The Black Press and the Ku Klux Klan

KKK members supporting Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the presidential nomination at the 1964 Republican National Convention. Source: Wikipedia.
KKK members supporting Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the presidential nomination at the 1964 Republican National Convention. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

“Crouching, cringing, shrinking from both physical and intellectual light,” Chandler Owen wrote, “the Klan is a true anthropoid germ which shrivels and dies in the light.”1 The idea that the self-proclaimed Invisible Empire could not survive public attention (and the scorn that would presumably follow) became a widely repeated truism in the 1920s. Yet others alleged that it was that same attention that allowed the Klan to thrive and grow to encompass millions of dues-paying members, and millions more sympathizers, in the post-World War I era. It was little coincidence that the rise of the second Klan coincided with the consolidation of the modern mass media.

Media outlets have struggled with recent criticism for the ways in which coverage has sanitized and mainstreamed the ideas of someone like the “dapper Richard Spencer” and the so-called “alt-right,” especially in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville. These questions of how, or whether, to cover the actions of white supremacists echo the debates of the 1920s over how the press should report on the Ku Klux Klan. As many major white newspapers embraced the commercial value of breathless front-page accountings of Klan rallies and parades, condemnation coexisted and often comingled with fascination, implicit endorsement, and even admiration. Within the Black press, meanwhile, a fierce debate raged over whether to report on the Klan at all.

“We are convinced,” the Pittsburgh Courier declared, “that the average daily is dedicated to commercialism and money-getting, regardless of the cost to America or to civilization.” For many publications, the decision to cover the Klan was largely a financial one. Although newspapers trod a fine line between sufficient sensationalism to attract readers and the risk of lost revenue from backlash, reporting on the Invisible Empire generally paid rich dividends. In following the path of a nonpartisan approach to Klan reportage, much of the white press lent credence to H. L. Mencken’s caustic assessment that American journalism was rendered supine by its “fear of ideas.” Focusing on events rather than “fundamentals,” the press of the 1920s could not stop talking about the Klan, but rarely dared discuss the ideas that gave the movement its power and appeal. When such considerations did make it into print, it was far more likely as an endorsement of those ideals than a condemnation.2

As an increasingly large segment of the American media had realized by 1922, newspapers could cover the Klan without taking a strong position on it. Articles on Klan parades, rallies, charitable efforts, initiations, church visits, cross burnings, and more swamped any effort at comment. “The policy as found on the editorial page,” noted the Courier, “is more than drowned in the mire on the first page.” In doing so, newspapers conveyed an image of the Klan as an influential and popular – albeit controversial – organization.3

Ku Klux Klan Parade, September 13, 1926. Credit: Library of Congress.

Even if reporting on the Klan juiced circulation, the “scoop” simply wasn’t worth it. The notoriety of the Klan, a number of Black publications argued, had been “increased by our daily press,” which gave “great head lines” and “liberal space” to every move of the hooded bigots. Klan leaders had noticed the same thing. The press had, they gloated, “more than any other agency, increased the membership” of the Klan, providing the organization “gratis what a million dollars worth of its own advertisements wouldn’t have done.” The supposedly Invisible Empire assiduously courted the publicity and worked to woo newspapers wherever possible with the promises of scoops and exclusive access.4

Was the answer, then, to simply refuse to cover the Klan’s movements? No, said the Messenger, contending that there was a “vicious fallacy” at work in the idea that opposing the Klan and writing about it equated to advertising it. Comparing the Klan to a fire, the Black socialist monthly argued that it would burn out naturally if ignored – but not before causing preventable death and devastation. The path to take was instead to counter Klan propaganda with anti-Klan propaganda. Newspapers like the Washington Bee agreed, calling for “all papers” to publish the facts of the Klan’s “ridiculous and antiquated masquerade and of its threat to civilization.”5

If propaganda should prove insufficient, however, the Messenger counseled readers to counter Klan violence with anti-Klan violence. Showing no qualms about punching incipient fascists, the monthly advised not to carry on “any debating society” with Klan members or sympathizers. Editor A. Philip Randolph had already received threats, one of which was accompanied by a severed human hand. “No tarring and feathering fraternity,” the Messenger declared, “should be respected except by bullet, brick, bottle, club, or some deadly and maiming weapon.” In this, the magazine echoed an editorial by Robert S. Abbott in the Chicago Defender, declaring that “no painless death can end an influence as violent and vicious as the Ku Klux Klan.” The Klan’s burning crosses “can be answered only with fire.”6

Others were wary of such a path. Some advocated a middle ground, choosing not to report on the Klan’s actions directly, but not ignoring the threat the organization represented either. A significant section of the Black press took an active glee in only reporting on various mishaps encountered by the Invisible Empire – canceled parades, rejected donations, resignations and infighting. Papers like the Savannah Tribune, meanwhile, focused on covering the NAACP’s efforts to combat the Klan.

The NAACP’s the Crisis took a similar approach. As the monthly acknowledged, “we have perhaps neglected our offer to comment upon the K.K.K. because it has always seemed to us so ridiculous an organization.” Like most in the Black press, the magazine avoided coverage of Klan parades and rallies “calculated to attract idiots and criminals.” Unlike publications like the Messenger, however, direct comment on the Klan’s actions and ideology was uncommon in the Crisis – though both the Messenger and the Crisis devoted much attention and outrage to Marcus Garvey’s overtures to the bigoted organization. In a reflection of W.E.B. Du Bois’s belief in the significance and power of “Negro art,” the Crisis’s attitude toward the Invisible Empire was revealed most often not in written denunciations, but in infrequent yet striking anti-Klan illustrations from artists like Albert Alexander Smith and Laura Wheeler.7

A color poster of the movie Birth of a Nation, 1915. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The key in all of these approaches was to avoid providing the Klan with the kind of implied legitimacy afforded by much of the white press. In doing so, these publications worked to actively undermine the historical myopia surrounding the Klan. Black journalists noted at the time that the preconditions for the Klan’s revival emerged through a series of popular narratives of Reconstruction – of which Birth of a Nation was only the best-known example – that gave the white supremacy of the Invisible Empire a clean bill of health. It was only when the organization started to target white Jewish and Catholic Americans, many argued, that the Klan made headlines.

The central issue, then, was not necessarily whether or not to cover the Klan. It was to understand that publicity in and of itself was not an effective tool against white supremacists. Rather, the press had to ensure that reporting on the Klan did not represent the organization “as though it were something new in America.” To do so would be to blind oneself to the larger story of racism in the modern United States; to allow “morals, justice, truth, and the vitals of the society” to “be bartered and sold to make the daily press successful.” If newspapers simply presented readers with coverage without critical comment as news, the Courier warned, then “the end is in plain view, and the fall is but a question of a few years.”8

  1. Pittsburgh Courier, November 3 1923.
  2. Pittsburgh Courier, July 28 1923; Yale Review, June 1920.
  3. Pittsburgh Courier, July 28 1923.
  4. Pittsburgh Courier, July 28 1923; The Kluxer, October 27 1923.
  5. The Messenger, November 1921; Washington Bee, January 15 1921.
  6. The Messenger, September 1921, October 1922, March 1924; Chicago Defender, September 2 1922.
  7. The Crisis, November 1922, February 1924, May 1924.
  8. Pittsburgh Courier, July 28 1923.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Felix Harcourt

Felix Harcourt is visiting assistant professor of history at Austin College, with teaching and research interests in the intersection of prejudice, politics, and popular culture. He is the author of Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Follow him on Twitter @FelixHistory.

Comments on “The Black Press and the Ku Klux Klan

  • Insightful read.

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