Watch an overview of this material featuring Cornelius in DWSO in the 1920’s: Contextualizing the Way Forward from the Past (2023)
Documenting White Supremacy and its Opponents in the 1920s brings together a comprehensive set of local, regional, and national newspapers published by the organized white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan and sympathizers, alongside key anti-Klan voices from newspapers published by Black American, Catholic, and Jewish communities. The collection provides scholars with important documentary evidence of organized white nationalism in the 1920s along with the activity of organizations that actively resisted it. It prevents erasure of these historical events and centers the voices of those who worked to dismantle white supremacy.
DWSO seeks to reflect the present by refracting the past through the medium of newspaper primary sources. It is, in short, a tool for grappling critically (and crucially) with the world as it was, what it is, and of course, what it might be. These narratives – from the Founding Fathers to the founding of this nation to the horrors of the Klu Klux Klan – all shape the very fabric of American culture. We neither condone, nor seek to “understand” these vagaries, atrocities, or exaggerations. Rather, we present evidence of this history for educational purposes to instruct more generally, and to inspire more specifically, robust discussions relevant to the 1920s and today.
To explore the importance of this once-hidden content to contemporary scholarship, watch our recorded webinar, “Textually Speaking: Narratives of 20th Century Racial Struggle, Resistance, and Resilience Through Primary Sources.”
Find more sources on the Black Press in this bibliography, compiled by Cornelius Fortune, DWSO Digital Archivist.
Read more about individual newspapers, including The California Eagle, Broad Ax, Tolerance, and more.
Race is complicated, and the history of America is even more complex. Like a Rorschach test, a multitude might gaze upon the same structure and see entirely different images – competing narrative strands. The textures of American culture resist simplification but insist upon a robust dialogue.
Documenting White Supremacy and its Opponents in the 1920s (DWSO) puts forth the challenge of continuing this dialogue on American history, American culture, and American media. Specifically, this collection, which provides scholars with important documentary evidence of organized white nationalism in the 1920s along with the activity of organizations that actively resisted it, looks at a time in America when the organization known as the Klu Klux Klan, emerged in a second iteration. Different from the first, this version sought political power, respectability, and made a real attempt at harnessing the communication tools at hand; namely, newspapers, and other forms of mass communication, including radio.
A striking feature of this era of the Klan – and its related media and paraphernalia – is that the cloak of respectability drove its proliferation into the public square, in places typically reserved for progressive and intellectual discourse. Mainstream book reviews are one such public square.
Scholar Felix Harcourt, in his work Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s, describes how critics evaluated the subject of the Klan within contemporary books: “Book critics frequently focused on a volume’s treatment of the Klan as representative of its general quality. The Bookman’s review of Slosson’s Great Crusade singled out the University of Michigan history professor’s discussion of the Klan movement as particularly praiseworthy.” Chakraberty’s United States, conversely, was chastised by the New York Times for an account of the Klan that ‘would hardly be accepted by any but a member of that order.’ At the same time, the Invisible Empire was central to advertising these narratives. Many publishers, realizing that the Klan was of considerable popular interest, specifically marketed their work as containing information on the organization. The George H. Doran publishing firm, for example, promoted Ten Years After as ‘ranging from the Dawes report to the Ku Klux Klan.’”
Famously called “The Culture Industry” by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who decried the swaying of the masses through popular culture, the newspapers included in DWSO are illustrative of the power of media to communicate and influence, such that heated rhetoric – “Enlightenment as mass deception” – could descend into physical and psychical violence. Or, as Walter Benjamin, a contemporary of Adorno and Horkheimer wrote: “The task of a critique of violence can be summarized as that expounding its relation to law and justice. For a cause, however effective, becomes violent, in the precise sense of the word, only when it bears on moral issues. The sphere of these issues is defined by the concepts of law and justice.” Or, to put it another way, violence whether guise it takes, always requires the marked steps of justice and the law. They are always linked, whether justice is served or delayed, this relationship is embedded in the culture, and is almost expected or anticipated. But while the moral arc of the universe might very well bend toward justice, its trajectory can be lengthy and labyrinthine.
For example, the culture industry groaned under the weight of the popularity of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), culminating in a resurgence of the Klan in the popular imagination. Emerging from the dark enclaves of the post-Reconstruction era, the new iteration was far less shadowy, visibly transparent, woven into the fabric of daily American life. As Du Bois wrote in his 1926 essay, “The Shape of Fear,” the Klan of the 1920s should not be conflated with the earlier Klan. “They have nothing in common except their birthplace and their methods. The present Klan is a different movement from the older Klan. It has simply made the older movement’s name its present starting point.”
Why this collection ?
By showing history as more than simply a series of dates, catalogues of facts, data sets, and graphs, DWSO is in the spirit of Reveal Digital’s mission to digitize primary sources, by in essence revealing the past through digital access. The newspapers in DWSO are, of course, difficult materials, of their time, and necessarily challenge both liberal and conservative ideologies. The narratives we claim as truth are pluralistic and depend more (or less) on perspective, and rarely on objective truth. As Nikole Hannah-Jones asserts, “Whether we grapple with these ugly truths or not, they affect us still … If we are truly a great nation, the truth cannot destroy us.”
The famous pop song tells us that the beat goes on – the periodicals featured in this collection are a reminder that America has rarely ever sang off-key. Rather, it is the chordal structures that create tonal dissonance between past, present, and aspirational future.
The past as present, the past as prologue
When considering the long history – what scholars have termed the longue durée – of the Klan, it’s necessary to understand the stakes and cultural groundwork from which it sprang.
Founded in 1865 by Confederate veterans, the Klu Klux Klan was originally a Southern response to Reconstruction. Its members used public violence to control and disenfranchise formerly enslaved people. In 1870, sweeping federal legislation banned Klan violence, tried members as domestic terrorists, and suppressed its organization almost completely. However, organized white supremacy, as embodied by the Klan, re-surfaced throughout the United States in the early twentieth century, experiencing a phenomenal degree of mainstream popularity. The Washington Post at the time estimated the Klan’s membership as high as 9 million, and in the Midwest, a particular stronghold of Klan support, one in three white Protestant males in the state of Indiana were dues-paying Klan members .
Central to the Klan’s ascendancy was its carefully managed print culture. In its endeavors to construct itself as a positive force in American national life, the Klan effectively utilized its newspaper and publishing empire to make immigration and prohibition enforcement its main political and moral causes. Klan propaganda attempted to create an unambiguous world of good versus evil, of morality versus degeneracy, of white, Protestant, native-born Americans against everyone else.
The Documenting White Supremacy and Its Opponents collection, which will total more than 130,000 pages upon completion, includes papers promoting and opposing white supremacy, published mainly in the 1920s. It brings together for the first time local, regional, and national newspapers published by Klan organizations and by sympathetic publishers from across the US. It also includes key anti-Klan voices, including newspapers published by Black American, Catholic, and Jewish communities.
The equal and opposite reaction: the Black press as counternarrative of a nation
On Dec. 5, 2021, the Black press reached an important milestone: It celebrated 30 years of Rosetta Miller-Perry’s work as publisher of the Tennessee Tribune. This celebration was illustrative of the Black experience, specifically, the experience of a Black woman who beat the odds, working against the difficult, unpredictable tidal forces inherent in Black press publishing. She kept her weekly newspaper delivering important content to a marginalized community still fighting for equal footing in a country recently under, if it must be stated, a recontextualization thanks to the reportage of the 1619 Project from the New York Times. While 1619 might have marked the first Back slaves on American soil, March 16, 2020 marked the 193rd anniversary of Freedom’s Journal as the first African American-run newspaper in the country, published in New York. As Stacy Brown writes, “The anniversary of the Black press is a reminder of the contributions that remain indelibly associated with its fearlessness, determination and success. Those contributions include the works of Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and former NNPA (National Newspaper Publishers Association) Chairman Dr. Carlton Goodlett. Douglass, who helped slaves escape to the North while working with the Underground Railroad, established the abolitionist paper, The North Star, in Rochester, New York. He developed it into the most influential Black antislavery newspaper published during the Antebellum era.”
The Black press has waxed and waned, agitated, and aggravated white supremacist narratives since the mid-19th century, and was important in the 1920s during the rise of the second Klan, and continued the fight through the events of the civil rights movement and onward.
As of this writing in 2023, the Black press and publications such as Miller-Perry’s Tennessee Tribune are navigating a world that is at once familiar (racism still persists) but wildly different (the world has gone digital), and those exaggerated platitudes of remembrance (with apologies to Twain), are a basic staple of a “greatly exaggerated” American life — we purchase the coffin and make funeral arrangements well before the last breathe is duly expended. Indeed, the death of the Black press, the Black press in crisis, the Black press in stasis, are familiar warnings that have risen and fallen through the decades since Freedom Journal’s first printing in 1827. Precarity always hung over the Black press, and by extension, Black journalism, particularly after the 1960s, when in transitioning to the decade of disco and Watergate, the Black press struggled for a new identity. Thanks to the advances of the civil rights movement, the pair of shoes that the movement had comfortably worn simply did not fit anymore – or not as well. It was either a size too big or too small. Too much had happened. Too much history had unfurled.
Victories were collected, but African Americans were always assured that there were still miles to go, and to keep their eyes focused – “eyes on the prize” – on the rearview because the past had a way of tailing you. In fact, Enoc Waters, a retired executive editor of the Chicago Defender, writing in 1977 “acknowledged that by the late 1970s the gains of the Civil Rights movement made the Black press’s job more difficult because the race faced more sophisticated and subtle forms of discrimination. Previously, the plight of Negroes in America had been so bad and the reasons so obvious that whites offered no explanations. Spurred by those conditions – and the restlessness of Black citizens – the mission of the Negro press was clear and a sense of urgency was foremost” (Pride and Wilson 235).
Endurance is a marker of the Black press, and Miller-Perry is, in some ways, analogous to this struggle. The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA)’s main purpose — as established in 1940 by the Chicago Defender’s founder, John H. Sengstacke — was to connect Black newspapers across America. Affectionately called “the Queen mother of the Black Press of America” by NNPA President and CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., the honor bestowed upon NNPA member, Miller-Perry, represented an epochal observance situated between the ubiquitous affects Covid-19, a post George Floyd world, and threat of voter suppression in communities of color. This lifetime achievement award given at the end of 2021, a year of uncertainty, where long COVID is not merely a medical condition, but a cultural condition, seems appropriate. Whatever the future might hold, the Black press will be there, somewhere, either agitating, advocating, or abnegating the current political climate.
As will be evident in the collection of Black newspapers in the DWSO collection, the Black press – and its mandate for freedom – endures.
 Felix Harcourt, Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 56.
 Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in One-Way Street and Other Writings (New York: Verso, 2021), 147.
 W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, “The Shape of Fear,” The North American Review 223, no. 831 (1926), 291, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25110229.
 Nicole Hannah-Jones, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman, and Jake Silverstein, eds., The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (New York: One World, 2021), xxxii.