Commentary

History on repeat: Klan was active here in the 1920s | Opinion

May 10, 2021 6:00 am

The Ku Klux Klan hold an initiation ceremony in the Moorhead National Guard Armory in the mid-1920s. Photo courtesy of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.

On the morning of April 25, Moorhead residents awoke to find racist, white supremacist phrases and symbols spray painted on the local Islamic Community Center building and grounds. Although a group of community members gathered several days later to scrub the walls clean, they could not erase the hate and intolerance that prompted this act in the first place.

White supremacy is not a new problem in Moorhead, Clay County. In the 1920s, Clay County had an active Ku Klux Klan chapter. It dubbed itself the “Klay Kounty Klan.” The Klan recruited members through public lectures and large revivals, in which the main speakers were usually Protestant ministers. In 1923, one of Minnesota’s foremost Klan organizers, Peter Sletterdahl, lectured at the Phoenix Lodge in Moorhead. Sletterdahl — under the pen name of Twilight Orn — was also the editor of Minnesota’s KKK newspaper, the Call of the North.

Klan activity in the 1920s was not limited to Clay County. As Elizabeth Dorsey Hatle writes in her book, “The Ku Klux Klan in Minnesota,” the KKK was active throughout the state. Estimates of statewide membership vary from a conservative 30,000 to the Klan’s (likely inflated) figure of 100,000. Dozens of Klan chapters sprung up around the state. The first appears to be in Duluth, where three Black men were lynched in June 1920. The Duluth Klan chapter, founded in 1921, claimed a membership of 1,500.

In my own research, I discovered that southwest Minnesota — my home — was no exception. It, too, was a hotbed of Klan activity in the 1920s. In fact, a 1924 local newspaper headline sparked my interest: “Ku Klux Klan Burns Cross at Chandler.” Chandler is my hometown.

The Moorhead-Fargo Islamic Community Center was vandalized on April 25, 2021. Photo courtesy CAIR-MN.

Further investigation revealed this cross-burning was just the tip of the iceberg. Earlier that summer, people watching an outdoor movie in the neighboring town of Lake Wilson witnessed a burning ten-foot high cross, bound with wire that “cast a weirdish, uncanny glow for a long distance.” There were reports of at least nine other crosses burned in towns around the area from 1923-1925, the years of peak Klan activity. Klan rallies and speakers drew thousands of listeners. Local newspapers reported 2,000 attendees at a 1924 Klan lecture in Worthington, and 4,000 attendees at one in Windom later that year.

In 1925, nighttime torchlight parades in Lakefield and Worthington were followed by a cross burning in Lakefield and a grand fireworks display in Worthington.

What was happening in the 1920s? Why was the Klan so active in Minnesota and the entire nation in that decade?

Many white Americans felt a sense of nostalgia and fear — nostalgia for an idealized, simpler past and fear that America was in a state of moral decline, becoming godless and foreign. Catholic, Jewish, and Orthodox immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were arriving by the millions, all of whom to the Protestant mind were non-Christian and non-white.

The economy was shifting from an agrarian to an industrialized economy. There was increasing urbanization. The new mass media — movies and radio — was secularizing and corrupting the youth. Gender roles were changing as well, as women gained the right to vote and increasingly challenged social norms and traditional gender roles.

The answer, claimed the KKK, was to take America back and return it to the Protestant Christian values that had made it great. The saviors were “100% Americans” — meaning white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants They would restore America to its former greatness. A popular slogan of the time was “America First: One God, One Country, One Flag.”

The Ku Klux Klan portrayed itself as a patriotic, Christian organization dedicated to saving America. It was no longer a secret organization that snuck around doing clandestine deeds in the night. No, the “New Klan” of the 1920s was a mainstream organization that openly recruited new members with public parades, picnics, lectures, and rallies. In the minds of its members, they were not the bad guys; they were the saviors.

The similarities between the America of the 1920s and the America of the 2020s are so great, it’s almost eerie. Now, as was then, the nation is experiencing social, cultural, economic and demographic changes. And like a century ago, many Americans are afraid of these changes and are responding with hatred, violence and intimidation.

People often say we should learn about history so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. As an historian, I laugh when I hear that. The fact is, we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. We don’t learn from the past, probably because we are not accurately taught about it, particularly not its ugly, unflattering parts like KKK activity here in Minnesota.

We’ve gone down this road before, and sadly, too many are choosing to take the same bad fork.

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