Journal of Southern Religion

Michael Newton. The Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Florida. The Florida History and Culture Series. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 2001. xiii+260 pages. Reviewed by G. Zuber for the Journal of Southern Religion.

In his preface, Michael Newton explains that he will present the Florida Ku Klux Klan’s ability to survive "repeated cycles of expansion and decline," by chronicling its one hundred and thirty year history of "march[ing], elect[ing] civic leaders, infiltrat[ing] law enforcement, and commit[ing] crimes that ranged from petty vandalism to assassination and destruction of entire communities (p. xiv)." Invisible Empire is a notable addition to a growing number of studies that probe the reasons why millions of Americans have joined the country’s most notorious vigilante group throughout its long history. Scholars have complicated our understanding of the organization, mostly through their analyses of recovered membership rolls from 1920s chapters, and of the type of men and women who joined. Such case studies of single cities and states have shown that otherwise average men and women joined the fraternity, not on the basis of their anti-black racism alone, but as a mechanism to solve commonly perceived civic problems: political corruption, crime, school inadequate school funding, and a general loss of Anglo-Saxon Protestant moral influence.

"...the book represents one of the best and most concise overviews of Klan history and scholarship to date."

Considering the popular association of the Klan with the racism of the Deep South, it is surprising that most scholarly books on the fraternity have actually addressed the fraternity’s history outside that region. This book helps correct this imbalance by investigating a Deep South state that, while not usually associated with the Klan, at times represented one of its strongest and most violent domains. For scholars of US religion, moreover, Newton’s work provides a suggestive accounting of how an organization combined religious language, symbols, and leadership with violence and intimidation to radically reconstruct the social and moral order.

Newton traces the history of the various Klan groups operating in Florida from 1868 to the present. Each of his eight chapters focuses on one or two decades of the fraternity’s history through Reconstruction, the 1920s, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement, and then concludes with its current position of being one marginal hate group among many. Describing "the Klan, its allies, and its long-suffering victims in the context of their changing times," Newton addresses how the organization’s socio-economic membership profile, official ideology, list of enemies (racial, political, and religious), forms of violence, and basis of support in white communities changed over time, sometimes in dramatic ways.

There are two main strengths of Invisible Empire. First, the book represents one of the best and most concise overviews of Klan history and scholarship to date. Newton does not bring new methodologies to bear on understanding the Klan and the lack of recovered membership rolls for Florida Klans make any generalization about the membership tentative. However, Newton helpfully sets the history of the Florida Klans within the organization’s more general national history. This allows the author to show, as G. Feldman’s recent book on the Alabama Klan (1999) also demonstrates, that there was a greater degree of continuity between the periods of the fraternity’s history than has been previously acknowledged. This chronological survey allows for an exploration of Klan emphases (morality, race, and labor) and their relative significance over the years. For example, Newton traces the rise and decline in the Klan’s policing of white moral behavior during the 1920s and 1930s within its longer tradition of attacking black voting rights.

Second, Newton describes the nature of Klan influence in Florida communities, showing how it joined forces with politicians, religious institutions, and especially police departments, giving its crusades for "law and order" credibility. Even after its heyday of the 1920s, Klansmen in many communities continued to serve as poll watchers in contested elections, state investigators into racial crimes, key contributors and supporters of important politicians, and especially as regular and deputized members of police forces. As late as 1952, a Grand Dragon (state president) spoke to the Florida Sheriff’s Association where he received applause for condemning an assassinated civil rights worker as a troublemaker. Only in the 1970s did Klansmen have trouble keeping their jobs in law enforcement, a reversal of fortune best symbolized by the defeat of the Klan sheriff of Lake County, Willis McCall, for reelection after beating a black prisoner to death in 1972.

When scholars and journalists call the KKK a "hate group" they indicate that the fraternity’s version of racism was and is particularly pernicious and prone to physical violence. But using the word "hate" does not fully convey the symbolic and practical purposes behind the violence in a way that calling the KKK a terrorist or vigilante group might. Newton argues that many of the Klan’s acts could be called forms of political violence and economic terrorism, underscoring the fact that such acts served the symbolic and strategic purpose of creating fear among minority populations and striking down leaders to prevent any challenge to an oppressive hegemonic order.

Newton explains that the Klan is a "quasireligious order dedicated to America’s salvation from sin" (p.196) in recognition of the strength of the fraternity’s persistent religious themes. Scholars of religion, however, will have wished for more development of this important claim as well as more background on some of the flamboyant ministers that publicly aligned themselves with the fraternity. During the 1960s, for example, the Reverend Charles Conley ("Connie") Lynch, called the KKK’s "traveling parson," was one of the most popular Klan speakers when he appeared at rallies in his trademark pink Cadillac and wearing a Confederate battle flag vest. In the Klan, white Floridians found a site where popular religious ideas and racism could be synthesized and lived out in response to threatening social trends, but the nature of this process remains to be explicated.

Students of Florida history, KKK history, the history of Civil Rights, and Southern violence will gain the most from Newton’s book, while scholars of religion will find a lineage of religious leaders who fostered violence and religious ideologies which helped inspire today’s hate groups.

G. Zuber, Indiana University—Bloomington

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