With a new historical webpage, University of Washington scholars are shining a bright light on one of the darkest chapters of Washington history – the days when the Ku Klux Klan was a force in the state.
It was a brief era when the Klan had tens of thousands of members. KKK rallies drew crowds estimated at 50,000, the Klan entered floats in parades, there were Klan weddings and Christmases and the Klan even published its own newspaper, "The Watcher in the Tower," in Seattle.
Historians have created a webpage packed with articles, rare photographs and documents about Klan activities in the state during the 1920s as part of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, headed by James Gregory, University of Washington professor of history, and director of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor.
The project came about when history doctoral student Trevor Griffey planned to teach a 2006 class on local history of White supremacy. Griffey thought many people didn't grasp why the civil rights movement was needed in Washington, a place with a reputation of being liberal.
"We tend to associate images of Klansmen burning crosses, wearing white robes and holding public rallies with the South," Griffey said. "But seeing some of the images we found and learning the stories of a secret society of White supremacists in Washington state shows that the Pacific Northwest also has a history of racism that we shouldn't overlook."
The Klan came to Washington as part of the second wave of KKK activity in the United States. Like the original Klan that sprang up after the Civil War, this version originated in the South in 1915 and spread across the country. By the early 1920s the Klan dominated the legislatures in Indiana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Colorado.
In Oregon, the KKK led a successful 1922 effort to outlaw private Catholic schools. The following year the group brought its anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant message to Washington.
"They tried to make the Klan seem natural by having picnics, patriotic fireworks and reenactments of the battle of Bunker Hill. They appealed to people's Christianity, their fear of foreigners and their patriotism by marketing the Klan as an essential part of protecting the nation," said Griffey. "I find it remarkable that they were able to draw tens of thousands of people, and in some cases as many as 50,000, from all over Washington to watch Klan ceremonies in Renton, Issaquah, Yakima and Lynden."
Nationally, the high-water mark of the Klan came in 1924 when it helped push a highly restrictive immigration bill through Congress. In Washington it promoted legislation outlawing private Catholic schools, but the initiative was defeated.
Failure of that measure, along with internal factional battles and scandals that involved high-ranking state figures who were Klan members sapped the organization's power and appeal. As its influence waned, Bellingham and Whatcom County became the KKK's last strongholds in the state.
By 1929, the organization, which had once boasted of having four million members nationally, had largely disappeared.
"This is not just about the past," Griffey said. "The Klan failed as an organization, but its fusion of White supremacy and Christian patriotism was not discredited. The Klan in the Northwest promoted itself as being 100 percent American, not by lynchings or race riots."
The KKK history page is at http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/kkk_intro.htm. The entire civil rights/labor history page is at http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/.