NY Times Book Review: The Not-So-Invisible Empire

Imagine a political movement created in a moment of terrible anxiety, its origins shrouded in a peculiar combination of manipulation and grass-roots mobilization, its ranks dominated by Christian conservatives and self-proclaimed patriots, its agenda driven by its members’ fervent embrace of nationalism, nativism and moral regeneration, with more than a whiff of racism wafting through it.

The Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, they called it. And for a few years it burned across the nation, a fearsome thing to ­behold.  In “One Hundred Percent American,” Thomas R. Pegram, a professor of history at Loyola University Maryland, traces the Invisible Empire’s meteoric rise and equally precipitous fall. The ’20s Klan was born, he explains — or more precisely was reborn — on Thanksgiving evening 1915, when 16 Southerners trooped up Stone Mountain, in Georgia, for a bit of ritual bunkum inspired by D. W. Griffith’s incendiary film “The Birth of a Nation.”

At the end of the book, though, Baker steps back from her texts. Suddenly her analysis becomes more pointed. Yes, the Klan had a very short life. But it has to be understood, she contends, as of a piece with other moments of fevered religious nationalism, from the anti-Catholic riots of the antebellum era to modern anti-­Islam bigots. Indeed, earlier this year, Herman Cain declared that he wouldn’t be comfortable with a Muslim in his cabinet. It’s tempting to see those moments as Pegram does the Klan: desperate, even pitiful attempts to stop the inevitable broadening of American society. But Baker seems closer to the mark when she says that there’s a dark strain of bigotry and exclusion running through the national experience. Sometimes it seems to weaken. And sometimes it spreads, as anyone who reads today’s papers knows, fed by our fears and our hatreds.