Liberals exhibit a rather poor understanding of the people who want to destroy them. For example, in a March 30 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column titled, “Asa and the Culture Wars,” John Brummett lamented the state legislature wasting its time “on matters addressing no legitimate public-policy need, but merely allowing pseudo-religious ‘Christian nationalists’ to make themselves feel powerful by abusing their offices to pick on people they don’t like or approve of or with whom they disagree.” Such framing imagines that religions exist separately from people, that there is some idealized faith that can be betrayed by petty political posturing, whereas belief has always been manifest in people’s behavior, even in those acts that appear tremendously hypocritical. This sort of framing, too, runs the risk of painting legislative excesses as something novel, ignoring the much larger and longer history of “cultural war” conservatism in America.
Part of that tradition comes under the microscope in “The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Arkansas: How Protestant White Nationalism Came to Rule a State,” the excellent new book by University of Central Arkansas historian Kenneth C. Barnes. The title is a deliberate shot across the bow, for popular culture has trained us to think of the Klan as first and foremost a racist group, rather than a religious one. But centering racism does not help to explain why the KKK was so popular in places like Paragould, Harrison, and Bentonville — places that were almost exclusively white. What Barnes does, instead, is to show how the Klan operated at the nexus of religion, race, business, leisure, law and politics. The Protestant white nationalist spirit represented by the Klan permeated all parts of life in Arkansas and beyond.
The broader history of the rise and fall of the Klan in America has already been expertly covered by the likes of Nancy MacLean, Rory McVeigh and Linda Gordon, and Barnes touches only lightly upon the national scene, instead exploring more fully the Arkansas experience, starting with an outline of the career of state KKK leader James Comer. Comer was a businessman, lawyer and devoted member of Little Rock’s First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He was also active in local Republican Party circles, which put him at political odds with the majority of Southern Klansmen, although the national Klan courted people across political lines, especially in the West where the Republican Party was much more influential. Under Comer’s leadership, Arkansas became, by November 1923, one of five states the New York Times designated as “controlled by the Klan,” and Comer himself became a national figure in Klan circles. Little Rock was even selected as the national headquarters of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan auxiliary group.
The Klan counted very few working-class people among its numbers, instead recruiting local office holders, businessmen, farmers and various professionals. As Barnes writes, “It provided white Protestants of some standing with a social life, entertainment, and a race of civic activities. In many ways, the Klan was not so different from the myriad of other fraternal and community organizations of the time.” Many preachers became prolific evangelists for the Klan, like Rev. Ben Bogard, a Missionary Baptist minister of Little Rock, and Rev. John H. Moore of First Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, who also authored the textbook “A School History of Arkansas,” adopted by the State Textbook Commission in 1925 (a book that asserted “negroes have every reason to be thankful that their ancestors were brought to this country as slaves”). Klan meetings mimicked religious services, complete with the singing of hymns, and klaverns (the local Klan groups) regularly conducted Sunday visits to Protestant churches, where they would praise ministers and offer gifts of money. The Klan also took a moral stance that aligned it with these churches, including the Prohibition era’s fight against liquor. Barnes details how Klansmen worked to stack the juries of suspected moonshiners and even took part in raids against illicit stills, most notably in Garland County. And their moral convictions led to the prosecution of other offenses; as Barnes notes, “the Monticello Klan No. 108 proposed a secret committee to ascertain the names of young people who ride around in automobiles late at night.” Just as conservatives do today, the Klan pitched much of its moral crusaderism as necessary to protect pure and virtuous (read as: white) women from degradation.
Barnes devotes a whole chapter to the political involvement of the Klan, including the use of “the technique of the ‘preferential primary’ to determine which Klansmen they would unite behind in the [Democratic] primary election.” Many big names in Arkansas politics were, at one time, members of the Klan, including Gov. Tom Terral, Lt. Gov. Lee Cazort, Congressman John N. Tillman, Gov. Homer Adkins, Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Lee Seamster, and Congressman William Frank Norrell. However, the Klan’s dominance in state politics provoked its own backlash, with people like John Martineau pitching themselves as anti-Klan candidates. And just like the churches it emulated, the Klan ended up splitting into multiple factions, largely based on accusations — many of them accurate ones — that state leaders were using the organization to line their own pockets, before largely fading away in the coming decade.
Yes, the Klan was a racist organization, and yes, its members most certainly participated in some of the most noteworthy cases of group violence in 1920s Arkansas: the riots that swept through the southern oilfields, the brutal breaking of the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad strike and the lynching of John Carter in Little Rock. But more than anything, the Klan was a mainstream American organization, and as Barnes notes, its “concept of ‘One Hundred Percent Americanism’ became the foundation for the modern conservative movement in American politics.” The Klan’s brand of Christian nationalism was not mere “pseudo-religious” posturing, but provided a moral vision for the future, one to be enforced by violence if necessary, and we can see the continued power of that vision in everything from state laws to limit gender nonconformity to the attempted coup d’état of Jan. 6, 2021, when Christian nationalists, and their allies in government, tried to take over the country, just like the Klan took over the state nearly a century ago.