Rise of Oregon’s Ku Klux Klan was a money-making scheme
In early 1921, an outgoing Louisiana salesman named Luther Powell crossed the border from California to Oregon, with business on his mind.
Powell was a “Kleagle.” His job was to recruit new members for the newly resurgent Ku Klux Klan, collecting the $10 membership fee from each.
His commission was a whopping 40 percent. And the Oregon territory was wide open.
Sending in the Klowns
Powell’s arrival in the Beaver State kicked off a short but interesting period that most Oregonians today would rather not think too much about. A magic combination of sour reactionary feelings against “foreign entanglements” following World War I, the latent racism of an America still relatively fresh from the Civil War, and the opportunity for big profits from membership fees, brought the Kluxers from nothing to a position of serious political influence in just two years.
And then, even more quickly than it had risen, the Klan dropped away, fading into a cacophony of screechy internal squabbling and covering itself with the stink of hypocrisy after a few high-profile kickback scandals. By about 1925 it was finished as a serious political force.
In ’21, though, Oregon was fresh territory and Powell was ready to work it. Acquiring the title of “King Kleagle” for the state, he settled into Medford and started gathering his army. Besides white supremacy, the doctrine the Klan preached was “100% pure Americanism,” which it defined as white gentile Protestantism that put Jesus first and America a very close second. To be a member, one had to be a native-born white Protestant gentile with a good reputation. No Jews or Catholics were allowed. A subordinate order, the Royal Riders of the Red Robe, was created to accommodate naturalized Americans — that is, not native-born — but they still had to be white protestant gentiles.
The Klan in Southern Oregon
In Medford, Powell and his Kluxers stirred up some trouble here and there. A black man was sort of demi-lynched — a rope put around his neck and used to lift him off his feet for a few terrifying moments before he was set free with a dire warning to get out of town, a practice known as a “necktie hanging” — and several others were threatened. Crosses were lit on fire on various hilltops. There are rumors that some people were branded.
But as large gangs of anonymous vigilantes go, the Klan was remarkably mild-mannered in Southern Oregon — so far as is known, nobody was actually murdered. This may have been because their King Kleagle knew if the community started to fear them, he’d have a much tougher time making sales — especially in the bigger cities to the north, which were still wide-open. There was plenty of money to be made in hatred in early-1920s Oregon, but the trick was finding just the right balance of dangerousness. Too much, and people would turn away — as they eventually did, but only after Powell was pushed out. He knew what he was doing.
By June, Powell had deputized several particularly gifted orators from his gang, appointed them Kleagles, and sent them forth to recruit members on their own in various other cities. Of course, he’d get a piece of every membership fee they brought in — it was a bit like a multi-level marketing operation.
Spreading throughout the state
But Powell himself wanted to turn his attention to the big markets now. So he checked into the Multnomah Hotel in Portland in June and started quietly gathering his “Invisible Empire” army around him. He personally picked Fred L. Gifford, a former union electrician who’d been booted from the union for “scabbing” a few years before, to lead “Portland Klan No. 1” as “Exalted Cyclops.”
Powell spent two months getting ready for the big Klan debut. In addition to the discreet recruiting of leaders, he probably also needed the time to gauge the public mood. Remember, Powell was first and foremost a salesman. He wasn’t here sowing the seeds of chaos, terror and disorder for his health. He was here to make money, and in order to do that, he needed to know what Oregonians wanted to hear, so that he could say it to them and cash in.
Finally, on August 1, after two months of preparations, Powell and Gifford were ready for their coming-out party.
The mysterious meeting
This they accomplished, according to that evening’s Portland Telegram, with a “series of ‘learn-something-to-your-advantage’ telephone messages” placed to Portland Mayor George Baker, Police Chief L.V. Jenkins, district attorney Walter H. Evans, U.S. attorney Lester Humphries, and several other high-ranking city and county law-enforcement officials — as well as to newspaper reporters and photographers.
The whole visit was shrouded in the kind of overcooked cloak-and-dagger goofiness for which the Klan has become famous. The guests arrived at Room 376 of the Multnomah Hotel, were ushered out into waiting cars and driven to a mysterious and undisclosed “throne room” where the King Kleagle and Exalted Cyclops were waiting to receive them in full pointy-hatty regalia.
The visiting dignitaries (and, through the newshounds, the community at large) were introduced to the Portland Klan and assured that the “Invisible Empire” was not a hate-group.
“Ours is not an anti-organization of any kind,” Powell, in character as King Kleagle, said. “We are not anti-Japanese, or anti-Jew, or anti-Negro, or anti-Catholic, or anti-anything else. It is simply that the United States has not any American secret fraternal organization, and we are going to supply that need. The fact that we limit membership does not mean anything against the people we bar. They have their own organizations, membership in which is barred to us.”
He went on to claim that the Klan was a powerful ally to the friends of law and order. Crime and lawlessness and moral bankruptcy were so prevalent in Portland, he said, that residents should be “afraid to let their wives and daughters appear on the streets” — so the King Kleagle had apparently learned in his two months’ residency in a fancy downtown hotel.
Moral rottenness at both the city and the state level was, he added, “due for a purification process, which the Klan intends to see is accomplished.”
Then the Telegram’s reporter covering the event struck a rather ominous note:
“Respect for the law and the working of a small army of unofficial detectives who will work with the constituted authorities are the marks of the Klan character, the King Kleagle declared,” the newspaper wrote. “Stories of Klan violence are largely false, [the King Kleagle] insisted. ‘However,’ he said, ‘there are some cases of course in which we will have to take everything into our hands. Some crimes are not punishable under existing laws, but the criminals should be punished.’”
And with that naked apology for open and uncontrolled anonymous vigilantism, the new Kluxers closed the ceremony.
First, though, they took a photograph, which appeared in the next day’s Telegram, of themselves in their full Klan eyehole suits posing with the mayor, police chief, district attorney and other city notables.
This photo is somewhat controversial. District Attorney Evans’ son later told legendary Portland historian E. Kimbark MacColl that the photo was a put-up job, that the dignitaries in the photo were arranged in front of a velvet curtain and the robed Kluxers popped out from behind the curtain just as the shutter clicked. Looking at the photograph, in which the Klan characters are in the front of the group and separated from each other, it’s a little hard to buy this claim.
That’s especially true when you consider that in 1921, the Klan wasn’t considered all that much more sinister than any other secret society in Oregon, like the Masons or the Knights of Columbus. But within three or four years, that would have changed utterly — and membership in it, or association with it, would be a substantial political liability.
We’ll talk about how that came to be — the Fall of the House of Klux, as it were — next week.
(Sources: Toy, Eckard. “Ku Klux Klan,” The Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org; MacColl, E. Kimbark. The Growth of a City. Portland: Georgian Press, 1979; Portland Telegram, 7-01-1921 and 7-02-1921)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast, reading archives from this column, at offbeatoregon.com/itunes. To contact him or suggest a topic: email@example.com, @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.
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