Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Between 1921 and 1923 Salemites Seemed to Shift Radically on the Triple K

In August of 1921 Civil War veterans, who would remember the first Klan, and who were meeting in Silverton, denounced the organizing effort underway in the mid-Willamette Valley for the second Klan.

August 5th, 1921

They said:

The history of the lawlessness and violence of the past needs no recital. The murders, lynchings and violence of those days are too well known and President Grant's stern orders for the repression of its activities are of record.

No form of secret organization whose members appear in public only in masks and under cover of darkness, pretending to be 100 per cent Americans, can be anything but anarchistic in its real character. The organization deserves and should receive universal condemnation."

But in only a year's time, statewide in 1922 a Klan-associated Governor and Legislature was elected, and after another year in 1923 Salem had a chapter of the Klan.

Things changed quickly.

This is but a sketch, and maybe we'll come back later with more detail on some of the threads. Maybe others will pick up and develop them.

A couple of weeks before the Grand Army of the Republic was meeting, the first news article had appeared about activity here in Salem of the second Klan. It is thin on verified sourcing, but it set off more reporting and editorial comment. There was every reason to think it was a reliable reading of the smoke before the fire itself is seen.

July 21st, 1921

Local opinion at first seemed to be against them. "This propaganda lays great stress upon the patriotism of the order, and the claim that it is above all American and is to defend the constitution and the constitutional rights of American citizens. In the same breath it...pledged to maintain white supremacy....There is no room in Salem or in Oregon for the Ku Klux Klan."

July 29th, 1921

A little later Governor Olcott said, "don't worry."

August 11th, 1921

The determinations were premature, and the Klan seems to have found greater welcome here among the Cherrians. This note from late spring in 1922 is a little ambiguous, but it does not seem like the Cherrians resisted or rejected them. It would not be surprising to find support there; small business owners were a locus of support for the Klan. There has been, and we see it also today, a pattern of the petite bourgeoisie associating with reactionary politics. (See also the demographics of those arrested in the January 6th Capitol Putsch.)

March 30th, 1922

Not long after the Cherrian event, the Governor and Legislature had the support of and even explicit affiliation with the Klan. Kaspar K. Kubli conveniently shared a set of initials in addition to sharing ideology.

Either the tide had turned quickly, or there was already in 1921 a very fertile ground that the newspaper writers had missed. 

(If we draw analogies with our current times and historical understanding of reaction in the last generation or two, it is more likely that elite opinion had missed the popularity than that popular opinion had turned on a dime.)

Sept 25th, 1922 and Jan 9th, 1923

The Klan's organizing in Salem "fizzled" in November of 1922, but they were successful just one year later, and Salem got a formal charter on November 10th, 1923. To celebrate there was a large parade, starting at the Fairgrounds. The morning paper, which in 1921 had editorialized no Klan wanted, now seemed delighted. 

(The afternoon paper, owned by George Putnam, you may recall, had taken a very strong stand against them. There might be more to say about the editorial positions staked out as part of any newspaper rivalry. Charles Sprague did not buy the morning paper until 1929, and the Bitsman, R.J. Hendricks, who operated the morning paper, might be the significant figure.)

Ad, November 10th, 1923

Nov 10th and 11th, 1923

There is just so much here to develop in further detail.

But the outline is clear. When Salemites today have invoked the second Klan, it is often in discussion of the Dallas Dragons and urban legends pushing the primary activity out to satellite smaller towns. (Most recently see this opinion piece in the SJ.) As far as I know there is no historical discussion of Salem Klan activity, and Salemites may want to think that it was not very present here. That, alas, is not the case. Even if Salem did not have the largest or most active presence, it did have a substantial one, and we have conveniently forgot about it.

Lines for Further Research 

In the clip about electing the House Speaker, "Tom Kay of Marion county," son of the Mill's founder, was a strong supporter of Speaker Kubli. See also a contemporary description of Kay from 1922. Kay's politics might be an avenue for research at the Mill, to find out to what extent the Mill's management or employees might have been a center of support for the Klan here in Salem.

The fact in 1922 the Klan could get offices above the Oregon Electric depot in the Oregon Building at State and High (see ad just below), also suggests acceptance or embrace among Salem business people.

In addition to the Mill, another significant local institution that may have informally supported the Klan for a while was Willamette University. The Klan advertised in the student newspaper, the Collegian, in 1922 and received favorable notices in 1923.

Collegian, Oct. 18th, 1922
Nov. 7th, 1923, Nov. 28th, 1923

You may recall that Frederic Dunn was on the faculty in Classics from 1895 to 1898. After moving to Eugene he was a leader in the Klan and University of Oregon renamed the residence hall formerly known as Dunn Hall. Former Confederate officer Leo Willis, who had served under an important figure of the first Klan, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, was earlier a Trustee in the 1880s. And we have seen the wider discourse around white supremacy with founder Jason Lee. The early culture of Willamette University may have been more invested in reactionary conservatism than we might have supposed, and there is surely more to say about that.

It did not seem to leave an enduring deposit, however. In the 1960s campus conservatism seemed generally critical of Goldwater and centered, understandably, on the figure and more moderate politics of former Professor and Dean, Mark Hatfield. That transformation also might be more significant also and worth more attention.

The enthusiasm, however brief, for the Klan might be interesting to trace out in a campus history.

November 11th, 1923

Finally, consistent with what historians of the Klan have found, it was White Christian Nationalism. "The Ku Klux Klan is anti-nothing that is not anti-American. It strives to teach the doctrine of pure Americanism" proclaimed "pastor of the Christian church in Lebanon" and Grand Titan V. K. Allison. Churches would have been fertile ground here, though it is interesting the speaker is not a Salemite.

A Portland church, circa 1922
(Oregon Historical Society, OrHi 51017)

You may remember also Capi Lynn's piece, "Five Salem preachers took stand to protect Japanese church after Pearl Harbor." And also Rev. Obed Dickinson. There is a more complicated history, good and bad, to tell on race, reactionary conservatism, and the churches here.

See an overview at the Oregon Encyclopedia. Linda Gordon has a whole chapter on Oregon in her book, The Second Coming of the KKK, though it has little on Salem. Kelly J. Baker discusses the religious connection at In the Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK's Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930.

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