Upstander Connection

Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance

The Rise and Fall of the KKK: Special Museum Lecture Shocks, Enlightens Audience About the Klan’s Huge Influence in 1920s-era Dallas

In 1923, the State Fair of Texas held Ku Klux Klan Day.

In 1923, the State Fair of Texas held Ku Klux Klan Day.

It’s a statistic that a modern city would likely just as soon forget: In the mid-1920s, Dallas had the largest chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S. with more than 13,000 members.

And, Texas had the largest population of KKK members—men and women—in the nation with more than 159,000 members.

These findings are among the research tidbits unearthed by Dr. Natalie Ring, Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD), who delivered a special lecture to a crowd of about 75 at the Museum on Dec. 12.

“Dallas’ KKK Chapter 66 was the largest chapter in the country, and it controlled city government, the courts, the law enforcement establishment and had strong influence among the clergy,” said Dr. Ring, who specializes in teaching U.S. Southern History.

From dues and fees, KKK Chapter 6 had an annual budget that is the equivalent to $1.3 million today, she said.

Dallas also had one of the largest chapters of Klan women, whose rallies drew huge audiences.

The first Ku Klux Klan flourished in the Southern United States in the late 1860s, then died out by the early 1870s, Dr. Ring said. Members adopted white costumes: robes, masks, and conical hats, designed to be outlandish and terrifying, and to hide their identities. The second KKK flourished nationwide in the early and mid-1920s, and adopted the same costumes and code words as the first Klan, while introducing cross burnings. The third KKK emerged after World War II and was associated with opposing the Civil Rights Movement and progress among minorities.

In the 1920s, the Klan sought to position itself as a law-abiding force for moral order that believed in good schools, clean politics, extreme Christian Protestantism and liberty. Above all, the Klan opposed immigration of just about any kind. Membership peaked in the mid-1920s with membership in the millions, Dr. Ring said.

In practice, the Klan was a vicious hate group, responsible for hundreds of lynchings nationwide. The Tuskegee Institute has recorded 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites were lynched between 1882 and 1968.

One of the catalysts for the Klan of the 1920s was the 1915 lynching near Atlanta of Jewish businessman Leo Frank after the Georgia governor commuted his death sentence to life in prison. Frank had been convicted in 1913 and sentenced to death for the murder of a young white factory worker named Mary Phagan, in a trial marked by media frenzy. The Frank case is the subject of a special exhibit at the Museum through the end of the year, “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited.”

However, in Dallas, as word spread about the KKK’s violence against not only people of color in the Trinity River bottoms near downtown Dallas, but Caucasians deemed to have moral failings, and the arrests of KKK members responsible for the violence, public support eroded for the Klan.

In addition, the election of anti-Klan Texas governor Miriam Amanda Wallace “Ma” Ferguson (June 13, 1875 – June 25, 1961) in 1925—and sexual scandal involving national Klan officers—deflated Klan influence and membership by the late 1920s.

The Klan saw resurgence during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Today, KKK members numbers range between 3,000 and 5,000, although that doesn’t include larger unknown numbers of white supremacist hate groups, Dr. Ring said.  She cited the work of the Anti Defamation League (www.adl.org ) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (www.splccenter.org) in raising awareness—and monitoring activities—of modern hate groups operating in the U.S.

Through deeper and better understanding of historical hate groups, we—as a civil society—can better prepare to combat hate, prejudice and indifference for the benefit of all humanity.

–Chris Kelley, for the Dallas Holocaust Museum

 

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