THE KU KLUX KLAN IN OREGON
100 years ago the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated Oregon on the promise to preserve the white Protestant dream of an Oregon utopia. Join ORP in bringing this history of the Oregon Ku Klux Klan to light. The Portland Tribune is running a five-part series on the Klan in Oregon written by ORP partner and retired journalist, Steve Law. Law explores the history of the Klan, their influence in Oregon, and the relevant ramifications for us today. We are in a centennial mark for when the Klan was active in Oregon, and it is incumbent upon our pursuit of justice to remember and repair this history, lest the Klan will ride again.
PART 1: OREGON'S HISTORY WITH THE KKK RUNS DEEP
Written by Steve Law
How much do you know about the Klan's activities in Oregon? Did you know that Portland was the central operating hub of the Klan in Oregon and the the main victims of their ire were Catholics?
While the Klan's presence has diminished over the last 100 years, their rhetoric and beliefs are alive and well in popular culture. Political candidates across the country are attempting to ride to power on America First ideology, anti-immigrant sentiment, and Christian nationalism. Our failure to remember and repair the legacy of systemic white supremacy is what has allowed that legacy to continue.
PART 2: THEY WERE A POLITICAL POWER IN OREGON. THEY ALSO WERE THE KLAN.
Written by Steve Law
In the early 1920's, the Klan overwhelmed Oregon politics. In fact, the Klan may have been the single greatest influencer in Oregon's 1922 election cycle. The Klan used their growing influence to install Klansman into local government, the judiciary, and state legislature while also helping sway the governor's race and the seat of Portland's U.S. Congressional district. The Klan became synonymous with Oregon politics.
The Klan of the 1920's was not the violent Klan of the late nineteenth century that largely terrorized the African American community. Revived in large part thanks to D.W. Griffith's film, Birth of a Nation, which painted the Klan as defenders of American identity, the Klan of the 1920's represented a respectable white supremacy in the American political discourse. In the South, this respectable white supremacy largely evolved into the White Citizens Council. Later on in the 1970's, David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, shifted the nation's Klansman toward integrating the mainstream. Today, the hood on horseback has been replaced by a bow tie on cable news.
PART 3: A PUSH TO END CATHOLIC SCHOOLS
Written by Steve Law
The Ku Klux Klan was passionate about public school education. More specifically, they were passionate about making sure their vision of 100% Americanism was instilled in the nation's school children. They believed public education was essential to Americanizing "Un-American" foreigners, many of whom were Catholic. America was to be taught as the world's most exemplary country, founded on the supreme principles of white Christian Protestantism. The Klan believed private schools, and especially private Catholic schools, threatened the indoctrination of a singular American narrative. According to the Klan, Catholics could never reflect 100% Americanism because of heir dual loyalty to a foreign entity. The Klan sought to eliminate private schools in Oregon in order to maintain the purity of the American education system.
"The Compulsory Education Act," which eliminated private schools in Oregon, was passed by voters in 1922, a major show of force for the Klan in Oregon. However, the law was eventually found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1926. Thus, the Oregon Klan's largest victory was rendered mute just a few years later.
PART 4: THE KLAN GETS A PASS FROM MEDIA
Written by Steve Law
Fearing economic reprisal, most Oregon newspapers kowtowed to the Ku Klux Klan's influence. The only newspaper that provided critical coverage of the Klan's meteoric rise in Oregon was the Portland Telegraph and that decision proved fatal. The Telegraph's bravery was rewarded with an exodus of their readership and The Telegraph would cease to exist by 1931. As the Klan's power in Oregon began to wane, other newspapers finally began to expose the Klan's misgivings. However, the initial cowardice of these other newspapers is what allowed the Klan to reach the apex of their power. How might the Klan's influence in Oregon been stifled had the majority of journalists showed the courage of the Portland Telegraph?
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
PART 5: THE KLAN SELF-DESTRUCTS
By Steve Law
Just as quickly as they rose to power, the Ku Klux Klan in Oregon fell off a precipitous cliff into political irrelevance. In large part due to greed and corruption, fractures at the top of the Oregon Klan created dissonance throughout the organization as a whole. Members became frustrated that their leader, Fed Gilford, was dubiously profiting off their member dues. To subsidize the exodus of members, Gilford developed new avenues of revenue through the Ladies of the Invisible Empire (KKK for women), the Junior Knights of the Invisible Empire (KKK for youth) and the Royal Riders of the Red Robe (KKK for "good" immigrants), all of whom profited Gilford. Moreover, despite leading the fight against Catholic schools, Oregon Klan members were baffled to learn that Gilford's wife was herself a baptized Catholic and that they themselves sent their daughter to a Catholic school. This hypocrisy was enough for man, and, by mid-decade, the Klan in Oregon had evaporated. Not needing any help from their opponents, the Klan in Oregon defeated themselves.
While the Ku Klux Kan in Oregon suffered mass deterioration, their ideology did not. Members didn't leave the Klan out of any sort of moral awakening. They left out of political necessity. The Klan was no longer an effective vehicle for the preservation of the white power structure. The drivers of white supremacy would find new routes to reach their goals. Those former Klansman would go on to serve in every sector of Oregon society.
The legacy of the Klan in Oregon would continue long after their robes were retired.
BONUS COVERAGE: THE FEAR BEHIND THE KU KLUX KLAN
Written by Taylor Stewart
If we only focus on the hate of the Ku Klux Klan, we miss the fear behind it--the fear that whites will one day lose their demographic supremacy. Charleston, SC, El Paso, TX, Buffalo, NY. All of these recent acts of racial violence have been based in what's called the Great Replacement, the belief that a Jewish cabal is orchestrating an influx of immigration to saturate the white power structure. However, the fear of a browning America is not illusionary. People of color are expected to make up over 50% of the U.S. population by 2044. We, as a society, are ill-prepared for the white backlash that will ensue from whites losing their demographic majority. Unless we push back against the fear of changing racial demographics, the threat of violence will only grow and in 2044 it might just explode.