When the Klan Came to Colorado
Part 2 – Rise to Power
It all started in Denver, as many things do here in Colorado. Leo Kennedy, a Mason and former member of the anti-Catholic American Protective Association, invited his friend, William Joseph Simmons out from Alabama in order to meet with a few prominent Denverites and share with them the principles and plans of the Ku Klux Klan. Simmons wasn’t just any old kleagle (Klan recruiter). He was the Imperial Wizard (national Klan leader) and founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He was responsible for bringing back to life a post-Civil War organization that had died out decades earlier in the South. The meeting held in the Brown Palace Hotel on 17th Street in Denver marked the initiation not only of the men in attendance, but of what would become one of the largest Klan strongholds in the country.
Simmons’ “new and improved” version of the Klan got underway in 1915, but it didn’t gain traction until, in 1920, the organization hired a publicity company to help spread its gospel far and wide. What made the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan different than its Reconstruction-era predecessor? For one thing, it was organized. Though individual klaverns (chapters) had a fair amount of autonomy, they still fell under the auspices of the Invisible Empire (which was the Klan at the national level, though physically located in Alabama). In contrast, the Klan of the 1800s was made up of various groups — some of which had a formal structure and others of which were rather random and ad hoc. They shared use of the name and symbols (burning crosses and white robes), but no overall organization.
Despite the more organized nature of the Klan in the 1920s, each Realm (state or region) still took on its own flavor. So the Klan of Colorado was in some ways substantially different than the Klan of Alabama or Texas, despite the fact that they all resided under the same umbrella organization. In fact, even within the state of Colorado there were distinct differences between the Klan in Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Canon City, and Grand Junction (which are the regions covered in Robert Alan Goldberg’s well researched book Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado).
In this article, when I refer to “the Klan,” I particularly mean the Colorado Klan. And my focus will be to answer the “What” of what took place in the state in the 1920s. In future articles I focus more on “How and Why” and I’ll take a closer look at Women of the Klan as well as the Klan in northern Colorado in particular.
Revelations, Responses & the Rise of the Klan
It was the spring of 1921 when William Joseph Simmons came to proselytize the select group of prominent men in Denver. But his arrival at Union Station was kept mum and the Denver papers never mentioned his visit. When Simmons returned to Klan headquarters, he dispatched kleagles (Klan recruiters) to Colorado. They silently added members to the rolls, pocketing $8 of every $10 membership fee that they secured (as was the agreement with the Propagation Department of the Invisible Empire). $10 then would be equivalent to well over $100 today, so it was a bit of a financial commitment to join up. But it helped to kept the riff raff out and at least 80% of the leadership during the early years were men who held white collar jobs during the non-robe wearing portion of their day.
With offices in the Continental Trust Building at 17th and Larimer streets, the kleagles built up membership in the klavern until, on June 17, 1921, the Klan made a public announcement through the Denver Times that they “are a law and order organization assisting at all times the authorities in every community in upholding law and order.” In fact, they went so far as to proclaim, “to the lawless element of the city and county of Denver and the state of Colorado… we are not only active now, but we were here yesterday, we are here today and we shall be here forever.” At midnight just two weeks later, cars loaded with Klansmen posted signs on the Rivoli Theater demanding that they show the film The Face at Your Window, which they declared, “shows the hooded figures of the knights of the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue and portrays the final triumph of decent and orderly government… over the alien influences now at work in our midst.”
Mayor Dewey C. Bailey condemned the Klan and ordered an investigation into the organization. He declared that if its intention was to take the law into its own hands, it would be quickly shut down. A probe was launched to investigate whether the Klan had been paying taxes on the dues money it brought in. And the Department of Justice sent agents to collect evidence as a part of its nationwide investigation. The Denver Express, a labor oriented newspaper, began publishing exposés of Klan secrets. But for the most part, several newspapers and many leaders within the community took an “ignore them and they’ll go away” approach… which worked about as well as you’d expect.
The feeble anti-Klan response in Denver was not enough to quell the growing tide of memberships into the organization. Nor was it enough to keep klaverns from popping up throughout the state. Pueblo, the second largest city in Colorado at the time, embraced the Klan wholeheartedly. Klaverns were established in Boulder, Fort Collins, Greeley, Canon City, Grand Junction and multiple other communities. Of the five towns that Goldberg researched for Hooded Empire, only Colorado Springs had any kind of concerted backlash against the Klan with the editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, as well as the chief of police, both taking particularly staunch stances against the group. It wasn’t enough to keep a klavern from forming in the Springs, but it was enough to keep it small (only 2,000 members) and ineffectual.
In March of 1922, the Klan filed articles of incorporation with the state. Though there was opposition (especially from the Catholic and Jewish populations in Denver), and the state refused official recognition, that didn’t slow the growth of the organization. In June, two thousand Klansmen met near Estes Park for the initiation of three hundred new recruits.
Fiery Crosses, Fears & Ferris Wheels
There were, understandably, certain segments of the population who looked with great apprehension upon the rise of the Klan in their communities. In particular, the image of Reconstruction era robed Klansmen making late night visits on horseback, placing fiery crosses in front yards, and dragging people from their beds to lynch them was what many envisioned when they heard that the Klan was rising again. But that’s not how Klan was done in Colorado (at least, not mostly). There were still fiery crosses (throughout cities and towns, on mountains, and even an electric fiery-cross on a church in Longmont), but they seemed to be used as an announcement of a Klan presence, or as a center piece for a night time gathering — almost like a calling card or a billboard for the organization. A form of branding, if you will. While the Reconstruction era Klan had used violence as a matter of course, the Colorado Klan of the Roaring Twenties relied primarily upon written threats, boycotts, and political interventions.
The Klan didn’t have to drum up prejudice among its members. The fears and anxieties of Protestant Whites were already growing as a cultural shift began to take place around them. Blacks were becoming wealthier and they began pushing the boundaries that Whites had circumscribed them with. Immigrant populations were growing in mining communities, around steel mills and sugar factories, and in agricultural areas. The “problem” with these people groups weren’t that they were taking away jobs. Their labor was appreciated. The problem was when their perceived lawlessness, “strange” behaviors, or sometimes even just very their presence, spilled over into “safe,” White, Protestant America.
There were two incidents in Denver where Klan members were directly implicated in acts of violence. On October 27, 1923, Patrick Walker, a member of the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic fraternal service organization) was kidnapped by five Klansmen, taken to a remote place, and clubbed with the butts of revolvers. And three months later a Jewish attorney, Ben Laska, was taken out of the city at gunpoint and beaten with blackjacks. He was then ordered to stop defending bootleggers in court.
There were other incidents, some clearly perpetrated by the Klan, and others of uncertain origin. Basing his information on Robert Alan Goldberg’s book, Hooded Empire, Ed Quillen summarized the incidents this way in an article that he wrote for the Colorado Springs Independent:
In 1922, a black janitor named Ward Gash got a letter from the Denver Klan that charged him with “intimate relations with white women.” He was told to leave town, and “Nigger, do not look lightly upon this. Your hide is worth less to us than it is to you.” He turned it over to the district attorney, and left town.
About that same time, Dr. Clarence Holmes, president of the Denver NAACP chapter, started a drive to integrate Denver’s theaters. The Klan burned a cross in front of his office and sent a threatening note, but he persisted.
In the 1920s, Denver blacks attempted to integrate some neighborhoods, and several houses were bombed. But no one was injured. No one was arrested, either, so it was hard to know whether the bombings were from the Klan, or just bigotry in general.
In Canon City, Protestant businessmen who weren’t in the Klan were still ordered to dismiss any Catholic employees. And boycotts were put in place in an attempt to drive Catholic businessmen from the community. Some stores put placards in their windows with only the letters KIGY inscribed upon them. That stood for “Klansmen I Greet You” and was a clear indication of where Klan members were expected to shop and where Catholics should steer clear.
Despite the fact that harassment of Blacks, Jews, and Immigrants was taking place, the lack of overt violence and lynchings seemed to placate Coloradans who had initially been wary of the Klan. As membership drives took place, residents weren’t invited join in hate filled rallies. Instead they were invited to innocuous events such as picnics, car races, and carnivals (one of which, at least, included ferris wheel rides for Klan members). As doubts were allayed, more and more people were willing to pay the $10 and don the robes. They started to see this “new and improved” Klan as a social organization that supported good ‘ole American values, an end to crime, and fun family events.
Prosperity, Politics & Power
When the position for Denver mayor came up for election in 1923, the Klan saw an opportunity to depose Dewey Bailey, who had spoken out against them, and put one of their own in place instead. Benjamin F. Stapleton was a Democrat, which gave him support from labor organizations. But he was also close friends with Dr. Locke, the Grand Dragon of the Klan’s Colorado Realm, which helped give him the support of the Klan. Stapleton championed “True Americanism,” and vowed to wage a war on crime, lower taxes, and run an efficient government. Publicly he condemned the Klan, but privately he welcomed their support. This enabled him to garner both the anti-Klan and the Klan votes, which swept him into office. He promptly filled many government positions with fellow Klansmen. He also kept his campaign promises by coming down heavily against bootleggers, prostitutes, and gamblers.
In the spring of 1924, the Klan vowed to get even more men into office. They held numerous membership drives throughout the state. Some employers refused to hire anyone that wasn’t a member of the Klan (helpfully providing membership forms at job interviews to prospective employees). The Klan even threatened to kick members out if they weren’t registered to vote.
Rather than set up a third party through which to run members for political office, they shrewdly co-opted the Republican and Democratic parties as much as possible throughout the state, running candidates on both sides. They found greater success in the Republican party, but in cases where a Republican ended up losing to a Democrat, the Democrat had often been backed by the Klan.
On October 29, 1924 (after primaries, but before elections), the Steamboat Pilot had the following to say about the Colorado elections:
The Ku Klux Klan, which has captured the Republican party in Colorado bag and baggage, has been tried out in other states, and has been found wanting. It has been repudiated in Texas and Oklahoma, where it has been in power. In those states it worked thru the Democratic party. It is not particular which party it works thru so it can get control. Its published principles are rather alluring; most good citizens indorse [sic] its public platform. The trouble is that it insists upon political action, and the slate is made up in secret. Members are given a ballot and instructed to vote it. That is always a dangerous procedure. Candidates should be discussed openly, otherwise great injustice might be done. Designing politicians are always anxious to get some votes in an easy way, and when they can deal with one man or one group of men, in secret, there is grave danger that it is not always the best candidate that is given the indorsement [sic]. And in any case real 100 per cent Americans do not vote the ballot of a kleagle or any other man on earth. If they are real citizens they do their own thinking and their own voting.
Stapleton was up for re-election on the November ballot with Bailey running against him once more. Bailey declared that “If I am elected mayor of Denver, there will be no nightgown tyranny in this town.” The Klan poured over $15,000 into Stapleton’s campaign and provided vast numbers of election workers. With a record turnout at the polls, Stapleton won by a landslide.
At the same time Rice Means was elected to the U. S. Senate. Clarence Morley was elected governor. And millionaire Laurence Phipps (who may have been one of the Klan’s largest financial supporters) was re-elected to U. S. Senate. The Klan also won a majority of positions in the state House of Representatives and the state Senate as well as multiple other positions all the way down to various school boards.
The Klan was flush with new members and had just dominated the elections. They must have felt on top of the world… or at least on top of Colorado. But getting to the top and staying on top are two different things, as the Klan was soon to learn.
I had planned to squeeze more of the story into this post, but the height of the elections seemed like a good place to stop. So stay tuned for more. Not only is there a delicious denouement to come, but there are also some stories within this story that are worth zooming in on.
Goldberg, Robert Alan. Hooded Empire: the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. University of Illinois Press, 1981.
The quote from the October 29, 1924 Steamboat Pilot was accessed through ColoradoHistoricNewspapers.com.
All images are from Denver Public Library Digital Collections including the one at very top which shows a Klan meeting at Table Top Mountain (Denver Public Library Digital Collections, Z-1877.)