Book: Public Relations and the KKK

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Hear from the author of a new book that tells the story of how two public relations professionals revived a dying Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s as white Protestants felt they were losing their place in America. Author Dale Laackman will discuss his book, “For the Kingdom and the Power: The Big Money Swindle that Spread Hate Across America.”

Ted Simons: A new book tells the story of how two public relations professionals revived a dying Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s as white protestants felt they were losing their place in America. The book is titled "for the kingdom and the power: The big money swindle that spread hate across America." we welcome the author, Dale Laackman to "Arizona Horizon." Good to have you here.

Dale Laackman: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us. We are talking about not the original Ku Klux Klan, but kind of the second edition.

Dale Laackman: Correct. The first Ku Klux Klan happened during the reconstruction period after the end of the Civil War.

Ted Simons: Who was William Joseph Simmons?

Dale Laackman: Simmons was an METHODIST minister to failed. Not a very strong man. Not a very good businessman. Charismatic speaker, his father had been in the original Klan he decided to revive it.

Ted Simons: Working with Edward young Clarke and Bessie Tyler. Who are they?

Dale Laackman: They are really what the book is about. I start the book, this is not a Klan book, of course it is, the basis of the book. But it is really about two brilliant P.R. marketing executives from Atlanta who were actually ground-breaking. There are some chapters written in P.R. history books about them. They were very advanced in what they did.

Ted Simons: How did they get involved with Simmons and the Klan?

Dale Laackman: Well, they had a firm called southern publicity association in Atlanta. And they worked for a lot of not for profits, one of them being the anti-saloon league, huge organization leading up to prohibition. Of course, when prohibition happened, they lost their best client. They were in dire finance straits, as was Simmons. Started his organization,1915 on Thanksgiving night, and for the next five years had pretty much was squandering. He had squandered that he wasn't a good organizer, and they were broke. There were only about 2,000 members in 1920 when these people all meet. Badly organized. He had to mortgage his home. They were really going to go away. So, it was his need and theirs that kind of combined, and they signed a contract through a membership campaign for the Klan.

Ted Simons: Talk about the campaign. What did they do to get the Klan -- we're talking millions of people were involved here.

Dale Laackman: You would think, when you think Klan, you always think the south. And they had much bigger ideas than anybody. They saw a tremendous opportunity to make an enormous amount of money. And quite frankly, they didn't care what they were selling. They were selling the ideology of hate with the Klan. What they did was put together a national organization. They found sales people who were involved in fraternal organizations and this period of time, it was the golden age of fraternal organizations. Everybody belonged to two, three, four, and they were everywhere. They all had the same kind of regalia and rituals and things that the Klan had. These people knew how to sell. Bessie and Edward cordoned off and divided the United States into nine what they called domains and put a -- they informed the people to go to the community, spend a little time there and find out what the white protestant community was afraid of. In different parts of the country, it was different things.

Ted Simons: You write that the midwest, huge. Parts of the west, huge. And again it is not just the south.

Dale Laackman: Sure.

Ted Simons: They succeeded in areas where you would not expect the Klan to be a presence.

Dale Laackman: Every state of the 48 at that time has a Klan history because of these two people, including Arizona.

Ted Simons: Sure.

Dale Laackman: Chicago, where I come from, had an enormous Klan, and they signed this contract with Simmons, which had an 80% commission on every new member went to Bessie and Edward's organization. But they signed this in April of 1920, by the fall, by August of 1921, in Chicago, they went from nothing to a huge initiation ceremony in suburban Chicago that 10,000 Klans people, initiated 2,300 more and that was in a very short period of time.

Ted Simons: I want to get more on the scheme and Ponzi aspect of this. Film "birth of a nation" I think most folks are at least familiar with if have not seen. That plays a big part in this, doesn't it?

Dale Laackman: Well, it does in the launch of this new Klan, because it coincided exactly with the time that Simmons began the Klan in 1915. D.W. Griffith, I was a film major, and we study that film as a brilliant film with just a kind of bad message based on a book and a play called the Klansman. A brilliant film. He broke ground everywhere on techniques that had never been used in film. Debuted in 1915. When it debuted in Atlanta, Simmons timed it to his initial initiation ceremonies and continued to use that film for the next 10 years.

Ted Simons: I'll bet.

Dale Laackman: Throughout the Klan.
Ted Simons: Yeah, it is a shocking thing to thing, the subject matter. If you are a film major, you are seeing techniques that at that time were brand new. Tyler and Clarke, it sounds from a distance as you write it, it sounds like a Ponzi scheme, a little like basically can't survive unless it grows. Is that what we're talking about here?

Dale Laackman: Not so much. I do talk about the Ponzi in the book. That was happening about the same time. It was -- I guess they call it a direct sale technique where the person out in the field contacts a new member, sells them and has the decisions, can make the decision whether that is a good person for the Klan or not and immediately collect 40% and then they send the money on to the state head, who takes a percentage to the regional, domain head to takes it and then back to Atlanta and Bessie and Edward got 2.5% and the Klan itself got 2%.

Ted Simons: Just keep going the next step up.

Dale Laackman: Yeah, of course, that 2%, Bessie and Edward's contract said that all of their materials and costs had to come out of their part. Well, Bessie and Edward immediately hired a new accountant for the Klan and paid for all of the expenses out of the Klan part. Continually cheated their client as they went along as well.

Ted Simons: No surprise there. Government leaders, politicians, religious leaders, where were they?

Dale Laackman: Many of them were joining the Klan. There were a lot of -- as the Klan grew, many of the judges in towns, many of the representatives in the state, there were representatives in Congress who were Klansmen.

Ted Simons: The -- very much against liquor, big on the family, those sorts of things.

Dale Laackman: What Edward and Bessie immediately did was take the Klan out of the shadows. Prior to that, all meetings were held in forests in the middle of the night. And everything is very sacred. They said if we are going to grow, we can't do that. We have to establish an office. We have to be out in the light. We have to invite the press. And they manipulated the press when they invited them to get favorable press. That's what they did. It became very open. I have photographs of Michigan, near Jackson, Michigan, in about 1923, of some -- I think 70,000 people having a huge picnic and meeting in the middle of a field near Jackson, Michigan.

Ted Simons: Yeah, and we think of it as such a shadowy secret hate-filled organization. But it was in the open, again, maybe four to five million members at the height.

Dale Laackman: At that height, 4 million, and it was all men. So, I did some analysis statistically, and if you take the population of the United States at that time, almost 40% of all eligible men in the United States belonged to the Klan. Eligible meaning white, protestant and native born.

Ted Simons: I noticed the anti-immigrant here was strong.

Dale Laackman: Absolutely. It was a period of time that it -- it happened like a perfect storm. And this was post world war in America. You had -- blacks had come north during the great migration in the early part of the century to settle in northern cities. It wasn't just the blacks were only in the south. You had immigrants flowing in after the war ended because they hadn't been allowed to emigrate during the entire period of the war. Many foreign -- anti-Catholic organization.

Ted Simons: I was surprised how anti-Catholic it was.

Dale Laackman: Very anti-Catholic. And eastern European immigrants coming in from Russia, and they felt these were all socialists. And so you had all of this coming in. It was anti-Jewish, it was ante everything but white protestants.

Ted Simons: It succeeded to a point. What killed the KKK this time around?

Dale Laackman: A book about journalism history. New York world newspaper began an investigative series and they -- the stories always has been that they had a whistleblower who came to them and gave them all kinds of information. I found out differently in the book, actually an embedded journalist in the Klan. And they went on a 23 straight-day front page investigative series that won one of the first Pulitzers in investigative journalism. Things started to unravel tore Bessie and Edward. The Klan continued to grow. Sometimes negative publicity is the best publicity of all. In one edition of the paper they took a facsimile of the actual form you would fill out to join just to show it and what happened a lot of people saw that, cut it out, and sent their money to Atlanta and joined. It back fired in a way. It did expose them. It did win a Pulitzer, but the Klan didn't necessarily stop growing. Bessie and Edward were out at about 1923. Klan continues to grow until about 1925.

Ted Simons: What happened in '25?

Dale Laackman: In '25, a series of scandals involving the Klan, financial scandals, and the biggest one was a murder and rape of a young woman in Indiana. That had headlines forever in all of the papers in the country.

Ted Simons: Only to be revived in different forms and different ways. We don't have time to get into that. I did want to ask you, in researching this book, what hit you the hardest and what do you think we should take from this book?

Dale Laackman: Well, first in researching the book, I say I didn't find the story. The story found me. I was taking a history class and a professor mentioned it in a couple of sentenced. I started to research it. I had no idea. I have not found a history book that has written this. It affected all of America in the 1920s. Important new history in these areas, but I also thing it goes towards in a way what's going on with Donald Trump in the campaign now. As you know, he really took off once he started getting into immigration policies. First with the Hispanics, and now with the Muslim problem, and he is just finding a nativist group out there that hears that message and I think likes his message. And this has happened many times during the century and alone through centuries before, we have Japanese relocation. The Eisenhower relocation that he mentioned, trump mentioned in one of the debates. And there are many of them. And it seems, you know, sometimes we have to learn from history because it does repeat.

Ted Simons: I was going to say some of the same bells are ringing again. Interesting read. Congratulations on the book. Thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

Dale Laackman: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Thursday on "Arizona Horizon," we'll look at a just-released multistate EL Nino disaster response plan. And we'll hear from a local artist whose work appears in the national Christmas display. That's at 5:30 and 10:00 on the next "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening. Captioning Performed by LNS Captioning

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Dale Laackman: Author

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