The Invisible Empire in the West: Towards a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s
The Invisible Empire in the West is a collection of essays on the presence and activities of the Ku Klux Klan in a number of then small cities in the Western United States. There are a total of seven essays and six are focused on specific urban centres: Denver, El Paso, Salt Lake City, Anaheim, Eugene, and La Grande. Each of these essays focuses on the specific details of each localized Klan unit, and the challenges that the social composition of each of these cities presented to the Klan in those regions.
This volume is edited by Shawn Lay, a professor of history and current chair of the Department of History, Philosophy and Religion at Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina. Lay has written a number of books on Klan history and it appears as though this may be the domain of his expertise. Many of the contributors to his collection also appear to be Klan historians, and this book may represent the efforts of a particular generation of KKK experts (Lay, in his conclusion to The Invisible Empire, uses the phrase “klan studies”) to impose a radical new historical vision of the once national, ultra-conservative organization. In the introduction and the conclusion, Lay discusses how recent research into the Klan during the early 1920s (when the Klan was modeled after fraternal groups such as the Lions Club) has revealed the organization to be, at that time, primarily urban and middle class in its cultural situation and composition, and that it was not necessarily focused on preserving privilege for white Americans.
Lay insists that the view this book presents of the KKK is radically different from the representation produced by earlier Klan historians such as David Mark Chalmers (in his book Hooded Americanism) or Wyn Craig Wade (via his book The Fiery Cross). Lay’s arguments rest on the fact that these earlier historians constructed the Klan as a phenomenon that arose out of rural backwardness. The historical representation of the Klan as constructed by Lay and company is certainly radically different from that of earlier histories, however I prefer when a historian is also willing to account for the previous, in his or her eyes inadequate or inaccurate, interpretation of a historical phenomena. Lay simply points out that Wade, Chalmers, and a selection of other Klan historians, simply failed to properly apprehend the KKK of the early 1920s.
While many of the essays are quite interesting in their investigations of the Klan in various regional contexts (including, for example, an essay about the tensions of a predominantly and militantly protestant KKK recruiting in the almost entirely Mormon Salt Lake City, Utah), Lay’s own assertions about this new vision of the Klan is not really supported by his fellow “Klan Studies” academics. In his conclusion, Lay argues that this book has shown the Klan of the 1920s to not have been overtly bigoted or violent. Certainly, the Klan held many prejudices, not just their world famous disdain for blacks, and Lay’s book shows that they were also opposed to Catholics and Jews. The essays in The Invisible Empire in the West, recant numerous instances of local Klaverns (the KKK name for a regional chapter of the organization) expressing their not-so-positive opinions on these other, non-black, socio-cultural groups. Perhaps the specific regional contexts spotlighted by the authors of these essays gave more opportunity to the Klaverns that formed there to target Catholics with their bigotry than they did for other groups. Furthermore, while physical violence may have been rare, the essays include a fair number of accounts of the Klan using intimidating and threatening language against their targets in their crusade to maintain a social order that privileged white protestant Americans.