In the summer of 1926, the weekly Bozeman Courier published a mid-sized advertisement inviting the public to a picnic at Bozeman Hot Springs put on by the Ku Klux Klan.
The ad promised a public lecture by Dr. Hiram W. Evans, Imperial Wizard of the KKK, its national leader, at the picnic on Monday evening, Aug. 9.
“Bring your lunch basket and your family and friends,” the ad read. “Dr. Evans will enlighten you as to the purpose of the Klan. Everybody Welcome.”
Robert Rydell was surprised when he happened across the Klan ad, while searching for something else in microfilm of old newspapers.
“I’d never seen mention of the Klan in Bozeman before,” said Rydell, history professor at Montana State University and head of the American studies program.
Rydell knew the Klan had been active in the 1920s in Oregon, the Midwest and eastern Montana. But this seemed new.
“The very fact the Klan was here trying to recruit indicates the leadership thought there would be a receptive audience,” he said.
Ninety years after the Klan recruited members in Bozeman, more than 50 years after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and nine years after the election of America’s first black president, the Ku Klux Klan is seeking a comeback in American public life.
About 50 Klan protesters rallied in July in Charlottesville, Virginia, opposing removal of a large statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on horseback. Then in August, hundreds of Klan members, neo-Nazis and white nationalists joined in a “Unite the Right” torchlight parade and protests that ended with the killing of one woman counter-protester and the deaths of two police officers.
Congress this week passed by unanimous consent a resolution that called the woman’s killing “a domestic terrorist attack” and denounced “White nationalists, White supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups.” President Donald Trump signed the resolution Thursday.
The fact the Klan came to Bozeman doesn’t surprise Christine Erickson.
She has done decades of research and is writing a book, “Fraternity on the Frontier: The Ku Klux Klan in Montana during the 1920s.” Raised in Missoula, Erickson is an associate history professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
In the archives of the Montana Historical Society, Erickson found reports on Bozeman Klan No. 10.
The Feb. 14, 1924, edition of The Imperial Night-Hawk, a national Klan newspaper, printed a glowing report from Bozeman, along with brief news of thousands of new Klansmen joining in Iowa, an armory filled with recruits in Muskegon, Michigan, and the beating of a Klan salesman in Columbus, Ohio, by a gang of Italian and Irish Catholics.
“Bozeman, Mont., Klan Hears Grand Dragon” read the story’s headline. The report said that Montana’s Grand Dragon — Lewis Terwilliger of Livingston — “emphasized the fact that ours was not a gospel of hate.” He upheld Protestantism and advised members that “their greatest strength was in secrecy” and education in Klankraft.
“There was an unusually large crowd present and they received the messages of the Grand Dragon with deep-seated joy,” the report said. It concluded with the news that the Bozeman Klan gave generously to the needy at Christmas and sent “a lovely pot of flowers” to a Klansman’s daughter in the hospital with a “cheer-up card.”
At the same time the Klan presented itself like any benign, secretive fraternal organization, it held cross-burnings across Montana.
Dramatic cross-burning ceremonies, led by Klan members wearing white pointed hoods and robes, were often held for initiations of new members in the 1920s.
Erickson found reports on cross-burnings on Prospect Hill in Great Falls, Square Butte west of Laurel, Cemetery Hill in Anaconda and the Rimrocks in Billings.
“Burning crosses were certainly meant to intimidate the Klan’s enemies,” she wrote, “but they were also a signal, a reminder, that the Klan had arrived in the community.”
Nationwide the Klan reached the height of its membership in the 1920s, as the champion of “100 percent” Americans — native-born, white Protestants.
At its high point, the Klan had between 2 million and 5 million members “and the sympathy or support of millions more,” wrote Joshua Rothman, chair of the University of Alabama history department, in a recent article for The Atlantic magazine, “When Bigotry Paraded Through the Streets.”
“The Klan advocated the restoration of ‘true Americanism’ and offered members a platform that demonized blacks, Catholics, Jews, Mexicans, Asians and any other non-white ethnic immigrants,” Rothman wrote.
In the wake of World War I, the American economy slid into recession, and people were looking for scapegoats, Rydell said. “Who do you blame? How do you account for economic failure? You blame immigrants.”
The Klan was against Communism, alcohol and bootlegging, birth control and teaching evolution in schools. It was in favor of public schools as an antidote to parochial schools.
It flourished, Rothman wrote, “with the promise that energetic white nationalist and traditional morals would hold back the tides of modernity and … forces scheming to undermine the authority of native-born white Americans.”
One month after the Bozeman Klan picnic, Imperial Wizard Evans led an estimated 15,000 Klansmen wearing hooded robes, both white and colored satin, marching in disciplined rows in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13, 1926.
Yet the 1926 turnout was less than half the 30,000 to 50,000 hooded Klansmen who had marched in Washington the year before at the peak of its popularity.
By the end of the decade, Klan membership fell off drastically. Yet its anti-immigrant, white supremacist ideology never entirely went away.
“I’d never be so naïve as a historian to think that the ideas of the Klan in the 1920s would go poof and disappear,” Rydell said. “Why would we imagine that ideas that were so commonplace and widely shared would, as if by magic, disappear?”
The Klan reborn
The rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s can be traced to a blockbuster film, “The Birth of a Nation.”
Today the film is viewed as racist, advocating white supremacy and opposing voting rights for blacks. But in 1915, it was a hit, the first feature film ever shown at the White House and to the U.S. Supreme Court, Rydell said.
The silent film played in movie houses accompanied by dramatic organ music, ending with the thrilling ride of hooded, gun-shooting Klansmen on horseback coming to the rescue of beleaguered settlers, Rydell said. “White audiences would stand and cheer.”
The Ku Klux Klan originated after the Civil War in the defeated South. In the 1860s and 1870s, it was a Southern terrorist organization, Rothman wrote, that tortured and murdered blacks, sending hooded night riders to strike fear into former slaves and undermine their efforts to vote and exercise political and economic freedom.
The original Klan had been defunct for decades, Rothman wrote, when an Atlanta man, William J. Simmons, inspired by the silent movie, decided to revive the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. On Thanksgiving night 1915, he and more than a dozen men lit a wooden cross on fire at Stone Mountain, Georgia.
By 1920, the Klan had attracted just a few thousand members. Then Simmons hired publicity agents and promoters, Rothman wrote. They divided up the nation into sales territories and sent out 1,000 recruiters to sign up new members, whose $10 Klectoken membership fees paid commissions to the recruiters.
Despite investigations of vigilante violence by newspapers and Congress, the Klan had signed up 1 million members by 1922. That year, Evans, a dentist from Texas, ousted Simmons as Imperial Wizard.
Klan members in the 1920s were largely middle-class — small business owners, ministers, professors, clerks, farmers, doctors and lawyers.
The Montana Klan started in Harlowtown in 1921 and was headquartered in Livingston in 1923. It was welcomed in 46 Montana communities, including Billings, Missoula and Helena, Erickson wrote. More than 5,100 Montanans joined. The short-lived Montana Klansman newspaper was published in Belgrade.
The one city where the Klan wasn’t welcome was Butte, home to large numbers of immigrant miners, Irish Catholics and committed drinkers.
“Our men have orders to shoot any Ku Kluxer who appears in Butte,” Sheriff Jack Duggan said, as Erickson reported in the spring 2003 edition of Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Still, nearly 200 men joined the Klan chapter in Butte between 1923 and 1929.
Imperial Wizard Evans visited the Montana realm of the Invisible Empire twice, in November 1924 and July 1930, Erickson wrote. She found no evidence he attended the 1926 Bozeman picnic.
She did, however, find in the archives a flyer entitled “How to Tell a Klansman,” written anonymously by a “Bozeman Klansman.” It portrays the Klan as being as American as apple pie, and reveals the group was fighting a negative image.
“He is a White Man. He is a Protestant. He is a Gentile. He is a Christian. He is Anti-Nothing. He is a loyal American….
“He believes in freedom of worship and hates nobody. He upholds Public Schools. He is a law-abiding citizen. He upholds virtuous womanhood. He opposes immigration of the undesirable alien. He defends the American home. He stands for America for Americans.
“He has no fight with the Yellow or Black man, but stands unalterably for White Supremacy in America.”
The flyer concludes that the Klansman believes in the Constitution, law enforcement, the flag and “Liberty for All.”
“He believes in free speech, and free press as long as it speaks the truth, and does not try to tear down our government and its institutions.
“He is your best friend. Why kick him?”
The Klan viewed the Immigration Act of 1924 as a great victory, Erickson wrote, but ultimately it would eliminate one of the Klan’s “main rallying cries.”
Congress passed the act to limit the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States through quotas based on national origins. It completely banned immigrants from Asia, and increased visas for people from Britain and Western Europe.
The Klan counted other political successes in the 1920s. It ran hundreds of candidates for local and state offices. Voters elected Klan members as mayors, school board and city council members, sheriffs and lawmakers, Rothman wrote.
Gov. Edward Jackson of Indiana and Gov. Clifford Walker of Georgia were Klansmen, as were U.S. Sens. Earle Mayfield of Texas and Rice Means of Colorado. The Klan controlled the Oregon and Indiana legislatures, Rydell said.
But the Klan ran into trouble when David Stephenson, the powerful Grand Dragon of Indiana, was convicted in 1925 of the kidnapping, brutal rape and murder of a young woman, his secretary. The scandal shocked members who thought the Klan was committed to high morality. In addition, Rothman wrote, Klan leaders ran local and state chapters like dictators and some stole money.
By the end of the 1920s, Klan membership had fallen drastically.
The Klan had one “last gasp” effort to attract members, Erickson wrote, when New York Gov. Al Smith, a Catholic, won the Democratic Party nomination for president in 1928.
“The violence instigated by the Klan, especially in the Deep South, as well as the intimidations, arson and cross-burnings, helped lead to the Klan’s demise,” Erickson wrote in the Autumn 2014 issue of Montana magazine. “So, too, did the pretense of championing American principles while inflicting terror on those who failed to meet the Klan’s narrow definition of what it meant to be American.”
And the Klan was expensive – members had to pay dues, taxes and buy robes and hoods, Erickson wrote. Many decided to drop the Klan, while keeping membership in the Masons, Odd Fellows or other fraternal organizations, which also offered secret rituals and business contacts.
Another self-defeating factor in Montana, Erickson said, was that Terwilliger was such a stickler for Klan rules that he kicked out some prominent members in Harlowtown for being born in Canada.
Though the Klan faded in Montana, the prejudices it championed survived.
In 1950, a famed opera singer, Dorothy Maynor, came to Bozeman to perform. Maynor, daughter of a black minister, had performed with the New York Philharmonic and Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia symphonies, according to documents found by Rachel Phillips of the Gallatin History Museum.
Esther Nelson, then a member of the Bozeman Community Concert Association, wrote that she took Maynor to the Baxter Hotel, “only to be told by the desk clerk that no blacks were allowed.” Nelson asked to speak to the owner, who affirmed, “no blacks allowed.”
“I was extremely embarrassed,” Nelson wrote. Maynor “withstood the insult gracefully,” she wrote, and stayed at the home of the university’s vocal director.
Today Montana has come a long way in fighting bigotry. Martin Luther King Day is a recognized holiday. School children celebrate Native American Heritage day. Indian Education for All is part of every school’s curriculum. Godfrey Saunders, a black educator, was Bozeman High’s principal for 13 years.
White supremacists, a tiny but persistent minority, still make headlines from time to time. In 2004, Bozeman residents awoke to flyers headlined “Missing” with a picture of a white girl, sending a message that the white race is dying out. In 2005, white separatist candidate Kevin McGuire of the National Alliance ran for the Bozeman School Board, receiving 157 votes out of more than 4,000 votes cast.
In 2009, eight white supremacists masked their faces with bandanas and sunglasses to protest on the Gallatin County Courthouse steps, giving Nazi salutes and yelling “White power!” Three weeks later, an outpouring of hundreds of Bozeman residents responded with a march for tolerance and diversity, chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, all this hate has got to go.”
Erickson said we need to be careful about drawing straight parallels between the Klan of the 1920s with the “so-called alt-right of today,” because the times and context are so different.
“Certainly the anti-immigrant sentiment is there,” she wrote, “although for the Klan of the 1920s, Catholics were the enemy, and for the white supremacists today, it’s Muslims.”
This week MSU brought in speaker Dalia Mogahed, a Muslim scholar, to talk on “Islamophobia: A Threat to All.”
One Muslim woman attending the talk was Shadmani Amin, who has lived in Bozeman 28 years, is a U.S. citizen and wears a headscarf.
Amin has been active in the Bozeman Interfaith Forum for eight years, and has seen it grow dramatically. Muslims are treated better in educated college towns like Bozeman and Missoula, she said.
“There were a couple occasions people screamed at me, ‘Go back to Iraq,’” she said, smiling because she’s from Bangladesh. “But I get more positive comments than negative comments.”
On Friday, the Montana Racial Equity Project held an all-day forum at the Bozeman Public Library to discuss race and justice in Montana and to confront “our nation’s legacy of racism and the ways it persists.”
“We have certainly reached a point in American history where racism is not going to go unchallenged,” Rydell said. “The KKK, the alt-right, is not going to go unchallenged. It no longer has the podium. What’s worrisome is that it has any podium at all, or any adherents, in the 21st century.”