Make the McKenzie Connection!

Oregon's Ku Klux Klan rocketed to power with shocking suddenness

Birth of a Nation posterBy Finn J.D. John

There was something shockingly sudden about the Ku Klux Klan’s virtual seizure of the reins of power in Oregon in 1922.

Within a few months of Klan evangelist Luther Powell’s arrival in southern Oregon, the “invisible empire” had spread through Oregon society like a virus. Tens of thousands of Oregonians had paid their $10 membership fee and had white eyehole-suits hanging in their closets, and tens of thousands more looked upon the secret society as a positive thing.


It’s important to understand that the Klan in 1922 was different from the Klan in 1866. The 1922 Klan had arisen out of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Klan, and gave the group its iconic robe-and-pointy-headpiece look and introduced the practice of cross burning. Then, after the war, an advertising agency took the Klan on as a client and crafted its public image and its sales message with the manipulative skills honed in First World War propaganda campaigns. The results were striking.

The original Klan of the 1860s had targeted freed former slaves and their white allies, and was quickly shut down in the early 1870s after leaving a trail of bloody corpses and terrified survivors strewn about the countryside. This new Klan would be, if you will, a kinder, gentler terrorist organization. It would last a little longer, and for a few years it would seem destined to take over, because the agency took its message down a notch. It appointed itself as the enforcement arm of white American Protestantism, ready and willing to undertake anonymous vigilante actions as needed to preserve white American Protestantism as the definitive American culture. Non-WASPS — black people, Chinese and Japanese folks, Jews and Catholics — were to be kept under control as a matter of cultural self-defense. (Melting pot, schmelting pot.)

With an eye on public relations, the new Klan controlled the level of vigilantism and terrorism carefully, seeking that perfect balance of edgy, attractive muscularity and avoiding becoming extreme enough to threaten mainstream society. Crosses were regularly lit afire in spots where they overlooked Catholic and Jewish neighborhoods (there were very few black people in the state at the time). They barged into Catholic churches during services dressed in their sinister, anonymous eyehole suits. They honored their organization’s long-established tradition of lynching innocent people by conducting “necktie lynchings,” in which victims were led to believe they were about to die, lifted an inch or two off the ground by the neck for a moment, and released with a dire warning. This went badly for them on at least one occasion, when their victim (a white guy whom they suspected of having seduced a 16-year-old girl) figured out who they were and sued them.

The new Klan also had designed a sales system of astonishing sophistication. Each recruiter (“kleagle”) got a standard kit; in addition to the usual stuff like contracts and eyehole suits to sell the new recruits, the kit included a prospect list. Kleagles were encouraged to discreetly make contact first with Protestant pastors, and then target cops and local government officials for membership. Then the ads would be placed in newspapers and the kleagle and/or an especially enthusiastic pastor would arrange a dog-and-pony show in some hotel ballroom, in which the entire community was invited to come hear all about the Klan. Since the Klan was a secret society, the promise was that you could find out what it was all about by coming to one of these things, and the people who arrived were then played masterfully by the recruiter, who would finish the evening with sometimes hundreds of new $10 memberships — $4 of which, if he was a top-level kleagle, he got to keep.

In due course the kleagle would identify and deputize sub-kleagles to go out and repeat the process at other towns. Klan membership would spread virally until any man in the state who thought he might want to be a Kluxer had the opportunity to pay his $10 and take home his very own Klown suit.

As we know from last week, Powell did a yeoman’s job of working this system. By election season in 1922, the process had completed itself and Oregon was shot through from one side to the other with Klansmen. These local Klan groups immediately got busy packing school boards, city councils and county commissions with friendly faces.

In Salem, the Klan found a ready ally in the fortuitously named legislator Kaspar K. Kubli, who soon became a member. Because Republicans at the time dominated the state government, the Klan got involved at the party level in a campaign to “purify” its ranks. It got control of the Multnomah County Republican Party, and probably several others as well. Roman Catholic and Jewish officeholders — as well as those the Klan thought just weren’t friendly enough to its aims — quickly found themselves embroiled in primary battles with challengers who were clearly going to win.

The state’s Republican governor, Ben Olcott, was an outspoken and intransigent opponent of the Klan. He knew the stand he was taking would probably cost him the election, but he also knew that letting a secret society of anonymous xenophobic vigilantes take over state government would be an awful thing, and he refused to give the state anything less than his full effort to stop it.

The primary election was a massive dogpile of victories for the Klan. There were just two high-profile losses: Olcott had been renominated, and so had Congressman Clifton Nesmith McArthur — yes, THAT Nesmith; he was the legendary pioneer’s grandson. McArthur was a four-term U.S. Congressman whom the Klan had targeted for being too independent.

No problem: the Klan simply shifted its endorsement to the Democratic party’s candidates in the fall, when the general election was held.

The Klan would get both Olcott and McArthur defeated in that election, replaced with men who were either Klansmen or at least friendly to the Klan’s agenda. It would also get a law passed that more or less outlawed private schools in Oregon, in a direct attack on the Catholic church. And it would take over the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. It was very nearly a clean sweep. Every race the Klan had taken an interest in had swung their way.

“There is something new under the sun,” wrote Waldo Roberts of the magazine Outlook, at about this time. “Oregon, politically the most conservative and temperamentally the least romantic state west of the Rocky Mountains, is now under the control of the Ku Klux Klan.”

But not for long.

(Sources: Marsh, Tom. To the Promised Land. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2012; MacColl, E. Kimbark. The Growth of a City. Portland: Georgian Press, 1979; Lansing, Jewel. Portland: People, Politics and Power. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2002)


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