1921 - The KKK might have died in obscurity if this sinister, racist woman didn’t come along
On the evening of October 11, 1921, Elizabeth Tyler was entertaining a few friends in her elegant Atlanta home. After all the guests had departed, the 40 year-old public relations mastermind for the Ku Klux Klan retreated to her bedroom to read, leaving the window shade up and a bright light on in the front of the house. At 9:45 p.m., five gunshots rang out.
Half an hour later, the telephone rang at the Atlanta Constitution. “I want to talk to a reporter,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “I just want to tell you that we got Mrs. Tyler tonight.”
The assailants, who were never identified, hadn’t gotten anyone. All five bullets had missed. The shooting was an attempt on the life of the most powerful woman — the most influential person, really — in the Ku Klux Klan, whose leaders had called her “a model of American womanhood.” It was a strangely progressive remark considering that wife and mother were the only Klan-approved roles for women. Tyler’s story is a surprising but formative chapter in the American white supremacy narrative, her contributions to the Klan still animating the white supremacy movement today.
The Klan was founded by former Confederate soldiers just after the Civil War, but died shortly thereafter due to lousy management and government backlash. But as thousands of immigrants surged into American ports, the Klan experienced a comeback in 1915, and the 1920s would become the Klan’s heyday as the country drifted into a heady atmosphere of xenophobia. Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania argued that America needed legislation to “maintain the racial preponderance of the basic strain on our people and thereby to stabilize the ethnic composition of the population.” In 1924, he co-sponsored an immigration act defined by its racist quota system.
During that era, the KKK claimed more than four million members across the country, from ministers and politicians to housewives and teachers. According to Linda Gordon, author of The Second Coming of the KKK, the Klan’s resurgence was inspired by two media sensations and a lynching. The novel the Clansman came out in 1905 and became the basis for D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, a smashing success that seared the “black threat” into white American consciousness. In the film, white actors in blackface marauded against “pure” white women. The same year, Leo Frank, a Jew wrongly accused of murdering a young girl, was lynched by a mob. (In a strange twist, it appears the murder was actually perpetrated by a black man). The case became a rallying call for the Klan, which announced its return a few months later by burning crosses on top of Stone Mountain near Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day.
While these three events were about racism and xenophobia, they shared a subtle thematic undercurrent: a fetish for white female purity that became inextricably bound up in Klan lore.
Elizabeth Tyler was born into a large, poor family in Georgia in 1881. She married at 15, had her first child by 16, and was widowed not long after. She got her start as a hygiene worker, visiting tenements for the “better babies” campaign, a eugenics outfit that promoted better health for white babies, judging them in contests at state fairs, much the way we now flaunt and assess canines at Westminster. Through her “hygiene” work, she met Edward Young Clarke, a publicity man with Klan ties, and together, they founded the Southern Publicity Association, taking on clients like the Anti-Saloon League and the Red Cross. By now a champion a white purity, it’s no surprise that Tyler’s ears perked up when her son-in-law joined the KKK.
According to Gordon’s 2017 book, Tyler and Clarke approached William Joseph Simmons, the founder of the most recent iteration of the KKK, to grow the group’s membership through a publicity campaign. Tyler reached out to publications, offering Simmons for interviews. “The minute we said Ku Klux, editors were pressing us for publicity,” Tyler said. The media’s fervor to cover the Klan posed a troubling ethical question that still haunts journalism today. Were they exposing or inadvertently abetting white supremacists by offering them a megaphone to spout their racist ideas? As the articles flew off the presses, Klan enrollment skyrocketed. During Tyler and Clarke’s first six months on the job, 85,000 new members joined.
The Klan’s reemergence happened to coincide with another cultural shift. In the years after suffrage, feminism, however unexpectedly, found its way into white supremacist circles. While researching her 1991 book, Women of the Klan, University of Pittsburg sociologist, Kathleen Blee interviewed aging klanswomen from the 1920s, and found that their xenophobia was, remarkably, tinged with feminism. They had seen Birth of a Nation and felt blackness was a threat to white female purity, and now they wanted “to stand alongside our men and help with the protecting,” as one woman said. Another wrote, “I have brains and know how to use them.” These were, they said, “new days of freedom.”
Tyler’s role in boosting the KKK upends a sustained fantasy that women are the gentler, kinder, morally aligned, and egalitarian sex. Which of course is the very gender trope that has imprisoned and infantilized women for much of human history. This narrative ignores the ways that racism is woven into our political and social institutions. Elizabeth Tyler recognized that racism is born and bolstered in classrooms, bedrooms and bars, town halls and assembly lines. As a 1924 New York Times article on the Klan stated, none of the group’s violence could have been carried out were it not for “the existence, in the native-born population of a widespread ignorance, provincialism and prejudice, a smug contentment with petty interests, and a readiness to resort to lawlessness on the pretense of conserving both society and Government, which have long characterized American life.” In short, racism takes a village. To become a robust movement, the KKK needed women and men. It was a sentiment that would be echoed by modern women white supremacists like Lana Lokteff and Lauren Southern. “When women get involved,” Lokteff said, “a movement becomes a serious threat.”
Tyler knew that racism was everywhere, but that it has local flavors. While searching for a way to make the Klan’s message appealing to a wider audience, she realized that hatred of blacks didn’t sell as well in the North. What if the Klan could diversify its portfolio of hatred? She and Clarke trained an army of recruiters and sent them out all over the country. Her instructions were as simple as they were was Machiavellian: Her field workers were to survey their communities for potential enemies. It might be union radicals in the North. Or Asians in San Francisco. Immigrants, Jews, Catholics, communists. They all landed on the KKK’s list. There was no end to the “others” Americans could fear and hate.
Tyler even figured out how to monetize racism. According to author Linda Gordon, Tyler and Clarke agreed to do publicity for the Klan in exchange for an 80 percent cut of the $10 dues. It must have sounded like a good idea to the KKK’s William Simmons at the time. Dues were stagnant. But over the next several months, recruitment numbers would explode, making the duo incredibly rich.
The 85,000 new members she helped recruit meant an additional $850,000 for the Klan — $12 million in today’s sums — garnered in a matter of months. Later, they branched out into sales of white robes and other trinkets, and opened a realty business to manage Klan-held real estate. Tyler seized the moment by launching a Klan newspaper, Searchlight. According to Gordon, she and Clarke earned close to a million dollars — in just over a year.
As sociologist Blee explained, they were so successful both at raising money and recruiting fellow hatemongers, that Simmons began to drift in the background. Tyler and Clark were the true heads of the Klan. A congressional investigation into the growing KKK threat agreed. “In this woman beats the real heart of the Ku Klux Klan today,” a report admitted reluctantly. “She has a positive genius for executive direction.” The investigation concluded that there was no need for action, but the hearings had provided a platform for the group’s hateful message and the Klan’s numbers grew.
In 1921, Tyler and Clarke persuaded Simmons to go on a long vacation. While he was away, they tried to overthrow him and replace him with Hiram Evans, a dentist turned professional hatemonger. But Evans, noticing that the pair was getting more than their fair share of the Klan pie, made moves to push them out.
Tyler had been working to develop an autonomous arm of the KKK — for women. “The Klan stands for the things women hold most dear,” she Tyler told the New York Times in 1921. “The women’s organization will be on par with that of the men,” she said. She wanted the women to “have equal rights with that of the men.”
Before she could get started on the WKKK in earnest, scandal broke out. Tyler and Clarke were not as squeaky clean as they made themselves out to be. Xenophobia had proven fodder for romance and they were having an affair, despite being married to other people. Former crusaders for the Anti-Saloon league, they were found in possession of whiskey. They had a history of using false names. Tyler was accused of embezzling Klan funds, and news of the scandal was featured in papers across the country. As Gordon explained, Tyler’s transgressions were offensive to the Klan members’ puritanical sensibilities, but doubly so because many men had not realized that a woman was the powersource that made their hate mill run.
In the wake of the scandal, Tyler resigned from the Klan in 1922. After that, the Klan doubled down on its recruitment of “big, manly men.” But the fruit of her ideas ripened without her. The women’s autonomous arm of the KKK flourished in the early and middle 1920s, attracting roughly half a million members, who participated in picnics and cross burnings. It was a community, as one woman explained, “a way to get together and enjoy.”
Mary Elizabeth Tyler in 1922. (The Washington Times via Library of Congress)