December 15, 2016
Well, so much for that secret, “mystic order” thing.
Leave it to one of the Bee & Herald’s dutiful “correspondents” of days past — those ladies who kept us informed about who had Sunday dinner where and who was in the hospital with a broken hip — to yank the hoods, Scooby-Doo style, right off the heads of the Ku Klux Klan.
I present to you a snippet of the Jefferson Bee’s Bristol Twp. report of Oct. 15, 1924:
“Mrs. Frank Bortz, Dean and Doris, Mrs. Frank Greiner, Marjorie and Leslie, Mrs. Cliff West, Zona and Ralph, also Mrs. Mont Cairns, Earl and Merl, were all guests at the Mrs. Ralph Kinsman home Wednesday evening while their husbands attended the Klan meeting in Churdan.”
As Shaggy might say, “Zoinks!”
Now, to be fair, what’s unclear is whether those heads of household 92 years ago were for certain bona-fide, cross-burning, gown-wearing Klansmen.
It’s entirely possible they were merely curious onlookers.
But the fact that the Bristol correspondent wrote about a gathering of the KKK in Greene County as if it was something as innocuous as a baseball game suggests that our local history has a darker side than most of us know or would care to admit.
Yes, Virginia, there was Klan in Greene County.
And for the first time in decades, it seems the conditions are right for it to pop up once again (that’s to say it ever truly left).
This isn’t about how you voted in the November election, although it’s no secret that the Klan — the nation’s oldest and most infamous of hate groups — openly celebrated President-elect Donald Trump’s win with an actual “victory parade” Dec. 3 in North Carolina.
The Klan hasn’t been this emboldened in decades.
That’s just a fact.
In just the first three weeks after the election last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded 867 incidents of hate.
Among some of us white folk, the fear is apparently quite palpable:
Is that Hispanic guy wearing construction clothes in all reality a drug lord in disguise?
Is there a suicide belt lurking under the jacket of every Muslim refugee?
Add a dash of Black Lives Matter and a pinch of LGBT issues, bring to a boil by talk radio and the Internet, and you have the perfect recipe for some old-fashioned discontent.
As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
How the Klan made inroads into Greene County in the 20th century — then even whiter than it is now — is a chapter in our history worth revisiting, if for no other reason than to show how stupid it is to hate en masse.
How ever did the KKK — an extinct secret society founded by Confederate army veterans to terrorize blacks in the South during Reconstruction — come to hold rallies in a pasture near Cooper throughout the summer of 1924?
Well, would you believe it started with a silent movie?
‘Jefferson’s biggest dramatic thrill’
That movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” arrived in Jefferson 100 years ago this year (Nov. 24-25, 1916, to be exact) to incredible fanfare.
This was a time when most movies ran only about 15 minutes in length, and a dime could get you into the theater.
But with “The Birth of a Nation,” director D.W. Griffith pioneered the art of the blockbuster.
At three hours, most people had never seen anything remotely like it.
Accordingly, the movie was picked to christen Jefferson’s newly renamed and remodeled opera house, the Majestic, at prices up to $1. (As a side note, the opera house is today’s Sierra Community Theatre, meaning those walls have witnessed the entire history of motion pictures.)
An 11-piece symphony orchestra accompanied the movie’s four showings in Jefferson over two days.
As another Jefferson newspaper, the Free Lance, noted on Page 1, the film established an entirely new art form: “the art of pantomimic screen spectacles with an orchestra score perfectly synchronized to the action.”
For a movie that had been out since February 1915, it proved to be worth every day and week of the wait.
The movie made $1,543.50 in Jefferson — over just two days — at a time when a new Model T cost $440.
The movie tells the saga of two families — one Northern, one Southern — as they endure the Civil War and then Reconstruction.
Even watching the movie today on YouTube after more than a century and knowing full well what happens to Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, you nevertheless still recoil when John Wilkes Booth raises that pistol to the president’s head.
“Many of the spectators wept audibly at times,” the Jefferson Bee reported on Nov. 29, 1916.
In one sweeping work of cinema that arrived to theaters in 12 reels, Griffith brought special effects, split screens, creative edits and close-ups to the movie industry.
Of course, “The Birth of a Nation” also happens to be the single-most racist movie ever made.
A rural Kentuckian by birth whose father had been a Confederate army officer, Griffith insisted he didn’t mean to offend.
And, clearly, he was on crack (or, given that it was 1915, opium).
In the Reconstruction half of the movie, we see the KKK form and gallop off to restore law and order — nay, civilization itself — from the clutches of sexually turbocharged black men now free to roam where they please in the South, all the way up to the halls of state legislatures. (Behold the scene in which one black legislator gnaws on a leg of fried chicken while conducting state business, the first order of which is letting black men marry white women.)
And for just that added touch, many of the film’s “blacks” are actually white actors in blackface.
An ad that ran in the Jefferson Bee in August 1916 touting the film’s four-day run in Perry proclaimed, “Every person who has witnessed this 8th Wonder of the World is telling of its greatness. It makes you love. It makes you hate. It makes a better American of you.”
It didn’t play in the nation’s theaters without controversy.
The Jefferson Herald in January 1922 ran an item about the film’s return to Des Moines, which had been met with threats to destroy the Royal Theatre if the showings commenced.
Even today, after a century of shock and awe in the entertainment industry, any screening of “The Birth of a Nation” is still typically met with protest.
PBS on Feb. 6 will premiere “The Birth of a Movement,” a new documentary about a crusade against Griffith’s film by William M. Trotter, a Harvard-educated black newspaper editor in Boston and an early advocate for civil rights.
The problem is, no less than President Woodrow Wilson gave his blessing to what appeared on the screen in Griffith’s film:
“It is like writing history with lightning,” Wilson is reported to have said after a special screening on March 21, 1915, at the White House. “And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
In Griffith’s worldview, the Klan was simply a means to Make America Great Again.
And across America, a staggering number of white Protestant citizens found themselves agreeing.
Welcome to our cozy Klavern
Before 1915, the KKK no longer existed in the United States.
Within a decade, the revived group boasted as many as 4 million members across the country.
By that time, the group’s hatred had expanded to mostly include Catholics, Jews and immigrants. Still, the movie became a tool used by the new Klan — let’s call it KKK 2.0 — to recruit members.
The film returned to Jefferson in late 1917.
Then it turned up in 1918 in Grand Junction.
In 1919, Churdan welcomed it.
Finally, “because of popular demand,” according to the newspaper, it returned again to Jefferson in 1922 for three days in April, only this time at prices every cinephile and closet racist could afford: 15 cents for the kids, 35 cents for adults.
Giving the people what they wanted, the Majestic’s management doubled down and brought “One Clear Call” to Jefferson in December 1922.
That movie promised a thrilling tale about the Klan. Ironically, “One Clear Call” was produced by Louis B. Mayer, a Jew.
Interestingly enough, 1922 was the year the first rumblings of Klan activity in Greene County began appearing in print.
“The Bee is curious to know what this is all about,” editor V.H. Lovejoy wrote in October 1922.
Lovejoy had previously held out hope that Iowans wouldn’t stoop to running around under cover of darkness in masks and gowns.
He dismissed the Klan as a get-rich scheme by promoters hawking robes that cost $1.25 for $6.50.
“Everybody knows that you can ‘get’ any man, and get his money, too, much easier, a hundred times easier, by appealing to his prejudices rather than his common sense,” Lovejoy wrote in October 1921.
That said, though, even Lovejoy had to concede that environmental conditions were right for something just so sinister. It was a time, he wrote, in which “discontent is running riot.”
On the surface, the Klan in the 1920s presented itself as a patriotic fraternal order that could help crack down on crime, be it auto thefts or bootlegging.
“Up here in Iowa, right at the present time, there is a very fertile field for the Ku Kluckers,” Lovejoy wrote.
To win the heart and soul of America’s Heartland, Klansmen prided themselves on charity work.
Under a Page 1 story headlined “Boone Ku Kluxers in Good Will Work,” the Bee noted that Christmas 1922 was practically saved for more than three dozen families in Boone after Klansmen — right down to the white robes and caps — took clothes, toys, candy and complete Christmas dinners to 38 homes.
The Jefferson Herald was skeptical.
“You can’t be a Catholic, Jew or colored man,” the paper wrote in September 1923. “If it was really an organization to be proud of, no one who was a member would be ashamed to admit that he was a member.”
Historian Tom Morain’s 1988 book about Jefferson in the early 20th century, “Prairie Grass Roots,” proved to be a revelatory work of local history by including a couple of pages about the Klan in Greene County.
After all, you won’t find anything about the KKK at the Greene County Historical Society museum.
Morain’s book included an account of a Klan rally, with the obligatory flaming cross, on the hill where the Greene County Medical Center now stands.
Hooded guards were said to have stopped and questioned drivers along the highway as speakers denounced various groups of people as un-American.
Only today, with the digitization by the Jefferson Public Library of the Bee & Herald archives, are we able to now study the full scope of Klan activity in Greene County, including the meetings in Roy Pittman’s pasture near Cooper in 1924 and the hooded parade around the Square in Jefferson in 1925.
The Bee’s Franklin Twp. correspondent in November 1924 was a full-fledged supporter of the KKK, beaming with pride that seven Klansmen helped out a farmer beset with sickness in his family named Joe White — thank God his name wasn’t Joe Black — with fall plowing.
“The boys,” the correspondent wrote, “generously decided to give him a boost.”
“Say what we please about the Klan,” she continued, “they have hearts alright and that organ is located in exactly the right place.”
Just gives you all kinds of warm fuzzies, don’t it?
Elsewhere in the country, these big-hearted lugs were responsible for hangings, beatings and even brandings by acid.
There’s no record of violence by the Klan in Greene County, Morain wrote back in 1988, and a contemporary search of newspaper archives confirms that.
There was, however, the time in 1926 that masked Klansmen barged unannounced into the Presbyterian church in Churdan during a worship service.
There, they filed up to the front, called out for a song, made a short address and then marched back out, leaving behind $5 for every member.
That was actually a national tactic used by the KKK to win the support of clergy.
The congregation in Churdan, on the other hand, was less enthused.
“The consensus of opinion,” a newspaper correspondent wrote, “seems to be that if the Klansmen attend divine service, they should come unmasked ...”
But for stories about the Klan in Greene County, they don’t get any better than the one that ran June 26, 1924, in the Herald.
It was about Father Coleman, the Catholic priest in Scranton who did the WWJD thing one day and picked up two hitchhikers on his drive home from Ogden.
“Are you a Jew?” one of the men is said to have asked Father Coleman.
“I am not,” Coleman answered.
“You might be a Catholic?” the other man said.
“I was raised a Catholic,” Coleman explained, “but how good or how bad a Catholic I am now is not for me to say.”
By the time they rolled into Jefferson, it was clear the men were starving, so Coleman bought them a meal.
The men, Coleman told the Herald, “ate as if they were famished.”
That’s when Coleman, about to take his leave, decided to finally level with the two men he picked up.
He left them with these parting words:
“When you get back to your home in Dallas, Texas, tell your fellow Klansmen that a Catholic priest gave you the first bite to eat you have had for 36 hours.”