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“Yours in the Sacred and Unfailing Bond:” The Banal Violence of Klankraft in 1920's Montana

Fri, October 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Sheraton Centre, Cedar

Abstract

Members of the Ku Klux Klan in Butte, Montana reached a point of crisis late into November in 1924. The Atlanta-made white uniform robes that members used to demonstrate their affiliation with the national organization were vanishing in the mail with alarming frequency. Throughout the subsequent winter, the correspondence of Butte Klansmen was preoccupied with this phenomenon, which was later identified as a coup by the town’s Catholic postmaster who resented the emergence of the white supremacist organization. In this mid-sized mining community full of Catholics, immigrants, and enthusiastic drinkers, the hundred some Klansmen who sought to rid their town of all three were unpopular, to say the least. Though seemingly trivial, interactions with the US postal service provided Montana Klansmen with evidence of their marginalization, and yet another justification for their participation in the order.[1]

The violent public demonstrations enacted by members of the Ku Klux Klan nationwide have masked the ways that mundane processes, like shipping packages, made it possible for men nationwide to articulate their personal affiliation with the Klan’s mass-produced ideology. This paper uses the tiny, and frequently ineffectual, Kontinental Klan of Butte, Montana, to examine how Klan ideology entered the private lives of men across the country. I argue that the national circulation of industrially produced Klan robes was one of many such processes that enabled the Klan’s rapid expansion in the mid 1920’s. In doing so, I call attention to the complex ways that racial violence was enacted through and embedded within the intimate gestures of everyday life in early 20th century America.

The distribution of uniform robes was particularly important because these garments enabled Klansmen nationwide to become dimensional representations of a symbolic form that evoked the regulatory violence of the Reconstruction era Klan. Most of the estimated 2-4 million Klansmen who comprised the national organization in the mid 1920’s did not perform violent attacks. Nonetheless, Klansmen who adopted the organization’s signature garments consciously represented Klan violence through the appearance of their dressed bodies in public spaces. Thus, attention to the seemingly banal infrastructures that shaped and enabled this particularly intimate manifestation of violence enable us to re-examine how we define danger and intimacy in relation to the Klan as a national organization. In order to do this, I draw on correspondence between local, state, and national Klan leaders in regards to the “local conditions” of Butte, and my own examination of extant Klan robes in museum collections nationwide. These textual and material sources enable me to call attention to the ways that these garments mediated between these local and national, private and public manifestations of racial violence. Collecting the wearer’s sweat, blood, and even spit, Klan robes transformed an ideological project into an intimate form of self-expression.

[1] Correspondence of Kilgrapp Floyd Johnson, July 1924-Jan 1925; Correspondence Kilgrapp James Bray Jan-Aug 1925; Kontinental Klan Collection, Eastern Washington Historical Society. Kontinental Klan Collection, Eastern Washington Historical Society.

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