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The climax of the movie O Brother Where Art Thou involves popular gubernatorial candidate Homer Stokes trying to turn a crowd at his fundraiser against the "Soggy Bottom Boys" by revealing their shady past.

One of the things he reveals is that he is a member of the KKK, and personally witnessed the three interfering with a cross burning ceremony and lynch mob "in the performance of it's duties" -- which in context can only mean murdering a black person.

According to this question, by the time of the movie in 1937, being affiliated with the KKK was definitely not something a public figure would want publicized, as the group's violent and criminal activities were well known and their level of social acceptance, even in the South, was basically gone.

So, why was Stokes so willing to openly admit his membership in the group, particularly given the close campaign he was in the middle of?

5

Stokes is not acting rationally at this point. First he speaks against the Soggy Bottom Boys, drawing the ire of the crowd. He knows he has to get the people back on his side, and turn them against the Soggy Bottom Boys, so (thinking quickly, but not carefully) he tries to paint their interference in the lynching in a light favorable to him, doing his best to make the KKK look noble and make the Boys look like hooligans. He’s betting on the crowd’s sympathies leaning toward the Klan—and it’s tough to say, with this particular assemblage of constituents, whether this is a smart bet. But we are meant to get the impression that Stokes is not a particularly smart man.

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It is true that historically, the Klan’s second incarnation had its peak during the twenties and had dropped off considerably by the thirties. But even so, in certain regions, Klan membership persisted much longer. For example, Harry Byrd of WV was an enthusiastic and public Klan leader in the forties.

In any case, the Klan in its time was a powerhouse in the south and the midwest and west during its heyday, often co-opting the entire political leadership of a region. Senators and governors and mayors and sheriffs had to kowtow in such environs to get elected. This was the political reality of that era.

Perhaps the Coens wanted to show that reality by bending the history a bit, since most younger viewers likely would not understand that what today is a (hopefully) fringe group was once regionally dominant, in service of their narrative. Back then, Klan membership would be something to call attention to, rather than hide.

Films often play fast and loose with history. In that context, this is, at most, a minor distortion.

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