A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

January 2004



Ku Klux Klan in the Valley
A 1920s Phenomena

by David Norberg, Green River Community College


The Ku Klux Klan was late in coming to the White River Valley. By 1923, the Klan had grown into a nationwide movement of some four to five million members, including half a million women, and a "sinister" reputation preceded it. Despite that, the Klan attracted considerable interest and established a significant presence in the Valley, for a brief time, because it spoke to rather mainstream fears and prejudices. Ultimately, however, the Klan did not have much of an effect on the region. It passed quickly and created more of a spectacle than anything else.


Silently, but none the less certainly, the sinister form of the Hooded Klan is casting its shadow over the entire White River Valley....The initiation will occur in a wooded place not far from Auburn...and a large number of the class has been recruited in this city. It is a known fact that Auburn has been flooded with application blanks of the Klan for the past week."

January 12, 1923, Auburn Globe-Republican


On Thanksgiving night 1915, "Colonel" William J. Simmons, a long-time organizer and recruiter for numerous fraternal organizations, led a group of fifteen men up Stone Mountain, Georgia and established the second Ku Klux Klan. His goal was to create a fraternity in honor of the first Klan, which was founded in Tennessee after the Civil War and was dedicated to white supremacy. While he claimed the move had been long planned, his work was preceded and aided by the popularity of filmmaker D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Based on Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel, The Clansman, the movie portrayed the Klan as a heroic organization that defended white Southerners during the period of Reconstruction. Conventional wisdom of the era held to this depiction. Woodrow Wilson, for example, wrote that the "white men of the South were aroused by the very instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of government sustained by the votes of ignorant Negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers." Seen by millions of Americans, The Birth of a Nation gave new credibility to the Klan and fueled its growth in the '20s.


Ad for "Birth of a Nation"
Advertisement for the influential movie, Birth of A Nation,
Auburn Globe Republican, 7/11/24.


The second Klan promoted "comprehensive Americanism" and was motivated by an odd mix of impulses. On one hand, the Klan espoused a virulent form of racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-immigrant sentiment. On the other, Klansmen portrayed themselves as moral, law-abiding citizens dedicated to political and civil reform, civic improvement, and the defense of traditional American values. As such, Klansmen often targeted, among others, abusive husbands, adulterers, gamblers, and violators of Prohibition. Enforcement of Prohibition, in fact, was a central, and perhaps the strongest, goal of the second Klan. In the White River Valley, Klan leaders promoted both strains of ideology, and, seemingly, both attracted interest.


Klansman
Western Washington membership in the Ku Klux Klan grew in the early 1920s,
with 2000 members in Seattle, and smaller groups in Walla Walla, Tacoma, Spokane
and the White River Valley. Their activities culminated in 1923
when some 50,000 Klansmen from throughout the Pacific Northwest
gathered at a rally rear Renton.
Courtesy MOHI #PI21478


The Klan held its first public meetings in Auburn at Fraternity Hall in the spring of 1923. In March, the Auburn Globe-Republican reported that the Reverend C. C. Curtis of Vancouver, Washington, appeared in full Klan regalia and gave a speech titled "Why the Ku Klux Klan?" to a "hall full to capacity with curious Auburnites, anxious to learn more of this mysterious organization."6 Curtis freely admitted the Klan was an anti-Catholic organization, but defended it, arguing, "the Klan stands for pure Americanism and that its vows are only what red-blooded, Christian Americans stand for." Judge John J. Jeffries of Portland conveyed similar messages in his local appearances. He proclaimed:

We are joined together in the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan for the preservation of the American ideals and all a white man holds dear....We are for law enforcement....We are for prohibition, and we are against the influx of foreign immigration that is tending to break down what the American people have built up. We stand for a high spirit of Americanism, fraternalism, and for civilization, and we have joined together the white men and the white women of America...for the preservation of the ideals and institutions of the United States of America.

Similar speeches were given at meetings in Kent and communities throughout the Puget Sound region.

 
Klan article in Auburn Globe Republican
Auburn Globe Republican, 3/16/23.


Klan organizers and local leaders focused especially on fighting negative impressions and sought to make the Klan seem like a reputable, law-abiding, and philanthropic society. Curtis denied the Klan was violent, and he insisted that "outrages" associated with the Klan were the work of "thugs parading under the guise of the Invisible Empire."1 He attacked the press for "printing vicious and distorted reports of Klan activities" and contended it was "controlled by Roman Catholic interests" out to discredit them. Local leaders worked to improve the Klan's image by donating fifty dollars for the improvement of the city park in Abraham grove in their first public act. Similarly, the Women of the Ku Klux Klan sent "54 Christmas packages to our disabled veterans" and insisted that no other fraternity matched the Klan's giving. The Klan also sought and gained support from leading citizens. Most notably, David Leppert, the Mayor of Kent, frequently attended meetings and introduced Klan speakers in and outside of the Valley.


Advertisement from the Kent Advertiser Journal
Advertisement from the Kent Advertiser Journal, 3/8/23


Klan organizers received a mixed response in the Valley. The Washington Co-Operator reported that "everyone" listening to Curtis, "was very sincerely interested in the Klan, in fact, the whole audience approved, apparently, of its endeavors." However, the editors themselves condemned the Klan as divisive and maintained that "we cannot accept that the people of the Catholic faith are not good Americans; we believe that there are just as many loyal Americans amongst the Catholics as there are among other denominations." Despite opposition from organized labor, interest was strong enough that the Klan established a local branch and continued to organize.

Klan activity in the Valley reached its high point in mid-July of 1923. On July 14, the Klan held its first "Konvention" in the state of Washington near Renton Junction and initiated some 500 to 1,000 new members. A rally for the general public, complete with fireworks and multiple cross-burnings, was held that evening at Wilson's Station four miles south of the park. The Kent Advertiser-Journal described "a monster crowd of thousands of people who came in between 2500 and 3000 automobiles to participate and witness the ceremony." The Washington Co-Operator estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 attended. The Globe-Republican, however, indicated that attendees were "attracted chiefly by curiosity and by the lingering suspician [sic] that an exciting clash might occur between Klansmen and representatives of Sheriff Matt Starwich's office." The state had a law forbidding public gatherings of masked persons except for masquerades and similar events. Before the rally, the Klan openly dared Starwich to enforce the law, and he insisted he would. The Klan backed down, however, and only wore the masks briefly. Seemingly, the dare was simply a publicity stunt and, if so, it worked. Starwich retaliated a month later by firing a deputy working on the Northern Pacific Railroad for taking part, commenting, "I won't stand for any Klansmen being connected with my office." Afterwards, reporting on the Klan dropped off sharply and activity quieted.


Ku Klux Klan, c1923
Ku Klux Klansmen, c1923. From an album of Auburn images
including a group of people in blackface.  WRVM #3221B


The Klan continued to meet in 1924, but only had one widely publicized rally that year. In August, faith healer and evangelist May Turner came to Auburn and instructed the Klan to "get wise" and attend her revival. Fifty robed, but unmasked, Klansmen responded, "adding a novel touch of color to the revival meeting." Turner "complimented them highly as a noble body of 100 per cent Americans" and "exhorted them to be 100 per cent Christians as well." After the meeting a Klan official claimed there had been 250 Klansmen at the meeting, although this was probably an exaggeration intended to further build credibility.

The most significant Klan campaign of 1924 centered on a proposed school law that was based on an initiative passed by Oregon voters in 1922. The Klan-backed law in Oregon required all children between eight and eighteen to go to public schools with the intention of closing private and parochial schools, particularly Catholic schools. Supporters in Washington successfully petitioned to have a nearly identical measure placed on the fall ballot in 1924. There was no question of the Klan's involvement, and opponents denounced the measure arguing that "nothing could be more detrimental to good will among the people of the state of Washington, more likely to stir up useless strife and hatred," than the initiative "sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan." In the November election, Washington rejected the measure by sixty thousand votes. However, citizens in Kent and Auburn narrowly voted for it: 416 to 399 in Kent and 795 to 675 in Auburn.

The Washington and White River Klan declined sharply after the failure of the Washington school initiative. The Seattle chapter closed in late November, leaving a void in leadership. Local meetings continued, but rarely received much coverage or publicity in the press unless something unusual occurred. For instance, in late 1925 Auburn police were called to stop a "riot" at Fraternity Hall when a fight broke out during a public Klan meeting. However, locally and nationally, the Klan was rapidly losing power. Internal fighting over power and money, sex scandals, and national hearings on Klan violence greatly hurt the organization's image. By 1928, Klan membership nationally had fallen to no more than several hundred thousand.

Traditionally, the Klan has been portrayed as a violent, backwards-looking, and extremist organization that was part of the conservative mood that followed World War One. Recent works, however, emphasize that, for better or worse, the Klan was rooted in the mainstream of society, often attracted leading citizens in communities throughout the country, and championed popular causes. This was the case with the White River Klan. While it is difficult to discern why people in the Valley joined the Klan from newspaper accounts that we have available, Klan ideology clearly spoke to fairly common sentiments. For example, Prohibition enforcement was a major issue in Auburn politics and the Klan's call for rigorous enforcement was not out of the ordinary at all. Similarly, there was substantial, mainstream, anti-Japanese sentiment. The state of Washington, not the Klan, passed Alien Land Laws to prevent Asian immigrants who, by law, could not become citizens from owning or renting land. When Klan organizers like Jeffries spoke out against Japanese immigrants, they found a receptive audience. Lastly, the sheer spectacle value of the Klan should not be overlooked. The Klan had a mystique surrounding it. People were curious about it and rallies provided entertainment. Most of those who attended meetings and rallies went because it was something to do and did not join, regardless of their feelings about Klan ideology.

In the final measure, the Klan in the White River Valley was rather short-lived and representative of the Klan in Washington State. As historian David Chalmers describes it, "the Klan was there, but it was not greatly active. It did not go in for night riding or do much for local charities or politics." Overall the organization left little mark on the region. While Klan ideology echoed mainstream concerns, it should be emphasized that they were viewed at the time as an extreme and divisive organization. Members may have been drawn primarily by the Klan's statements on traditional morality and civic-improvement, but, nonetheless, they were still willing to join an organization that espoused racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry. While the Klan only had a brief appearance in the Valley, the mainstream sentiments that it spoke to persisted.




by David Norberg, Green River Community College