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A Brief History of the Ku Klux Klan in Orange County: Notes on the Banality of Evil

On January 14th, the Brea School Board will vote on the controversial question of changing the name of Fanning Elementary School, because it is alleged that William Fanning, the school’s namesake, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s (along with many prominent Orange Countians).

In order to give some much-needed historical context, and to better understand this strange and disturbing topic (the Ku Klux Klan in Orange County in the 1920s), I spent my winter break reading the definitive work on the topic, a 700-page doctoral dissertation entitled The Invisible Government and the Viable Community: The Ku Klux Klan in Orange County, California During the 1920s by Christopher Cocoltchos. I present here a summary of what I learned.

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The Second Ku Klux Klan

Many folks tend to think of the Ku Klux Klan as a monolithic organization; however, it’s important to recognize that the KKK has actually had three main incarnations throughout American history.

The first KKK was formed in the aftermath of the Civil War by disgruntled and defeated Confederate soldiers who were upset about newly freed African Americans and other changes happening in the South during the period known as Reconstruction. They, like all subsequent versions of the KKK, believed in white supremacy. This first Klan had died down by the 1870s.

Then, in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan was re-born in Georgia by a man named William Joseph Simmons, who was inspired by the first major American blockbuster film, The Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith. This hugely popular film was based on a best-selling novel called The Clansman by Thomas Dixon.

The Birth of a Nation, while an important technical achievement in the history of cinema, is also a profoundly racist movie—the heroes of the film are the Ku Klux Klan. This film was so successful that it re-kindled Americans’ interest in the KKK, and sparked a massive resurgence.

By the mid-1920s, an estimated 2-4 million Americans had joined their local Klavern, in cities and towns all over America—not just in the South, but also in the West. One of the places where the KKK proved quite popular in the 1920s was Orange County, California.

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The KKK Comes to the OC

Contrary to popular stereotypes, the folks who joined the KKK in Orange County in the 1920s were not psychotic “hillbillies” or outsiders. They were, in fact, prominent members of the community. Using a valid membership list of the Orange County Klan (obtained from the Library of Congress), Cocoltchos shows that the KKK attracted a wide range of some of the county’s most respected leaders.

“The Klan’s leadership was a stable, successful, middle class group of people whose religious leanings, if they had any, centered on the major evangelical Protestant denominations and whose political affiliations were predictably Republican in a traditionally Republican county,” writes Cocoltchos, “More importantly, the Klan’s leaders had a strong, enduring involvement in their town’s civic affairs.”

Take Brea, for example. According to Cocoltchos, “Five of the town’s first eight mayors were Klansmen as were six of the ten councilmen who sat on the board of trustees from 1924 to 1936. Klansmen dominated the other civic offices during these years, providing 50% of the city’s treasurers, 25% of the city’s engineers, 50% of its city clerks, 50% of it city marshals, and 67% of its fire chiefs.”

And then there was Fullerton: “Councilman W.A. Moore, Judge French, and Superintendent of Schools Plummer [yes, that Louis Plummer] joined the Klan in the latter part of 1923, and R.A. Mardsen entered in mid-1924. Civic leaders were especially eager to join. Seven of the eighteen councilmen who served on the council between 1918 and 1930 were Klansmen,” writes Cocoltchos.

But the real hot-spot of KKK activity in the OC was Anaheim. On the night of July 29th, 1924, in the city that would become home to The Happiest Place on Earth, this went down:

“Anaheim, now advertised nationally as a model Klan city, was chosen as the site for one of the largest Klan gatherings ever held in California. On the night of July 29, up to 20,000 persons from as far away as Bakersfield, San Bernadino, and San Diego gathered in Anaheim City Park to witness the initiation of over 1,000 new Klansmen. The ceremonies began with a parade from the nearby Santa Fe station…Led by the 75 piece Los Angeles Klan Marching Band, a long line of robed Klansmen, walking five abreast, solemnly proceeded down the Main Street and through the business section, to the tune of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’

The ceremonies were begun with an impressive fireworks display, dropped overhead by a couple of airplanes rented especially for the occasion. On the ground a huge cross nearly thirty feet high, and several other smaller crosses, were ignited and left to burn throughout the evening. Inside the rectangle a series of Klan leaders came forth and addressed the gathering, explaining the principles and purpose of their organization. Outside the rectangle Klansmen, their wives, and little Kluxers (junior Klansmen twelve to eighteen years old) circulated among the crowd, passing out or selling anti-Catholic literature and soliciting new members for their organization.” (“The Activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Anaheim, California 1923-1925” by Richard Melching published in Southern California Quarterly, 1974, by University of California Press on behalf of the Historical Society of Southern California.)

This was by no means the only Klan rally in north Orange County. Klan leaders and lecturers were drawing crowds in the thousands in Anaheim, Orange, and Fullerton. In 1925 a well-known Klan speaker addressed a crowd estimated at 5,000 people, in what is now Amerige Park in Fullerton. His topic was ‘What’s the Matter With America?’ Apparently “the alien influence” was the primary cause of America’s difficulties, and a solution was “limitation or a complete halt to immigration.”

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Why Did People Join the KKK?

According to Cocolthcos, the KKK had at least 1,200 members in Orange County at the height of its power in 1924. While the organization only allowed white Protestant Christians to join, its member- ship reflected a broad cross-section of the community’s white Protestant Christians, who joined the hooded order for a variety of reasons.

Fred B. Kern, a bicycle shop owner, was active in the Klan’s recruiting efforts, as a “kleagle.” He feared Catholic domination of the town.

Car repair shop owner Fred Davis was a member of the Masonic Lodge and loved secret organizations for their ritual. He was the Klan’s ritualist, and several Klansmen later said that Davis did a “beautiful job.”

R.W. Ernest was the editor of the Orange County Plain Dealer, one of the main newspapers in Anaheim. Ernest used the pages of his newspaper to promote Klan ideas and activities.

“Members of the Klan were urged to use their private influence in getting people to join the Klan,” said one former Klansman. According to another member, the KKK did its job so quietly and effectively “that a lot of people did not know who was a Klan member and who was not.”

According to Cocoltchos, although the KKK ideology was based on the racial supremacy of white Protestant Christians, it wasn’t exactly racism that separated Klan members from non-Klan members, because white Protestants dominated Orange County, and racism was pretty much normalized everywhere.

Take, for example, the way all white people in Orange County at the time treated the largest ethnic minority in the area, Mexican Americans:

Mexican Americans had to attend segregated schools and lived in segregated housing. On February 10, 1917 the board of trustees of the Anaheim School District voted “to segregate all the Mexican children and to maintain two grades for them.” The “Mexican School” was completed in 1921 and the segregation of Mexican school children became the norm throughout Orange County, until the landmark Supreme Court Case Mendez v. Westminster in 1947, which ended school segregation in California.

“Racist attitudes were an integral part of the perceptions of the entire white population of the county,” explains Coclotchos. Mexican Americans were generally seen as a subservient, cheap labor force, the unacknowledged back-bone of the county’s well-known citrus industry.

Japanese farmers were also the targets of the white population’s racism: “As early as 1919 the Orange County Farm Bureau advocated the total exclusion of Japanese immigrants and forever barring these immigrants from acquiring American citizenship.”

So, if racism wasn’t really the dividing line between Klan and non-Klan, what was? For some, it had to do with the threat of liquor (this was during Prohibition). The Klan was “dry” (or so it claimed) and its members often charged that the civic leaders of Anaheim and other towns were “wet” and “soft” on bootleggers and other crimes. The Klan saw itself as a strict “law and order” group.

The Prohibition issue was also connected with a fear of crime and an alleged, though non-existent, “crime wave.” Throughout 1921 and 1922, the Anaheim newspapers ran headlines such as: “Crime Epidemic Sweeping the County”, “No Abatement of Orgy of Crime”, “Criminality in County Increases”, “Criminals Coddled too Much, Murders Too Common!”

In fact, a closer look at actual crime data revealed that the alleged “crime wave” was basically non-existent; it was more the product of sensational journalism than social reality. Yet, fear is a powerful motivator.

Another component of the Klan’s ideology was anti-Catholicism. At a Klan rally in Fullerton in 1924, the speaker spoke against “the banning of the Bible from the public schools; attributing this to the influence of Rome.”

Fullerton businessman Dan O’Hanlon, an Irish Catholic, was infuriated by the speakers remarks. He stood up and called the speaker a “liar.”

“Several Klansmen and their friends began encircling O’Hanlon and yelling, ‘get that guy’ and ‘where is a tar bucket?'”

Fullerton police officers took him away from the angry crowd before fighting broke out and booked him for “disturbing the peace.” Some friends, including city attorney Albert Launer, interceded to obtain his release.

On that night, a fiery cross was burnt on the O’Hanlon lawn.

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Another factor influencing the Klan’s rise, according to Cocoltchos, was a series of political confrontations between the Klan and the more established political and economic leaders of Orange County, who may be called “the elite.” These folks included people like Samuel Kraemer, Thomas McFadden, Charles C. Chapman, and the Chamber of Commerce.

The anti-labor attitudes of the elite played a substantial role in the Klan’s development in Northern Orange County.

In Brea, the demise of an oil workers’ union coincided with many Brea oil workers joining the Klan.

“When they [oil workers] faced the prospect of wage reductions, job insecurity, and the loss of solidarity and control over their lives, the overtures of a group like the Klan, whose entire existence was rooted in a certain vision of civic betterment, seemed more welcome than they might otherwise have been. 23% of the Klan were oil workers,” writes Cocoltchos.

According to Cocolthcos, members of the Klan “believed the disorders in their community would be stopped only by the efforts of a civic-oriented group which would balance boosterism with a strict community moral order.”

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Reverend Leon Myers: Leader of the Klan

In fact, there were actually two Klans in Orange County—a small and relatively ineffective one that lasted from around 1920-1922 (it had about 200 members), and a much larger and more effective one that achieved real social and political power in 1924. This Klan was led by the charismatic Reverend Leon Myers, pastor of the First Christian Church in Anaheim.

“To Myers, the moral fervor of evangelical Protestant Christianity compelled the creation and maintenance of a more moral sense of community,” writes Cocoltchos, “Myers moralistic missionary tendencies were the heart of his character.”

Myers assumed charge of his Anaheim congregation in late June, 1922 and he “gained an aura of authority because of his ability to evoke strong feelings of inner conviction and commitment in his congregation.”

Under Myers’ leadership at the First Christian Church, four of seven members of the lay board of trustees became Klansmen as did three of six elders and seven of the twelve deacons.

On February 13, 1923, the Klan visited a sermon given by evangelist C.L. Vawter at Myers’ church: “A silent hooded procession to the altar presented the minister with a donation and a letter of gratitude…Vawter then praised the hooded order, and he read the letter to the congregation: ‘Wrong rules the land and waiting justice sleeps. God give us men! Men who serve not for selfish booty, but real men, courageous, who flinch not at duty…Then wrongs will be redressed, and right will rule the land.’”

In the next couple of months KKK crosses were burned in Anaheim, Fullerton, and Yorba Linda to alert the general populace to the Klan’s existence.

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Evidently, Myers and the other Klan leaders wanted to “make a Christian crusade out of it.”

According to Myers, the purpose of the Klan was “the creating in Anaheim of a better environment in which to promote the cause of Jesus Christ. For thirty years, as all the older citizens of Anaheim know, Anaheim’s record was a record of wild parties, saloons, booze, and crime. A ring of politicians ruled Anaheim. These leading citizens were of the lowest type. They were Rome controlled and liquor souzed.”

In 1924, four Klan members were elected to the Anaheim city council.

Flushed with success, the Klan became more overtly active. The Plain Dealer noted that three days after the election “a white covered auto bearing four figures in white drove through the streets…announcing an address at the Christian Tabernacle” by Colonel J. Rush Bronson, an official Klan lecturer.

The Anaheim council began firing city employees and replacing them, in most cases, with Klansmen. The Klan tightened its control over the city by putting their people in power.

Then the council added eleven policemen, increasing the force from four to fifteen men. Ten of the eleven appointees were Klansmen.

According to Lafeytte A. Lewis, who was opposed to the Klan, “Soviet Russia had nothing on Anaheim…You were judged as to whether you were a Klansman or not, by the grocery store you went to or the dry goods store…If you are not a member of the Klan and brushed an automobile in parking, you were immediately taken up to jail.”

The first ordinance passed by the Klan council “prohibited the manufacture, sale, purchase, storage, gift and transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes.”

The U.S.A. vs. the K.K.K.

Following the rise of the Klan to overt political power in Anaheim (and other neighboring cities), a group of civic leaders and Orange County District Attorney Alex Nelson, planned to take them down. Some of these leaders formed the U.S.A. club, in an attempt to counter the Klan’s claim of being “100 percent American.”

The anti-Klan coalition consisted of L.A. Lewis, Thomas McFadden, Reverend James Geissinger, Lotus Louden (editor of The Bulletin, Anaheim’s other newspaper), and members of the local Knights of Columbus such as Ernest Ganahl and Samuel Kraemer, as well as Father Patrick Browne of St. Boniface’s Catholic Church.

The anti-Klan forces reasoned that if the Klan’s secrecy had been a powerful factor in its successes, then unmasking it might take it down. They needed a list of members.

Different stories exist about how the list was obtained. Lewis’ claims he bought it directly from the “King Kleagle” of the Klan of the State of California for $700.

Armed with the list, the anti-Klan forces made effective use of it to expose and take down “The Invisible Empire,” the KKK.

Nelson revealed that some of the Anaheim councilmen who had been elected were Klan Members. The anti-Klan forces “based their attack on small town America’s tradition of free, open government as opposed to what they claimed was the Klan’s secret, corrupt, dictatorial government.”

Anaheim Methodist pastor Geissinger criticized the Klan as “revolting and totally un-American” and stated that bigotry and religious hatred had no place in Anaheim.

The local Lions, Rotary, and Elks clubs and the Masonic Lodge denounced the Klan as a menace to prosperity and an agent of bigotry. The American Legion post in Anaheim was the only civic or social group that the Klan dominated.

Nelson charged that the Klan, all across the country, was a “venal and commercial adventure” which always brought vigilantism in its wake, even to the point of condoning murder.”

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The U.S.A. club then submitted a petition to recall the Klan councilmen in Anaheim.

On recall election day Orange County Sheriff Sam Jernigan and District Attorney Alex Nelson provided extra armed guards to protect polling booths.

It was a decisive victory for the anti-Klan candidates. All the Klan councilmen and the Mayor were recalled by large margins.

Recalled Mayor Metcalf blamed the result on “ineligible Mexican” voters.

The whole Ku Klux Klan debacle deeply divided the citizenry of Anaheim for the remainder of the decade.

The pro-Klan newspaper The Plain Dealer folded after settling a libel suit against it for $90,000. Myers charged that a Catholic conspiracy had destroyed The Plain Dealer and praised the Klan as the “only hope of America.”

Later that year, however, Myers announced his resignation from the First Christian Church and accepted another church’s offer in Dodge City, Kansas.

Although it dealt the Klan a serious blow, the loss of Myers didn’t end the Klan in Orange County.

“From 1926 until 1930 the feud between the Klan and anti-Klan elements in Anaheim remained as intense as ever, particularly during the biennial elections in 1926, 1928, and 1930,” writes Cocolthcos, “In Brea, La Habra, and Fullerton, the Klan remained in power during the rest of the decade.”

Conclusion

In assessing the meaning and goals of the 1920’s Ku Klux Klan in Orange County, Cocoltchos comes to some startling conclusions. The Klan was responding to trends in their overwhelmingly white Protestant communities that were, in fact, not alien or “foreign” at all, but were the natural consequences of their own values and ideas.

“Klansmen, to avoid criticizing the basic values and traditions of white Protestant culture, or more accurately because they could not conceive of the possibility that their basic values were contradictory or often led to harmful results, perceived that the people espousing such disturbing trends could not be people like themselves, but were somehow different,” writes Cocoltchos.

I have sub-titled this article “Notes on the Banality of Evil” because it is a reference to philosopher Hannah Arendt’s groundbreaking book Eichmann in Jerusalem: Notes on the Banality of Evil which is about the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who was one of the chief facilitators of the Holocaust.

In Arendt’s book, she avoids the easy cliche of Eichmann as a “monster” or as someone entirely different from ordinary people. Instead, what makes her book so insightful (and disturbing) is that Eichmann is a painfully ordinary bureaucrat who, because he accepted, unthinkingly, certain popular premises, became complicit in atrocities.

Rather than portraying Eichmann as a vicious, bloodthirsty monster, Arendt portrayed the man as he was—ordinary. The fact that a man such as this could be involved in the destruction of millions of human beings shatters our neat categories, and forces us to consider profound moral questions like: what are the conditions under which an “ordinary” person can become complicit in atrocities? The book is haunting in its implications and relevance for our times, as is a serious reflection on the Ku Klux Klan in Orange County during the 1920s.

 

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Categories: Local News

1 reply »

  1. Thanks for a great article. I didn’t know there was so much klan activity in Fullerton and locally. It is important to know our true history in order to make necessary changes.

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