The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How social media spread a historical lie

A mix of journalistic mistakes and partisan hackery advanced a pernicious lie about Democrats and the Klan.

Ku Klux Klan members march on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13, 1926. (Library of Congress)

Earlier this month, a hashtag made its way across Twitter: “#triggeraliberalin4words.”

Kambree Kawahine Koa, whose bio identifies her as a “political news contributor,” scored big with her offering, which garnered almost 10,000 likes and close to 1,000 replies. “The Democrats created KKK,” she tweeted over a photo of a Klan march captioned: “This photo was taken at the 1924 Democratic Convention. It was known as the ‘Klanbake’ (just in case you want to Google it).”

The only problem? There was no Klan march at the 1924 Democratic convention — the photo was actually taken in Wisconsin — nor was the convention ever actually known as the “Klanbake.”

The convention was indeed infamous for taking 103 ballots and more than two weeks to nominate a presidential candidate, John W. Davis. Delegates wrangled over a host of contentious issues, the Klan among them.

But it has more recently become ground zero in an online campaign to misrepresent the Democratic Party’s history as uniquely tainted by racism. The noxious nickname — “The Klanbake” — has become, however misguidedly, an online shorthand used to sum up everything the right hates about the Democrats, most especially hypocrisy. (“#klanbake. That is all,” read one recent tweet in response to the suggestion that contemporary gun owners are overwhelmingly white.)

The truth about the complicated racial legacies of both parties — and the Klan’s influence on them in 1924 — has been perniciously contorted by activists deploying digital tricks, abetted (often unwittingly) by good-faith actors such as academics, journalists and volunteer Wikipedia editors. What’s left is a fake historical “fact” that has been “verified” by powerful digital properties such as Google, Facebook, Wikipedia and various online publishers without being true. Which reflects one actual truth: Now, not only can partisans and malicious actors manufacture fake news, but they can falsify history as well.

A Quick Refresher on 1924

The original Ku Klux Klan was founded after the Civil War to terrorize the formerly enslaved and push back against efforts to create a multiracial America. What historians call the Second Ku Klux Klan launched in 1915 and reached the apex of its power in the mid-1920s, when it exerted deep cultural and political influence around the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights nonprofit that tracks hate groups, estimates that the Klan had up to 4 million active members in the United States at its apex, about 5 percent of the adult population.

Klansmen were influential inside both major parties, pushing racism, nativism, Prohibition and especially anti-Catholicism. In the South, Jim Crow-supporting Democrats made a natural fit for the KKK. But in Midwestern industrial towns full of immigrant Catholics and Jews who voted Democratic, the Klan took root largely among Republicans. The Klan was Democratic in Oregon and Republican in Indiana — two of its biggest strongholds. By the end of the decade, the organization, whose membership remained semi-secret, claimed 11 governors, 16 senators and as many as 75 congressmen —roughly split between Republicans and Democrats.

Its initial successes in state and local elections prompted the Klan to turn its attention toward the White House in 1924. Its imperial wizard, Hiram W. Evans, first descended on Cleveland, where Republicans had gathered to nominate Calvin Coolidge. There, about 60 Klan leaders and lobbyists prevailed upon party officials to smother a resolution condemning the Klan before it ever went to a floor vote, a move called a “brilliant victory” by The Fiery Cross, a Klan newspaper in Indianapolis that also described the Republican convention as having a “real, genuine Klan atmosphere.”

Emboldened by its success in Cleveland, Klan leaders appeared two weeks later at the Democratic convention in New York City. There was great support for the Klan among many state delegations, but bitter opposition from others. The conflict was exacerbated by the party’s hopeless division over Prohibition, with the “wet” wing of the party hoping to nominate New York Gov. Al Smith, a Catholic.

Unlike in Cleveland, however, the KKK confronted vigorous pushback at the Democratic convention, first in a raucous debate over whether to condemn the Klan by name (a resolution to do so lost by a razor-thin margin amid numerous last-minute vote changes) and then in a bitter fight over the presidential nomination itself, in which both the Klan and anti-Klan candidates ultimately withdrew.

By all accounts, Klan representatives had expected to influence the Democratic convention the same way they had the Republican one — by quietly building support for their preferred nominations and policy planks behind the scenes, while picking up what H.L. Mencken called “a lot of free and gaudy advertising.” But vocal opposition caught the organization off guard. “There is such a thing, it appears,” wrote Mencken, “as being burnt by the spotlights.”

Once the Democrats’ compromise nominee, John W. Davis, himself denounced the “Invisible Empire,” Klan chapters across the country withheld their support and many, especially in the North and West, voted for the Republican Coolidge.

Birth of the “Klanbake”

While the Klan presence at the Democratic convention was significant, it was not enough to control the proceedings. Yet members of the Invisible Empire were not exactly invisible. On June 25, 1924, the second day of the convention, a reporter for the young tabloid New York Daily News published a breezy, joking announcement from the Democratic convention hall in Madison Square Garden declaring that the “Klanbake steamed open at 12:45.”

An exhaustive search of contemporary newspapers, digitized and microfilmed, including papers published by the Klan itself, found not a single instance of another publication, including the Daily News, ever using this term again during their coverage of the convention or its aftermath.

In the decades that followed, neither the lone book nor scholarly articles about the convention referenced this supposedly well-known “nickname,” nor do any of the most-respected histories of the Klan. Yet today, this moniker has emerged as widely known shorthand for the convention — shorthand that conveys the mistaken message that Democrats were the party of the Klan in the 1920s.

Turning a Historical Moment into a Meme

How did a single satirical dispatch become an established historical “fact?” The murky online trail points back to a 2000 story about the convention in the New York Daily News by the late Jay Maeder. He wrote, “Klanbake, the newspapers started calling the convention,” perhaps because he found the word used in his own paper’s archive. Maeder offered no evidence to support this contention.

In 2002, the University of Houston built an online American Digital History site with a page on the 1924 convention. “Newspapers called the convention a ‘Klanbake,’ as pro-Klan and anti-Klan Democratic delegates wrangled bitterly over the party platform,” it declared, echoing Maeder’s language. Wikipedia’s entry for the 1924 Democratic convention added mention of the term — in its first sentence — in 2005, inserting a citation to the University of Houston article four years later. From there, “Klanbake” sneaked into scholarly histories, popular accounts and journalism on the right, left and center.

And so a single, offhand historical footnote began to snowball in authority. On social media, that snowball became a weapon.

Partisan News, Social Media, and Alternate History

At first, modern uses of the phrase “Klanbake,” were anecdotal asides. But around 2010, it was fashioned into a political bludgeon. Breitbart published a series of articles twisting the Klan’s convention story (and supposed appellation of “Klanbake”) into a partisan morality tale. Two of these articles told a slanted story of American racism as the exclusive provenance of the Democratic Party.

In 2015, conservative blogs and Facebook pages started circulating the photo of hooded Klansmen on the march that purportedly came from the 1924 convention. In early 2017, a fervently pro-Trump Facebook group called “ElectTrump2020” turned the photo into a meme, since shared more than 18,000 times on Facebook alone.

In reality, however, the photo — now so inexorably linked to the convention that a Google image search simply identifies it as a convention scene — was taken some 900 miles from Madison Square Garden in Madison, Wis., where Klansmen protested the death of a police officer at the alleged hands of immigrants. The image, taken by Wisconsin State Journal photographer Arthur Vinje, was posted online by the Wisconsin Historical Society in 2001; an archivist told us that the society is “painfully aware” that the photo has been “misappropriated and distributed without our permission.”

Altering the Historical Digital Record

As hyper-partisans shared the “Klanbake” meme on blogs and social media, the term became ever more strongly linked in the Internet’s information ecosystem to the 1924 Democratic convention.

Whether deliberate or not, the directive on social media to Google the story — “Google ‘klanbake’ and you idiots will see who you really are,” reads a typical Facebook post — is a canny way to permanently alter the historical record. Google’s algorithms are trained to connect related phrases in its knowledge graph and bestow authority on results that lead to successful search actions. So when users started googling “Klanbake” and clicked on a few of these initial stories, it cemented their rankings atop Google. Today, search “Democratic national convention 1924” on Google and you will see not only photos of hooded marchers taken far from the convention, but the false hyper-partisan meme image itself as the top result.

The memes and social media posts combine with the Google results and Wikipedia entries to form a self-contained feedback loop that creates a “fact.”

Yet this meme is both wrong and historically incomplete. The power of Klan members at the Democratic convention tells us nothing about the power of anti-Klan members there, or about the power of Klan members at the Republican convention.

Ironically, the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan was, in fact, immortalized on the cover of Time magazine in 1924 in conjunction with his organization’s controversial role in a national political convention. But it was a story about the Klan’s involvement in the Republican convention in Cleveland that June. Perhaps future meme makers should take note: The magazine catchily dubbed the event “the Kleveland Konvention.”