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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: Chronicling the rise of the Klan

by Tom Dillard | May 16, 2021 at 8:58 a.m.

I know what I'm going to give Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) for Christmas: a copy of "The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Arkansas" by University of Central Arkansas professor Kenneth Barnes.

Lowery sponsored several bills in the current legislative session to shape the way history must be taught in public schools of our state. He and his Republican colleagues are not happy that the underbelly of American history has been laid bare in classrooms, museum exhibits, the academic press, and popular culture.

I am one among many Arkansas historians--not to mention thousands elsewhere in the country--who have worked to record the story of racism and bigotry in local, state, and national history.

Barnes' new book is subtitled "How Protestant White Nationalism Came to Rule a State." And for a short time, the Klan did rule Arkansas.

The author is widely published in the field of Arkansas history, including his recent award-winning history of anti-Catholicism (UA Press). It is only natural that anti-Catholicism would lead Barnes to the Klan, for religious bigotry motivated the 1920s Klan as much or more than racism.

The 1920s Klan was unlike the original KKK, which was formed in Tennessee after the Civil War. The post-Civil War Klan had a short but violent existence as it worked to ensure that the old Southern ways survived the war intact and actually ascendant.

Nathan Bedford Forrest, the namesake of Forrest City, was one of the major organizers of the original Klan. However, Reconstruction Gov. Powell Clayton declared martial law, organized a militia force, and defeated the Klan more successfully than in any other state.

The 1920s Klan was very much a product of the 20th century. Arkansas, America, and the world were undergoing relentless change in the aftermath of World War I. This seemingly uncontrolled dash into the future worried people.

The modern Klan had its birth in Georgia in 1915 when former Methodist preacher William Joseph Simmons acted on his long-held admiration for the Reconstruction Klan and established a new KKK, his stated objective being to promote patriotism.

Simmons, whom Barnes described as having had "an undistinguished past as a self-proclaimed Methodist preacher, an organizer for fraternal organizations, and an occasional salesman of various items ranging from garters to insurance," no doubt hoped to make a little money off the new group.

The new Klan did not catch on until the summer of 1920 when Simmons hired two promoters to build the organization. Membership soared. By the end of 1922, the group had 100,000 members and chapters in most Southern states, much of the Midwest, and even Colorado.

The first chapter in Arkansas was established in 1921, becoming Klan No. 1. Membership recruitment took a leap when Missionary Baptist preacher Ben M. Bogard openly joined the Klan and became a crusading recruiter. By the end of the year, Klan No. 1 claimed 2,500 members.

Barnes does an excellent job analyzing the secret membership of the Arkansas Klan. Records of two chapters survive: Monticello in the southeast and Bentonville in the far northwest. Barnes found that "the most striking characteristic of Klansmen in both towns was their prominence."

The mayors of both towns were Klan members, as were half the city councilmen in both. Among the Monticello members were the Drew County sheriff, the school superintendent, most county officers, and a host of professionals from lawyers to teachers. Twenty-three merchants were Klansmen. The minister at the Monticello Methodist Church served as Exalted Cyclops.

Bentonville had a Klan mayor, and one of its two newspapers was owned by Klansmen.

Barnes profiled the typical Arkansas Klansman as "a white Protestant man in his early 40s who either was a businessman or professional living in town or a relatively prosperous farmer living nearby."

Today it is difficult to imagine, but many mainline Protestant preachers joined the Klan in addition to Missionary Baptists, among them Methodists, Southern Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and Presbyterians. Hendrix College in Conway had a student Klan chapter.

Surprisingly, the 1920s Klan did not aim most of its venom at Black Arkansans, but concentrated on fighting moonshining, opposing organized labor, and "the protection of pure womanhood." A Harrison group whipped the widow Betty Wood, who was said to host sex parties, before burning down her home. Barnes described the Klan's actions as "moral vigilantism."

Many women supported the Klan; the national headquarters for Women of the Ku Klux Klan was situated in Little Rock.

In 1923, the Klan joined in breaking a strike against the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad. Violence broke out in several towns along the railroad, especially Harrison--where a strike leader was murdered--and Heber Springs. This anti-labor sentiment speaks to the fact that the Klan was an organization of business and professional men.

The leader of the Klan--Grand Dragon for the Realm of Arkansas--was James Comer, an Indiana native who moved to Little Rock in 1895 to be the manager of the local branch of the Union Pacific Tea Co., though he soon became a lawyer.

He was an active Republican, a leader in the Bull Moose faction that supported former President Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 elections. Comer worked closely with Black Republicans within the Bull Moose movement and was allied with the Black and Tan faction during political conflict with Lily Whites on the Pulaski County Republican Committee. Amazingly, Comer's GOP affiliation did not prevent him from using the Democratic Party to promote the Klan.

The first Klan foray into elective politics came in April 1922 when it orchestrated a write-in campaign and defeated the re-election of a Catholic member of the Little Rock City Council. Emboldened, Comer implemented an internal "preferential primary" by which Klan members decided who to support in the August 1922 Democratic primary elections in Pulaski County.

Klan candidates were almost completely successful, with future governor Homer Adkins being nominated for Pulaski County sheriff. Only two anti-Klan candidates won.

All Klan-endorsed candidates for state offices were elected. In Craighead County, a Klan candidate ousted the incumbent four-term county judge. The Catholic city treasurer in Blytheville was defeated for re- election. El Dorado elected a Klansman as mayor. Klansman Heartsill Ragon, a Clarksville attorney, was elected to Congress from the fifth district.

Venturing into partisan politics was a double-edged sword for the Klan. In 1924 it endorsed Lee Cazort of Johnson County for governor, but he was defeated by Tom Terral, an anti-Comer Klansman and Little Rock lawyer.

Corruption, excessive spending, and internal politics combined to discredit Comer, and soon the Arkansas Klan began to lose members in Arkansas as well as nationally.

While Barnes has written a book of history, it has deeper meaning for a state which on two occasions gave landslide votes to Donald Trump.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

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