“Build a Wall of Steel”

A century before Trump, the KKK also wanted to halt immigration. And while a real wall wasn’t in their playbook, their motivations and goals sound eerily familiar.

Former Georgia Gov. Clifford Walker
Former Georgia Gov. Clifford Walker. Library of Congress

Last week, as the president continued to insist on the building of his proposed border wall with Mexico, writer Jon Meacham issued a Trump historical-analogy tweet that went viral.

Meacham used the full quote from Clifford Walker’s speech—“I would build a wall of steel, a wall as high as Heaven, against the admission of a single one of those Southern Europeans who never thought the thoughts or spoke the language of a democracy in their lives”—as an epigraph for the fourth chapter of his book The Soul of America but cut it short for the purposes of Twitter, where nuance is not your friend. And the chop worked, to the tune of 41,000 likes and 20,000 retweets as of this writing.

The appeal of these contemporary echoes notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem that the “Klan wall” was ever much more than a rhetorical flourish particular to Clifford Walker. “I spent years going through Klan newspapers, and I don’t remember a ‘wall’ coming up in their own documents,” historian Kelly J. Baker, author of Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915–1930, wrote to me in an email. Tapping her general knowledge of the Klan in the 1920s (rather than a reading of the speech itself), historian Linda Gordon, author of The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, wrote another response to my query: “My immediate reaction is that [Walker] meant a metaphoric wall, a wall created by legislation and policy. Also, it is unlikely that he would have been thinking of a wall on the U.S. southern border; at this time, the Klan was thinking of immigration through Ellis Island and Angel Island.” In other words, Walker and other restrictionists of the 1920s were fretting over the entry of Catholics and Jews from southern Europe, via New York, and of Asian immigrants through San Francisco. Neither of these places are plausible locations for a real “wall.”

So with regard to Trump’s very real obsession, Walker’s rhetorical wall might suggest only that anxious white racists with authoritarian mindsets think in similar shapes. But Walker’s speech—available via the Internet Archive—is still fascinatingly instructive for people looking to understand Trumpism. Contrary to Meacham’s claim that the Ku Klux Klan was a group for “the white working class,” scholars have largely agreed that the Klan of the 1920s was a lower-middle-class institution, made up of a mix of people who were already middle-class, and skilled workers who were looking for some middle-class respectability. The speech shows how the “second Klan” (so called to distinguish it from the original Reconstruction-era incarnation) understood that “respectability” to be woven through with xenophobia and hate.

The first half of Walker’s speech decried the lack of widely accessible public schooling for the “boys and girls” of the United States. “What of the tens of thousands of Edisons and Bells and Fords, who are crying out for a chance to develop their minds and their hearts and their hands—to go out and see that the natural resources of America are developed!” Walker cried. Walker was particularly fighting for the rural kids: “Let us not penalize a boy or girl simply because he or she happened to be born in the country.” The governor then argued that the government should build highways and “modern health departments” to eliminate preventable disease. Like Trump’s vague campaign promises to “bring back jobs,” provide health care, and improve infrastructure, these populist priorities don’t seem explicitly hateful.

Only three-quarters of the way into the speech did Walker segue into a call to “look to the stream of poison that is being injected into our national life through the admission of that lower type of foreigners”—an articulation of the major themes of the Klan’s anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. Then, at the crescendo of his diatribe against Catholicism, came this call for the “wall of steel.”

The similarities to Trumpism don’t stop at the combination of populist promise with racism and xenophobia. Like Trumpism, the second Klan should be understood as integral to the body politic of its time. As historian Nancy MacLean wrote in her book, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan, to read the history of the second Klan is to see how utterly everyday these people were. “One has to give up the notion of the essential otherness of the kind of men attracted to it,” MacLean wrote. The Klan of the 1920s were not “the deranged outcasts of popular imagination”—they were dentists, barbers, grocery-store proprietors, teachers, farmers, and politicians.

Numerically speaking, this new Klan wasn’t marginal. While it’s not clear exactly how many people the Klan enrolled, it was a lot: The organization itself bragged that it had 5 million in 1926, while historian Kenneth Jackson estimated a lower zenith of 1.5 million active members. In southern Indiana, where ambitious (and horrifyingly violent) Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson was in charge of the organization, 23 percent of native-born white men were in the Klan. As Linda Gordon points out, the organization “owned or controlled” 150 magazines or newspapers, two colleges, and, briefly, a movie production company “dedicated to countering Hollywood’s immoral influence.” (That last venture didn’t last, because even in the 1920s, it was difficult and expensive to make movies.)

The second Klan was proud of its association with the first, Reconstruction-era Klan—the “night riders” who terrorized freedpeople in the South—and adopted its symbols and some of its language. But the 1920s Klan tried hard to be a public organization—to live out its principles of white supremacy in plain view. Hiram Evans, the second Grand Wizard of this resurgence, called himself “the most average man in America” (“in order to normalize the Klan,” Gordon wrote). The Klan held huge picnics, fairs, and fireworks displays. They ran and elected many candidates in national, state, and local political races. People made merch: Klan-themed jewelry, sheet music, pocket knives. The commercial bent of present-day right-wingers, who hawk doomsday food packages and T-shirts on their podcasts and blogs, has ample precedent.

This redefinition of the old KKK as a public institution was a purposeful one. William J. Simmons, the first Grand Wizard of the second Klan, hired publicists who remade the Klan into a fraternal organization—a mode of social congress then extremely popular among middle-class people—to sell the idea nationwide. Baker begins her book with an epigraph from a 1924 Klan newspaper that shows how hard the organization tried to make the point that they were respectable: “Forget the idea of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan being an organization that flogs and tars and feathers people … We bring the transgressor to justice through the duly constituted officers of the law.” The second Klan, Baker argues, used the symbols and rhetoric of Protestant religion—the fiery cross was just the beginning—to define themselves as not just “an order to defend America but also a campaign to protect and celebrate Protestantism.”

(This isn’t to say that the second Klan did not instigate, and sometimes participate in, racist and white supremacist violence. This new Klan also, especially in the West’s agricultural regions, committed acts of vigilante violence against Mexican Americans and Asian Americans. Gordon wrote that while the Northern Klan did not go in for lynchings or beatings, its propaganda “constituted cultural, religious, racial, and political violence, and thereby legitimated physical violence in the eyes of angrier members.” As Gordon points out, the Klan of this period recruited among law enforcement officers and often acted as deputies in carrying out violent actions against businesses the Klan considered amoral, like speakeasies and brothels.)

The Klansman’s Creed
The “Klansman’s Creed.” The Henry Ford

It was precisely white distaste for immigration—mixed up with anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism—that allowed the second Klan to become nationally influential. The organization had strongholds in places like Oregon, Indiana, and Colorado that didn’t have large populations of black people like the Reconstruction-era South had. This national reach became possible because the Klan’s hired publicists recognized the broad appeal of xenophobia, racism, and religious hatred outside of the South, and they pushed founder William J. Simmons to emphasize those aspects of Klan ideas while recruiting. Diatribes against immigration permeated Klan literature, marking the issue’s pride of place in the organization. The “Klansman’s Creed,” published in 1924, reserved the matter for its final lines, giving it emphasis: “I believe in the limitation of foreign immigration. I am a native-born American citizen and I believe my rights in this country are superior to those of foreigners.”

Hiram Evans published a pamphlet called “The Menace of Modern Immigration” in 1924. Rehearsing platitudes familiar to Trump watchers today, Evans wrote, “There is no hatred in my heart for any individual, nationality or race upon the face of the earth today. I love all humanity; for that reason my supreme love is for America.” Evans then went on to compare the original “Huguenot and Cavalier and Puritan” American settlers, who came to the continent without “mercenary motive” (Native Americans might beg to differ) to “the Latin, the Greek, the Balkan and the Slav,” who did not respect “law and order” or share the “native-born” American’s “inherent reverence for established institutions.” Evans repeated his insistence—“there is not a semblance of racial hate in my heart”—a second time, before going on to say that the “negro” could never assimilate to American life, due to his inherent inferiority.

The organization’s plan to use this kind of racist anti-immigration sentiment to extend their national reach worked because the Klan’s ideas about immigration and race were mainstream in white culture at the time—even among those who didn’t join the Klan. Rep. Albert Johnson of Washington state was not (at least not publicly) a Klan member, but his beliefs on immigration certainly aligned with the Klan’s. (Johnson proudly claimed membership in a mob that drove hundreds of South Asian residents out of Bellingham, Washington in 1907.) The Klan advocated for Johnson’s re-election, seeing him as a champion of their ideas, and the passage of his Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which imposed stringent quotas on immigration from “undesirable” countries, met with much Klan rejoicing. “The biggest Klan victory was immigration restriction,” Gordon wrote, “and Imperial Wizard Evans repeatedly claimed credit for its passage.”

An item in the Klan newspaper the Wisconsin Kourier, from November 1924, illustrates how closely official beliefs about immigration and the Klan’s stance on the matter were often aligned. Reporting on a 1924 speech by James John Davis, then the secretary of labor for Calvin Coolidge, the Kourier printed all the best bits—the ones their readers might like. Those included Davis’ claim that 100,000 “Asiatics” were “lurking near American borders seeking an opportunity to enter surreptitiously” (the supposed imminence of mass immigration of “undesirables” was a common restrictionist boogeyman in the early 1920s); Davis’ counterargument to the idea that immigrants came here to work, which was a dubiously sourced and meaningless anecdote that “out of 600 immigrants examined at Ellis Island, only 20 had calluses on their hands”; and his belief that foreign language newspapers should be denied the right to publish, because “some foreign language newspapers published in this country never issue an edition without telling their readers that the United States is the worst place in the world in which to live.”

This kind of socially sanctioned fear and hate was addictive, and it doesn’t seem like the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act did much to calm the Klan’s nerves on the matter of immigration. In February 1925, the Wisconsin Kourier ran an article warning “European riff-raff” were paying “law breakers” “large sums” to smuggle them over the border in Texas. “These aliens are for the most part inadmissible to this country and highly undesirable as residents … Among them are anarchists, criminals and radicals” who had been shut out by the Immigration Act of the year before. The Mexican “coyote,” the paper explained, was “an extremely dangerous individual” who was willing to “open fire on the least provocation”; “many splendid federal officers have met death at their hands.” In this way, the call for restriction shifted to demands for tougher enforcement; historian Mae Ngai points out that of the first Border Patrol agents, hired in the wake of the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, several were previous members of the Klan.

As all of this should make clear, there’s no need to make a tenuous tie between Donald Trump and his wall and Clifford Walker’s (probable) figure of speech. The Klan, like Trumpism, was a powerful middle-class movement, allied to the Protestant Church and built on xenophobia. What’s more interesting than the particulars of any proposed wall is the way that we persist in believing that these deeply mainstream ideas come from the fringe.