Klan never far from US politics

By Philip Bump

The Ku Klux Klan has been trying to influence the American political scene for decades. Photo / AP
The Ku Klux Klan has been trying to influence the American political scene for decades. Photo / AP

In the United States in 1923 and 1924, candidates from both parties who were explicitly endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan ran for governor in Texas, Arkansas, Maine, Arizona and Michigan. Candidates for governor in Kansas and mayor in Minneapolis and Houston were also rumoured to have the Klan's backing, though, at least in some cases, the men denied the claim. A candidate for city commissioner in Houston won election with the Klan's backing; three opposed by the Klan won, too.

In New Jersey, Frank Appleby won the endorsement of the Klan for his 1924 race for the US House after his opponent was "visited by a Klan delegation which demanded that he discharge his secretary, McGrath, on the grounds that he was a Catholic", according to a New York Times account from 1924. Major Stanley Washburn stuck by McGrath. Appleby won - but died before he could take office.

In Kansas that same year, William Allen White, the Progressive editor of the Emporia Gazette, decided to challenge the Republican nominee for governor, Ben Paulen, on the grounds that Paulen "had received Klan support in the primary, had prevented the Republicans from adopting an anti-Klan resolution and 'by silence has further tied the Klan to him and disgraced his party in Kansas'," in White's estimation.

White lost, too.

Charles Bowles ran for mayor of the city of Detroit in 1924, with the Klan promising "a national fete" should he win. In that election, the New York Times reported in 1930, the Klan tried to ally with black and Jewish voters to oppose the Roman Catholics. Bowles lost, won in 1930 - and was recalled eight months into his tenure.

On Monday, after Donald Trump declined to reject support from white supremacists in an interview with CNN, it was noted that his father Fred Trump was arrested in 1927 after a Klan march in Queens became violent.

Contemporaneous photographs of the event show New York police confronting men wearing white hoods.

The marchers had been asked not to wear their hoods, but they did anyway. Newspapers suggest that 1000 members of the Klan marched in the Memorial Day parade - a thousand men and women, in a borough of New York City, marching in Klan garb in 1927.

It makes more sense when you consider that the Klan was making political endorsements at the same time. The Times noted the year prior that the Klan's candidates for school board in Des Moines had a rough run of luck in the elections that year.

Appleby, the House candidate from New Jersey who died before taking office? He was endorsed by the "Ku Klux Klan of Monmouth County", an organisation that's presented more like an offshoot of the Royal Order of Moose than a hate group.

Even then, of course, the Klan was controversial. A number of candidates denied or rejected endorsements from the group. In an editorial, the Washington Post called upon Democrats and Republicans to "cut out the Klan", as you might a tumour. "So long as such an intolerable body dares to raise its head among us," the New York Times wrote in 1924 after the Maine gubernatorial election, "there is nothing for it but to strike our hardest at it in Maine and every other State." Black voters that year warned incumbent President Calvin Coolidge that they'd oppose Klan-backed candidates regardless of party - that they'd vote against their "historical allegiance" to Coolidge's Republicans, should a Republican declare support for the Klan.

Over time, the role of the Klan faded to the background. Candidates occasionally explicitly or tacitly welcomed the Klan's backing (for example: John Patterson, who was elected governor of Alabama in 1958 with the Klan's support) but often without it. Former members of the Klan continued to hold office for years; West Virginia's Robert Byrd served until 2010.

The man whose mantle the Republican candidates this year are vying to assume, Ronald Reagan, was offered the support of the Klan in both 1980 and 1984. "I have no tolerance whatsoever for what the Klan represents," he said in 1980 after a meeting with Jesse Jackson. "Indeed, I resent them using my name." Four years later, he spoke in even clearer language.

"Those of us in public life can only resent the use of our names by those who seek political recognition for the repugnant doctrines of hate they espouse," Reagan said. "The politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry practiced by the Klan and others have no place in this country, and are destructive of the values for which America has always stood."

Only 60 years prior, when Reagan was already a teenager, the Times ran an editorial excoriating Coolidge for his silence on the issue of the Klan.

"[The Klan] is already weakening," the editors wrote. "But it shrinks and dissolves most rapidly where men and women are bold enough to fight it openly."

They continued, "What he is obviously consenting to do" through his silence, "is to accept as many votes as he possibly can get, without inquiring too curiously into the motives or hopes of the men and women who cast them."

- Washington Post, Bloomberg

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