Behind the Mask of Chivalry

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Nancy MacLean. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994. (Price). Hardcover: ISBN 0-19-507234-0.


Nancy MacLean’s history of the resurgent KKK in the post-World War era examines the composition and politics of this group, which probably more than any other repulses and yet fascinates modern historians of the American South. The historical challenge in interpreting the KKK is that while as a group their name and exploits are well-known and justifiably notorious, the particulars of their individual members and chapter proceedings are not. KKK organizations throughout the country were obsessively secretive by nature; consequently primary source material about the Klan is almost non-existent. MacLean was fortunate in having access to the records of the chapter located in Athens GA. Using this material, she was able to examine and describe the KKK not as a monolithic, impersonal force but as an organization of individual American citizens with jobs, incomes and families. The value of Behind the Mask of Chivalry is MacLean’s analysis of those individuals, and their motivations to join such an extremist group.

MacLean’s analysis provides insights that are disturbing on many levels. The Athens records reveal that while the second KKK did espouse extremist stances, it did not represent an extremist fringe demographic being comprised largely of middle-class and petite bourgeoisie men (xiii). What drove these “solid citizens” into KKK ranks was the squeeze of economic and social hard times after WWI (179). These men felt that their traditional patriarchal position in society was being threatened by what they perceived as aggressive moves for economic and social equality by lower classes and a stranglehold on capital by those in the upper classes (34).

Behind the Mask is organized into three parts. Part 1 provides the historical context for the resurgence of the Klan by describing in particular the economic and social conditions present in post-WWI, which included major accelerations in the expectations of different genders and races, mass social displacement. Part 2 describes the guiding principles of the Klan – how members interpreted and manipulated divisions among class, gender, and race, and how they employed terror tactics to enforce those interpretations. Part 3 is MacLean’s interpretation of the subject, why it rose, why it fell, and how it mirrored similar movements of middle class anger in Europe.

John Lillard, Spring 2010

A notable achievement of this book is to describe and analyze Klan motivations objectively without becoming too sidetracked by emotion. The Klan is a touchy subject for Americans, showing as it does the worst aspects of our culture and history. But the fact remains that it did exist and wielded considerable influence for a significant portion of the inter-war years. MacLean’s factual descriptions “unmask” the nameless faces concealed under hoods and robes, and the KKK members become real people with their own histories – people that could well be our own neighbors.

MacLean’s methodology for examining the Klan motivations succeeds in being both simple and rigorous. She distills the multiple Klan principles into one – the aim of uniting the nation’s Anglo-Saxon men in one common bond. She deconstructs this grand strategy into overarching methods – to replace class divisions with those of race (Anglo-Saxon), gender (paternalism), and religion (Protestantism) (97, 127). She then takes these methods individually and describes Klan tactics in each. In this way, seemingly disjointed “we-hate-everyone” Klan stances like anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism become part of a coherent (albeit repulsive) philosophy. MacLean describes how specific aspects of these religions were interpreted by Klan members as in opposition to their own bedrock concepts of patriarchal family structures (119)

Along the way, MacLean also documents specific details about Klan operations. For example, she describes a significant presence of government and law enforcement membership, elements that ensured that KKK actions outside the law were not prosecuted aggressively. She also describes a strong presence of females in the KKK world, though the KKK vision of male dominated society kept these women in an auxiliary role.

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