We recently had the opportunity to read Dale Laackman’s debut book, “For the Kingdom and the Power: The Big Money Swindle that Spread Hate Across America“ (June, 2014, S. Woodhouse Books), which deals with the phenomenal growth of the “new” Ku Klux Klan in America during the 1920s.
Two things drew our attention to this title. First was Mr. Laackman’s recent appearance on CSPAN’s “Book TV” and the second was a glowing endorsement by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s own PR Guru, Mark Potok, which appears on the Amazon.com link cited above.
Most of us have seen dated photos of thousands of Klansmen marching through Washington, DC, in 1925, and read about a Klan membership in the millions during that time, but Mr. Laackman goes beyond the simple knee-jerk visuals and gives a more in-depth review of the actual events on the ground.
The opening line of Laackman’s book reads: “This is not a book about the Klan,” and indeed, it is not. This is a book about a pair of shrewd Public Relations experts who saw an opportunity to glom onto a growing movement and make a ton of money, regardless of the racist messages and criminal activities committed by many of that group’s members.
The Modern Ku Klux Klan was founded in Georgia in 1915 by one William Joseph Simmons, who described his group as a modern day successor to the organization created by Nathan Beford Forrest immediately after the Civil War. Forrest’s Klan was designed to terrorize blacks and deny them their civil rights by any expedient means, including murder. Simmons’ Klan wrapped itself in a patina of honor, duty and patriotism, and sought to continue Forrest’s war on blacks, as well as Jews, Catholics and all other “aliens.”
Simmons created his organization completely from scratch, including the bylaws, rules and rituals for the governance of each Klan unit. What Simmons possessed in creativity, however, he completely lacked in business acumen. By 1920, Simmons was nearly broke and membership in his KKK was somewhere in the 3,000 range.
Enter Edward Young Clarke and Elizabeth “Bessie” Tyler, two natural-born promoters who had recently joined forces to create their own, rather successful Southern Publicity Association in Atlanta. Tyler’s son-in-law had joined the Klan and had mentioned Simmon’s business difficulties to Clarke and Tyler, who immediately saw an opportunity to apply modern public relations techniques and skim off a large slice of the profits for themselves. They met with Simmons and struck a deal whereby the Southern Publicity Association would undertake the promotion of the KKK in exchange for 80% of all new member fees. To Simmons, who was on the verge of losing everything for which he had worked, even a paltry $2 dollars a head for new members sounded like the deal of a lifetime.
To make a long story short, the PR partners produced amazing results almost immediately. Within a year, Klan membership had swelled to over a million and would peak at nearly 5 million three years later. The movement had spread far beyond the South into all corners of the country and boasted important members from local police and government officials to governors, congressmen and senators. Clarke and Tyler became fabulously wealthy overnight, not only from membership fees but from a monopoly on the production of Klan regalia and supplies.
Laackman provides key insights into the popularity of the Klan, especially in the early 1920s, when membership in all kinds of fraternal organizations was at an all time high. It is important to remember that these groups, including the Elks, Freemasons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Eagles, Moose, Ruritans, Grange, etc., served as important networks in the days long before Linkdin and Facebook. These groups provided a venue for men to meet and interact in ways that they rarely would in the course of their day-to-day careers and lives. They all promoted patriotism and religious values, as well as the advantages of the Capitalist way of life.
Most of the members of the new Klan held membership in more than one fraternal organization, and most were unaware of the violence underlying this latest group. To most, the Ku Klux Klan was just another organization, as shown by the equally rapid decline in membership after a series of highly publicized newspapers stories broke on the criminal and financial workings of the Klan, especially the roles played by Clarke and Tyler. Laackman gives membership numbers of 3,000 in 1920, 5,000,000 by 1925, back down to 5,000 by 1930.
While some, like the SPLC’s Potok, point in their fundraising propaganda to the Klan’s peak membership in 1925 as proof positive of the natural racism inherent in all white Protestant men, the numbers show that most of the membership did not agree with the Klan’s violent tendencies and abandoned the group as quickly as they had joined.
We won’t give away the fascinating details of this rapid rise and fall, or the many intrigues surrounding the key players. Laackman’s book does a very good job describing the events and is worth the read. We recommend it.
The one complaint we do have with For the Kingdom and the Power is a tendency to be unnecessarily verbose in sections, which often have only tangential connections to the main story.
For example, no recounting of the modern KKK would be complete without mentioning the famous/infamous 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, which painted the original Klan in an extremely favorable light. Laackman gives a good accounting of the film, including its use of many groundbreaking cinematic techniques, but not before giving us two paragraphs on Thomas Edison’s invention of the film camera and projector, followed by two pages on the early life of director D.W. Griffith.
A discussion of anti-Catholicism in 20th century America is preceded by a chapter on Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the Reformation.
In recounting the life of Bessie Tyler, Laackman gives us the address of the home where she was born, as cited by the US Census Bureau (“Militia District 469, Cooks (east part), Fulton, Georgia, enumeration district 0028, household ID-114”). Even in historical non-fiction there is such a thing as too much information.
In these cases, we suspect the padding has less to do with any pedantic inclinations on the part of the author and more to do with a minimum page or word count requirement set by the publisher. It is a minor irritant in the course of the book as a whole.
Another fascinating aspect of the book is how easily one could take Laackman’s recounting of the PR techniques practiced by the Southern Publicity Association in promoting the savagely racist KKK and compare them to those used by alleged anti-racist organizations today.
It’s little wonder that the SPLC’s Mark Potok calls For the Kingdom and the Power “a splendid book,” noting that “Dale Laackman shows how the group’s exponential growth was driven almost entirely by an unlikely pair of public relations experts who turned out to be consummate swindlers.” Mr. Potok, no doubt, recognizes many of his organization’s own PR ploys in the course of the text.
If Mr. Laackman is looking for material for his next splendid tome, we can provide him with a trove of data on how groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism routinely exploit the fears of good people to further their own aims.
Given that Mr. Laackman has received an endorsement from Mr. Potok, and has cited the SPLC’s dubious numbers in his first book, the odds of such a follow-up tale are remote at best.
If you change your mind, Mr. Laackman, you know how to reach us!