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Reactionary Moral Crusaders of the Past

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This isn’t exactly an unknown story, but it’s always a good reminder to remind us how the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t just a racist organization, but one trying everything it could to put back all the scary new cultural stuff of the early 20th century in a box and restoring what its members saw as a better American past, as the historian Lisa McGirr writes here.

As enforcement failures multiplied, anti-liquor crusaders found a powerful new ally in the so-called second Ku Klux Klan. Established in 1915 by William Simmons in Atlanta, the organization snowballed after 1920 in the Midwest and West. Its savvy promoters, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke, former fund-raisers for the Anti-Saloon League, drew in a bumper crop of new recruits with their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, white supremacist message.

Other forms of postwar social conflict aided the growth of the Klan, but nothing did more than the 18th Amendment to turn it into a dynamic social movement. The Klan and its female affiliate, the Women of the Ku Klux Klan, recruited heavily from the nation’s white Protestant Prohibition organizations, promising militant action to ensure the law’s enforcement. Not surprisingly, the Klan targeted the drinking of those they identified as enemies of “100 percent Americanism” — Catholics, foreigners and African-Americans — and often gained a foothold in white Protestant evangelical communities with its promise to put bootleggers and moonshiners out of business. If officers of the law could not or would not do their duty, the Klan vowed to step in, often with the support of the local government.

The actions of the citizen Prohibition army in Williamson County, Ill., a hardscrabble rural mining region 300 miles south of Chicago, provides a striking example. The head of the Williamson County board of supervisors and a local Klan leader, Sam Stearns, and a Methodist pastor and Klan ally named Philip Glotfelty, along with members of the local Ministerial Association, had high hopes that Prohibition would usher in a new moral tenor in their community. Before Prohibition, the region’s largely native white Protestant miners might stop for a whiskey after a hard day’s work in the ramshackle bars that dotted the county, ignoring their pastors’ warnings against the “devil’s drink.” In Prohibition’s wake, drinking continued in new roadhouses and moonshine joints. Two rival criminal rings, the Birger and Shelton gangs, set up shop to supply the thriving black-market trade.

Glotfelty and Stearns, backed by the county’s leading businessmen and Protestant pastors, mounted a law and order crusade. They held public meetings to raise the alarm. Italian and French immigrants, largely Catholic, had been drawn to Williamson County by opportunities to work in the coal industry, and Glotfelty blamed the men “imported from across the sea” for bootlegging. He confidently predicted that all members of the local Catholic church would be in jail before “the foundations of the new church were built.”

Glotfelty’s words resonated among the region’s native white Protestant miners, whose tenuous hold on economic security was increasingly eroding. A strike to protest wage cuts had ended in open class warfare in 1922. Williamson County’s moral leaders focused native Protestant miners’ grievances on another threat: the immigrants who competed for mining jobs. The local Klan ranks swelled with the promise to “clean up” the community.

There’s really not much difference between the second KKK and the modern Republican Party.

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