The 1924 Democratic National Convention, which lasted an unheard-of 16 days and required 103 ballots for delegates to agree on a nominee, holds the record as the longest continuously-running presidential nominating convention in United States history.
It was also one of the most controversial. The Democratic Party was deeply divided, with one of its two main candidates — New York’s Irish Catholic governor Alfred E. Smith — representing the so-called “urban” faction of the party and the other, former U.S. Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, representing rural interests. McAdoo’s constituency was anti-League of Nations, pro-Prohibition, anti-immigrant, and pro-Ku Klux Klan. Smith’s was the opposite.
Attesting to the growing influence of the KKK in American politics at the time, a platform plank favored by Smith supporters that would have condemned the Klan by name went down to defeat after a raucous debate that degenerated into fisticuffs. On the 103rd ballot, the delegates finally nominated a dark-horse candidate named John W. Davis, who, in contrast to his GOP counterpart, Calvin Coolidge, would take a strong stand against the KKK during the presidential campaign. Coolidge won the election by a landslide.
Despite the fact that the Klan had sunk its tendrils just as deeply into Republican Party politics (an anti-KKK platform plank similar to the one rejected by Democrats met the same fate at that year’s Republican convention), the extent of the group’s supposed control over the 1924 Democratic convention has come to be exaggerated to legendary proportions. That is in large part thanks to the efforts of social media propagandists bent on tarring Democrats in particular with the legacy of the Klan’s religious bigotry, xenophobia, and racism.
The Internet is rife with memes asserting, for example, that the KKK put on a show of power by holding a massive march and rally at the convention, which supposedly became known, for that reason, as “the Klanbake”:
According to a blog post replicated on a number of right-wing web sites, the Klan rally was held specifically to celebrate the defeat of the DNC platform plank condemning the organization:
In Madison Square Garden, New York City, from June 24 to July 9, a dispute during came up revolving around an attempt by non-Klan delegates, led by Forney Johnston of Alabama, to condemn the organization for its violence in the Democratic Party’s platform.
But Klan delegates defeated the platform plank in a series of floor debates.
To celebrate, tens of thousands of hooded Klansmen rallied in a field in New Jersey, across the river from New York City. This event, known subsequently as the “Klanbake”, was also attended by hundreds of Klan delegates to the convention, who burned crosses, urged violence and intimidation against African Americans and Catholics, and attacked effigies of Smith.
These statements are contradictory on their face, however. We’re told, on the one hand, that the Klan event took place at or near the convention site in New York City, and on the other that it took place “across the river” in New Jersey. Some sources claim it was the Democratic convention itself that became known as the “Klanbake,” while others (conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, to name one) claim the term more specifically refers to the KKK gathering in New Jersey (more about which later).
It is easily demonstrated using reverse image searches that the photos actually have nothing to do with either event. The image showing hooded Klansmen marching in a parade dates from December 1924 (five months after the convention) and documents an event held in Madison, Wisconsin. The nighttime photo of KKK members posing en masse in front of a burning cross was taken in 1921. According to the Chicago Tribune, it documents an initiation ceremony held in August of that year outside Chicago.
Did the Klan actually march at the 1924 convention? There’s no credible evidence that they did. It’s well documented that there was a Klan presence at the convention aimed at influencing its outcome (as many as 300 delegates were card-carrying Klansmen, according to Arnold S. Rice’s The Ku Klux Klan in American Politics), but we found no mention of Klan marches or rallies at or near Madison Square Garden in contemporaneous press coverage (including that of the New York Times, which published daily reports on the convention’s progress), nor in history books recounting the event.
However, there is a grain of truth to the less dramatic version of the claim, which holds that the Klan held a convention-related rally in New Jersey. The city of Long Branch (which is not “across the river,” but further down the shore from New York City) was the site of a massive, multi-state Ku Klux Klan gathering scheduled for the Fourth of July. It was billed as the largest Klan gathering ever, though actual attendance fell short of the projected 50,000 Klansmen and family members. Although they hadn’t convened for that purpose, attendees were kept abreast of the political drama unfolding at Madison Square Garden and reacted accordingly, the New York Times reported:
Twenty thousand members of the Ku Klux Klan and their relatives celebrated Independence Day here with demonstrations against Governor Smith of New York and his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President.
The event which drew men, women and children of the hooded order from all New Jersey and Delaware and from Eastern Pennsylvania had been announced as a Tri-State Klorero, the purpose of which was to demonstrate the patriotism of the Klansmen and their devotion to the cause of good government. Before the day’s program had proceeded an hour, however, scores of men and women, and many children encouraged by their elders, had pounded to a battered pulp an effigy of Governor Smith, which the Kloreans were invited to attack at three baseballs for a nickel.
Anti-Smith outbursts aside, the Klan event was “largely a picnic,” the Times reported, “with no features of unusual importance.” Indeed, most of the day, leading up to the obligatory cross burning ceremony after dark, was taken up with standard KKK activities:
There were speeches, Klan weddings and baptisms, and a parade through the streets of Long Branch of 4,000 hooded men and women, who were escorted through the city by two motorcycle policemen.
There is no reason to suppose, in fact, that the overlapping timings of the Klan gathering and the Democratic National Convention were anything other than coincidental. The convention got underway, as scheduled, on June 24. Had it lasted four days (which was, and still is, the average length of presidential nominating conventions), it would have been over by June 28th. No one, least of all the planners of the so-called Independence Day “Klorero,” could have predicted that the convention would continue through the Fourth of July and beyond. The events were unrelated.
Even so, the record shows that the Klan was actively involved in the convention, lending apparent plausibility to the claim that it came to be known as the “Klanbake.” We find this asserted by many sources, including conservative author Bruce R. Bartlett, who wrote in his 2008 book, Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past:
It’s worth remembering that the Klan was probably at the peak of its political power within the Democratic Party in 1924. Indeed, its presidential nominating convention that year was so heavily dominated by it that historians often refer to it as the “Klanbake” convention.
But though it’s frequently used to bash the Democratic Party, “Klanbake” isn’t just a conservative trope. The progressive magazine Mother Jones promulgated the claim in 2016:
1924: Known as “the Klanbake,” the longest convention in history (16 days) pits the Ku Klux Klan-backed William Gibbs McAdoo against New York’s Catholic governor, Al Smith, in Manhattan. After a plank condemning the Klan is nixed from the platform, 20,000 Klansmen — including some delegates — celebrate in New Jersey by burning a cross and throwing baseballs at an effigy of Smith.
It can also be found in mainstream media sources. This instance is from a syndicated article published in 2012 that featured highlights of past Democratic conventions:
1924: The New York convention, also known as the “Klanbake,” was the longest continuously running convention in U.S. history, with delegates taking from June 24 to July 9 to pick a candidate. The Ku Klux Klan, which was beginning to gain a foothold, had a strong presence at Madison Square Garden, which infuriated some attending Democrats.
What’s interesting about every version we were able to find of this claim, however, is that not one of them was published before 2000. During the entire 76 years between 1924, when the convention took place, and 2000, when it was first asserted that it was popularly known as the “Klanbake,” there appear to have been no published mentions of that “fact” at all.
The results of our research tracked those of historian Peter Shulman and freelance journalist Jennifer Mendelsohn, who reported in the Washington Post in March 2018 that in all the contemporaneous press coverage of the convention, the word “Klanbake” appeared only once — as an editorial joke — and would not used again in that context for more than seven decades:
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.
When the term “Klanbake” finally did reappear in print in connection with the 1924 convention (which occurred for the first time in the 8 March 2000 edition of the New York Daily News, the same publication in which it had been used originally), it was in the form of the assertion that “newspapers” (plural) had started applying the nickname while the convention was still in session. Again, however, we’ve found no evidence that the nickname was used prior to 2000 in any publication other than the Daily News.
Shulman told us in an e-mail that no new evidence has come to light lending credence to the “Klanbake” meme and reiterated that it misrepresents the extent of the Klan’s influence over Democratic Party:
The influence of the Klan on Republicans was much quieter but no less significant, as the 1920s Klan appealed to a much wider swath of the country than the earlier Klan of the 1860s had, or the Civil Rights Era Klan would later.
The Klan’s impact on the Republican Party was noted in press coverage of the time as well. In the same vein as the Daily News had quipped that the Democratic convention was a “Klanbake,” TIME ran a 23 June 1924 report on a failed attempt by a Republican faction to include an anti-KKK plank in the party platform which referred to the Republican National Convention by the nickname “Kleveland Konvention.”
Shulman says the unchecked spread of the “Klanbake” meme illustrates the perils of putting partisanship before accuracy:
[I]n an age of the internet, it’s really easy for a initial embellishment to snowball into both an apparent authoritative fact as well as a partisan bludgeon. We should resist that temptation, be skeptical of partisan and ideological uses of history, and correct the record whenever a story doesn’t check out.
Finally, there are a lot of resonances between 1920s America and the country today. We have a lot to learn from those who stood up to religious, ethnic, and national bigotry then, and a lot to learn from those who found the Klan distasteful but who kept quiet or put political aspirations above moral ones. And that isn’t a partisan story.
It’s a cautionary tale worth sharing.