Pine River Library attendees compare 20th-century KKK rhetoric to modern politics
More than 80 people gathered at the Pine River Library in Bayfield this week for a history lesson about the town’s uncomfortable past involving the local Ku Klux Klan chapter.
Bayfield residents shared family anecdotes, asked questions, and absorbed knowledge about the political tides that sparked fear, racism, and resistance to change that the Klan leveraged to expand its influence.
Until the 1980s, the detailed history of Bayfield’s KKK chapter remained buried in the attic of Akers Garage on Mill Street, a short walk from the nearby Pine River Valley Heritage Society. Curt Brown, author, columnist and history buff, said a man named Jeff Bryson was renovating the garage when he came across a chest in an attic crawl space.
The garage was once occupied by Akers Motor Co. And Clyde W. Akers was actually a Klingrapp (secretary) of Pine River Klan No. 69, according to the Center of Southwest Studies.
Bryson thought he hit the jackpot, Brown said. But instead of finding silver or gold in the trunk, he discovered 1920s Klansman hoods, membership records and Klan clothing order forms.
The artifacts, some of which were on display at the library on Wednesday, were donated to the Center for Southwestern Studies at Fort Lewis College.
“I find a certain poetic justice in the fact that these men who dressed to hide their identities are now listed on membership rolls in two boxes of research materials in the center library,” Brown said.
“In the 1920s, Bayfield’s old guard felt threatened by immigrants arriving after World War I,” he said. “Between 1880 and 1920, 23 million immigrants entered the United States and the KKK fed on these fears.”
There is no evidence that the Bayfield KKK chapter used physical violence or lynchings like other chapters across the country, he said. The members were content with intimidation tactics, such as burning crosses and marches on the main avenue of Durango intended to spread fear. Bayfield’s black population was small, and common Klan targets were Latinos, Catholics, and Jews.
On one occasion, a Catholic priest from the Church of the Sacred Heart in Bayfield purchased a double-barreled shotgun after a cross was burned at the church.
Brown cited a history lesson he received from FLC history professor Andrew Gulliford, in which the professor illustrated how Klan activities in Bayfield mirrored movements across the country in the 1920s.
“The farms were failing. Women had just won the right to vote and were smoking cigarettes and rolling up their skirts,” he said. “The communists asserted themselves from Russia with the trade unions of this country. And change was coming and small towns like Bayfield were digging in their heels.
He said fraternal organizations such as Elks Lodge and Moose Lodge were popular forms of entertainment in small towns like Bayfield, and that the Klan “imitated” them in fostering camaraderie.
Brown said that while the topic of the KKK doesn’t offer much humor, “I was told by an elder that the Klan congregated behind the cemetery on (County Road) 501. Often as they scaled the fence barbed wire their dresses would get caught.
Shadows of the past linger in the present
Per capita, Colorado had the second highest number of Klan members in the 1920s with chapters in all 64 counties of the state.
“History Colorado recently digitized 1,300 pages of Klan records containing more than 30,000 entries, including the names, addresses, personal and affiliate information of KKK members in Denver and other areas of the state in the years 1920,” he said.
By this time, Klansmen were infiltrating state and city governments, including school boards, police departments, and other bodies of authority in Denver, Montrose, and Gunnison. Colorado Governor Clarence Morley, who served a two-year term from 1925 to 1927, was a member of the Klan, as were a state Supreme Court justice, the mayor of Denver, the chief of police and other judges, Brown said.
He said the Klan had almost succeeded in transforming its hate movement into a full-fledged political party.
The 1920s KKK was the second iteration of the group, its first being the Southern Confederates pushing back Reconstruction in the 1880s after the end of the Civil War, and its third emergence amid the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s But while these versions of the Klan exist only in history, their influence is still felt today, Brown said.
He read an excerpt from a Colorado Politics report on former state historian William Wei: “Although the KKK no longer exists in its 1920s form, its shadow still hangs over America with politicians promising a return to the good old days and old-fashioned values. He (Wei) said they often take their strategy from the old Klan playbook.
The idea of Klan rhetoric and strategies manifesting themselves in modern politics resonated with attendees Wednesday at the Pine River Library.
Bayfield resident Pamela Smith said she fears the polarization of politics in the United States could lead to something like the resurgence of the KKK. She said she knew three Klan members who were in the library on Wednesday, though she didn’t name anyone.
She asked presenter Paul Kuenker, a professor of history at FLC, what can be done about political polarization. He said community dialogues and history lessons such as the History Live presentation at the Pine River Library are part of the solution.
“There are a lot of people who think talking about these things is inherently polarizing,” he said. “…When we talk about coming to terms with this past, we are not talking about a racial group that needs to feel shame or atone for certain sins. We are talking about collective responsibility.
Another Bayfield resident asked Kuenker what caused the rises and falls of the KKK in the past, and how another fall could be brought about for modern white supremacist movements.
“(When the KKK) became inactive, what caused that? And how can we get back to that? she said to the applause of the other participants.
Kuenker cautioned that dormancy isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“One of the reasons they sleep sometimes is that they didn’t need to be active anymore because their ideologies were entrenched,” he said.
He said that many white politicians of the early 20th century considered themselves “reformers” and believed that white supremacy cannot be enacted by violence, it must be enacted by law.
Similar “code words” used by the Klan and other extremist groups still exist today, he said.
He showed the audience a letter to President Dwight Eisenhower from the 1950s written by someone upset with the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education which marked the fall of segregation in public schools.
The letter reads, “Please help preserve states’ rights. Help southern states retain their right to decide their own education system. If your grandchildren and my grandchildren lived in the south, we wouldn’t want them to go to a colored school…”.
The same kinds of rhetoric resonate through modern times. Views such as wanting to have “local control” over schools or wanting to maintain one’s ideology are legitimate, he said. But at the same time, groups like the KKK feed on these opinions.
“They understand that when those insights are there, they can take advantage of them,” he said.