In 1992, workers readying for an auction at a home near the sleepy village of Fremont Michigan stumbled across three wooden trunks containing a large cache of Ku Klux Klan documents and artifacts hidden in a secret attic compartment.
Inside the trunks were the membership and movements of the 679 members of the Newaygo County Klan No. 29. The papers, robes and photographs had laid hidden for almost seven decades
Most of the Klan artifacts and papers were sold piece meal to private collectors at a public auction, but Frank Boles director of the Clarke Library at Central Michigan University was able to save one non-descript shoe box filled with membership cards.
The documents, hidden by Ledford Anderson, secretary-treasurer of the Newaygo County Klan, were never expected to see the light of day let alone be sold at a public auction. Then, for more than a decade the membership records were stored in the Library archives with little interest until Craig Fox, a British doctoral candidate in American studies happened across the collection on the internet
It’s fair to ask why a history of the KKK in Michigan has never been written. First and foremost “secret” is the operative word. A secret society by definition keeps its mouth shut and it is only through discovery of secret documents that light is shined on their unwritten history.
Another possibility is writing about the Klan is a grim business and one that still garners lots of negative reaction.
Maybe it takes a Brit to step away from the inherent controversy, raw images and disturbing history of the Ku Klux Klan to write about the nation’s largest secret society and one whose influence and popularity held Michigan in a tight grip during the 1920s. Craig Fox is a self-described independent scholar of American history and culture who as a doctoral student spent two years studying in the United States including doing archival research in Michigan for one year.
Although Fox was attracted to Michigan because of that single shoe box filled with Klan records he also used Klan collections in the Michigan State University Special Collections, and the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan, for his exhaustive research. His research was greatly added to by a former Central Michigan University who had done extensive work on the Klan before his death.
Fox said he was looking to conduct a locally-focused historical case-study in an area which hadn’t been extensively looked at before.
“I took stock of the regional studies that had been done so far, and then went on the lookout for archival sources from regions which would plug a gap in our knowledge of the wider movement.
That’s not quite as easy as it might sound, though: Klan records are notoriously rare, as you might expect. I trawled known US holdings pretty extensively using an online archive search and eventually narrowed it to a few states. Michigan seemed to jump right out off the page.”
Boles said that for a few short years in the 1920s the Klan exerted a strong political influence on Michigan and was close to electing Klan members to the highest political offices. In neighboring Indiana, one of the bastions of Klan memberships, the Governor was a Klan member. Nationally, President Warren G. Harding was a Klan member. Boles said a referendum on banning private education in Michigan was even proposed by the Klan.
“Opposition to it may have resulted in the oddest political coalition in Michigan history including Conservatives, Dutch Reformed and Catholics,” Boles said.
He said that shining the light of history on the Klan membership may be disconcerting for families in Newaygo County, but he said that the survival of records from there was “sheer happenstance”.
“They are no more guilty –there were Klan chapters all through Michigan and Newaygo was not unique.”
He also pointed out that the 1920s Klan was not like the original violent organization of the 1860s South or even the latter 1960s versions.
“It was a broadly based organization which was mostly anti-immigrant, and anti Catholic. A lot of people felt that way and they were not perceived as fringe or kooks,” he said.
At the height of their power the 1920s the “Invisible Empire” had what Fox called “staggering membership numbers” exceeding six million members nationwide. Although Michigan membership is extremely difficult to pinpoint, Fox cites reports as varying as 265,000 to 875,000. In the Capital City the Klan was able to muster more than 15.000 members for a march down Michigan Ave on Labor Day 1924.
Boles believes that it is important for an accurate assessment of history that people remember these times.
“Every moment in history wasn’t a happy moment. This group was regularly joined by regular people. Sometimes memories are not happy.” And some might not be happy in Newaygo County to find after 80 years names of their ancestors are now in print. Many prominent businessmen, doctors and lawyers found their way to Klan membership including the founder of Gerber Baby Foods, Dan F. Gerber.
Fox said, “History is a “warts and all” kind of business, and my view is that if it happened, then surely it’s worth knowing about.
You can’t simply edit out the chunks you don’t like, and I’m not sure how ignoring the murkier parts of the past is supposed to benefit anyone.”
In his new book, Fox details a Klan that is far from the popular perception of the secret organization that counted hundreds of thousands of members in Michigan during the 1920s. He shows that at this point in history the Klan was as likely to be a social organization sponsoring community picnics as it was a hate-mongering secret society.
Fox said that one gauge of the popularity of the Klan in the 1920s was the emergence of the “faddish Klan-themed merchandise” including flags, knives, lamps displaying a robed Klan figure and Klan music records. The Michigan Klan newspaper covered Klan weddings funeral and baptisms with the same interest as mainstream weekly newspapers. Newspaper editors and owners were often found on Klan rolls.
“I’d say that in many important respects – the types of people who joined, and the types of appeals that were made by the KKK – Michigan was pretty typical of most other states where the Klan was a presence,” Fox said.
He said the organization was actually the most powerful in the North in the 1920s with the biggest stronghold of Klan activity in the neighboring state of Indiana.
“The KKK came relatively late to Michigan (outside of Detroit, where it had some presence earlier), only really taking hold statewide in the summer of 1923. Perhaps as a consequence, it never really succeeded in gaining the political clout that it had managed to muster up in Indiana.”
The British author said as a national movement, the Klan peaked in 1924 and was all but dead by 1926.
“Michigan’s flirtation with it, whilst enthusiastic, was probably shorter than most.” Fox says the decline of the Klan, built on profitable pyramid schemes, was due to greed and financial incompetence.
He said that although the Klan phenomenon was national in scope, there were also regional variations.
“In the South, it inevitably turned its vitriol upon African Americans. In the Southwest it often targeted Mexicans, and on the Pacific coast, Asians.
In Michigan, it instead denounced ‘Romanism’ and set up its stall very definitely against what it saw as its greatest threat – immigration, and more specifically, the specter of Catholicism.”
The Klan historian says in his book that “the second Klan was far more ensconced in American life than many of us would like to admit.” Read a question and answer with the author of “Everyday Klan” in Dome magazine.