Klansmen in prayer before lighting “fiery cross,” in photograph by Press Democrat photographer Mary Carroll in Florida in 1979 for the Lakeland Ledger
Ku Klux Klan Deep South only? Don’t Bet on it
Gaye LeBaron’s Notebook Copyright the Press Democrat March 15, 1987
As unbelievable as it seems to those of us who are tucked securely into our liberal California niches, the Ku Klux Klan is in the news again. The spectre of the white-hooded mob raised its ugly head in Cummings, Georgina, on Martin Luther King’s birthday and again in February when an all-white jury in Alabama brought in a $7 million award for the death of a black man selected at random for hanging by the KKK. If that verdict survives the appeal process, the United Klans of America will be, as Newsweek put it so happily, “forced to sell off its assets, down to the last hooded sheet.”
This is a consummation devoutly to be wished. But the Klan has disappeared before, only to rise again. Whatever happens with this strident handful of bigots, you can be certain the press will cover it, and eventually a sociologist or political scientist will write a book about it. There is something compellingly horrifying, like a Stephen King movie or a carnival freak show, about the KKK. The aberration of American society- a nightmare tangent of the American dream –seems to be, sad to say, relentlessly “interesting.” “You won’t find a book on the shelf about the Ku Klux Klan,” said a reference librarian Audrey Herman when I was rifling through the card file in the Sonoma County library. Surprisingly, I asked if we were in some kind of censorship phase. “No,” she said, “it’s the wrong time of year to find a book about the Klan. It’s term paper time and kids always want to write about the Ku Klux Klan.”
In Sonoma County, California, where blacks constitute less than one percent of the population, the ghoulish tales of this terrorist group must seem foreign and distant to today’s writers of term papers. Many of them would be surprised to know that teen-agers who lived here in the 1920s might have picked cards promoting the KKK off Santa Rosa’s sidewalks, cards which had been scattered in the night by hooded men (and women) from cars with fiery crosses attached to their radiators. Youngsters might have attended Klan gatherings as spectators and would certainly have read the bold, black headlines in the Press Democrat, the Santa Rosa Republican and the Petaluma Argus saying: KLAN ACTIVE IN SONOMA COUNTY, or KU KLUX KLAN WOMEN ORGANIZE HERE, or KLANSMEN MEET TONIGHT ON HILL ROAD. How could this have happened? There weren’t as many blacks per capita in Sonoma County then as there are now. Why the KKK? This is a question that continues to perplex. The answer is probably found in history texts discussing the revival of the Klan in the years following World War I. Historian Page Smith quotes reformer Oscar Ameringer on the variety of targets for this “next” Klan: “The end of the war meant that the evil spirits it had aroused needed new objects for hatred. Trade unionists, Reds, radicals, pinks, foreigners…were all at hand.” Another explanation places responsibility on the relatively new medium of film. David War Griffith’s movie, “Birth of a Nation,” made from an inflammatory historical novel called “The Klansmen,” was seen by an estimated 100 million Americans between its release in 1915 and 1930. Walton Bean, in his history of California, suggests that the film “did more to fasten racial stereotypes on the American mind than anything since Uncle Tom’s Cabin and …it was partly responsible for the great revival of the KKK that reached its height in the 1920s.” California’s North Coast seems to have provided a fertile field for this “great revival.” Certainly, central Sonoma County had Southern parentage, having been settled by farmers from Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee. But this was not a factor in Petaluma, where there was also Klan activity. The whole county, of course, had been painted with the brush of frontier justice and vigilantism with the lynching of 1920 (and would be again in 1935 when labor organizers were tarred and feather on the courthouse steps). And there is a 19th-century history of Klan activities here particularly in the area around Healdsburg where the Hudson brothers and rancher (and sheriff) Tennessee Bishop rode out to frighten whoever they thought needed frightening. The faint historical footprints left here by the Klan (mostly cautiously worded newspaper stories making reference to “certain practices” and “alleged actions”) would indicate that the peak years were 1922 to 1925 and that any activity usually involved “law ‘n’ order” issues. In May of 1922, following substantial press coverage of a Klan revival in Los Angeles, a Forestville deputy sheriff named Archie Hicks received a message written on a Western Union telegraph form, warning him about his “actions” at a recent dance. The dance in question was at Dinucci Hall, and Hicks had arrested “several hoodlums who created a disturbance.” The warning read: “Our representative will surely visit your town unless you take immediate steps to stop such actions as have been reported to our Order.” Hicks didn’t exactly panic. He just handed it over to the sheriff. But the newspaper gave the story top play under an eight-column headline reading “KLAN ACTIVE IN SONOMA COUNTY.” By the fall of 1922, the local Klan was organized enough to announce its intentions to the public. The first recorded Klan gathering of the century took place in October at McDonald’s Reservoir (Lake Ralphine). It was an outdoor meeting, according to the newspaper, attended by both Klansmen “and the American Legion.” Two days later 104 new members were inducted into the Klan in a ceremony in Napa County. The burning cross was visible from the main highway. The next initiation rite was in Santa Rosa, which meant that the hometown newspapers got a chance to look at this sociological phenomenon, in the language of the 1980s, “up close and personal.” The site selected was a field on the Julius Ort ranch on Petaluma Hill Road, rented for the occasion from the owner. Attendance was by invitation only, The Press Democrat informed its readers before the event, warning them that cards would be needed to gain entrance to the grounds. It was general knowledge that Klansmen would be coming from Vallejo and Napa as well as Santa Rosa. “Directions will be given from an American flag draped auto at the junction of Santa Rosa Avenue and the Petaluma Highway,” the story read, concluding ominously with: “No car will be allowed to leave the initiation until the exercises are completed.” The description of the evening’s activities was published the following day beneath a headline guaranteed to get the readers’ attention – 2,000 PERSONS SEE INITIATION IN SHADOW OF FIERY CROSS. They were in a flat field west of Petaluma Hill Road three miles south of town, a field that is now part of Henry Matteri’s dairy, according to George Crane who remembers driving past with his grandfather in a buggy and having the old man point out the place where they burned the cross. The largest cross burned on a hill on the east side of the road – a hill that was later cut away from fill when the freeway was built. In the field the headlights of dozens of automobiles formed a circle around the arena. Within the circle there was a square formed by a cordon of more than 100 white-robed men. In each corner of the square was an American flag. Outside the square a large flag was stretched between two poles and in the center of the square, still another flag. Around the square were the smaller crosses which prompted the Republican’s reporter to write about the eerie scene “in the glow of 50 burning crosses.” There were 1,000 spectators who stood on the outer fringes of the parking area, stretching on tiptoe to see the proceedings. Without the invitation card, the curious could get no closer than “the fourth row of machines.” At 10:10 p.m. the officers assumed positions on wooden boxes and “into the circle rode a horseman bearing a lighted cross. Both man and horse wore white robes with the KKK insignia in red letters. The horseman announced that citizens were outside seeking admittance to the invisible empire. They were led into the human square where they knelt at each post for the rites.” The entire unholy rigamarole took about an hour. At the conclusion, said the story, “somebody yelled ‘when do we eat?’ and the Klansmen began to shed their regalia in the flickering light of the fiery crosses. The initiation was over.” There were other such ceremonies the following year in Petaluma across the road from Vallejo’s Old Adobe. “The fiery cross,” wrote the Argus reporter, “shone through the mists of the night and its rays were seen from the elevated portions of this city and the sight impressed all those who noticed it.” The Petaluma Argus reporters generally seemed less amazed at the goings-on than The Press Democrat writers. Indeed, Petaluma journalists may have treated the Klan with far more dignity than it deserved, devoting columns to coverage of a Klan Speaker in the Petaluma High School auditorium (!) in 1924 and another at the First Christian Church in 1925. There was another outdoor ceremony in Santa Rosa in 1925 “in a field south of the Barham Avenue triangle.” There were meetings of 300 Klansmen in the 100F Hall in Santa Rosa and an “Invisible Empire” organizational meeting at El Verano Hall in the Sonoma Valley in 1925, the same year that a Napa state traffic squad captain was buried in a Klan funeral, his body escorted by six pallbearers in white robes and hoods. After this three-year flurry –which gave Santa Rosa a reputation statewide as a KKK hotbed- the Klan disappeared from the news columns. There were not, to my knowledge, any truly dramatic incidents that led to its being outlawed or disbanded –unless you count the economic drama of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. The moral? Hey, that’s easy. Sonoma County residents can be as smug as we like about our little corner of the world and its tolerance, but we can never point to places like Florida, where the accompanying photograph was made, or Cummings, Georgina, where Oprah Winfrey is the only black allowed, or any Alabama or Carolina town where Klansmen gather and march, and say it can’t happen here. Because it already has.
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