This morning, Rotten.com’s Today in Rotten History page informed me that this is the anniversary of the massive 40,000 man Ku Klux Klan rally that took place in Washington, D.C. in 1925. While it is a little comforting to know that back then the Klan could muster 40,000 people for a rally, whereas nowadays that number is closer to the total national membership, it’s more depressing than anything else. In the 1920s, the decade of jazz and Babe Ruth, the largest civilian club in the country was the Klan. The march on Washington in 1925 was the biggest assembly of people in the U.S. capital ever, other than Presidential funerals. This was during one of the Klan’s kinder, gentler phases, when they wrapped themselves up in the American flag and tried to pass themselves off to people as wanting “America for Americans.” This was all strictly for the public’s benefit; lynchings in the 20’s were at an all-time high. At big public rallies like this one, they would speak in euphemisms and refer only obliquely to how much they hated (and feared) blacks, Jews and other racial minority groups. Oh, and Catholics – they decided around this time they hated Catholics, too.
I have very little personal experience with the Klan. There are groups active throughout this area, in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Gordon Young, the leader of the World Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (an ambitious title for what amounts to a small faction of mouth-breathing rednecks hanging out in someone’s basement, drinking beer and bitching because not enough white people work at McDonalds), lives in Hagerstown. Young is the guy who likes to hold Klan rallies at Civil War battlefields. Antietam Battlefield is right here in Sharpsburg, up the road from Ashley’s place just over a mile. Young’s Klan had a rally there in June. About 30 Klansmen showed up, as well as an equal number of protestors and about 200 cops. He’s planning another one for Gettysburg in September.
He tries to recruit members by driving through neighborhoods and tossing little rolled-up pamphlets in front of people’s houses like newspapers. About two years ago, we got one at my parents’ house. Mom brought it downstairs to show me, laughing. She thought it was funny, but when I realized what it was, I felt this combination of anger and deep sadness. It was almost disorienting, like when you accidentally slam your finger in a drawer and just hop around, not knowing what to do. The Klan flyer was low on details (it spoke of the Klan’s support for “traditional family values” and “pro white” political policies) and badly designed and full of typos, so it pretty much told me everything I needed to know about Gordon Young. It had an email address printed on it, so I sent Young a little note that I’m proud of to this day. If I can find a copy of it, I’ll post it sometime. That’s another comfort, knowing that the Klan of today is being led by an even more clueless real-life counterpart to Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel. In 81 years, the Klan’s gone from 40,000 in Washington, to Gordon Young.
Oh, but that fucking march . . . Tens of thousands of people, marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, many clad in their ridiculous white robes and hoods, drawn together by ignorance and hatred. It remained the largest political gathering in Washington, D.C. until the 60s, when Martin Luther King drew over 100,000 to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to hear him say, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” I think it’s one of the great moments in the history of the United States, the truth to the dark mirror image of the Klan rally in 1925. Then I hear people speaking out against gay marriage, perverting phrases like “family values” into the service of bigotry, wanting to make legally endorsed second-class citizens of people just as American as anyone else, and it sounds awfully familiar, and I wonder which one of those rallies is the reality and which one is the mirror image afterall.
They’re both reality. For all of our great progress, there are still those standing by impatiently for the chance to drag us back to the dark ages. That’s the truth, and it’s our responsibility if it happens.