1923 - The KKK’s Daisy Douglas Barr left a legacy of normalizing hate that remains today
One summer day in 1923 in Asheville, North Carolina, a stately middle-aged woman approached the podium in front of a bevy of men. Daisy Douglas Barr had the carriage of a person filled with boundless belief in her own righteousness, and in her ability to remake the world according to her vision. When the crowd hushed, she began to read a poem.
“I am clothed in wisdom’s mantle,” she said. “Age and experience are mine.”
But this was not a literary gathering. Barr’s poem wasn’t written for art’s sake; it was intended to “save” the white race, and Barr, who was a powerful figure in the establishment of a women’s autonomous arm of the Klan and the lone female speaker that day, had a captive audience: the Ku Klux Klan’s annual meeting of Grand Dragons.
Her poem, which was a few dozen lines, ended dramatically.
“I am the Spirit of Righteousness.
They call me the Ku Klux Klan.
I am more than the uncouth robe and hood with which I am clothed.
YEA I AM THE SOUL OF AMERICA.”
An incongruous combination of Quaker evangelist and Klan leader, Barr was as steadfast a cheerleader for white supremacy as she was for women’s rights, arguing that “no nation rises above its womanhood” and stating her “disgust” at the increasing number of immigrants coming to the country. But this was, after all, the 1920s, when Klan membership reached four million and suffrage allowed newly empowered women to disempower people of color under the banner of the KKK. It appears that no one more embodied these inconsistencies than Barr.
As Kathleen Blee explains in her 1991 book Women of the Ku Klux Klan, Barr’s parents had their hearts set on a son who could continue the family’s ministry work when she was born in 1876. But the evangelizing spirit moves women too, and by age four, Barr, whose family straddled the Methodist and Quaker denominations, was testifying at Quaker meetings in her hometown of Jonesboro, Indiana. At 20, she got ordained, and quickly demonstrated a knack for holding her audiences in thrall. “She just had you spellbound,” one parishioner remarked.
Barr, like many in the 1920s Klan, arrived at white supremacy via more socially acceptable avenues. In the 1910s, she’d gotten involved in local politics through the temperance movement, organizing hundreds of women to attend meetings and join temperance leagues.
Suffrage emboldened women of all stripes to enter civic life, and women with white supremacist leanings were no exception. A strange breed of white supremacist feminism emerged, and it was muddled by too many contradictions to count. They argued for women’s engagement in public life, but also the maintenance of gender norms according to which women stayed home. One Klan-dominated paper flimsily attempted to reconcile this contradiction, arguing that it “believes in women’s rights but isn’t feminist.”
Klanswomen like Barr, explains Blee, were able to rise up through the temperance movement because it jibed with existing gender norms. As the protectors of moral life, women could wage war against alcohol on the grounds that vices threatened the home. Barr spun temperance as a women’s issue. She said that men’s drinking “stings his family, degrades his wife, marks his children, and breaks the heart of his mother.”
But as more women like Barr rode the temperance movement to influential positions within the KKK, it became harder for the organization to keep the women within their prescribed roles. They had real power — and this fact made many of the men livid.
Barr preached for temperance, moral purity, and women’s rights in factories, shops, garages, and the streets. She argued for having women in the police force and the ministry. Failure to ordain women was, as she said, “a relic of our barbarism.” She became a president of the Humane Society, the American War Mothers, and ran a home for prostitutes, which floundered when she made too many rules about which kinds of prostitutes were deserving of her help: those who didn’t have “loathsome and infectious diseases,” those who did not drink, smoke, or use drugs, and were willing to submit to Barr’s rigorous conception of a chaste life. These ventures led her to the Republican party, and quickly she became Indiana’s first female Republican vice-chair.
But Barr’s Klan work was not some strange coda on an otherwise decent career. The same xenophobic principles that fueled her social welfare work undergirded her commitment to the Klan. The KKK’s professed commitment to ridding society of vice appealed to Barr. Thanks to the efforts of Elizabeth Tyler, the mastermind of 1920s Klan, the group had expanded their platform of hate to include Jews, immigrants, Catholics, and communists — all people that Barr despised as purported agents of vice. In the same sermon in which Barr preached in favor of women’s rights, she said, “I am utterly disgusted that a man from a foreign land can come here and be made an American citizen in 12 months.”
This was the hallmark of Barr’s agenda, the conflation of racism with more “wholesome” ideals. Barr was known to say that if Christ were alive he would join the Klan. Yet, she delivered fiery sermons against racial slurs because, essentially, her brand of racism was “better” than that, cloaked as it was in propriety (and therefore all the more pernicious). It was a kind of racism that allowed people to obscure their raw hatred behind a veneer of traditionalism. It let them feel dignified.
In a 1991 article, historian Dwight W. Hoover wrote that the distinction between the Klan and the other social welfare and religious groups were minimal, “only the sheets and hoods were new.” There was a revolving door between the Klan and temperance, religious, philanthropic, and political groups. The Klan’s affiliation with these reputable movements helped to legitimize it and sew the organization into the fabric of civic life. Barr used her philanthropic, political, and religious work to lure new recruits to the Klan, blending ideas of patriotism, morality, motherhood, and the need for civic engagement with raw xenophobia.
In 1923, Barr was selected by D.C. Stephenson — the Indiana Grand Dragon who was ousted after he kidnapped, raped, and murdered a woman — to head up the Queens of the Golden Mask, a women’s group mainly composed of the mothers, wives, and daughters of Klansmen. She used her oratory skills toward KKK recruiting, commanding crowds of 20,000. Her recruiting effort was so successful — she had reportedly brought 40,000 new women on board, single handedly — that the Indiana Klan threatened to overpower the national one. And like many KKK leaders, she made a lot of money by taking a portion of the initiation fees. The Queens of the Golden Mask was eventually rolled into the Women of the Ku Klux Klan with a professed mission of “cleaner local politics” and “a more moral community.” The WKKK drew as many as 500,000 women, who held picnics and cross burnings for the white supremacist cause. Barr became the head of the Indiana branch, arguably its most influential arm.
Then came the downfall. By1926, infighting and accusations that Barr pilfered the $100,000 from the Klan’s coffers forced her out of the KKK. Once her associations with the kidnapper-rapist-murder D.C. Stephenson became known, and once her affiliation with the white hoods was common knowledge to the non-KKK public, Barr retreated from public life entirely. She was killed in a car accident in 1938.
The cross burnings and eerie robes of the Klan were the most sensational expression of the terror group’s strategy, but likely not its most effective. The blending of racism with more wholesome causes — security, family life, and patriotism — may be white supremacy’s darkest and most enduring legacy. At the annual meeting of the Grand Dragons in 1923, Barr had given voice to a dark American truth. These men were more than “the uncouth robe and hood.” They were politicians, businessmen, decision makers, and respected members of the community. And the Klan was indeed “the soul of America.”