The New KKK

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 211th installment in the series.  

November 25, 1915: The New KKK

On Thanksgiving night, November 25, 1915, sixteen men wearing white robes and hoods made the long, chilly climb up Stone Mountain, Georgia – a massive flat-topped outcropping of granite and quartz, 1,686 feet tall, located 15 miles east of Atlanta, now the scene of a massive carving honoring the Confederacy. Once they reached the top their leader, a Methodist preacher named William J. Simmons, recalled:

It was pitch dark, and we had to use flashlights. When we had struggled up to the top the wind blew so hard that you couldn’t keep your hat on. The boys took off their hats and fastened them down under stones.  I sent each man out in the darkness to get a boulder. No one knew what I was going to do. Then I held up the cross in the wind while each man placed his stone against the cross. While the men had been gathering the boulders I had secretly soaked the cross with a mixture of kerosene and gasoline. I told the men they had built an altar at the foot of the cross. My father had once given me an old American flag, which had been carried in the Mexican War, I had brought with me. I laid it across the altar, with some more remarks. Next I placed a Bible on the altar, explaining my reasons for doing… Suddenly I struck a match and lighted the cross. Everyone was amazed. And while it burned I administered the oath and talked… And thus on the mountain top that night at the midnight hour while men braved the surging blasts of wild wintry mountain winds and endured a temperature far below freezing, bathed in the sacred glow of the fiery cross, the Invisible Empire was called from its slumber of half a century to take up a new task and fulfill a new mission for humanity’s good…

With this dramatic (or melodramatic – the temperature never fell below 40°F) ceremony Simmons presided over the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, a vigilante and terrorist organization whose first incarnation, founded by Confederate veterans after the Civil War to terrorize freedmen and white Republicans and battle black political associations likes the Union League, had lasted less than decade from 1865 to 1873. 

The organization’s first Grand Wizard, the former Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, denounced the KKK’s violent methods and ordered it to dissolve in 1869; then in 1871 Congress passed the Ku Klux Act, giving military authorities in the occupied South wide latitude to suppress the secret society. But in the years that followed the ideology of white supremacy was sustained by new paramilitary organizations like the Red Shirts, while the legend of the KKK lived on in books like Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.’s novel “The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan,” published in 1905, which presented a heroic image of chivalrous nightriders protecting the virtue of white Southern women from rapacious freedmen (Dixon’s fertile imagination also invented cross burning as a KKK ritual). 

In 1915 the KKK leapt back into the national spotlight with the release of D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster silent film based on Dixon’s novel, “The Birth of a Nation,” a technical masterpiece which gripped Northern and Southern audiences alike, stoking racial animosity and glorifying the Klan in breathtaking cinematic fashion. 

Meanwhile the First World War triggered an economic boom in the industrial North and Midwest, as the Allies turned to American factories to supply the vast quantities of explosives, uniforms, ships, cars, trucks and other supplies needed for modern warfare. The surge in industrial production in turn drove demand for unskilled labor – and economically marginalized Southern blacks were more than happy to answer the call, lured by wages many times what they could earn in small-scale agriculture (especially following the collapse of cotton prices in the first year of the war). The resulting exodus was known as the “Great Migration.” 

In a pattern resembling immigration from other parts of the world, younger men would often go ahead and earn enough to bring siblings and extended family north, who then repeated the process, creating a chain reaction. This sudden extension of economic opportunity threatened to unsettle Southern social structures by freeing African-American sharecroppers from the cycle of debt and labor owed to white landowners. As Simmons himself explained: “This was in the early autumn of 1915. The World War was on, and the Negroes were getting pretty uppity in the South about then. The North was sending down for them to take good jobs. Lots of Southerners were feeling worried about conditions.” 

Simmons took great pains to emphasize continuity between the original KKK and the new secret society, for example by recruiting Forrest’s grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest II. However the new KKK embraced a range of hatreds beyond the traditional bigotry towards African-Americans: it also set out to counter the influence of various “un-American” groups including immigrants, Jews, and Catholics. In fact its founding members, all recruited by Simmons, were mostly drawn from a group calling themselves the “Knights of Mary Phagan,” who had earned notoriety in August 1915 for lynching a Jewish man, Leo Frank, wrongly accused of raping Mary Phagan, a white Christian woman.

Indeed Simmons, embracing the longstanding nativist strand in American politics, positioned the new KKK as above all a white, Christian patriotic organization, emphasizing that race-mixing of any sort would undermine the vitality of true (white) America: “Only native born American citizens who believe in the tenets of the Christian religion and owe no allegiance of any degree or nature to any foreign Government, nation, political institution, sect, people, or person are eligible… We avow the distinction between races of mankind as same has been decreed by the Creator, and we shall ever be true to the faithful maintenance of White Supremacy and will strenuously oppose any compromise thereof in any and all things.”

A savvy publicist, Simmons timed the launch of the new KKK to anticipate the premiere of “Birth of a Nation” in Atlanta, obtaining an official charter as a civic organization on December 4, 1915, two days before the movie opened at the Atlanta Theatre. He then took out ads in the Atlanta Journal proclaiming the rebirth of the secret society (clearly not that “secret” after all), touting it as “The World’s Greatest Secret, Social Patriotic, Fraternal, Beneficiary Order… A High Class Order for Men of Intelligence and Character.”

To cap it off Simmons and his followers rode through downtown Atlanta, bedecked in robes, to the Atlanta Theatre on the night of the premiere and fired their rifles in to the air in front of the crowd waiting to buy tickets for the movie; thanks to these publicity stunts, 92 new members joined over the next two weeks. However the new KKK didn’t really take off until it came under the effective control of Edward Young Clarke, an advertising and publicity impresario who was determined to make it into a paying business (in part by selling new members Simmons' copyrighted robes and regalia). 

After the U.S. went to war in 1917, the KKK played a role in enforcing “moral order” and national security during this frightening time, by intimidating foreigners and “un-patriotic” Americans, breaking strikes, and chasing prostitutes away from military camps across the South. Above all, however, its main mission was still suppressing African-American political movements, galvanized by hundreds of thousands of blacks who served in the armed forces and came away inspired to fight for their own civil rights when the war was over. 

Looking back on their service, W.E.B. DuBois described the next step to be taken: “Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our land.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

13 Great Rockumentaries Every Music (and Movie) Fan Should See

The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

More people are watching documentaries these days, which likely means that more people are rocking their faces off with nonfiction. Far from Ken Burns’s soothing tones, these music-filled films demand amplification and an unseemly amount of perspiration.

Rock documentaries are tricky beasts. Though they often have the built-in advantage of following around famous people, they aren’t immune to boredom and eye-rolling faux depth. Keeping it simple by showcasing the music can be good, but it’s no way to be great. The best of the best manage to deliver a stellar soundscape, offer a backstage pass to the real humans who make it, and hold our ears even if we aren’t already devoted fans. If a little history gets made in the process, even better.

Grab a seat next to Penny Lane on the bus. Here are 13 of the best documentaries that every music—and film—fan should add to their Must Watch list.

1. WHAT’S HAPPENING! THE BEATLES IN THE U.S.A. (1964)

A singular piece of filmmaking where nonfiction talent met transcendent musical genius on the threshold of gargantuan stardom, this is the best Beatles documentary ever produced. Directed by legendary documentarians Albert and David Maysles, the film captures the band’s first frivolous jaunt through America, where they raised the screaming decibel level in The Ed Sullivan Show theater and goofed off in hotel rooms. It’s an explosion of youth before they changed music forever.

2. DON’T LOOK BACK (1967)

Another marriage of style, skill, and subject, Don't Look Back helped shape how the rockumentary genre could provide insights into the people who shape our popular culture. That so many iconic moments emerged from D.A. Pennebaker’s watershed work, which strolled with Bob Dylan through England in 1965, is a testament to the legendary musician's infinite magnetism. The cue cards, singing with Joan Baez in a hotel room on the edge of breaking up, the Mississippi voter registration rally, and on and on. Since it portrayed fame’s effect on the artist, the art, and the audience, most every other rock doc has been chasing its brilliance.

3. GIMME SHELTER (1970)

The rockumentary has evolved to be as diverse as the sonic landscape itself, which is why Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping can send up the current scene just like This Is Spinal Tap! did in the 1980s. Still, 1970 feels like the year that defined the rockumentary. Another Maysles joint, this profound doc captured The Rolling Stones touring at a time when they were one of the biggest bands in the world and only getting bigger. The music is powerful and immediate, and the film closes with their appearance at the Altamont Free Concert, which turned deadly when—after a day of skirmishes between concertgoers and the Hell’s Angels acting as security—a fan with a gun was stabbed to death when he tried to get on stage during “Under My Thumb.”

4. WOODSTOCK (1970)

The other 1970 film that helped define the genre allowed thousands to claim they’d been to the biggest concert event of the generation without actually going. If rock ‘n’ roll emerged from unruly teenage years into conflicted young adulthood in the 1960s, nothing stamped that image in henna ink better than Woodstock and the documentary that accompanied it. The bands that appear are legendary: Crosby, Stills & Nash; The Who; Joe Cocker singing The Beatles; Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix; and many more. It’s a fly-by of the three days of peace and music that you could play on repeat with summery ease.

5. ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1973)

Rock doc royalty D.A. Pennebaker captured David Bowie’s final performance in his red-domed sci-fi persona at London's Hammersmith Odeon with a flair that captures the frenetic energy of the room. The crowd is as much a part of the moment as the band is, as the camera places you in the middle of a transitional moment in music history. To see Bowie that close up now is a wonder. And, naturally, the music is out of this world.

6. THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981)

Instead of following the famous, Penelope Spheeris’s debut dug its nails deep into the Los Angeles punk scene at the turn of the decade. Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, and other bands your parents have never heard of perform mosh pit-sparking anthems and show off their living conditions like a grungy proto-version of MTV Cribs. There’s a purity here missing from most music docs—a chronicle of people whose passion far, far outweighs their paychecks, and a screening that led the LAPD to request that the movie never be shown in LA again.

7. SIGN "☮" THE TIMES (1987)

Having Prince at the center of your concert doc is a shortcut to ensuring it’s one of the best of all time. There’s the music, of course. Hits like “Little Red Corvette” and “U Got the Look,” and Sheila E. beating the hell out of her drum kit. There’s also The Purple One's inexhaustible energy and stage presence. As a bonus, the film jumps between concert footage and (instead of candid hotel conversations) a sci-fi narrative where we get to go to Prince Planet. It’s a rocky, disorienting experience that could have only been held so tightly together by a master showman.

8. MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE (1991)

It might be hard to explain to a younger audience just how dominant Madonna was as an artist coming out of the 1980s or the kind of landmark event this film represented because of her status. The travelogue of her Blonde Ambition Tour was like peeking into the insane world of the ultra-famous—not least because Madonna was dating Warren Beatty at the time and part of the film involves her hanging out with Al Pacino, Lionel Richie, and more. There are threats that the Canadian police will arrest her for simulating masturbation in her show, the Pope trying to get the tour canceled in Italy, and a slightly awkward return home to see family. All par for the course for someone whose personal life was carved up for public consumption.

9. RHYME & REASON (1997)

An unparalleled look into the lyricism and lifestyle of rap musicians from the genre’s rise through its global domination of the 1990s, the concert and party footage is fantastic, and the number of interviews is staggering. Peter Spirer spoke with more than 80 rap and hip-hop artists to craft a snapshot of what life was like for a group of musicians who discovered their voices could echo across the world as well as those who followed after to even greater success. Instead of going deep on one person behind the music, it’s a historical document of the culture itself as seen through the eyes of those at its very center.

10. THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (2005)

For those who don’t know Daniel Johnston’s music, this doc is a crash course not only in its stripped-down, anti-folk vibes but the head it all comes spilling out of. Instead of romanticizing or ignoring his bipolar disorder, Jeff Feuerzeig’s movie engages with it directly, drawing beautiful gems from a troubled mind. An absolute masterpiece, it’s less a vision of a musician giving glimpses into his real life than it is a vision of a human being who makes music.

11. AWESOME; I F*CKIN’ SHOT THAT! (2006)

Rockumentaries follow two major formats: the raw concert doc that’s like a ticket to a show you couldn’t attend, and the profile where artists drop quotables in between performances. They’re safe and familiar, which is probably why the Beastie Boys gave both styles the middle finger in favor of a grand experiment. A year before YouTube launched, the rap trio gave 50 fans in their Madison Square Garden audience camcorders to capture the concert. The result is a genuine, fans’-eye-view of the experience, and a chaotic mashup of perspectives.

12. THE PUNK SINGER (2013)

It’s astonishing how much time and ground Sini Anderson’s portrait of Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna covers. It’s so much that labeling her Bikini Kill’s leader is woefully reductive. Artist, pioneer, feminist, activist, and a dozen other titles swirl around Hanna’s sweat-covered brow as we get to know her both as an artist and as a person. It’s also a punk fever dream of riot grrrl greatness, featuring incendiary archival footage and excellent talks with members of Le Tigre, Bikini Kill, and Julie Ruin, as well as Carrie Brownstein and the Beastie Boys’s Adam Horovitz (who is also Hanna’s husband).

13. JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE (2015)

A fairly recent addition to the pantheon, Amy J. Berg’s doc is a stirring tour of archival footage of the gravel-throated songstress. Narrated by musician Cat Power, instead of losing perspective to the fog of history, a blend of modern conversations and ghosts from the past offer fresh eyes and ears to create a heartsick celebration of one of music history's most beloved artists, whose career was cut woefully short.

20 Memorable Elvis Presley Quotes

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 40 years after his death, Elvis Presley remains a rock ‘n' roll icon and has yet to be ousted from his position as “The King.” Yet the Tupelo, Mississippi-born, Memphis, Tennessee-raised superstar never took his fame for granted, nor did he forget his roots. Here are 20 memorable quotes about Elvis’s life and legacy.

ON AMBITION

“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.”

ON MAINTAINING YOUR VALUES

“It's not how much you have that makes people look up to you, it's who you are.”

“Values are like fingerprints. Nobody's are the same, but you leave 'em all over everything you do.”

ON THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

“I happened to come along in the music business when there was no trend.”

“I've never written a song in my life. It's all a big hoax.”

“I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to.”

ON THE ARMY

“After a hard day of basic training, you could eat a rattlesnake.”

“The army teaches boys to think like men.”

ON TRUTH

“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain't goin' away.”

ON THOSE LEGENDARY DANCE MOVES

“Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can't help but move to it. That's what happens to me. I can't help it.”

“Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do 'em all together, I guess.”

ON KEEPING POSITIVE

“When things go wrong, don't go with them.”

ON STARDOM

“If you let your head get too big, it'll break your neck.”

“I have no use for bodyguards, but I have very specific use for two highly trained certified public accountants.”

“The image is one thing and the human being is another. It's very hard to live up to an image, put it that way.”

“The Lord can give, and the Lord can take away. I might be herding sheep next year.”

ON LOVE

“Sad thing is, you can still love someone and be wrong for them.”

ON THE PITFALLS OF HOLLYWOOD

“I sure lost my musical direction in Hollywood. My songs were the same conveyer belt mass production, just like most of my movies were.”

ON GETTING OLDER

“Every time I think that I'm getting old, and gradually going to the grave, something else happens.”

ON LEAVING A LEGACY

“Do something worth remembering.”

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