Not a Rebel Flag Among Them – The KKK’s 1925 March on Washington
During the debate over whether South Carolina should remove the Confederate Battle Flag from public grounds, there was quite a bit of misinformation flying around in the form of memes. One which struck me was a chilling shot of a Ku Klux Klan march on Washington DC with literally scores of United States flags everywhere. “Look at all those Confederate Flags!” it sarcastically proclaimed.
Hard to argue with that, right? A huge Klan rally without at Confederate flag in sight is definitely a head scratcher. Rather than just accepting a random photo selected out of context, I thought it would be best to look into it. Why was there such a march and where were their rebel flags?
The photo in question was from the August 8, 1925 Klan march in Washington. On this date, thirty-five to forty thousand Klan members flooded into the nation’s capital for a sanctioned parade, which lasted well over three and a half hours. It wasn’t merely old white guys in robes walking, but bands, drill teams, and banners, with the Imperial Wizard Hirman Evans clad in the smartest of purples leading the procession from the capitol to the treasury. 1
The tens of thousands of Klansmen and women carried tens of thousands of United States flags. In fact, part of the Klan’s oath in the 1920s was a pledge to “no flag but the Star Spangled Banner.” This was the Klan’s era of “Patriotic klanishness,” as they called it, “an unswerving allegiance to the principles of a pure Americanism as represented by the flag of our great Nation, namely, liberty, justice, and truth.” 2
This was the second phase of the Klan, reborn in 1915. Shifting their original focus of terrorizing black people to generally hating anyone who wasn’t a white protestant, they managed to gain monumental numbers, all under the insistence that they were super-patriots and real Americans. While their ire against the black population was still voracious, the Klan waved the United States flag to remind various immigrants, members of labor unions, and Roman Catholics that America wasn’t for them. 3
But the reason the Klan didn’t use Confederate battle flags on their march has more to do with the history of the battle flag than it does the Klan. Following the Confederate surrender, the regimental battle flags were furled and put away.
Though it did not seem to be a general law, through much of the South, the flying of any of the flags of the Rebellion was forbidden. Also barred were Confederate uniforms and insignia. In some places, such as Charleston, South Carolina, even ceremonies were banned. Federal officers, and especially Union veterans, were understandably hostile toward any of these symbols.
But by the early 1870s, Confederate flags of some sort began to appear more often on coffins and in memorial ceremonies. While toward the end of the previous decade the flags were used to show defiance and spite, now the Southerners had pushed the emblems beyond previous limits. During various observations through that decade, the flags would fly from time to time in the streets of Southern cities. The battle flag itself appeared almost exclusively through the period of the 1880s and 1890s when Confederate monuments were erected across the South. More than any other day, Confederate Memorial Day saw the most battle flags. And as the 1900s began, battle flags were placed before the gravestones of fallen Confederates.
Through all of this, the battle flag was used exclusively for memorial ceremonies. For a time, heritage organizations used various official flags of the Confederate government (the First National, the Third National, etc.) instead of the battle flag. But for some reason or another, in the late 1920s, the Sons of Confederate Veterans adopted the battle flag. This cemented the battle flag as the Confederate Flag. But still, it was used only in official SCV capacity and for ceremonies. 4
The second phase of the Klan began during this period where the battle flag was simply not used but for memorials. That is not to say that the Klan had purged itself of its Confederate roots. Quite the opposite. On Thanksgiving night of 1915, the Klan gathered atop the Confederate monument carved into the side of Stone Mountain by Klan member, and set a three hundred foot high cross aflame. They even named their chapters, called Klaverns, after Confederate officers. 5
But this new Klan wasn’t just for the South. Klaverns began cropping up all over the map – even into Canada. To fly the Confederate battle flag would seem counter-intuitive. In the United States, they flew the United States flag. In Canada, they flew the British flag. 6
And so, at their peak, the Klan marched on Washington D.C. with United States flags flying, to tell everyone who wasn’t white and protestant that America did not want them. Though the march in question contained no Confederate flags, and though the Klan had broadened their scope of hatred to include non-black people, the city’s African-American population was well aware of the parade. “There was only a sprinkling Of Negroes along the line of march,” reported the fairly-racist Chicago Tribune, “although throngs of picka-ninnies swarmed after the bands as they moved down side streets the procession was forming.” 7
Going back to the original meme, the idea appears to be a complete non sequitur. The reason there were no Confederate flags at the pictured KKK march is because it happened in 1925, over two decades before pretty much anybody used the battle flag for any purpose aside from ceremonial.
But we have all seen the Klan and another racist groups and people use the Confederate battle flag in their attacks upon the African-American community beginning when the Civil Rights Movement got off the ground.
This will be addressed next week when we discuss another inaccurate meme inexplicably shared by both pro- and anti-Confederate factions.