Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
I was surprised to learn that the 1920s Ku Klux Klan allowed some foreigners to join them by creating the American Crusaders organization. I always thought the Klan of that period really hated foreigners.
I believe you are referring to the American Krusaders, Inc., one of several Ku Klux Klan (also called KKK and Klan) auxiliary organizations that originated in the 1920s. The American Krusaders (rarely spelled Crusaders) was an officially sanctioned Klan auxiliary open to those who could not claim a birthright in the United States but “were white, Protestant, gentile, and over eighteen years of age.”i The American Krusaders were incorporated in Little Rock, Arkansas, in August 1923 by several Klan leaders.
Between 1880 and 1920 more than 20 million people immigrated to the United States. The majority of these people were from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. Many of these immigrants were Jewish or Catholic, which frightened many Anglo-Saxon and Protestant Americans. Some resented the newcomers because they competed for low-wage jobs, others because the new immigrants maintained Old World customs, lived in urban ethnic enclaves, seemed to resist assimilation into American culture, and worshiped in different ways.
The large number of these “strange” people scared many “native” Americans, including those in the Ku Klux Klan, who like many of their non-Klan countrymen, saw themselves as “100 percent Americans,” in other words, real Americans.
For the Klan, this created two interrelated problems; first, many Klansmen were descendants of recent immigrants, second, the Klan wanted to grow its membership. The solution was to focus Klan hatred on specific immigrants, mainly Catholics and Jews. This strategy worked with spectacular results.
From 1920 to 1925 the Ku Klux Klan grew more explosively than any political or social movement in U.S. history. In these few years the Klan recruited some three million to six million white Protestants from across America's working and middle classes, representing those who founded and "own this country" ... Klan leaders used modern marketing techniques to build thriving chapters in both cities and small towns. The Klan flourished not only in the South but also in Maryland, Indiana, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, Colorado, and Kansas ... [they] sometimes resorted to violence but more commonly participated in direct civic action and electoral politics ... defended Nordic Americans and their traditional culture from Catholics, blacks, and Jews ...ii
The 1920s Klan was an organization geared to make money, and they were aggressive recruiters. Their recruitment efforts included charitable activities—in some instances, they interrupted Sunday morning church services to give money to local congregations. Klan parades, sometimes involving thousands of uniformed Klan members, were designed to show Klan political strength and recruit new members. One could even argue that the Klan’s violent acts served as recruiting tools.
The individuals in the Klan organization who had primary responsibility for recruiting new members were called Kleagles. They were appointed by the Imperial Wizard or his representative to sell the KKK to non-members.iii They worked for a commission and functioned like traveling salespeople. Of the $10 initiation fee paid by each new recruit: $4 was kept by the Kleagle who signed the recruit; the King Kleagle (state-level sales manager) kept $1; the remainder went to the Imperial Kleagle, (national sales manager) who kept at least $2 for himself.
I mention the role of the Kleagles because it is apparent that they had both ideological and non-ideological motives for recruiting new members. Yes, they probably believed that Jews, Catholics, Black people, and “immoral” people were a danger to the nation; but they also wanted to make money by selling memberships or by receiving kickbacks.
So, the Klan made the strategic decision to focus its anti-immigrant hatred on newly arriving Catholics and Jews. This focus allowed the Klan to publicly espouse xenophobic rhetoric while at the same time opening a side door for non-native, white Protestants to join their movement via organizations like the American Krusaders. Those immigrants were not, in the racist parlance of the times, “100 percent Americans,” but they were white and they were Protestant. For their part, members of the American Krusaders saw themselves as “a Protestant Christian order of Caucasian citizens” whose work with the Klan “would revive the spirit of chivalry” in the United States.iv And, by chivalry, think of the portrayal of the Klan in the film Birth of a Nation.
In sum, the creation of auxiliary groups like the American Krusaders afforded individual Klansmen opportunities to make money and allowed the national Klan to grow—while at the same time publicly expressing hatred of foreigners.
For the record, in the 1920s there were between 265,000 and 875,000 Klansmen in Michigan, and they exerted a strong political influence throughout the state. Several visitors to the Jim Crow Museum have, for example, mentioned the more than 15,000 Klansmen who marched in Lansing on Labor Day 1924. And, by the mid-1920s, the American Krusaders were found in Fremont, White Cloud, Newaygo, Saginaw and other Michigan cities.
You mentioned that you were surprised to hear about a 1920s Klan auxiliary that allowed foreigners to join; imagine my surprise when I recently heard about the Klan’s Colored Man organization. When I first heard about this body I thought about the brilliant satire produced by Dave Chappelle, “Clayton Bigsby: The Black White Supremacist,” see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddwXF2GKyhY. The satire might have been inspired by the plight of Leo Felton, a “white supremacist” skinhead, who while on trial for bank robbery, was discovered to have an African American father. Sorry for the digression. In any event, I tried to find information on the Klan’s Colored Man organization, but I was not successful.
Curator / Jim Crow Museum
i Fox, Craig, Everyday Klansfolk: White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan. Lansing, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, pp.103-105.
ii Allan J. Lichtman, White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008, ISBN: 10-0-87113-983-7, pp 42-42.
iii Newton, Michael and Judy Anne (1991). The Ku Klux Klan: An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, Inc., New York.
iv Everyday Klansfolk, p.104.