It’s what’s caused the rise of this country and we now need to make sure that it prevails and we need to prevent African-Americans and other ethnic groups from claiming a part in power because they will bring with it ignorance, corruption, hypersexuality, all sorts of sins and evils.”

What about the other colors?

If the white robes represented purity, the red, green and yellow ones established hierarchy within the organization, according to Katherine Lennard, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan whose dissertation, Uniform Threat: Manufacturing the Ku Klux Klan’s Visible Empire, explains the symbology of the regalia.

A member of the Ku Klux Klan wears his Klan robe, which is decorated with both the American and Confederate flags. He is attending a march in Washington, DC.

A member of the Ku Klux Klan wears his Klan robe, which is decorated with both the American and Confederate flags. He is attending a march in Washington, DC.

Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

A green satin uniform with hood and robe, trimmed in silk and accompanied with a silk cord and tassel, which sold for $35 in 1921 (approximately $470 in 2016 dollars) was for an imperial representative. Robes for hydras and great titans were red sateen with white trim and priced at $10 (an upgrade to satin would cost another $10). Less expensive white robes were crafted from cotton.

Establishing a social hierarchy within the Klan was central to reinforcing the group’s ideas about social hierarchy generally.

“‘If people stay in their place, society will function properly.’ They say that sort of thing a lot,” Lennard said. “They say a lot in the mid-’20s, the Klan is anti-violence. If everyone performs their predetermined social function, and that’s predetermined by race, by nationality, ethnicity, et cetera, society would be, America will be, what it’s supposed to be. All of the social problems we have are based on people sort of trying to go outside their prescribed role.”

The satin red hood and robe in the new museum bears a close resemblance to the red robes of Catholic bishops. There’s a lot of aesthetic similarities between the uniforms of the Catholic church and the Klan, especially when one compares the Klan’s white robes and hoods with those of penitential robes worn during Holy Week in Spain. Still, there’s no empirical evidence that Klan robes had anything to do with those worn during Holy Week. As far as history’s concerned, it’s a coincidence.

“Every couple years, [Holy Week pictures] come up on a newspaper and people are like, ‘Oh, my God, the Klan’s in Spain.’ No, they’ve been doing this since the Middle Ages,” Lennard said. “You know, all of this is really funny, in a way, because the Klan in the ’20s is so anti-Catholic, and so they’re wearing these garments that have that kind of resonance.”

The three eras of the Klan

Dixon’s revisionist history-making, which associated the beginning of the Klan during Reconstruction with the white hooded uniform, was central to justifying its violence.

“There’s this big popular contest over what Reconstruction was, what the Klan was, why they were so violent, what they were trying to do, and what Dixon does in his book is he follows a line that Klansmen themselves have sort of started to use in the 19th century to justify the organization, which is, ‘we’re noble knights,’ ” Lennard said. “They’re trying to say they were drawing on fraternal practices, and drawing on medieval knighthood to justify their actions. That doesn’t happen during the Klan in the 19th century, but it’s like an excuse afterwards that people use to say, ‘oh, they were actually noble knights.’ ”

ku-klux-cover
The terrorist groups that tortured, murdered and raped so many black people in the backlash to Reconstruction did not dress in white robes, but were more likely to look like the man pictured on the cover of Parsons’ book.

The lack of a standardized Klan uniform during Reconstruction is central to understanding how various Klan groups throughout the South were able to conduct a reign of terror. Vigilantes wore costumes and disguises that sometimes included blackface, but they did not wear uniforms. It was a way for vigilantes to compartmentalize the violence they exacted by night so that they could be seen as upstanding citizens by day. This also allowed for a systematic denial that the Klan even existed, or that these killings were taken place. It was the journalistic work of Ida B. Wells that said otherwise.

[Police shootings and the Ida B. Wellses of our time]

“Serious people, all the way through even after Klan violence was over, major newspapers said, ‘Well, we can’t know if there’s ever been a Klan. We don’t know if it ever really existed,’ ” Parsons said. “The whole time that the Klan is going on there was so many investigations. There was so much that Congress sent a team of congressmen who actually went physically down to small towns in the South to take interviews from people who had been attacked by the Klan to figure out what was going on.

“Seeing these garments may bring up a lot of traumatic feelings, but it’s also really an important place for the country — this is America’s museum — the country to confront the ways in which violence is constructed, has been constructed towards black bodies in the United States.”

“Still, even though we have volumes and volumes of testimony, and evidence, and captured costumes, and the bodies of dead Klansmen killed during attacks — even though we have all of these things, a number of people kept on saying, ‘There’s no Klan. Those people, they’re just afraid. Black people are superstitious and fearful and they think that they’re being attacked by the Klan, but we can’t believe them.’ ”

Dixon’s robes, brought to life in The Birth of a Nation thanks to the work of costume designer Clare West, helped establish a visual continuity that contributed to the Klan’s mythos as one continuous organization from its beginnings in Reconstruction-era Tennessee up until today.

But that’s not case. The fact that we associate white hoods and robes with one large national entity known is the result of revisionist history, savvy marketing, and the factory production of Klan uniforms in Atlanta beginning in 1921. In reality, there were three distinct historical eras of the Klan. First, there’s the Klan that erupts during Reconstruction and is responsible for an estimated 10,000 murders of black people. (If you look at the bottoms of the exhibition cases in the Smithsonian museum that document the era of lynch mob terror, you will see the names of many of those who were killed.) But the violence by these local organizations declined as subjugation of black Americans was codified by Jim Crow.

Then there’s the Klan that grew in the wake of the publication of The Clansmen, and even more so after the release of The Birth of a Nation. William J. Simmons, a traveling fraternal order organizer, capitalized on the success of the film by standardizing the uniforms in a popular form of hate-fueled cosplay. Simmons constructed a membership schema, and sold pamphlets and banners, all customized to whatever brand of hate might be preferred.

“Say you want to start a Pittsburgh chapter of the Klan,” Parsons said. “You might say, ‘Well, we’re really interested in all three: anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and anti-black issues, so we’re going to order all of those pamphlets because that’s what our communities like here. If you moved to other parts of the country you might say, ‘Well, we’re really not that interested in anti-Semitism,’ so you’re free to focus on other things. They actually even said in the center, at the main office, ‘Look, you can decide that the focus of your particular Klan is going to be… pro-Prohibition. You could focus on certain kinds of racial issues, you can focus on anti-suffrage. You can avoid working on anti-suffrage.’ As long as you’re spending money to buy the pamphlets, they really allowed a lot of different ways to think about how to set up your hate groups.”

Because Simmons was most knowledgeable about fraternal orders such as the Knights Templar and the Masons, he modeled “The Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Incorporated” after them. The group had a state charter. Simmons was listed in the phone the phone book as the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He’s responsible for the full-color Catalogue of Official Robes and Banners from 1921. Simmons even hired a publicist to market the group, drawing in 100,000 memberships in less than 18 months.

Parsons called it “this horrific moment where profit-making and ideology come together conveniently,” with local chapters paying dues to Simmons’ new version of the Klan. Enthusiasm began to wane for this version around 1926-27 due to financial scandal.

The third Klan springs up violently and disparately across the South in the 1950s and ’60s as a response to the social progress of black Americans, and spread west to Idaho and Montana in the ’70s.

“People like to imagine that the first Klan and the third Klan were really centrally organized like the second Klan,” Parsons said. “We’re talking about terrorist groups and what people don’t understand is that terrorist groups like the Klan often are very decentralized.

“They might call themselves by a single name, so the Ku Klux Klan name was taken up by people throughout the South in the first Klan and in the third Klan, but that doesn’t mean they’re in any communication with each other or that anybody has the ability to control or stop them in particular. There’s not some sort of central figure who was masterminding what was going on in different parts of the South. These are small local groups that operate independently but share a common racist identity.”

The Klan’s presence in modern-day America

There’s too much infighting and paranoia among various Klan groups now to declare the modern surge in Klan membership a definitive fourth era.

“If there’s one thing about terrorists, if they’re violent white supremacists, it’s that they’re not super-good team players,” Parsons said. “They’re not organization people. … There’s all sorts of little groups that fight with each other constantly. If you take the time … of going in and looking at contemporary Klan [web]sites, if there’s one kind of people that the Klan hate more than the Jews — which seems to almost be more their focus now than African-Americans — it’s other Klan groups.”

However, there are parallels between the denial of extrajudicial killings of black people during Reconstruction, and the disbelief exhibited toward the claim that black people were and are being killed by the state, up until these killings were regularly captured on video.

The Klan exploited sexual panic over black men raping white women as reasoning for extrajudicial killing. It’s still a potent force. Just this week, the University of Michigan made news when alt-right groups distributed fliers on the campus warning white women that their lives are at risk if they date black men.

“Every couple years they come up on a newspaper and people are like, ‘Oh, my God, the Klan’s in Spain.’ No, they’ve been doing this since the Middle Ages,” Lennard said. “You know, all of this is really funny, in a way, because the Klan in the ’20s is so anti-Catholic, and so they’re wearing these garments that have that kind of resonance.” — Katherine Lennard

Even the rhetoric that buttressed the decision to make Klan robes white is still being echoed by modern-day holders of political office. During a discussion with MSNBC host Chris Hayes this summer about the whiteness of the Republican Party, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) asked what other “subgroups” made contributions to Western civilization.

“I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” King said.

“Than white people?” Hayes asked.

“Than, than Western civilization itself,” King replied. “It’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”

The African-American museum is packed with more than 3,700 artifacts, and they all tell important stories. In the history galleries, the past comes alive, front and center, still tying us to the present.

“This is a really important space to deal with these images, and I think that they’re scary, and they may feel pretty — they may open some wounds for a lot of people,” Lennard said of the Klan paraphernalia. “Seeing these garments may bring up a lot of traumatic feelings, but it’s also really an important place for the country — this is America’s museum — the country to confront the ways in which violence is constructed, has been constructed towards black bodies in the United States. This is a pretty powerful. I think it’s a powerful inclusion, even though it’s challenging to look at, and challenging to see.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.