Long before the artist Philip Guston was celebrated for his cartoonish paintings of pink flesh, cigarettes, and Klansmen, he was Phillip Goldstein, a member of the Los Angeles socialist Bloc of Mural Painters, and a kid on a road trip. In 1934, he and fellow painter Reuben Kadish bought a Ford coupe for $23 and drove to the city of Morelia, Mexico, where the university there had offered the artists a wall to embellish. Guston and Kadish’s fresco, depicting a swastika, hammer and sickle, cross, whips, nails, and electric chair cap, would go by many titles: The Struggle against War and Fascism; The Workers’ Struggle for Liberty, as Time magazine dubbed it; and The Struggle against Terrorism.
The Morelia mural swarms with robed men in peaked white hoods, suggesting one particular kind of terrorism for viewers then and now. But in 1934, when the mural was painted, the Ku Klux Klan’s white hood had been standardized for only two decades. How the Ku Klux Klan’s white hood came to be an icon of hatred is the story of image-makers: parade planners and playwrights, Hollywood and the mail-order catalog. Before they came along, though, the early Klan of the postwar South really was an “Invisible Empire,” emphasis on the invisibility: covert, decentralized, lacking hierarchy or uniforms, including the now-standard white, conical hood.
As historian Elaine Frantz Parsons has written in Midnight Rangers: Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction-Era Ku Klux Klan, while some early Klansmen did wear white, and later Klan mythology would claim they’d dressed up as Confederate ghosts, they usually drew on folk traditions of carnival, circus, minstrelsy, Mardi Gras—or the mid-century “Calico Indians,” hooded and masked farmers rebelling against upstate New York land laws. Klansmen wore gigantic animal horns, fake beards, coon-skin caps, or polka-dotted paper hats; they imitated French accents or barnyard animals; they played guitars to serenade victims. Some Klansmen wore pointed hats suggestive of wizards, dunces, or Pierrots; some wore everyday winter hoods, pillowcases, or flour sacks on their heads. Many early Klansman also wore blackface, simultaneously scapegoating and mocking their victims.