Kathleen M. Blee is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Blee’s book, Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920’s, was first published with critical acclaim in July of 1992 by UC Press. The second edition, published by UC Press in December of 2008, was updated with a new preface. In her blog entry below, she recounts a meeting with a man during her research for the book.
By Kathleen Blee
I spent years digging up information about the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, a decade when racial and religious hatred became organized on a mass scale in America. One day stands out in my memory. An elderly man, a long-time leader in his small town, agreed to meet with me to tell me what he could remember. I don’t know if he had been in the Klan. But I had seen a picture of him from that time. He was standing in a large crowd of white people: men, women, even children. A few seemed angry, some just curious. Most didn’t display any particular emotion. Above them, a black man swung from a tree, a rope around his neck. It was one of the country’s last lynchings.
I was worried about how he would react when I mentioned the photo. Would he deny it? Throw me out of his house? Break down with shame? In fact, he did none of these. He simply asked if I would like an autographed copy; he had plenty. This man would not likely be regarded in his community as a racist or a hater and he would not think of himself this way. The way he saw it, the lynching was an unfortunate incident, probably a mistake, but also, for him, a moment of fame.
Women of the Klan tries to make sense of how someone could look back at the horror of lynching with such indifference. By looking at how so many “ordinary” white Protestant native-born women got swept up into the Klan’s vicious crusades, I try to understand how racial hatred and religious bigotry could become part of the fabric of daily life for so many people, how collective cruelty could be practiced so casually with so little reflection or regret.