Behind the Mask of Chivalry Summary

Nancy MacLean

Behind the Mask of Chivalry

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Behind the Mask of Chivalry Summary

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Almost fifty years after the founding of the original Klan in 1866, William Joseph Simmons revived the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 after watching D.W. Griffith’s popular film, Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s film casts the Klan as heroic, saving a white maiden from the predations of a black man who means to do her harm. This image of the Klan as the only bulwark between violent African American males and pure white maidens was often used to justify the aggressively racist rhetoric and activities of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan adopted this posture of chivalrous protection of women’s virtue, repeatedly conjuring stereotypes of dangerous black men that were not accurate or tied to reality. Believing this image to be central to the Klan’s appeal to prospective members, American author and historian Nancy MacLean titled her book Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (1994).

MacLean contrasts this second iteration of the Klan with the earlier version from the 1860s that reigned havoc throughout the South until around the end of the Reconstruction Era. While the first Ku Klux Klan focused its hateful rhetoric and violence almost exclusively on black Americans, the movement of the 1920s expanded its targets to include Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. They also adopted moralistic policies against drinking, gambling, and other modern “sins.” This attitude of “clean living” appealed especially to rural Americans who feared the rise of urban centers as the most economically viable and important regions of the United States, which they associated with such ungodly pursuits.

This was no fringe movement, MacLean writes, characterizing the second Ku Klux Klan as “the most powerful movement of the far right that America has produced.” Because of the anonymous nature of its membership, estimates of its size vary wildly between 3 million Americans and 8 million Americans during its height around the middle of the 1920s. The group held an outsized amount of political power during this period, far more than the Klan possessed during the Civil Rights Era when it was highly demonstrative and visible on the nation’s television sets, and during its original iteration.

One of the most important arguments put forth by MacLean is that, contrary to the opinions of many American commentators over the years, the Klan actively encouraged its members to practice intimidation, harassment, and violence against non-white Protestants, particularly black Americans, viewing these tactics as not only acceptable but patriotic. According to a 1921 newspaper expose, more than one hundred instances of Klan-led violence had been documented, and that was back when the membership numbered only around 100,000 people. In addition, due to the reluctance of many local police departments to listen to the claims of black Americans, the true number of violent incidents perpetrated by the Klan that year is likely to be much larger.

MacLean counters claims that the Klan was largely made up of poor, backward, rural Southerners. While it’s true that the largest numbers of Klan members were concentrated in the South, major chapters could be found in urban and rural areas across the country, in states such as Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Colorado, and Washington. Moreover, the average Klan member was neither very wealthy nor very poor. Most were middle-class professionals or small business owners, anxious about the post-war recession and fearful that they were ceding too much collective wealth and political influence to leftist interlopers from Europe.

Finally, MacLean explores the reasons for the Klan’s near-demise by the end of the 1920s. Both internal and external factors conspired to bring about the dissipation of the Klan’s influence in American society. Internally, members became disillusioned with chapter leaders who raided Klan funds for personal gain or committed other acts of impropriety that ran in direct contrast to the supposed moral values the organization promoted. This disillusionment hit a peak when David Stephenson, a powerful Klan leader in Indiana, was convicted of raping and murdering a young woman. As for external factors, the biggest reason people lost interest in the Klan was that their apocalyptic visions of a decaying America turned out to be false. After the post-WWI recession, but before the Great Depression, the economy began to boom again, making it clear to many that the influx of immigrants and the inclusion of non-whites in political life was nothing to fear.

In the end, Behind the Mask of Chivalry is a valuable history lesson and an eye-opening book that counters many myths about the Ku Klux Klan.