History: The 1920's Saw The KKK's Rise In Illinois

Feb 28, 2017

The Ku Klux Klan was in the news again during last year’s election. While white supremacist groups are on the rise again, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, they are nowhere near as prevalent as they were in the 1920s, when Klansmen served in all levels of government.

It was the Roaring Twenties. Gangsters ruled Chicago. Flappers ruled the dance floor. And the KKK helped rule Illinois.

Attorney Charles G. Palmer, who was grand dragon of the Illinois KKK at the time, was quoted in the October twenty-fourth, 1924 Chicago Daily Tribune:

“We know we’re the balance of power in the state…We can control state elections and get what we want from state government.”

Illinois wasn’t unique. In the 1920s, KKK chapters formed around the country, even in historically abolitionist areas like northern Illinois. This second wave of the Klan was different. The original formed after the Civil War and became a violent, white supremacist group that tried to control newly freed blacks.

The second-generation Klan was a self-proclaimed morality police, according to the book, The Ku Klux Klan in American Politics. It was reacting to repercussions from World War I and Prohibition, including wariness of immigrants and what it saw as looser morals represented by speakeasies, bootlegging and, ironically, political corruption.

The Klan said it stood for “America.” Anything that wasn’t red, white, and blue -- with an emphasis on “white,” was wrong. For the Klan, that was a long list:

"African-Americans, Catholics, immigrants, and Jews. We support Protestants, whites, Prohibition… and law and order."

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, says four to seven million men and women throughout the country joined the Klan in the 1920s. Among them, were up to 200,000 Illinoisans, and they were political.

A Chicago Klan newspaper called, “Dawn: A Journal for True American Patriots,“ encouraged members to recommend candidates and run for office.

The June sixth, 1923 Rockford paper, the Republic, reported:

“The klan is said to have been active in Springfield elections since last fall, supporting candidates backed by (Republican) Governor Len Small.”

Tension over the Klan’s involvement with Illinois government peaked that year. Chicago Representative Thomas J. O’Grady, a Democrat, requested an investigation into Statehouse employees’ Klan membership.

That same day, O’Grady was arrested in Springfield under false pretenses and roughed up, reported the Rockford paper.

His Statehouse investigation went nowhere, but its proposal caused aftershocks.

“Alarm has spread through the state capitol since Representative Thomas O’Grady announced he would seek to turn the spotlight on the state pay roll to search out klan members…If membership in the klan is going to jeopardize their jobs, many of the plum gatherers probably will be ready to sell their robes and masks.”

That was the January twentieth, 1923 Chicago Daily Tribune. It listed several avowed or alleged Klansmen on the state payroll.

Yet, the group grew bolder. That May, the KKK held a huge initiation at the state fairgrounds in Springfield. The Illinois House of Representatives held hearings to find out who authorized the bash, which lasted until 4 a.m.

The KKK reacted swiftly. A former Springfield Klan official was going to name names and spill secrets, but the Klan had his testimony barred, reported the June sixth, 1923 Illinois State Register. Some members were still outed…

"…including the assistant secretary of the Senate."

All of the witnesses, including Governor Small, said they had no idea who okayed the massive Klan initiation. Small even claimed he didn’t have the authority to okay it.

The committee grilled the fairground custodian, decided he was to blame, and had him fired. 

But the Klan didn‘t stop. The next year it held another mass rally in Springfield. Klansmen marched from the Statehouse to the fairgrounds, where they lighted crosses, had a parade, gave speeches, and shot off fireworks.

"A couple weeks later, at a Klan rally in the Chicago armory, sample ballots were distributed with Small’s name marked for governor, according to the book, Len Small: Governors and Gangsters. "

Small was re-elected in 1925, but his popularity, like the Klan’s, was running out. By this time, the KKK had largely disappeared from Chicago, thanks to the American Unity League. The Encyclopedia of Chicago says it outed city Klansmen by printing their “names, addresses, and occupations.”

Later that year, Small was convicted on embezzlement charges. By the end of the twenties, the Klan, the self-proclaimed morality police, had also fallen after a series of scandals and internecine fights. 

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To learn about hate groups active in the country today, visit the Southern Poverty Law Center online.

Listen to other history stories sponsored by the Sangamon County Historical Society.

     While gangsters were ruling Chicago during the Roaring Twenties, and flappers were ruling the dance floor, Klansmen were helping rule Illinois. We may bemoan modern political corruption -- with two of our governors and a congressman in or just out of jail, but at least we don’t have the Ku Klux Klan as leaders any more.

     “We know we’re the balance of power in the state..,” said Charles G. Palmer, an attorney and “grand dragon of the Illinois Ku Klux Klan,” in the Oct. 24, 1924 Chicago Daily Tribune. He claimed the Klan could “control elections in Illinois and has the power to get what it wants from the state administration.”

     He may have been right.

     Illinois wasn’t unique in that regard, however. In the 1920s, KKK chapters were popping up around the country, even in historically abolitionist areas like northern Illinois. This second wave of the Klan differed from the first. The original formed after the Civil War as a violent, white supremacist group to keep newly freed blacks “in their place.”

     This second generation Klan arose as a self-proclaimed morality police. It was reacting to repercussions from World War II and Prohibition, including wariness of immigrants and what it saw as looser morals represented by speakeasies, bootlegging and, ironically, political corruption, according to The Ku Klux Klan in American Politics (by Arnold Rice). The Klan said it stood for “America;“ anything that wasn’t red, white, and blue -- with an emphasis on “white,” was wrong, and that was a long list. It railed against African-Americans, Catholics, immigrants, and Jews, while it supported Protestants, whites, Prohibition, and law and order.

        The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, says four to seven million men and women joined local Klan groups, called “Klaverns,” during the 1920s. Up to 200,000 of those members were Illinoisans, according to Rice’s book. (Conditions were far worse next door; Indiana had one-half million members.) The Klan had a stronghold on the Windy City with 50,000 Klansmen there, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago: “Chicago had the largest membership of any metropolitan region in the U.S…. the Chicago Klan drew its primary support from lower-echelon, white-collar workers, small businessmen, and semi-skilled laborers, all of whom resented the growing influence of persons who did not meet the Klan’s definition of 100% American.”

Outside of the South and Southwest, this group was more of a bigots’ social club than marauding gang, like the Klan of the Civil Rights era. Historian David Chalmers (author of Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan) describes the 1920s Klan as a “great fraternal lodge” with “nationwide political power.” That power was “potent,” stated a 1976 Illinois Legislative Investigating Commission report on the group. “Governors in 10 states (the SPLC says it was 20) and 13 senators in 9 states were elected with Klan help.” The Illinois report failed to mention that our own governor, Kankakee Republican Len Small, was one of them.

“The klan is said to have been active in Springfield elections since last fall, supporting candidates backed by Gov. Small,” reported the June 6, 1923 Republic, a Rockford newspaper. Klan leaders encouraged political activism. In the Oct. 27, 1923 edition of the “Dawn: A Journal for True American Patriots,“ a KKK paper published in Chicago, the head of the Illinois Klan encouraged members to submit candidate recommendations for the upcoming election “with a view to disseminating that information to members with our indorsement (sic)…”

Members did more than endorse, they became candidates. “Klansmen took it for granted that they should be ever willing, when duty called, to throw their ‘hoods into the ring,’” wrote Rice. He quoted an article from the Dawn: “A desire to bring about law enforcement; to wipe out immorality, to improve the public land system, aid in solving the immigration problem -- these are the things that will compel Klansmen to accept public office…”

Tension over the Klan’s involvement with Illinois government peaked in 1923. That January, Chicago Representative Thomas J. O’Grady, a Democrat, announced he would request an investigation into Statehouse employees’ Klan membership (Jan. 18, 1923 Rockford Morning Star). That night, O’Grady later testified, he was arrested under false pretenses in Springfield and roughed up; some blamed the Klan (June 6, 1923 Rockford Republic newspaper). His proposed investigation fell through, but the mere idea caused aftershocks.

“Alarm has spread through the state capitol since Representative Thomas O’Grady announced he would seek to turn the spotlight on the state pay roll to search out klan members, and if membership in the klan is going to jeopardize their jobs, many of the plum gatherers probably will be ready to sell their robes and masks,” reported the Jan 20, 1923 Chicago Daily Tribune. It listed several avowed or alleged Klansmen on the state payroll, including state fair workers and highway engineers  --“The division of highways numbers more klansmen than any other state department…”. (There was also a Klan legislator - James H. Ashby, according to the Dec. 16, 1924 Rockford Daily Register Gazette.) The Tribune article reported that the governor’s secretary, George Sutton, had  filled out a KKK membership application, but Sutton said he never submitted it. (The 1920s equivalent of Bill Clinton’s “I didn’t inhale”?)

Months later, the so-called “Invisible Empire” held a huge initiation at the state fairgrounds in Springfield. “Beneath the flaming cross of the order, in the presence of 5,000 knights, 675 candidates were inducted into (the) Abraham Lincoln klavern…in a solemn ceremony in the coliseum at the state fair grounds late Saturday night and Sunday morning,” reported Springfield’s May 27, 1923 Illinois State Register.

The Klan had gone too far. Three days after the event, the Illinois House approved an investigation into who authorized the bash (which lasted until 4 a.m.) on state property. The Klan had posted “approximately 200 armed guards appearing in the full regalia of the order for the purpose of refusing permission to said State Fair Grounds at the time,” stated the House resolution.         

Lawmakers grilled Klansmen, locals, state and fair officials, and Gov. Small during several hearings in Springfield. The Klan quickly took the offense; its attorney secured an injunction barring a disgruntled, former Springfield Klan official from naming local Klansmen or telling the order’s secrets (June 6, 1923 Illinois State Register). Some members were still outed, such as A. R. Livingston, the assistant secretary of the Senate In a mea culpa move, the local Klan offered to pay for the electricity it had used at the fairgrounds (June 8, 1923 Illinois State Register). 

All of the witnesses, including Gov. Small, professed ignorance about who okayed the massive Klan initiation. When asked if he was a Klansman, Small “laughed” (June 8, 1923 Chicago Daily Tribune). The leader of our state denied knowledge of the gathering and even the authority to approve it. “Governor Small said he has no more supervision of the fair grounds (than) he has of the capitol or other state buildings,” quoted the June 8, 1923 Rockford Morning Star.

The committee grilled the lowest fairground employee the most. Custodian Charles Muttera said he had passed the fairgrounds on the night in question while walking home and “was accosted” by a hooded Klansman who “ordered him to move along” (June 6, 1923 Rockford Morning Star). In response, a committee member called him a coward (June 6, 1923 Illinois State Register). “I am not going to get my block knocked off for the whole state of Illinois,” Muttera retorted (June 6, 1923 Rockford Republic). Even Gov. Small, in an unusually magnanimous gesture, testified that “The custodian can do nothing against 4,500 men.” (June 8, 1923 Rockford Morning Star.)      

So, the committee decided the custodian was to blame. On June 19, the House called Muttera “incompetent” and “unsafe,” and demanded his removal. It also recommended that groups wanting to use state property in the future be required to obtain a written permit.  About a week later, Gov. Small signed anti-Klan legislation making it illegal to appear in public hooded, robed, or masked.

It had little effect. The next year the KKK held another mass rally in Springfield. “Several thousand members of the Ku Klux Klan from all sections of the state came here yesterday to stage a parade and hear an address by their imperial wizard,” reported the Oct 12, 1924 Illinois State Register. “A considerable number of them were hooded.” The Klansmen marched from the Statehouse to the fairgrounds, where they lighted two crosses, paraded floats, listened to speeches, and shot fireworks. Later that month, about “a thousand hooded Klansmen” paraded in the armory in Chicago, according to Jim Ridings’ book, Len Small: Governors and Gangsters. “Sample ballots were distributed with Small’s name marked for governor.”

The KKK “claimed credit” for the governor’s re-nomination in 1924, stated Ridings, who devotes an entire chapter to Small‘s relationship with the Klan. This was the height of the Kluxers‘ Roaring Twenties heydays. It was when Charles Palmer, “grand dragon” of the Illinois KKK, bragged to the Tribune about his group’s political power. He also said the Klan used Illinois National Guard horses during its Oct. 11 state fairgrounds rally in Springfield with the permission of Small’s administration. The article also reported that a notorious southern Illinois Klansman, S. Glenn Young, had appeared with the governor at two recent campaign stops. He was the main speaker at one, crowing that “This will be the first time in my life I have ever voted the Republican ticket.”

Small’s opponent jumped on the issue. Democrat Norman L. Jones said “Our state property must not be made the rendezvous for those who wear masks and seek to control our government through invisible means,” reported the Oct. 28, 1924 Rockford Morning Star.     

Jones “told how the klan is working for Small, how its members use, with impunity, rooms in the capitol as dressing rooms before parades, how the hooded figures of klansmen ride U.S. cavalry horses assigned to Illinois cavalry troops in these parades, and use the Illinois state fairgrounds for night gatherings in defiance of the mandate of the legislature…” stated the Oct. 28, 1924 Chicago Daily Tribune.

Small was re-elected, despite these claims and calls for his impeachment that dated back to his first term as governor, according to Ridings. During that term, Small was indicted for conspiracy and embezzling millions of state dollars during an earlier stint as state treasurer. He was acquitted the next year during a trial that reeked of favoritism. Four of the jurors got state jobs, according to The Illinois Governors: Mostly Good and Competent Men (by Taylor Pensoneau and Peggy Boyer Long).

    In 1925, Small was found guilty of the embezzlement charge in a civil trial and ordered to pay restitutions. He used state employees’ mandated contributions to do so.

That year he was re-elected; but his popularity, along with the Klan’s, was running out. By this time, the KKK had largely disappeared from Chicago, thanks to the American Unity League, which printed the “names, addresses, and occupations” of local Klansmen, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. Even with his voting bloc fading away, Small ran for re-election.

Just before the state’s next primary in 1928, the Chicago Daily Tribune printed what it called “proof“ of Small’s Klan friendship -- a photo of the Klan’s 1922 state fairgrounds initiation with the caption “Len Small, the Klan’s friend.” Thousands of hooded KKK members stood inside the fairgrounds’ coliseum with a burning cross behind them. Assistant Attorney General William Harrison, an African-American, had discovered the picture, which was mailed to black voters.    

Small lost the 1928 primary and another election attempt four years later. By this time, the Klan had mostly dissolved in the U.S. The KKK succumbed to its own scandals and internecine fights, according to the SPLC. Corruption had destroyed both Small and his voting bloc, the self-claimed morality police.