A Holistic History
John McWhorter takes aim at cancel culture, ends up whitewashing the Ku Klux Klan
In 1920, Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bicke, a popular student at the University of Wisconsin, changed his name. He had just taken up professional acting, with early career appearances as as an extra. He adopted the stage name Fredric March, under which he became a distinguished stage and screen star, known for star turns in films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). March was also an outspoken Hollywood progressive, known for his support of civil rights. In his politics, March worked closely with Hollywood’s left wing, including Ed Asner and Harry Belafonte. In 1963, in Belafonte’s New York apartment, March met with the great calypso singer and Martin Luther King, Jr. to coordinate civil rights strategy.
Until 2017, March was a much celebrated University of Wisconsin alumni, with two campus theatres named after him. In that year, the rediscovery of a 1919 yearbook revealed that before he was Fredric March, Ernest Frederick McIntryre Bicke was a member of what was, at the time, a newly formed campus interfraternity, the Honorary Ku Klux Klan (HKKK). In 2018, March’s name was removed from Madison’s Fredric March Play Circle Theater. In 2020, a theatre in Oshkosh followed suit.
Given March’s career and civil rights activism, many feel that an injustice has been done by removing March’s name and denying him a certain legacy. If we look at the totality of his life, his membership with the HKKK does seem anomalous with his character, and, in my opinion, should not be the final judgement of who he was. March’s career and biography must be viewed holistically, and I support the efforts of many, including the NAACP, to restore March’s name to the theater.
However, there are some who take this sensible point of view past the point of sense. On Saturday, the writer John McWhorter— who has become a professional decrier of cancel culture—wrote a long piece about the March controversy for the New York Times. Unfortunately, the results are mixed. The essay is another example of how many people who fight cancel culture often end up sabotaging their own cause.
The first half of his column was a very compelling account of March’s civil rights work. That in and of itself is a plausible and sufficient case to keep March’s legacy alive.
Alas, McWhorter wasn’t content for the victory he had already achieved. In the back half of the column, he pushes a specious argument forward by trying to extenuate membership of the HKKK, using special, tendentious pleading that misstated the pervasive role of the Ku Klux Klan in post-Civil War American culture. McWhorter’s botched account of history is all the more regrettable because in much of his column he paints the students who called for the renaming of the theaters as historically ignorant and lambasts them for their alleged failure to research the issues.
I want to do a close reading of McWhorter’s column to make plain his own willful ignorance in the piece.
The Ku Klux Klan of revolting memory had emerged at first amid Reconstruction and then flamed out. The 20th-century Klan emerged gradually in the wake of the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and became a national phenomenon starting in 1921. In Wisconsin in 1919, when March was inducted into his group, it was possible to have never heard of the Ku Klux Klan that was later so notorious.
Stating that the first Ku Klux Kan that flourished from 1865-1871 “flamed out” makes it sound like it was a fad, like pet rocks or the hoola hoop. In fact, the first Klan was an underground terrorist organization that tried to sabotage the push for Black political power after the Civil War. It engaged in numerous acts of maiming and murder. It was only put down by a major counterinsurgency effort led by the United States Army at the direction of Ulysses Grant. Even after it was extinguished, more informal anti-Black violence persisted.
McWhorter is right to call attention to the popularity of The Birth of a Nation, a major blockbuster as popular in its own day as Star Wars and Titanic would later be. The second Ku Klux Klan, formed in 1915 but only nationally notorious by 1921, was one of many manifestations of the influence of Birth of a Nation. But whether the members of the HKKK would have heard of the Second Klan or not is immaterial. They were surely familiar with Birth of a Nation. The film was much discussed on campus, with Black students protesting the showing of a movie that glorified the first KKK. March, who starred in plays as a college student and would take up professional acting in movies on graduation, was certainly aware of the most popular film of the era, the first movie to be screened inside the White House.
We can’t know whether this group modeled this name after the Ku Klux Klan organization depicted in The Birth of a Nation. But what we do know is that there is no evidence that their mission had anything to do with racism, and that when the “real” Klan made its way to campus in 1922, the organization March had joined (but left in 1920) immediately dissociated itself from that group and changed its name.
Again, given the immense popularity of Birth of a Nation, as well as its surrounding controversy, it beggars belief that there is no connection between the movie and the interfraternity. One way to think about the matter is to realize that Birth of a Nation itself was part of a larger cultural project by American whites to glamorize the first KKK. This project can be seen in novels like Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The Clansman (published in 1905 and the inspiration for the film) and the fraternity called the Ku Klux Klan (formed around 1906). The Wisconsin HKKK emerged from the same moment. It can’t be seen in isolation from the larger rise of Klan nostalgia in white America.
The name of the campus’s Ku Klux Klan seems to have been an accident. Clumsy, probably. The boys may not have thought of the “real” Klan as significant enough players in 1919 to merit avoiding the same name, and just liked the sound of it because of the sequential k’s and such. There is no record of this organization doing or supporting anything racist — and let’s recall that in this era, racism was thought of as so acceptable in conventional expression that one could in a newspaper casually refer to a big rock with a racist epithet for Black people.
Again, it’s hard to describe something so culturally overdetermined (using the Ku Klux Klan as a name in an era when the biggest film of the era popularized the glorification of the first KKK) as “an accident” or “clumsy.”
Nor were the university students who joined the HKKK “boys.” March in particular was an older student because of his war service; he was 22 years old when he joined the HKKK. The use of the term “boys” here portrays these men as children and imbues them with unearned innocence. It also suggests the idea that “boys will be boys,” further naturalizing their behaviour and making it seem as though they have limited culpability.
The idea that the members of the HKKK merely liked the “K” sound and weren’t aware of the racism is absurd, all the more so given that McWhorter himself notes the pervasiveness of racism in that era (a fact that undermines his whole argument).
(Also of note in this passage is McWhorter’s display of a double standard when it comes to judging college kids. When he's talking about the white college kids of 1919-1920, he bends over backwards to try to give them every benefit of the doubt and plead for a benign judgement of their actions. When he talks about contemporary college kids, he's snidely dismissive of them as ignorant.)
Finally, it’s simply not true that “There is no record of this organization [the HKKK] doing or supporting anything racist.” An excellent report prepared for the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin noted that there is “some evidence members of this group [the HKKK] took part in an extra-legal spring 1921 campaign against liquor sellers in the Greenbush neighborhood.” Those liquor sellers were Italian-Americans, a significant detail because part of the innovation of the Second Ku Klux Klan was that it targeted not just African-Americans but also Catholics and Jews. The national KKK often participated in moral purity campaigns, using prohibition as a wedge to push for a xenophobic agenda (Catholics were more opposed to prohibition than white Anglo-Saxon Protestants).
The strange thing about McWhorter’s argument is that it seems premised on a binary understanding of racism: either March was racist or he was not. So McWhorter contorted the evidence to free March of any possibility of knowingly joining a group that, at the very least, glorified the first Ku Klux Klan.
But such simple moral decisions don’t apply for a structural evil like racism. It’s entirely possible that as a young man (not a boy), March, out of ignorance, joined the HKKK. But then later, especially as influenced by his very progressive wife, Florence Eldridge, he became more enlightened. That’s a very heartening story and one that does March credit.
By offering such an implausible and distorted account of what membership of the HKKK meant, McWhorter’s essay ends up replicating the very thing he criticizes his foes of doing: reducing history to a one-dimensional morality play. McWhorter frequently complains that woke kids have a simplistic understanding of the past that lacks nuance. But McWhorter’s own counter-narrative is itself a flight from complexity.
(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)
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