Corruption, hypocrisy brought down Ku Klux Klan in 1920s
May 6, 2013
After the 1922 midterm elections, the Ku Klux Klan in Oregon was riding high. It had won almost every election it had deigned to compete for. It looked to them like they’d been handed a solid mandate to remake Oregon in the image of their ethnocentric social agenda, and they lost no time in getting right to work.
There was a problem, though. Looking back now, we can plainly see that there was one key element that Oregonians found appealing about the Klan’s vision and its leaders — and it wasn’t what those leaders assumed they were.
That element was Klan’s focus on “moral uplift.” This group considered itself to be the secret enforcement arm of American Protestantism, and American Protestantism had rather a lot to say about lying, cheating, stealing and promiscuity. Consequently the Klan, in public statements almost from the start, focused heavily on the corruption of government and the bad elements in society, and held itself up as an alternative to that corruption and debauchery. In a country that had just been shaken to the core by President Warren Harding’s Teapot Dome oil scandal, that message really resonated. As the non-Klan-related public saw it, that was the nature of the mandate they had delivered to Klan-backed politicians — to replace the corrupt Tammany Hall-type politics with a new politics of personal virtue.
And the trouble with that was, that’s not what the Klan thought its mandate was at all. In their view, the victory they’d been handed demonstrated that Oregonians wanted Oregon ethnically, religiously and politically cleansed. So under the leadership of House Speaker Kaspar K. Kubli — a known Klan member — they got right on that as soon as the session started, bright and early in 1923.
They started off in the state legislature by focusing their fire on Oregon’s Catholic minority, starting with an ordinance against wearing religious outfits in public-school classrooms. This meant nuns, who at the time often served as schoolteachers in public as well as private schools, could no longer wear habits and veils. This law passed unanimously in the House and with only two dissenting votes in the Senate.
Next came an initiative petition presented to the voters that would mandate compulsory public school for all Oregon children. This was a gun aimed directly at the Catholic Church, which of course had a well-developed network of parochial schools around the state. By a narrow margin, this passed, and for a while it looked like the Catholic Church was going to be out of the education business in Oregon.
A few other of K.K. Kubli’s plans didn’t fare so well. A scheme to eliminate Columbus Day from Oregon’s holiday calendar (a symbolic slap at the Knights of Columbus) failed, as did a blatantly unconstitutional plan to ban sacramental wine and to start taxing Catholic church property (but not that of Protestant churches).
Still, enough legislative action did stick to keep Kubli and Company upbeat and feeling like winners as they moved on to their next target: Japanese and Japanese-Americans.
At the time, Oregon’s population of about 800,000 included roughly 5,000 Japanese people, fewer than 200 of whom owned land totaling less than 3,000 acres. In other words, Japanese nationals were about 0.6 percent of the population, controlling 0.008 percent of the land.
Never mind that, Kubli said. The Japanese were acquiring too much land, and they were cheating — protecting their property by having their American-born children (who were, of course, American citizens) hold the title to the land. Outrageous!
He quoted a fellow scaremonger who had estimated, apparently on the basis of absolutely nothing, that by 1950 population levels of Japanese and Japanese-American people in California would reach 50 percent.
“Why postpone action?” Kubli demanded.
Why indeed? And so the Alien Land Bill of 1923 — which banned Japanese nationals from owning land, although it couldn’t touch their citizen children —rocketed through the Legislature. It passed unanimously in the Senate and was resisted by just one member of the House. It was soon followed by a bill prohibiting foreigners from operating hospitality businesses — apparently on the theory that if Japanese people couldn’t run boardinghouses and hotels, it would be harder for them to find a place to stay, and they’d be more likely to leave. And the cherry on the sundae was a literacy test to be applied to all Oregon citizens, Japanese and otherwise, which they would have to pass in order to claim their “right” to vote in the state.
But while the Klan-backed pols were joyfully enacting their agenda of ethnic chauvinism, it was becoming increasingly clear to large numbers of Oregonians that their talk of moral uplift didn’t mean much. They were, if anything, even more corrupt than the politicians they’d replaced.
They were also getting increasingly strident in the hotel-ballroom road shows that functioned as the Klan’s primary recruiting tool — strident and, increasingly, tone-deaf. In Silverton, on March 5, 1924, J.R. Johnson, pastor of Portland’s Sellwood Christian Church and “exalted cyclops” of the Klan, thundered passionately against the Roman Catholic church and its practices … possibly unaware that the overwhelmingly Catholic town of Mt. Angel was just four miles away. There was some rivalry between the two towns, and plenty of Silverton residents who agreed with Johnson that the Church was “the most dangerous power to the U.S. today,” but to judge from the cautious tone of coverage in the next edition of the Silverton Appeal, it’s probably safe to guess Johnson didn’t exactly have the town eating out of his hand.
The final blows to the Klan came in 1924, when its hand-picked candidates on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners were caught trying to hustle a padded construction bid — to the tune of half a million extra dollars, the equivalent of $6.8 million today. In the ensuing hubbub, the dishonesty of the Klan commissioners was exposed, and it turned out to be breathtakingly shameless. Within just a few months the entire commission was turned out of office by an angry Portland public.
About the same time, rumors started circulating that Grand Dragon Fred Gifford was using the Klan as his own personal cash kitty. Then, late that year, the Klan’s newspaper editor, Lem Dever, quit the organization. Early in 1925 he published a tell-all article in a Portland journal, confirming what most Oregonians already believed — that that those rumors were true.
All this evidence of corruption and hypocrisy surfaced just in time for the election season, and the Klan’s influence at the state level collapsed like a bad soufflé. It was shortly followed by the eviction from power of most Klan-backed politicians at the local level as well. Men who probably had been in the Klan — most notably Portland mayor George Baker, and possibly even governor Walter Pierce — hastened to disclaim any affiliation; Pierce lost his bid for re-election in 1926 anyway, and Baker was trounced in his bid to win a seat in Congress.
And the following year, the compulsory school bill was ruled unconstitutional before it could go into effect.
By the early 1930s, Oregon’s Ku Klux Klan had faded away, and was nothing more than a distant and uncomfortable vigilante dream.
(Sources: “KKKs Draw Crowded House,” Silverton Appeal, 07 Mar 1924; MacColl, E. Kimbark. The Growth of a City. Portland: Georgian, 1979; Marsh, Tom. To the Promised Land. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2012)
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