William Rawlings's The Second Coming of the Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s presents an engaging narrative of the rise of this influential organization during the turbulent decade of the 1920s. Most historical studies of the second Ku Klux Klan concentrate primarily on the order's progress after World War I, with only brief references to its Reconstruction predecessor or the group's evolution between 1915 and 1920. Rawlings begins instead by examining how the Reconstruction Klan's legacy was perceived by the American public and how its rehabilitation in fiction and nonfiction inspired its reemergence. Rawlings follows with a thorough review of the various unsuccessful "Klans" that were formed after the release of D. W. Griffith'sfilm The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the vital changes that the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan underwent after America's entry into the war. Rawlings then chooses to focus on the careers of the group's leaders, men such as William J. Simmons, Edward Young Clarke Jr., and Hiram W. Evans, to explain the second Klan's extraordinary growth and precipitous fall. This book aims to present a national account of the order's expansion, but it is mostly centered on events in the South, specifically in Georgia and the Klan's headquarters in Atlanta.
The Second Coming of the Invisible Empire provides plenty of new material about aspects of the organization's history that have been overlooked in the past. It presents what is perhaps the most detailed account of the Klan's early development, its many internal struggles, and the leadership contest between Simmons and Evans. However, this book does not fundamentally alter our understanding of the organization. The central argument, that the group was organized primarily as a money-making scheme, will be familiar to most academics interested in the topic. Most of Rawlings's account restates the prevailing narratives about the order's growth, the challenges it faced, and the causes of its eventual decline. Furthermore, due to the emphasis on Georgia and the leadership of the organization, this study does not always offer a representative picture of the history of this group outside this state or of the experiences of ordinary members.
These issues probably derive from the fact that this research relies heavily on newspaper and magazine articles written by those outside the Klan. Although the author employs some of the books and pamphlets released by Klansmen, Rawlings does not take into account the vast range of documents produced by this organization that provide unique perspectives on the rise of the Invisible Empire in the 1920s. For instance, there is scant evidence that Rawlings examined any of the Klan's many periodicals, such The Imperial Night-Hawk or The Searchlight, and there are only very brief references to archival materials from individual Klan chapters. These more private conversations and insights [End Page 460] would have helped provide a more convincing, comprehensive, and innovative account of the organization.
Still, Rawlings's work is a useful introduction for those who are unacquainted with the second Ku Klux Klan. His account is accessible and inviting, and he illustrates his points with poignant examples. His work also briefly addresses certain vital topics that have been neglected, such as the emergence of various competing Klans after 1915. Most of all, The Second Coming of the Invisible Empire presents some interesting research into the careers of the Klan's leaders and provides comprehensive biographies of the lives of the men and women who directed the order's growth.