The Day the Klan Came to Town. Written by Bill Campbell, Art by Bizhan Khodavandeh, Foreword by P. Djeti Clark. Oakland: PM Press, 2021. 128pp, $15.95.
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
This review begins with a personal revelation. I am more than comfortable to recall, privately and in public, the saga of my great great (maternal) grandfather, the farmer-abolitionist who marched with Sherman through Georgia. He lived long enough to spend time with my mother when I was a youngster and to regale her with stories of the Civil War. I am less comfortable contemplating my paternal grandfather, a pattern-maker and small shop-keeper who seems to have joined the KKK in Illinois shortly before he abandoned the family. Or was kicked out.
White folks by the millions have restless skeletons in their closets, of that there can be no convincing denial. How could it not be so in a deeply racist society? But some experiences are very different; and some involve real racial solidarity. The Day the Klan Came to Town offers us vivid details and precious insights. This story unfolds in African American comics writer Bill Campbell’s own home town in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, a town ironically and iconically named for one of the great cruel industrial tyrants of the American nineteenth century. (Admittedly, Andrew Carnegie was also the great benefactor of libraries and other public institutions.)
Clark reminds us immediately that the 1920s vintage KKK, perhaps as strong in parts of the North as of the South and largely in control of Indiana politics for at least a decade, could take shape as anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-black or all three, depending upon local circumstances. Campbell has taken pains to study the contemporary documents, maps and other records, of a conflict that really took place, one of many in the years shortly following the First World War. He reminds us that this is, importantly, often enough also an immigrant drama. Like many parts of Pennsylvania, industrial or mining, the conflict posed Irish, Cornish, Slav and several regions of Italians against each other as competitors for jobs, and against African Americans, in the schemes of rising capitalists to divert class resentments away from the strike waves of wartime.
Here we have, in Carnegie, Sicilian immigrants unlikely even to identify with a common national origin. They would not have been considered “white” until at least the 1930s in the US. Many a newly-erected KKK hall (as in my own hometown in Central Illinois) of the 1920s bore the proud self-identification of “WHITE AND PROTESTANT,” marking Catholics clearly unwanted. Most Italian immigrants, especially those from Southern Italy had little political background in the Left or labor, but many responded to the appeals of the IWW and its working class militancy, likewise to unions organizing in the mine fields among other places. We count leading Italian-American leftists as some of the greatest organizers and poets, but they don’t seem to have got themselves to Carnegie, PA.
Here, in the first pages of the comic, Klan organizers present themselves as leaders of a respectable civic organization out to protect “American” cities from purported outsiders and non-whites. We soon flash across the seas to Racalmuto, Sicily of 1915, where young miners suddenly face the draft imposed upon them for cannon foder in the First World War. They wisely choose migration.
Barely “Americanized,” they face a racist mob clothed in KKK uniforms. The African Americans among the city dwellers, not a large but a significant portion, respond first because they recognize the Klan. Sicilians, in turn, recall the Fascisti and the rise of Mussolini sponsored by the ruling classes to defeat labor’s claim on the government. The artist is especially adept at moving back and forth, continent to continent, language to language. They learn to fight back.
The author and artist strive to emphasize the multi-racial and multi-cultural, multi-lingual character of the fightback, and a more severe critic might say that they try too hard. The shifts, Irish and Jewish and Italian to East Indian and Latin American, not to mention women and men taking their own roles or battling hand in hand, can be jarring at times. But the fightback of the immigrant crowd against the Klan offers page after page of real comic action.
This is a tight, well-drawn work in the best of comic traditions.