Meet The Evil, Racist Mastermind Who Saved The KKK From Going Extinct

Mary Elizabeth Tyler may be one of the most important members of the Ku Klux Klan to have ever lived. Tyler, the woman who organized for the KKK during the early twentieth century, combined first-wave feminist ideals and tactics with xenophobia and bigotry to grow the organization to new heights, essentially reviving a near-dead organization. She sold the idea that, together, the men and women of the KKK could do anything - and they pretty much did.

Although at first she was active in rallying the (white) women around her to proactively engage in legitimate-yet-skewed social justice reforms including improving hygiene for (white) children, Tyler's eugenics-based, non-intersectional efforts soon helped extend the reach of the KKK's agenda, influence, and hatred, reshaping and reviving the once fledgling group and setting its future path. Ultimately, she not only perpetuated the graphic horror embodied by the KKK, but traded away women's rights in the process.

  • Tyler Said That Women Could Be Equal To Men If They All Agreed To Be Equal In White Power
    Photo: evening star / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Tyler Said That Women Could Be Equal To Men If They All Agreed To Be Equal In White Power

    When Elizabeth Tyler worked on behalf of "better babies" in the 1910s, she advocated for improved hygiene for white infants and children. She was also part of the anti-saloon campaign in the US. It was through these activities that she met Edward Young Clarke, who had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Clarke and Tyler combined forces and started the Southern Publicity Association in Atlanta, taking on clients like the Red Cross.

    Once they took on the KKK as a client in 1920 - they approached William Joseph Simmons, leader of the group at the time - Tyler and Clarke set out to raise the profile of the struggling organization. Through Tyler's guidance, the Southern Publicity Association targeted women to try to strengthen the membership and public role of the KKK. In order to do this, Tyler told women that they would be able to find a sense of equality if they began to work for white power, just like their male contemporaries. Tyler knew would would want to "stand alongside our men and help with the protecting,” as another woman commented at the time.

  • Tyler Said That Civil Rights Movements Could Threaten White Women And White Purity
    Photo: Unknown / WIkimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Tyler Said That Civil Rights Movements Could Threaten White Women And White Purity

    At the same time that Tyler was calling for women to work for their own rights, she was simultaneously calling on them to fight against another type of civil rights movement - the one involving race relations. According to Tyler, women were needed to fight against threats to white purity more than ever with the threat of African Americans moving into the cities, acquiring jobs, and organizing into groups like the NAACP. Segregation was alive and well but there was a growing confidence among African Americans and the so-called "New Negro" anti-lynching movement of the 1920s. In order to combat this, Tyler called on women to join the KKK and protect themselves, their family, and their whiteness. 

  • Tyler Identified More Enemies To Unify Her Followers
    Photo: Underwood & Underwood / WikiMedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Tyler Identified More Enemies To Unify Her Followers

    To grow the KKK, Tyler and Clarke began naming new outsiders as new threats. Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and non-whites were all targeted and used to create an increasingly unified "white" identity. This fed directly into the Klan, as white people joined to protect themselves, be with like-minded individuals, and feel as though they were taking a proactive approach to preserving their way of life. Tyler also actively engaged with the various regions of the US by identifying specific enemies. She used "kleagles," or paid organizers, to do research on local menaces and scapegoats like Mormons in Utah and Asian Americans in the Pacific Northwest. 

    This extension of the KKK's definition of the "other" opened up a path for new members but also reshaped the Klan into more than an anti-black group. It was now an anti-non-Puritan organization with a much larger net of hatred.  

  • Tyler Profited From Urging Droves Of Women To Sign Up For The KKK
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Tyler Profited From Urging Droves Of Women To Sign Up For The KKK

    With an emphasis on women, Tyler and Clarke were able to recruit large numbers of new members to the KKK. During the first months of their efforts, they brought over 85,000 new recruits. Membership of the Klan was in the millions by the mid-1920s. When Tyler and Clarke agreed to work with the Klan, as their own "Propagation Department," they negotiated a percentage of the $10 fee every new member paid. With so many people joining, Tyler and Clarke were soon incredibly wealthy. 

  • Women Had Power Over Blacks Through Accusations And Threats
    Photo: Undetermined / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Women Had Power Over Blacks Through Accusations And Threats

    The earliest Women's Ku Klux Klan group, organized in the 1880s, talked "about what black men night do to them, and white men preached of the sanctity of "white womanhood." The sexually hypercharged imagery, together with economic desires of slave-owners, made widespread violence and discrimination against blacks acceptable and even necessary in the public eye." This idea was emphasized by Tyler. Women had power over blacks, especially black men. Accusations of assault sparked both the Tulsa Riot of 1921 and the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, a testament to how much weight a woman's accusation could hold against a black person. 

  • Tyler Attempted To Oust The Leader Of The KKK
    Photo: Bcrowell / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Tyler Attempted To Oust The Leader Of The KKK

    Tyler and Clarke were enormously successful, pulling in thousands of new members and making a lot of money for the KKK. In the process, they more or less pushed out Joseph Simmons. Tyler and Clarke were driving the KKK agenda and even attempted to overthrow Simmons with their own chosen leader, Hiram Evans, in 1921. Evans was a white supremacist dentist from Texas who went along with their plan and took over from Simmons for a time. But he eventually turned on Tyler and Clarke as well. 

    Tyler and Clarke were skilled at making money off of the Klan. In addition to the money they received from dues, Tyler started a newspaper called the Spectator, the group began selling more robes and other items, as well as different pieces of literature.