by Jared A. Goldstein
For 150 years, the Ku Klux Klan has engaged in a campaign of violence and terror to maintain white rule. A central aspect of the Klan that has received little attention is that, from the time it was created in 1866 until today, the Klan has defined its mission as a defense of the Constitution. This article examines what the Constitution has meant to the Klan and what it means for American constitutional culture that the nation’s most notorious hate group has defined its mission in constitutional terms. As this article shows, the Klan has consistently been guided by the conviction that the United States is fundamentally a white nation, that the nation’s founders were dedicated to white rule, and that the Constitution should be understood as the source of white power. The Klan has long used its expressed dedication to the Constitution to justify violence as necessary to defend the nation and what it believes to be the true meaning of the Constitution.
The history of the Klan illustrates the recurring ways that political movements use constitutional rhetoric to advance narrow conceptions of American identity. The Klan has risen to prominence whenever whites have believed that their dominant status is threatened. Over the course of its existence, the Klan has succeeded in recruiting thousands of members by portraying threats to white power as attacks on the nation itself. Mobilizing to defend white power, Klan members have naturally rallied around the Constitution, which Americans have long understood to embody the nation’s fundamental values. To those who think of the United States as a white nation, defending the Constitution means defending whiteness.
Professor Jared Goldstein teaches constitutional law, environmental law, and civil rights at Roger Williams University School of Law. He graduated from the University of Michigan School of Law in 1994, clerked for the Honorable Louis Pollak of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and worked at the U.S. Department of Justice. From 2001 to 2005, Professor Goldstein was an associate at worked at Shearman & Sterling, where he helped represent the Kuwaiti detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Professor Goldstein’s recent scholarship examines constitutional nationalism – the conventional conception of American nationalism, in which American identity is defined by commitment to ideals expressed in the Constitution. For well over a century, American Presidents and leading commentators have declared that constitutional nationalism unites the nation around a set of universal ideals and avoids the violence and divisions associated with ethnonationalism. Professor Goldstein’s challenges this understanding of American nationalism by examining movements that have made devotion to the Constitution central to their missions, including the Ku Klux Klan, the Christian right, nativist movements, the militia moment, and the Tea Party movement, among others. Professor Goldstein’s work on the role of the Constitution in American nationalism will be published in To Kill and Die for the Constitution (University Press of Kansas 2019).