The Ku Klux Klan Infiltrates Washington State in the 1920s
by Robert Rietz
The year was 1926. It was a beautiful warm spring day perfect for seeing a parade. The streets of Bellingham, Washington were overflowing with people jostling for position to watch the parade. Blankets were spread out along the sidewalk, and lawn chairs picketed the edge of the streets. The start of the parade was just a few minutes away.
There are many children playing in the street where, soon, the parade floats will be in view down the boulevard. The parade workers whisk away all the children playing in the street. The path is now clear for the parade floats as they move along their route. The parade started almost exactly on time. The floats are from all around Washington State with many themes and sponsors.
The floats have many motifs. The first float represents a local hardware store, with its display of giant tools covered in flowers. The second float is from a local city called Snohomish, and therefore displayed the local homecoming court with floral accoutrements. These were the kind of floats that appeared for the first part of the parade. Then it is reported that something unusual coming down the street.
20 minutes or so into the parade, a float from Puyallup, Washington came rolling down the street. The parade float came by us with eight men dressed in white robes and white hoods atop the completely flowered float. This float was sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan, and the float was covered with the symbols of the Klan. This parade float passed buy with eight men dressed in white robes and white hoods standing atop the flowered float covered in American flags. The article that I was reading in the Skagit River Journal also reported "The float received applause and a roar of support burst from the crowd." This revelation took me by surprise.
How was this possible? The Ku Klux Klan had been thriving in my beloved Washington State during the 1920’s. I knew that I must learn how this happened. How did the Klan infiltrate Washington State in the 1920s? How did they get here? Who were these men in the white robes? And what did the people do about it?
The Ku Klux Klan that had established itself in Washington State during the 1920s was part of the second wave of The Ku Klux Klan. The first wave was spawned in the days after the Civil War. The South was weary from the Civil War. This created an atmosphere that was very conducive for the creation of this type of fear and hate mongering organization. The Klan was a secret organization that operated during the darkness of night wreaking havoc and destruction. David M Chalmers the author of Hooded Americanism reminds us that "the Ku Klux Klan turned into a vigilante force" and that "time was out of joint in the South and the social order was battered and turned upside down." This was David M Chalmers depiction of the first wave of the Ku Klux Klan, preying on the war weary to install the Klan in the South.
The Ku Klux Klan was an organization of hate. In order to further their agenda the Ku Klux Klan used Americanism, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigration sentiment to gain control of the South. To this end they would use intimidation and violence in order to boost membership, and their attempt to further white supremacy throughout the South.
The second wave of the Ku Klux Klan began in 1915, and the epic The Birth of a Nation was used to create a wave of interest in the Ku Klux Klan. This silent movie was directed by DW Griffith. The movie depicted black men as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women. The movie was originally called the Clansman. This incarnation of the Klan sold itself on protection of American values, and America's traditions. The Klan also wanted to do something new in this version of itself. The Klan used state and local politics to create a power base for the Klan, and from there they wanted to create a national political base. Postwar America found the world changing almost as fast as the automobile. The Klan found lots of souls for sale, and the Klan bought as many as they could by any means necessary. The Klan recruitment tactics used people's patriotism, Christianity and their fear of foreigners. The Klan spread from the East Coast to West Coast, beginning in the Southeast and working its way all the way to the Northwest.
There were millions of recruits for the Ku Klux Klan in America in the 1920s. As Chalmers points out the Klan "first caught on in the Southeast, where Georgia was its Citadel and Atlanta its holy city, the Klan was a national phenomenon." The state of Georgia was established as the center of Klan activity since the Civil War. Georgia had a tradition of supporting Klan values, and lending assistance to Klan members. The Ku Klux Klan spread across the country very rapidly, like the deadly flu virus that had raged across the nation only a few years earlier.
The Oregon chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in LaGrande Oregon was the driving force behind the Ku Klux Klan's infiltration into Washington State. The Klan wanted to move beyond the negative representation of itself from the past, and move into mainstream politics. The Ku Klux Klan became very strong in the politics of Oregon State. The Klan's largest accomplishment happened On November 7, 1922. This was the date when voters approved the outlawing of private schools in Oregon State.
The elimination of private schools was the high point for the Klan in Oregon politics. This new law was sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan in order to eliminate the catholic private schools in Oregon State. The Ku Klux Klan's national headquarters in Washington, D.C. that controlled the state membership, decided it would be a good idea to try and replicate this same idea in Washington State.
The Ku Klux Klan infiltrated Washington State in the 1920s as part of the second wave of Ku Klux Klan, and its quest for more and greater power. The Klan used the political system to gain power and economic influence throughout the country during this time. The Klan controlled the state legislatures and Governors offices in Indiana, Colorado, and Oregon states and wanted to continue growing. So, the Klan came to Washington State looking to expand once more.
The Klan grew to become a strong contingent, consisting of members in Washington State, on both the east and west sides of the Cascade Mountains. The Washington state Klan organized many public rallies between 1923 and 1924. The size of these Klan rallies ranged from 20,000 to 70,000 people, as reported by Trevor Griffey in his article The Ku Klux Klan in Washington State. The violence of the past had been superseded by the image of nonviolence, and joining political parties in state and local governments. Even though they disavowed violent behavior in public the Ku Klux Klan used intimidation campaigns against labor activists, and Japanese farmers in Yakima Valley and many other areas of the state.
The Klan was able to infiltrate Washington State in the 1920s very rapidly because of strong political and economic support from the Oregon State chapters. Political support shows that the Kent Mayor and the city attorney in Bellingham were open members of the Klan. In 1929 the Ku Klux Klan held its state convention in Bellingham Washington. At their state convention the grand Wizard was introduced to the community by the mayor of Bellingham, and unbelievably given the key to the city. The Ku Klux Klan loved to put on a public spectacle. The history of this terroristic organization shows how the Klan used spectacular mass meetings and any sort of public display to gain membership and influence public opinion.
The kind of display that the Klan used in Washington State was most often public speeches mixed with fireworks and alcohol. As reported in the Sumner News on Friday, October 13, 1922 the Ku Klux Klan had organized a rally. It was a naturalization and initiation ceremony of 1200 Klansmen during the previous weekend. This was a night time, outdoor rally lit up by a huge burning cross on the side of the south hill. As reported in the Sumner News "the cross was made of sawdust and placed in the shallow trenches filled with wood chips and saturated with oil. The dimensions were about 180' x 160', and when lighted its huge size would cast the light far up and down the valley."
The Klan liked the rally tactic and, on July 16, 1924, they promised to put Issaquah the map by attracting the largest crowd of the town's history. In order to attend what they called an elaborate initiation ceremony of new members. In an article written by Joe Peterson, a teacher at Issaquah high school, and contributor of the Pacific Northwest Forum, Peterson attributes the following quote to the Ku Klux Klan. "Those attending were to be treated to: stirring, patriotic music, 2 plays introducing entertaining speakers, an impressive ceremony of naturalization and initiation in full public view, and finally, a big display of fireworks." Peterson also attributed the Klan as saying that "all law-abiding citizens were urged to attend so they might get first-hand evidence by which they may form their opinions of the Klan." To read this was almost painful because of the hypocrisy demonstrated by the Klan and their spin machine of the time. But what were the people of Washington State going to do about this if anything?
Washington State did have some people that stood up against the Ku Klux Klan. The people that stood up against the Klan were certainly not the people who had the most power. They were the people that had the most to lose. This is the true story of true courage in the small town of Spokane Washington in the early 1920s. The number of Klansmen in Washington State was also impressive. Joe Franklin an Assistant Professor in Black Studies at Eastern Washington State College estimated that “the Klan had 40,000 members in Washington State alone." The Ku Klux Klan was able to spread throughout Washington concentrated in Seattle, Spokane, Walla Walla, and Tacoma. But when they came to Spokane, Washington, they were in for something a little different.
"The Klan had a membership that included businessman, clergy, public officials, judges, police and other respectable citizens." These are the types of individuals that were members of the Ku Klux Klan, and thus, they would be the people you would have to fight in order to defeat the Klan in Spokane. Spokane had a long positive relationship with the African American townsfolk who lived there. African-Americans supported many churches in the area, but, as reported in the Pacific Northwest Forum "the most stable institution in Spokane's black community was the church. The two major black churches were the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Calvary Baptist Church. For many Blacks, these institutions were the nucleus of activity, hope, achievement and recognition." This base of power would allow African-Americans to become members of political parties in Spokane.
In Spokane's political arena, African-Americans were represented by members of the church, primarily. Spokane's African-American community had many political organizations NAACP, The Afro-American Club, and The Spokane County Colored Republican Club-- to speak for them in the political arena, and speak they did. The African-American community was truly ahead of its time in the area of civil rights.
The African-American community in Spokane was very strong compared to many other African-American communities in Washington State, or the nation, for that matter. When the Ku Klux Klan came, they were ready to fight for their rights. Being such a strong presence in the community of Spokane, the African-Americans were able to buy property and several businesses throughout the city. These rights had been won over time, and through the close interactions and personal relationships between the African-American community and local government. So, when the Klan decided it was going to move in to Spokane, the African-American community was aware of the Ku Klux Klan and their propensity for violence and hatred, and they geared up for a fight: a fight for their rights, their dignity, and their lives.
The meetings were organized almost overnight, and mostly in churches. When the African-American community got the word that the Ku Klux Klan was coming to Spokane soon they jumped into action. And what would their action be? The African-American community would use a two-pronged approach. First, they would present a united front, and second, they would head off any incidents of organized intimidation before they had a chance to gain a foothold. Even so, the Ku Klux Klan did set up operations in Spokane. It only took six months for the first confrontation to occur.
Confrontations with the Klan started with warning notes. The notes were printed on black paper with a picture of a skull and cross bones. The Klan denied any ownership of these notes. But it was widely suspected that the Klan or someone in the Klan had written the notes. This was the start of what was to be a righteous and honorable fight for civil rights in this town of Spokane, Washington. This fight would be reminiscent of David and Goliath. The note was generated after a confrontation over African-Americans being denied service in a drugstore lunch bar, after having been served previously in the coffee shop. As reported by the Spokane Chronicle "they were denied service even though they had received prompt and courteous service prior to the arrival of the Klan.” The court case was to be fought in Olympia, Washington, presided over by the Honorable Judge Girard. The Olympia court ruled: "the drugstore is a public place and its purpose is to serve the public." Even though the African-American community had won this round, they believed that they still had to be on guard against the Klan. The African-American community was correct to stay on guard. The Klan would not let this incident go. There were more threats of violence against the black community.
The Klan would not take responsibility for this note, saying "we are not Negro baiters. It is not our practice to send notes of this nature.” This was the official denial by the Klan for this incident. The Klan had one last final statement, and it said “they would've sent a professional typewritten letter on Klan stationary.”They claimed that” They wouldn't have sent any anonymous letters or notes.” What was really ironic about this final statement was the fact that it was full of spelling and grammar errors in the statement. Spokane was able to hold the Ku Klux Klan in check inside the city limits. Through a combination of police, government, and community efforts the city was able to keep the Klan from gaining any real power.
The city of Spokane supported the Negro population during this second wave of Ku Klux Klan activity. Policies by the police and other Spokane agencies influenced Klan activities, and therefore they were greatly minimized in the city of Spokane. This was because the city was put on notice by the African-American community that they would fight for their civil rights. The African-American community was also helped by the strong stance taken by the people,and newspapers to help diminish the amount of influence the Klan could wield. The city and people of Spokane should feel proud of this era in their history because other cities in Washington State did not act as well.
There were many cities and any individuals influenced by the Ku Klux Klan in Washington State. During the years that the Klan tried to gain a foothold in Washington State, there were no great accomplishments. The largest failure of the Klan was the defeat of the compulsory school bill of Washington State, filed January 9, 1924. This would be the beginning of the end for the Klan in Washington State.
The Klan still enjoyed their spectacles. The Klan continued to hold large meetings, and published a white supremacist newspaper called and: The Watcher on the Tower. This was an attempt to gain the most notoriety and support possible. The Klan also continued to attend parades in full Klan dress whenever possible. The tenure of the Klan in Washington State lasted until the early 1930s. The Klan didn't go out with a blaze of glory; it went out with a whimper and just faded away from Washington State. The Klan started to lose its power base after the unsuccessful anti-private school initiative failed. The Klan continue to self-destruct with several internals scandals, the scandals dealt with misappropriation of funds by leaders. The end of the Klan came in the 1930s after their reorganization to Bellingham failed.
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