James H. Madison is Emeritus Professor of History, Indiana University Bloomington, and author of The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland. I recently asked him a few questions about his important new book.
What’s the argument of The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland?
The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland places the hooded order of the 1920s squarely in the mainstream of American history. Klan members were neither marginal nor weird but mostly ordinary Americans, middle-class, white, and native-born. They saw themselves as the “good” people and as superior to immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and African Americans, those “others” who were causing the downfall of the nation.
What were the thorniest questions you had to figure out while writing this book?
Of course, I abhor the Klan’s ideals, but I also wanted to be fair to those who joined the Klan. I walked a tight line to avoid a simple condemnation and to avoid defending them.
As you mention in the book, in the newspapers of the 1920s there are numerous reports of robed Klansmen silently interrupting church services to present a donation. Can you talk more about how you interpret those events? What do you think was their significance in a local community?
Religious belief and organization were central. The Klan joined with Protestant churches and church members in a tight alliance. Klansmen interrupting a Sunday service was one of many illustrations of the alliance.
Why does this history matter now?
Klan voices ring into the twenty-first century even if the tones have changed. More than any other part of our history, Klan-like beliefs connect our past and present with a venomous tenacity. Today’s heirs don’t appear in robes and hoods and their words are more coded, but the message of us/them, of exclusion, of white racial superiority is clear.
Madison is also the author of the definitive account of the story behind one of the most infamous lynching images in American history. See that book here.