Local Ku Klux Klan Flourished in 1920s

This photo taken in 1922 is indicative of the national revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, nearly 60 years after its formation and decline during the post-Civil War era. The group peaked at almost 3,000 members in Quincy. The KKK’s second wave targeted Roman Catholics, Jews, and immigrants and used political tactics and psychological terror more than physical violence.

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) first formed in the former Confederate States of America following the end of the Civil War in 1865. This clandestine group espoused white racial supremacy and opposed Reconstruction by violently terrorizing — and sometimes killing — emancipated slaves and impeding their newly-acquired legal and political rights. Enforcement of federal laws and the work of “carpetbaggers” who traveled from Northern states to help unify the country largely suppressed these vigilante tactics by 1871.

The KKK’s second wave arose in 1915 and this time targeted Roman Catholics, Jews and immigrants. With the United States weary of World War I and the ensuing flood of immigrants, mostly Catholics from southern Europe, the Klan found new enemies to bond its members. Although occasional physical violence occurred, the KKK now largely used political ploys and psychological terror.

Organized in Stone Mountain, Georgia, by William Joseph Simmons, the Klan rapidly grew through skillful marketing and the spectacular success of the movie "Birth of a Nation." This film directed by D. W. Griffith glorified the KKK as saviors from Reconstruction’s “Northern Invasion” and protectors of white women’s purity against the threat of freed black slaves.

"Birth of a Nation" ran for several weeks in Quincy to sold-out audiences. Although Union Veterans of Soldiers and Sailors Home and the local Censor Board condemned the movie, the city’s Mayor William K. Abbott found no objections to its blatantly false depiction of American history. In 1921, a KKK lodge formed in Quincy “emphasizing simon-pure Americanism as its central principal.”

The local “Klavern,” as the KKK called its chapters, met in Bowles Pasture on North 12th Street near Spring Lake and at Grace Methodist Church on Fourth and Lind Streets. Meetings and cross burnings also took place in an open field one mile south of 36th and State Streets. A year after the Quincy Klavern began, about 2,700 men had been “naturalized,” as the KKK termed its initiation, with the King James Bible opened to Romans 12 and the initiate’s hand on the “Kuran,” the Klan “Bible.”

Klaverns sprang up in most other Adams County towns, and huge ones relative to population in Hannibal, Palmyra, and Bowling Green, Missouri. Quincy formed a Women’s Ku Klux Klan, and the Hannibal Klavern started a junior group designed for children to carry Klan traditions and practices into the next generation. The KKK called itself the Invisible Empire and never publicly revealed members’ names, but every Memorial Day hooded Klansmen raised a flaming cross and performed a secret ritual for fallen comrades in Quincy’s Woodland and Greenmount Cemeteries.

Protestant ministers were the strongest supporters and most vocal spokesmen for the KKK. The Rev. Robert Van Meigs, pastor of Quincy’s Central Baptist Church, who called himself a Klan adviser, delivered a series of sermons reprinted in Quincy papers about the Klan’s stance on social issues. In the Quincy Daily Journal of November 19, 1923, Meigs stated the Ku Klux Klan “Hates some obvious characteristics of certain elements of Catholics, Jews, Negroes, and foreigners, and that they are seeking the elimination of the dangerous element to the salvation of the good, thus contributing towards the preservation of true Americanism.” Meigs urged the Klan, with what he called its God-given mission, to change its name to Protestant Princes and stop wearing masks and hooded robes because Catholics or Jews could don similar garb and commit atrocities and blame them on the KKK.

In 1924, New York Governor Al Smith became the first Catholic to make a serious bid for the presidency. The local KKK rallied in West Quincy’s Sherman Park and hoisted a fiery cross while denouncing Smith as anti-American and Catholics as unworthy of public office and full citizenship.

As reported in the Quincy Daily Journal of March 13, 1923, Quincy Klan’s members circulated literature among the city’s businesses stating their group’s “sublime lineage” and “divine origin,” and declaring that a Smith victory would leave “Jesuits, Jugs and Jews” controlling the country. They also participated in a regional pageant in Hannibal’s Robel Park chronicling the history of the KKK and attended a mass meeting in Bowling Green on August 5, 1924, estimated at 8,000 people.

Trying to inflame more contempt for Catholics, the Klan also circulated a bogus Knights of Columbus initiation oath. In part it read: “I will wage relentless war against all Protestants and Masons ... rip up the stomachs and wombs of the women, and crush their infants’ heads against the walls, in order to annihilate their execrable race.”

Quincy Knights of Columbus Council #583’s Public Relations Committee, headed by Dr. Henry P. Beirne, vehemently denied that members took this oath or intended to overthrow the United States government. He further dismissed as an egregious lie that Catholics had conspired to assassinate Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. The Rev. John J. Driscoll of Quincy’s St. Peter Church stated that Catholics gave spiritual, and not political, allegiance to Rome, and that Catholics were the first and last Americans to die in World War I — an overt sign of patriotism.

The 1920s resurgence of Ku Klux Klan collapsed — but not totally disbanded — across the nation, and in Quincy, by the decade’s end. Indiana Grand Dragon David Curtiss Stephenson, who had spoken at local meetings, shattered the Klan image of upholding law and order and traditional American values. In 1925, a jury convicted and sentenced him to life in prison for kidnapping, raping, torturing and murdering a white woman, Madge Oberholtzer. This scandal, along with mounting opposition by Catholic churches, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Temple B’nai Shalom hastened the Klan’s demise.

During its waning days, a speech in Quincy by Springfield, Illinois Klan leader W. W. Moore reminded followers of their successful effort to earlier pass the Johnson-Reed Act in Congress. This 1924 bill severely limited immigration from Italy, Greece, and Eastern Europe, and banned all immigrants from Asia. Johnson-Reed endured for 41 years as a national law before its repeal and remains one of the most contentious legacies 1920s Ku Klux Klan.

Sources

Coyne, Kevin. “The Knights vs. The Klan.” Columbia Magazine, Nov. 1, 2017. Accessed May 7, 2021. www.kofc.org

Gordon, Linda. The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition. New York City:

Liveright Publishing, 2017.

“Klan Organizer Who Visited Quincy Had Planned City Lodge.” Quincy Daily Journal, Sept. 19, 1921, 3.

“Klan Speaker Gives Address North of City.” Quincy Herald-Whig, July 28, 1927, 14.

McGee, Brian Dr. “History of Anti-Catholicism in the United States.” Presentation at St. Rose of Lima Church Men’s Fellowship,

Quincy, IL May 27, 2021.

“Minister Would Have Klansmen Abandon Masks.” Quincy Daily Journal, Nov. 19, 1923, 3.

“Priest Defends Catholicism and Scores Klan in Sermon on ‘Intolerance’ On Sunday.” Quincy Daily Journal, Dec. 3, 1923, 7.

“Quincy Knights of Columbus Answer Evans’ Article on Klan.” Quincy Daily Herald, Oct. 26, 1923, 7.

“Quincy Pastor Believes ‘Hood’ Weakens Purpose of Ku Klux.” Quincy Daily Herald, Nov. 19, 1923, 4.

Joseph Newkirk is a local writer and photographer whose work has been widely published as a contributor to literary magazines, as a correspondent for Catholic Times, and for the past 23 years as a writer for the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. He is a member of the reorganized Quincy Bicycle Club and has logged more than 10,000 miles on bicycles in his life.

The Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County is preserving the Governor John Wood Mansion, the History Museum on the Square, the 1835 Log Cabin, the Livery, the Lincoln Gallery displays, and a collection of artifacts and documents that tell the story of who we are. This award-winning column is written by members of the Society. For more information visit hsqac.org or email info@hsqac.org.

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