Tuesday, November 28, 2023

‘Defend Against All Enemies’: When Nativism and Moral Panic Fueled the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Mendocino County

Thousands of Klan members in 1921 gather near Chicago for an initiation ceremony [Picture from the Chicago Tribune Historical Archive]

The Ku Klux Klan— these three syllables carry with them the crushing weight of American terror, trauma, and violence brought upon our black countrymen by a mobilized group of white supremacists.

The common packaging of that history in the stars and bars of the American South creates the illusion that the Klan’s ideas and influence were restricted to the land of the Lost Cause.

In fact, the Klan found a home right here, in Mendocino County, a landscape removed from the African slave trade but populated by a people during the 1920s equally vulnerable to the intoxicating narratives of nativism and scapegoating.

The 1920s would see hundreds of Mendocino County residents don white robes, attend initiation ceremonies, and gaze upon burning crosses glowing in the hills above Willits, Ukiah, Fort Bragg, and other areas. 

Mendocino County’s Ku Klux Klan was a product of the Second Klan era, one not as much defined by violence, but giving venue and voice to a resentment born of immigration, economic collapse, and a changing moral landscape that can be seen played out in the headlines of yore. 

The Mother Tongue: The Cultural Forces that Fueled the Klan’s Growth in Mendocino County

The movie poster for Birth of a Nation [From Wikicommons]

The Second Klan era was born of a watershed moment in American cinema. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation also called The Clansman was a film that depicted the Ku Klux Klan as an insurgent force fighting the heavy hand of the Yankee North, and trying to keep the past alive. 

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On Friday, February 4, 1916, the Ukiah Dispatch Democrat included a notice to their readers that The Clansman would be screened in town that night and twice the following day. The notice described the film as a “thrilling portrayal of the Ku-Klux-Klan, the famous night riders of the reconstruction period in the south following the Civil War.” The notice’s last words were “Get seats early,” suggesting there would be high demand to see the film.

European immigrants sought American soil in the early 20th century for the innumerable opportunities the New World came to represent. Established Americans watched these waves come ashore and were concerned the New World was starting to resemble the Old World they had fled.

A brief op-ed entitled “Illiterate Immigrants” appeared in the May 25, 1912 edition of the Mendocino Beacon that exemplified a growing American skepticism towards the new wave of immigrants that reportedly began after the Spanish-American war.

Two and a quarter million immigrants unable to read and write were said to have joined the American experiment since the Spanish-American War with “their only means of communication was the spoken word in their mother tongue.” The author said that this resulted in these immigrant populations congregating in “foreign-speaking, foreign-thinking communities.” The author expressed concern this dynamic would leave these populations “wholly dependent for information upon a fellow countryman’s word of mouth” leaving them especially liable to exploitation.

This illiteracy, the writer argued, “shuts them out from most opportunities for bettering their conditions” leading them to “work for the lowest rate.” The great number of immigrants “depress the general level of wages in the industries they enter”, the writer claimed.

The writer went on to argue illiteracy should be used as a marker to identify “desirable” immigrants asserting “illiteracy raises a strong presumption that he has been badly conditioned socially and politically.”

Old World prejudices proved a potent force across the American landscape during this time period. Perhaps there is no more enduring form of bigotry in the Judeo-Christian paradigm as the distrust of practitioners of the Jewish faith. The Second Klan saw an opportunity to draw more members by including an anti-Jewish sentiment in their philosophies. 

The tensions within Mendocino County regarding Judaism can be seen explicitly in a church’s promotional blurb describing their upcoming sermon appearing in the Ukiah Dispatch Democrat on April 1, 1927. Parishioners could expect a special sermon delivered by Reverend A.A. Doak entitled, “Giving the Jews A Square Deal”. 

The sermon would be “drawing facts and statements from the Scriptures and recent local events concerning the Jewish people.” Reverend Doak’s sermon “promised to dispel malice and ill-feeling that may exist among his audience toward this race.”

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Ku Klux Klan meeting in Bear Valley, ca.1920 [Photograph from both “University of Southern California. Libraries” and “California Historical Society”]

The beginning of the 20th century in America marked a rise in divorce, adultery, and alcoholism. The Klan used this anxiety to its advantage espousing family values in a world they claimed was threatening to tear them apart. 

If a Mendocino Coast resident picked up the Mendocino Beacon on November 23, 1923, they might have been alarmed at the headline that read “Divorces Increase 35 Percent in Six Years”. 

The article’s subtitle provided a factoid that might have been difficult to face: “Marital Failures Greatly Outnumbered the Weddings”. 

There are innumerable examples in Mendocino County periodicals between 1915-1925 that tell the story of a divorce between a man and woman that involved adultery, the information published in a periodical for the community to see. 

One example in the Ukiah Dispatch Democrat from their June 2, 1922 edition said “Henry E. Morrison has filed a complaint in divorce against Almire E Morrison alleging desertion and infidelity…”  A casual reader of these periodicals could conclude that adultery was tearing the fabric of marriage apart, another example of moral degradation that seemed unstoppable.

The November 1, 1916 edition of the Fort Bragg Advocate ran an info-tisement entitled “Why California Should Vote Dry”. The editorial provided a litany of facts that aimed to attribute society’s ills to alcohol consumption:

  • Out of 300 convicts in the penitentiary of Alabama, 281 say they owe their convict stripes to the use of liquor.” 
  • “Of the 20,000 destitute men on the streets of New York City, a straw vote taken by the charity organization shows that 12,000 ascribe their destitution to intemperance.”
  • “Drinkers imagine that the glass of beer or whiskey rests and strengthens them, but our scientists have shown THAT IS A MISTAKE. They are really numbed and weakened.”
  • “A famous attorney of the time, W.W. Brien, is quoted saying, “…the record shows  that in 49 OUT OF EVERY 50 OF THESE MURDER CASES I had charge of ALCOHOL DID THE CRIME.”

“The Klan is NOT a Mob”- The Klan Calls on Mendocino County Residents to Join Their Ranks

Santa Paula, Ku Klux Klan initiation on hills behind town, 10 June 1924. Numerous figures dressed in hooded Ku Klux Klan robes stand or kneel in a circle. A large cross and a US flag are in the middle. [Photograph from the Museum of Ventura County]

The second phase of the Klan utilized a robust public information campaign to rebrand. Instead of a domestic terrorist organization striking fear into black families of the South, the Second Klan packaged themselves as a group working to uphold “pure Americans” They modeled themselves after existing fraternal organizations and inserted themselves into civic life. 

On Wednesday, August 5, 1925 the Fort Bragg Advocate published a press release composed by H.G. Grannis calling himself the “Field Officer of the Invisible Empire. Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc., Realm of California.”

Grannis wrote he represented the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan  “in Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake Counties” that he described as “under my personal supervision.”

The Second Klan’s principles were lined out for the reading public:

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  • The Tenets of the Protestant Christian religion.
  • Supremacy of the white race in America.
  • Protection of our pure American Womanhood.
  • Closer relationship between Capital and American labor.
  • Prevention of unwarranted strikes by foreign labor agitators.
  • The upholding of the Constitution of the United States of America, and all laws passed in conformity there to.
  • The safeguarding of our American public schools.
  • The development and promotion of pure Americanism.
  • Education for worthy American citizenship
  • Most stringent limitation of foreign immigration.
  • Protection of the weak and innocent and defense of the helpless.
  • Free speech, free press, and freedom of assemblage.
  • Eternal separation of church and state. 

Grannis, seemingly rebutting criticism in the local press, wrote “The Klan stands or falls on those principles and not any wild stories of outrages flared across newspaper headlines.”

The press release took a reassuring tone attempting to persuade the public of the Klan’s benevolence stating, “The Klan is NOT a Mob”, “The Klan is not here for the purpose of creating friction or ill will”, “and “It is not here to arouse religious antagonisms.”

“The Klan is made up entirely of White Men born in the United States of America,” Grannis wrote characterizing its members as “assuming duties in citizenship and obligations to home and country.”

Hoping to correct negative characterizations of the Klan, Grannis wrote “The opposition to the Klan comes from two sources….the IGNORANT and MISGUIDED.” Grannis’s describes those critical of the Klan as “the vicious, the depraved, criminals (in and out of prison—most out) crooked politicians and POWERS and FORCES that would crush Free Government and Freedom of Worship in the Dust.”

Grannis also writes at length of the Klan’s membership’s utilization of hoods to maintain its member’s anonymity. He argued the public at large assumed criminal intent making members “extremely anxious to lift the hood.” Klan members were concerned that publicly identifying themselves would interfere with their work. 

The Mendocino Beacon reported in their July 4, 1925 issue that a number of residents had received an invitation to a Ku Klux Klan Boonville initiation ceremony scheduled that evening.

“It was reported that a large number of members of the order from outside districts will be present,” the brief article explained.

On December 17, 1924 the Fort Bragg Advocate published a small article entitled “K.K.K. Organized at County Seat”. Reportedly a “branch of the Ku-Klux Klan was organized in Ukiah” the previous Monday and the attendees were “sworn to secrecy” leaving “definite details of the meeting” difficult to obtain.

Of the fifty to sixty attendees, twenty-five to thirty attended resulting in an initiation ceremony that would be held in the upcoming days. 

On July 7, 1926, the Fort Bragg Advocate wrote of a five-day celebration in the town describing it as the “most eventful celebrations that the city of Fort Bragg has ever held.” 

The celebration was hosted by the town’s American Legion, a civically-minded organization made up of veterans of American wars. 

Attendees of the celebration would have seen carnival rides, sideshows, and a boxing match. A dance was held and a parade was replete with floats and decorated automobiles. 

Embedded in a surprisingly long and detailed narrative of the celebration was evidence of the Second Klan’s successful integration with the civic life of Mendocino County. 

A flag-raising ceremony brought attendees together on Sunday in front of Fort Bragg’s City hall. The city was presented with a new silk flag donated by the Sequoia Post of the American Legion. 

At one o’clock residents gathered around while a patriotic oath was read. 

Looking up at the new Stars and Stripes, the attendees pledged to “support its constitution; to obey its laws; to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.”

Some attendees might have had drifting eyes during the recitation of the “American’s Creed”, and they might have taken note of the flagpole Old Glory was raised upon. They might have remembered that it was the local chapter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan that had erected it. 

Despite the public’s misgivings H.G. Grannis had attempted to disprove in his press release, it was clear the Klan had successfully integrated itself into Fort Bragg’s civic life. Working in tandem with the American Legion and the City of Fort Bragg, the Klan became part of a civically-minded infrastructure despite a history wrought with violence. 

“The Call of the Fiery Cross”- Mendocino County Residents Answer the Callings of the Klan

KKK Members at a cross burning in Denver around 1921 [Photograph from Denver Library Digital Collections]

Reports from this time describe the ominous and provocative image often associated with the Ku Klux Klan— the glow of a cross burning in the Mendocino night. These crosses were burned to represent initiation ceremonies, often attended by hundreds, and took place from the coast to the inland valleys representing the Klan’s successful integration into Mendocino County’s community.

A small informational blurb from the Ukiah Republican Press’s January 28, 1925 edition entitled “Organized Here” stated that “a burning cross was seen on the hills to the west of Ukiah Wednesday and it is understood the Ku Klux Klan organized here that evening.” 

The blurb implied the burning cross was related to some form of initiation stating, “the number taken in is not known, nor is it certain who were the leaders in the movement.”

A March 4, 1925 report from the Fort Bragg Advocate described a Ku Klux Klan ceremony that drew the attention of Fort Bragg’s entire business district.

“This ceremony occurred the previous Sunday evening around eight o’clock when onlookers described a fiery cross being set ablaze “at the extreme north end of Franklin street on the banks of Pudding Creek, but plainly visible from the business district.”

The burning cross drew a large crowd, who initially believed the flames to be an automobile fire. Gathered around the cross, “a mammoth blazing cross was seen flaring forth on the west slope of Bald Hill near the summit. 

Some spectators using field glasses were able to see an estimated two hundred people “gathered about this large burning cross all wearing the “white regalia worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan.” 

The article stated that “the burning of the “fiery cross” by Klansman signifies an additional one hundred new members have been added to the organization.”

The Mendocino Beacon April 11, 1925 edition revealed that the burning cross illuminated the previous Sunday night on Little River Road south of Mendocino and Caspar. The writer implied they had actually seen the cross themselves. They wrote that the Little River Road cross was “plainly visible from this place.”

This was reported “the first one to be seen in this section and created quite a bit of excitement.” 

The opening line of an article from the July 8, 1925 issue of the Fort Bragg Advocate read, “A beautiful ceremony and a beautiful setting over which a full moon shone, marked the open air initiation of the Knight of the Ku Klux Klan in Anderson Valley near Boonville last Saturday Evening.”

The writer painted an evocative portrait of the ceremony: “To the casual onlooker it was…solemn and impressive and the white-robed clansman, moving about in the glare of the huge fiery cross lent an air of ghostliness to the affair.

There was reportedly two hundred vehicles associated with the event that actually included three initiation ceremonies that evening including the Women of the K.K.K., the Knights, and the American Crusaders. 

On October 24, 1925, The Fort Bragg Advocate reported a “monster open air initiation ceremony of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” took place in Willits. Reportedly, “from almost any vantage point could be seen the huge fiery cross that looked down from the top of a high mountain to the north of Willits.” 

Thousands of spectators were said to have attended the event assisted by a special train that ran from Fort Bragg “which carried a great many Klansmen from the Coast section.”

Ukiah is well-known for a prominent “U” in the western hills of town. A report from the Ukiah Dispatch Democrat from Friday March 12, 1926 reported residents noticed a blazing cross placed at the location of the “U” that some guessed “must have been some ninety feet long.”

The article quoted H.G. Grannis, the Klan’s regional field representative, as saying “the burning of the cross has a certain significance to Klan members and carries a message understood by all of them.”

Reviewing these reports, Mendocino County was clearly targeted by the Ku Klux Klan’s recruitment efforts and those efforts found success. It is difficult to imagine the symbolic power of a burning cross lightening up the deep dark of 1920s Mendocino County. Looking upwards at the inky black of darkened hills and instead of nothing, seeing a symbol so often associated with faith aflame. 

“A State Menace”- Despite the Klan Making Inroads, Mendocino County Residents Push Back

Altar with K eagle in black robe at a meeting of nearly 30,000 Ku Klux Klan members from Chicago and northern Illinois around 1920 [Picture from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs]

The Ku Klux Klan might have repackaged themselves, but many Mendocino County residents did not buy what they were selling. Their polarizing rhetoric was seen by some as undemocratic and promoting a world of divisions of racial and religious lines. Mendocino County had been infiltrated by the Klan, but it is important to realize its membership and philosophy was in no way the norm, nor left unchallenged. 

A column entitled the “Little River Drift” written by a “Special Correspondent” of the Mendocino Beacon reported an incident in which “Night Riders or Sleep Walkers or Ku Klux Klan were active in the city last night.” 

Supposedly, a group of “sheeted and hooded ghosts descended upon the residents of Neighbor Triplett.” What occurred at Neighbor Triplett was not known.

The day after the incident the writer reported seeing traffic coming and going from the residence with “some official looking man aboard”. The writer wanted to inquire as to the matter, but they were “too busy driving pickets” when they passed by.

The Ukiah Republican Press featured a page called “The Press Editorial Page” that provided the editor the freedom to share their perspective on the events of the moment. 

On November 8, 1922, an op-ed was published entitled “A State Menace”, a phrase used to describe the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in California. A Democratic candidate for California Governor reportedly got a “big vote” the day before which the writer attributed to “the stand Mr. Woolwine took against the Ku Klux Klan. 

The writer stridently claimed, “[C]ivilization is opposed to this meaning, growing, organizing of masked outlaws, who would abolish courts and plunge the United States into a religious and racial war.

The Ku Klux Klan’s principle of “lawlessness”, the writer argued, “arouses the mob spirit and its policy of secrecy and masking provides a cloak behind which acts of outlawry and crimes are committed.” 

The writer described a community living in fear. He wrote, “[E]very day there comes to me some terrorized man, asking permission to arm himself because he is afraid of the klan.” The writer feared, “If the Ku Klux Klan continues to grow and the retaliatory measures also multiply, then we will have in the United States the dangers of a race war.” 

America’s “protection to every man in his civil and religious rights” was directly under threat by the Klan the writer asserted and he condemned any group that would “take the law into its own hands.”

The Ukiah Republican Press took aim at the Klan often. On January 10, 1923, an op-ed simply titled “The Ku Klux Klan” described the Klan as “cowardly, murderous, hooded outlaws” after they were found to be responsible for the mutilation of a Louisana war veteran. 

The writer said the Klan “has no place in the United States and they should be hunted down and exterminated.” 

The purpose of the Klan, the writer claimed, was to “array race against race; religion against religion, to override the courts of the land and to strike fear to hearts of the citizenry.” 

To tackle the Klan, the writer said “no legislation is too drastic to be directed against these man-slayers and no law-abiding person should fail to do everything possible to see the organization destroyed.”

An article published in the Ukiah Republican Press on October 15, 1924, provides the most explicit reference to the Ku Klux Klan threatening Mendocino County residents. The article entitled “Ku Klux Klan Sent Warning to Rancher” describes a threatening note received by a resident unfazed by the Klan’s veiled threats.

The article describes the letter in detail as a note on a “salmon-colored card” placed inside a white envelope arriving on a mail train that ran between Eureka and San Francisco. A graphic on the note depicted a “Klansman astride a horse, the Klansman carrying a blazing torch.” Surrounding the image were the words “Just, Be An American; Liberty, Join the Klan.” Near the Klansman’s hood in small print, the phrase, “Yesterday, today and forever” was written. The name of the Ukiah rancher who was the recipient of the letter was written in what the writer described as a “disguised hand” near the image of the Klansman.

A liberty bell was emblazoned on the back of the card along with a “country log cabin schoolhouse” and the image of the bible. A number of Klansmen were surrounding the schoolhouse– one carried a banner that said: “Keep the Bible in the schools” and another waved the American flag. On one end of the school’s roof was a Klansman and on the other end, Satan was in a sitting posture. An inscription towards the bottom read of the card said, “The white-robed army, protectors of the public schools.” 

The writer of the article interviewed the letter recipient, who seemed cut from a certain cocksure cloth one would expect from a 1920s Mendocino Rancher. The rancher reportedly said he did not take the matter “seriously” and would continue living as he had always done. 

The rancher could not identify anything he would have done to anger the Klan and said he would “continue living exactly like had always lived.” 

In true Mendocino County fashion, the rancher described being prepared if things got hairy: 

“I have probably 100 shotgun shells loaded with buckshot and two excellent shotguns and these I will not hesitate to use with as deadly execution as I, with the help of my son, can use them, if these marauders should come to my home. I am not worrying, nor, on the other hand, am I going to take any chances.” 

“Yesterday, today and forever”- The Ku Klux Klan, a Troubled Past, a Path Forward

The photograph shows a man holding a baby in a Ku Klux Klan outfit as another places hand on baby’s head; three Klansmen stand in the background on the platform from 1924  [Picture from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs]

The Second Phase of the Ku Klux Klan came to thrive in a cultural milieu marked by shifting sands. The infusion of new nations called to question the status quo sparking anxiety, forcing the nation to broaden what it meant to be an American.

The rise of the city and the toil of the farmer stood as an aberrant product of a world gone wrong and the Ku Klux Klan stood as a testament to the rural life many feared was being left behind. 

A rancher unsure if his steer would sell; a pastor worried his flock was thinning; a man looking askance at the neighbors speaking a foreign tongue— The Ku Klux Klan became a living embodiment of America’s collective unease.

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  1. WW1 and Spanish Flu created a traumatic generation. Alcohol and violence became common. Prohibition lit the match for the most lawless decade in our history. You cannot fight violence with violence. Race is a joke until people create fear. Just watch children play with children of different race, hatreds are taught, not a natural human trait. Propaganda, censorship, blame, intimidation. I’m making a poster of the Swastika with these four words as the feet on that symbol. If you use Hitler’s tool box you exactly like Hitler.

  2. In the early 2000’s I heard that the KKK had a presence in Mendo County, so I started looking and sure enough there was a listing in the phone book for a chapter in Ukiah.

    I have no idea what I would have said but I called the number anyhow because I was kind of blown away it was so out in the open, but the number was disconnected.

    The Klan are scum.

  3. Thank you for this very well written article. I was told years ago that one of my uncles was one of the hooded ones on bald hill. You would not have known it if you had met him. He was one of the mellowest people I have ever known. Strange how some people succumb to mob think.

  4. as history proves the klan were angry democrats. look it up for those who choose to censor this. sadly, little has changed… just the tactics.

    • You’re a complete fool if you think there weren’t people from both parties involved with that group. But you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s just Republicans now, because they’re the only party that continues to sit on the fence over this issue. Find me one Democrat that openly supports segregation today.

  5. Excellant report, Mr. LaFever! Lake County also supported a local Clan, and as recently as the 1990s there were crosses burned on the lawns of African-
    American citizens. An open question remains about the foundations of KKK thinking in the local Republican Party that supported a member of the “Proud Boys” in the 2020 election for district supervisor, and opponents to public health programs for harm reduction and pandemic disaster prevention services. With apologies to all the fine gentlemen we admire, it still seems to be the reductive reactionary response of the men-tality in charge (with no accountability, for the most part, in the county government). Kudos to Mendofever!

  6. These guys (KKK) sound like echoes of the “Know Nothing” party, which dominated cities back east in the mid eighteen hundreds. They thought the immigrants (especially Catholic and foreign-speaking) that were flooding into places like Philadelphia and New York would destroy American values and thus immigrants were targeted with hatred. America’s only male saint, Bishop John Neumann worked feverishly to help immigrants find jobs, get their kids educated in schools that accepted them (thus founding many schools), and other numerous ways such as housing and just general adjustment. Bishop Neumann spoke several languages, which was why he was able to do this.
    Ironic that our Mendocino citizens complained about ignorant newcomers and different races, while they themselves were alien to the real old-timers, Native Americans. At the time, Native Americans were still discriminated against and made to sit in a separate area in the movie theater, among many other indignities. That’s the thing about hatred, it is totally illogical.

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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