Doxing Racists Is a 100-Year-Old American Tradition

On September 10, 1922, a criminal lawyer named Patrick H. O’Donnell wrote in the first issue of the newspaper Tolerance that his goal was to get the Ku Klux Klan out of Chicago. He was going to accomplish this goal, he said, by publishing the names of every Klan member he could. 

“We feel that the publication of the names of those who belong to the Klan will be a blow that the masked organization cannot survive,” O’Donnell predicted, as recounted in historian Kenneth T. Jackson’s book The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930. The logic, O’Donnell explained, was that many Klansmen depended upon Black people, Jews, and Catholics to earn a living. These groups that the Klan so loathed comprised approximately 85 percent of Chicago’s population at the time.

“We feel,” O’Donnell continued, “that it is only just that their attitude be made public.”

A week later, Tolerance published the names of 150 klansmen. The print run of 2,700 copies quickly sold out. The following week, a reprint of 17,500 copies once again flew off the newsstands. Within two months, thousands of names had been published. The president of a local bank resigned after he had been exposed as a Klansman and many of the bank’s mostly Catholic and Jewish patrons withdrew their money.  A milkman and grocer also publicly lamented the impact their outing as a secret racist had on their businesses.

Almost a century later, we find ourselves exposing the real names of members of hate groups—what we refer to today as “doxing,” a term which originally referred to the documents hackers and online activists dumped online in order to identify and expose people they thought deserved the internet’s attention. A surge of this activity has occurred in recent days as members of the public, outraged by the seeming lack of consequences for the rioters who sacked the Capitol, turn to the internet to identify some of the participants in hopes they are charged, fired from their jobs, or both. Any consequences, really, would do. Recently, hackers claimed to have downloaded the entire Parler archive for the purposes of revealing those who planned and participated in the Capitol putsch. Similarly, the Instagram account @homegrownterrorists is naming people seen at the Capitol in the mob on January 6. 

Of course, there are numerous differences between the doxing of the KKK in the 1920s and what is happening today. Perhaps most importantly, Capitol rioters are being doxed as part of an effort to punish people for obvious criminal behavior broadcast live to the entire world, in some cases by the very participants themselves. For example, when asked why they are doxing some of the putsch participants, the person behind the @homegrownterrorists account told VICE “getting those names out there and making sure that they are held to account for the crimes that they committed [is important]” and that they hope the people are “charged and tried for what they did.”

This is substantially different than what editors of Tolerance did. At that particular time and place, the KKK was not a criminal organization strictly speaking, nor was Tolerance accusing it of doing anything overtly illegal. Instead, it was instituting a public shaming campaign with the intent of exacting social and economic consequences on the members of the hate group. 

But, differences aside, the similarities run bone deep as activists view these groups as threats not only to the moral order but basic democratic norms and the future of the country. At the time of Tolerance‘s debut, the Klan had anywhere from two to eight million members—tallying membership of a secret organization that frequently destroyed its records is not easy—primarily in urban areas and was a dominant political force in several major cities. Klan sympathizers were also numerous, none more powerful than the then-former President Woodrow Wilson. And while Klan members literally shrouded themselves in robed mystery, members of the far right today often operate on social media with pseudonyms or otherwise bifurcate their existence between an online and IRL persona.

The AUL, it should be said, was not a perfect defender of American liberty. While it also took the unusually progressive opinion for the time that Black people should be able to live in any neighborhood they want—a point which would later become a major racial justice issue of the 20th Century, especially in Chicago—it was also guilty of publishing vile anti-Semitic screeds that would have fit right in at a Klan rally. Likewise, the KKK (rightly) pointed out that in Chicago it had committed no acts of violence (up to that point), which couldn’t be said for the AUL’s many acts of violence against suspected Klan members and offices. And in 1924, Grady K. Rutledge, one of three founding members of the AUL, resigned his editorship and took up his pen for a different cause. He became the newest member of a Chicago chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. To be clear, the people who are currently doxing Capitol rioters aren’t being accused of anything like this. 

Nevertheless, the Tolerance mission was deeply similar to the movement in recent years to identify Nazis and members of the far right on social media, right down to one of the most common problems with both: misidentification. The American Unity League (AUL), which published Tolerance, was sued repeatedly by people on the lists, including by some who swore they were in fact Catholics and therefore ineligible for Klan membership (although all this proves is that someone would have to lie to join the KKK which of course many did; another common thread in the history of hate groups is a small subset of the people that group ostensibly hates joining its ranks for reasons I won’t attempt to psycho-analyze here).

Based on the limited documentation that exists—and what does exist consists of hyper-partisan newsletters belonging to either the AUL or the Klan or other newspaper articles with sources from the AUL or the Klan—it’s hard to say whether the AUL was frequently guilty of misidentification or if that’s just a convenient thing for a Klan member to say when accused of being a Klan member.

On the one hand, it seems pretty clear the AUL wasn’t all that careful about the names it published, running lists whole cloth from their various sources who, more often than not, were disgruntled current or former Klan members who may or may not have included names of people they simply didn’t like.

On the other hand, care was hardly a luxury the AUL could afford given the nature of obtaining membership roles from a secret organization. In his book, Jackson describes all sorts of chicanery undertaken by private agents of the AUL, including but not limited to conning a former KKK member into handing over thousands of names for a price of $6,000 (about $90,000 in today’s dollars) only to sneak out the back door as the hapless leaker realized he had been given just $350. It’s not clear whether the man was fooled by the old big-bills-on-the-outside trick or he simply didn’t know how to eyeball what $6,000 looked like.

The incompatibility between publishing ill-gotten names for a greater cause and avoiding misidentification errors was perfectly highlighted in the case of gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. The AUL published his name after getting their hands on his KKK application, causing a sensation. Unfortunately for all involved, the application was a forgery and Wrigley sued. More twists and turns than a piece of Doublemint gum folding inside one’s mouth ensued: the application was reportedly forged by a KKK recruiter; he may have used it to brag to prospective members that big wigs were associated with their secret racist club. The AUL argued Wrigley should be suing the KKK, not them. Others hypothesized the forged application and subsequent leak to the AUL was a carefully coordinated maneuver by the KKK to discredit the AUL. In hindsight, this was far from an outlandish position considering a KKK double agent managed to get hired to run the AUL’s New York City branch only to send glowing reports back to Chicago about what wonderful work he was doing while he was, in fact, doing nothing but draining the AUL’s coffers. The only clarity that emerged from the whole affair was the AUL wrongly named Wrigley as a Klaner.

As the Wrigley affair highlights, getting KKK membership rolls and outing names in an ethical manner simply couldn’t be done, resulting in a minefield of quandaries about means versus ends that could only be put aside by dealing in absolutes. One of those absolutes was that violence against the Klan was justified to signal to prospective members it was not merely immoral but physically dangerous to join. In these few northern cities where KKK opponents far outnumbered members, anti-Klan forces committed more violence than the Klan itself, such as bombing Klan meeting halls, offices, and businesses of identified Klan members. Of course, when including the KKK’s behavior in the south and west, where lynchings and floggings at the KKK’s hands were far more common, the story flips. And it was precisely these infamously heinous acts northern activists were fighting to prevent in their cities. The means, they thought, justified the ends, to such a degree that a contemporary observer, historian John Moffatt Mecklin, wrote that Tolerance could go toe-to-toe with “the most rabid Klan publications in its shrieking and hysterical condemnations of all things pertaining to the Klan.” 

Which brings us to the ultimate question about Tolerance‘s doxing efforts: misidentifications and violence aside, did it work? Even the KKK wrote in its own propagandistic newspaper Dawn that members were abandoning it in droves out of fear of being outed. KKK members wandered into Tolerance’s office confessing to their membership, begging for mercy. By the fall of 1924, the KKK, for all intents and purposes, didn’t exist in Chicago.

But, that doesn’t prove Tolerance worked. The KKK failed to make significant inroads in any major northern city with demographics so heavily skewed towards the people the KKK hated. There was a basic demographic inevitability in the KKK’s failures in Chicago, doxing or no doxing: it is hard to build an influential secret society in a city where almost nine out of 10 people are not only ineligible to join but the target of your vitriol. White supremacy is embedded in the institutions that govern us, allowing power to be concentrated and wielded by a white minority. But, there are limits to just how small that minority can be, especially on the local level. 

There is no question Tolerance‘s naming of names scared Klaners. Nor is it in dispute those who were doxed suffered some of the very consequences the AUL hoped for. It is also fairly clear there was a lot more than just Tolerance working against the Klan in Chicago.

And, just as the KKK didn’t survive in Chicago, neither did the AUL. In fact, the AUL folded before the KKK left the city, although the writing was on the wall for the Klan by that time. All those lawsuits from people who weren’t actually in the Klan did the AUL in.

But something before bankruptcy infected the AUL leadership. It turns out spending all one’s time steeped in the verbiage and worldview of a notorious hate group isn’t good for the soul. 

In a recent Washington Post profile of what could easily be described as the closest thing we have to a modern day AUL equivalent, sleuth after sleuth describes the all-consuming nature of doxing fascists, Nazis, and far right extremists as destroying a part of them. “[Christian Exoo] faces daily death threats from people who describe murdering his family, too. He isn’t alone. One of [Molly] Conger’s opponents hosted a podcast featuring a regular segment during which the hosts imagined new ways to rape her.” Conger went on to say doxing has “damaged my brain for sure.”

These are early stages of an affliction that can be seen in the movement’s historical roots. And so the question of doxing Nazis is less “does it work” than “is it worth it?” In order to believe that it is, one has to believe what these people are being accused of is widely accepted as bad. The AUL, for example, knew the city of Chicago was hostile to Klaners, so identifying them had purpose. The same wouldn’t have been true for doxing Klaners in, say, Knoxville, or even Indianapolis, both of which had Klan membership rolls so prominent the Klan largely determined local elections. To this point, the historian Jackson, who I talked to over the phone recently, said the political attitudes in the places where that person lives is the biggest factor in whether doxing works.

“I don’t think the situation is so parallel that exposing the names of the people who stormed the Capitol would have the same negative impact today,” he said, before adding that he personally supports identifying the Capitol stormers as a matter of principle. But “it might even be positive for some people,” he warned, if they lived in a town or city generally supportive of Trump, just as “outing” a Klansman in Knoxville would have been more likely to result in them being elected to public office than any semblance of public shaming. In Knoxville, they often marched without their hoods. In other words, the tragedy last Wednesday is not just the sacking of the Capitol, but that some of the people who committed the crime can’t be shamed for their actions because their communities don’t view it as anything to be ashamed of. 

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