Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Ku Klux Klan in Massachusetts - 1920s

Columnists tend to have a working list of five to fifteen topics in various stages of completion. But sometimes an idea jumps the queue, so to speak, and demands to be written first. In this column, the hijacking of my curiosity was a consequence of a friend who asked a startling question: "David, did you know that the Ku Klux Klan was active in Maynard back in the 1920s?"

I did not. A spate of diligent verging on obsessive research on the topic turned up enough evidence to make a story. First clue came from the centennial-celebrating book on the history of Maynard: "The year 1925 saw unusual and unexpected happenings in our fair town, when from May through November, Maynard had some Ku Klux Klan activity in its midst. During this period meetings held in neighboring towns were attended by a number of our local citizens. On at least two occasions crosses were burned on top of Summer Hill. Fortunately for everybody, this idea has a short life locally."  

What I learned was that the second era Klan had its birth in 1915. One catalyst was the popular movie "The Birth of a Nation," which romanticized the post Civil War Klan. The driving force, however, especially outside what had been the Confederate states of the south, was a sense of displacement - loss of political and economic stability - of the white, Protestant population by immigrants, primarily Catholics and Jews from Europe.

In the hearts of those who joined or sympathized, America had been great when America was a rural, agricultural society of land-owning, church-going, alcohol-abstaining families (Prohibition had begun in 1919). All that was being challenged by an ever more urban, industrial society peopled by strangers who did not necessarily speak English, drank alcohol, went to movies, and were clearly 'not like us.' In a time of change, the Klan captured perfectly a simultaneous sense of being entitled and endangered.

Internet download of Klan march in Washington, DC, either 1925 or 1926.
Note display of American flags, which was standard for the Klan in that era.
Many joined. By its peak, around 1925, membership in the Ku Klux Klan numbered an estimated four to six million, or roughly one in ten adults. In Indiana and other states membership approached one-third, including many state legislators. Across the country, county and state fairs would have "Klan Days." Annual parades down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, drew 50,000 white-garbed marchers, men and women, thousands carrying American (not Confederate) flags in addition to wearing white robes.    

In eastern Massachusetts there had been a large influx of Irish and French-Canadian Catholics in the mid- to late-1800s, followed by Italian and Polish Catholics after the turn of the century. Locally, Klan activities were mostly anti-Catholic, which triggered strong anti-Klan responses. One newspaper described it as the Knights of Columbus against the Knights of the Invisible Empire. On July 2, 1924 anti-Klan protesters threw rocks at and broke up an initiation ceremony in Stow. Long-time Maynard residents can recount stories told by their older relatives of seeing burning crosses atop Summer Hill (a treeless cow pasture at the time) back in 1925.

That same summer of 1925 saw several Klan rallies in Sudbury, on the farm property of one family that had land on the Sudbury/Framingham border. This was to culminate in a major gathering of some 150-200 men - members and new initiates - on August 9th. Anti-Klan activists attacked cars with rocks and clubs. Some Klan members responded with gunfire, resulting in five men being injured, one seriously. Sudbury and Framingham police responded by rounding up 75 Klan members (including the Sudbury police chief's son!). Guns were confiscated. Sixteen men were required to post $200 bail, paid for by the state Klan organization, but in the end there was not sufficient evidence to bring anyone to trial.

Nationally, the second era Klan abruptly collapsed in the late 1920s after numerous scandals including fiscal misbehavior by leadership, evidence of bribing government officials, and a notorious kidnapping, rape and murder case in Indiana. By 1930, national membership was estimated at under 30,000 and declining.

A third era Klan arose in the 1960s as very loosely connected chapters, primarily in the southern states, symbolized by association with the Confederate flag, in opposition to civil rights and voting rights for African-Americans. The Klan exists presently as white supremacy organizations in many states but without any semblance of national coordination, estimated at 10,000 individuals.      

RESEARCH ON THE SECOND ERA KU KLUX KLAN

A lengthy scholarly discourse on the rise of the second era Ku Klux Klan as a quasi-fascist organization is posted at http://www1.assumption.edu/ahc/1920s/Eugenics/Klan.html.

An account of the Worcester event, 1924: http://massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=302.

An account of the Sudbury event, 1925: https://sudbury.ma.us/services/news_story.asp?id=259.

Kathleen M Blee authored a book: Women of the Klan. An excerpt is posted at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug97/blues/klan3.html.

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