I recently came across the photo to the left, which purports to show Calvin Coolidge marching with several Klansmen in Washington. A look at several Klan websites revealed that the picture, Coolidge’s membership, or both were included on many. (See examples here and here.)
One website that appears to be a major source for the Coolidge-Klan claim is run by the Indiana Historical Research Foundation. The photo to the left appears on the site with the statement that Coolidge was the man in the suit marching with Klan leaders. According to the individual who runs the site, “In the 1980’s, I spoke to everyone I could find who would have been alive in the 1920’s and old enough to remember what went on. They all told me it was common knowledge that President Coolidge was a Klan member.” Sixty-year-old statements and a photo of a man who doesn’t even resemble Coolidge–what more do you need for evidence?
I’d never heard of the Coolidge-Klan connection, so I asked Kelly J. Baker, author of Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, if she had.
Kelly’s response prompted me to look at some scholarly secondary sources on Coolidge and his presidency. None of them marked him as a Klansman or a Klan sympathizer; in fact, quite the opposite, given the era. This piece by Jerry L. Wallace does a good job of outlining Coolidge’s relationship with the Klan. I also recommend reading Alvin S. Felzenberg, “Calvin Coolidge and Race: His Record in Dealing with the Racial Tensions of the 1920,” New England Journal of History 55 (Fall 1998): 83-96.
The Coolidge-Klan connection is prevalent even on non-Klan websites. On the front page of a simple Google search (“Was Calvin Coolidge a Klan Member?”), for example, seven of the ten links listed Coolidge as a KKK member. In the big picture, a false claim about “Silent Cal” is probably going to convince someone of the Klan’s legitimacy, but the concern is that over time, these types of myths undermine and even overtake historical accuracy. At the very least, it makes the job of professional historians harder.