|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 7 (1989)|
The Ku Klux Klan, born at Pulaski, Giles County, Tennessee, in
1865, became a widespread southern organization and one of the
best-known organizations in the history of the United States.
It had a short existence in the nineteenth century, but was reborn
in the twentieth century when it experienced a longer history,
with periodic reappearances after 1930.
The Klan was reborn atop Stone Mountain, Georgia, on Thanksgiving
evening, 1915. The American flag fluttered in a cool breeze while
a crude flickering cross illuminated a Bible open to the twelfth
chapter of Romans. The small group pledged allegiance to the Invisible
Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Shortly thereafter, a preliminary
charter was granted to the Klan by the state of Georgia (Jackson
The leader of the group was William Joseph Simmons, an unsuccessful
Methodist minister. Born at Harpersville, Alabama, he made a profound
impact upon his native state, the South, and the nation. Simmons,
a dreamer, projected a fraternal organization patterned after
the romantic image of the original Ku Klux Klan. It was not until
the 1920s, however, that the movement grew significantly. Conceived
at a time when civic clubs of all types thrived and flourished,
its secrecy and elaborate ritual appealed to many who felt lost
in the masses; its colorful pageantry attracted numerous members
and sympathizers. It was dedicated to what members believed to
be one hundred per cent Americanism, white supremacy, and Protestantism
By 1920 the Klan had enrolled 5,000 members, most of whom were
in Georgia. Nationwide publicity for the Klan came in the fall
of 1921 when Rowland Thomas and the New York World began
a three-week expose of the organization with particular emphasis
upon its more violent aspects. The series estimated that the organization
had a membership of 500,000 in 45 states. That same year the United
States House of Representatives began an investigation into the
alleged financial abuses of the Klan, but congressmen found no
evidence of misuse of funds (Jackson 12).
As a result of the newspaper stories and the congressional investigation,
the fledgling organization "received a great deal of gratuitous
and much needed advertising," which proved a boon to "recruiting."
The Klan became a "familiar conversational topic," and
the Atlanta headquarters "was deluged with applications,"
many of them on facsimile blanks printed in the World or sister
publications. By 1922 more than 200 klaverns were chartered and
membership soared from 100,000 to almost a million (Jackson 12).
The Klan in Tennessee was concentrated in the western and eastern
divisions of the state, being introduced into Knoxville in the
spring of 1921 when Kleagle Henry P. Fry recruited members there,
in Johnson City, Bristol, and other upper East Tennessee cities.
The Knoxville Klavern, chartered as Knoxville Klan No. 14, reached
a membership of 500 by fall. Knoxville has the unusual distinction
of being one of the few communities for which membership records
are available. Kenneth T. Jackson treated it as one of the city
This paper, however, focuses on the activities of the Klan in
lower East Tennessee, principally in Chattanooga. Chattanooga
was a city on the move. Business boomed during the war period,
and a new International Harvester plant was constructed. The city's
population doubled and approached 100,000 by the end of the 1920s.
A local physician headed the Klan, and some of the leading citizens
were members. However, the real strength of the Klan was concentrated
among the working classes, who labored in the factories, foundries,
and mills of East Chattanooga. The Chattanooga Klan was the fourth
chapter organized in Tennessee. Its Committee on Moral Reform
gave local law-enforcement officials a list of suspected bootleggers
and focused much attention on morals. In the mind of Klansmen,
however, the real enemies were the alien, the Jew, the Pope, and
the Negro (Chalmers 152).
In January 1921, a strong rumor was circulating in Chattanooga
that an organizer for the Klan was present in the city. An article
in the Chattanooga Times was headlined "Ku Klux Klan
Coming Here?" Observers expected that a group would be established
in Chattanooga and surrounding towns. Klaverns were later begun
at Cleveland (No. 12), Charleston, Benton, and other East Tennessee
communities. The reporter concluded that the "wheels of the
clan, which have been inoperative for fifty years, are now whirring
vigorously" (Chattanooga Times, February 7, 1921,
hereinafter referred to as Times).
An organizational meeting was planned for February 24 at the Odd
Fellows Hall on West Seventh Street. Mayor Alex W. Chambliss was
invited, but he declined to attend. A second organizational meeting
was held on March 2 in the courthouse auditorium, which was reserved
by S.A. Givens, "one of the chief Klan organizers from Atlanta."
Admission was by invitation card only, and newsmen were not invited.
However, Mayor Chambliss received another personal invitation
by Mr. Givens, but again declined the offer (Times, February
26, March 2, 1921).
Reporters were briefed by Mr. Givens and P.E. Pafford, but they
were not admitted to the meeting. Approximately 150 people attended
the gathering; many of these came out of curiosity. However, most
of those attending were from the ranks of labor. Business and
professional men were noticeably absent (Times, March 3,
1921). The local group was designated as Chattanooga Klan No.
4, and organizers indicated that the Klan was in Chattanooga to
stay (Jackson 12).
At this point Simmons had reached his organizational limits; therefore,
Edward Young Clarke and Mrs. Elizabeth Tyler formed the Southern
Publicity Association to promote the Klan. The pair broadened
the program to include prejudices of "uncritical minds against
the Catholic, the Jew, the Negro, the Oriental, and the recent
immigrant." A 1920 agreement made Clarke imperial Keagle,
and he would receive two dollars and fifty cents for each recruit.
The Imperial Wizard was undoubtedly troubled by the personal antics
of these associates, but he was "unable or unwilling to refuse
them support." When well-known northern Klansmen called for
their resignations, the northern Klansmen were banished. When
the Chattanooga Klan passed a "treasonable resolution"
against the pair, Chattanooga's charter was revoked. Tensions
subsided after Mrs. Tyler resigned because of failing health,
but they intensified again when Clarke admitted that he had been
arrested many times (Jackson 9, 13).
In August 1921, 150 Knights marched in a "mirth-provoking"
parade in Rossville, Georgia, just south of Chattanooga. The group
was "led by a diminutive Knight mounted on a raw-boned little
horse and armed with a squeaky trumpet." He was followed
by a tall individual with a fiery cross, the American flag, and
a "slow-moving procession of white-clad masked Knights."
It might have been an impressive sight except that watchers laughed
when they noticed that most of the participants were "run
down at the heels," indicating that many in the parade were
out of work and were not local businessmen (Times, August
Local observers reported that the Klan did not wish to be made
into a political issue although they were actively trying to influence
public elections and fill offices. It was reported that Horace
Humphreys, and T.S. Hunter, Republican candidates for sheriff,
were members of the "Invisible Empire." Humphreys was
elected sheriff by a 2,151 vote margin over his opponent (Times,
June 4, 1922).
In the 1923 municipal primaries the Klan took an active part in
the campaign in which religious orthodoxy and anti-Catholicism
were major issues. The incumbent city commission was composed
of two Roman Catholics, a Jew, and an "undependable Presbyterian,"
who as head of the Department of Education permitted several Catholic
teachers to be hired. A correspondent for the Baltimore Herald
watched the approaching election with interest. He wrote that
the Klan was in "its third or political phase" in East
Tennessee and that the coming election would indicate whether
it would gain a new lease on life or lapse into obscurity. The
leaders of the hooded organization were making a desperate effort
to stave off defeat but stood a chance to elect some of their
members (Times, April 4, 1923). Local observers noted that
the Invisible Empire had reached its perihelion "and [now]
was traveling rapidly to its inevitable dissolution" (Times,
April 5, 1923).
Each side pulled out all stops in the campaign that was characterized
by two clearly delineated sides, the People's Ticket and the Klan's
Ticket. It was rumored that if J.W. Abel were elected, the Klan
would run the schools of the city. The Klan, however, was the
author of its own defeat. The Klansmen antagonized the people
so much that the voters united in opposition to the secret organization.
Women voters waged a fight against the Klan. Mrs. Joe Cliff was
selected to head up the workers who arranged the meeting on behalf
of the present commissioners. J.B.F. Lowry said that "certain
preachers in Chattanooga [were] desecrating the pulpit."
The Times editorial entitled "Renouncing the Klan"
quoted Pittsburgh pastor Dr. R.B. Urmy, who said, when sixteen
masked men entered his church, "Gentlemen, when you remove
your disguise you may remain; otherwise you will have to go."
The editor believed that that would have been a good local slogan
as well (April 5, 1923).
The meeting, scheduled for the Billy Sunday tabernacle because
the Bijou theater was too small, had the theme: "Americanism
vs. Intolerance." It was expected to be the "biggest
and perhaps the most interesting mass meeting a Chattanooga municipal
campaign" had ever witnessed. An advertisement indicated
that the "truth about the Ku-Klux" would be uncovered,
and "all lovers of true Americanism [were] invited to be
present." The Rotary Club passed a resolution disapproving
of "any organization whose membership is secret and unknown
to the people of the community" (Times, April 4, 5, 6, 1923).
Another editorial supported the meeting. It was good that the
women were "organizing to put a quietus once and for all
upon this demoralizing, hate-producing and community-destroying
influence." D.L. Grayson presided at the meeting which attracted
4,000 persons. When W. I. Frierson asked the audience if two local
heroes, both Catholics, were 100 percent Americans, the crowd
cheered. When asked to stand up against "religious intolerance,"
99 per cent rose to their feet (Times, April 7, 1923).
Another editorial on "Intolerance" concluded, "We
must banish religious prejudice and fight out political battles
in the domain of toleration and moderation or we are headed for
troubled waters." A full-page ad in the same issue indicated
that the "eyes of the world" were on Chattanooga. "Let's
advertise her as a 100% American city with a majority against
the Ku-Klux" (Times, April 9, 1923).
It was predicted that the heaviest voter turnout ever polled was
anticipated, but the response exceeded expectations. More than
12,000 voters participated and defeated the Klan slate. The community's
groups -- Jews, Catholics, blacks, and liberal Protestants --
voted against the Klan candidates because they feared the "mask
more than the Pope." Blacks, who constituted a third of the
city's inhabitants, flocked to the polls and gave impressive results
in three precincts (Times, April 4, 7, 9, 10, 11, 1923;
Chalmers, 152). According to Henry P. Fry, Chattanooga manufacturers
were opposed to the Klan because they felt that the organization
might drive Negro workers to the North (92).
By November 1923, observers noted that the Klan was seemingly
on the decline in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. With the
political backset in Chattanooga, recent political losses in Memphis,
and its inability to gain support in the approaching 1924 political
struggles, the Klan in Tennessee was projected to lose its fight
(New York Times, November 16, 1923).
When the Klan was introduced in Chattanooga in 1921, it was not
taken seriously and almost disappeared. By 1922 the Klan was more
established and drew mostly from blue-collar workers. The hooded
order felt so firmly entrenched in 1923 that members challenged
the incumbent municipal leadership. The community decided to meet
the challenge and defeated the Klan candidates. The Klan continued
to exist in Chattanooga, but its strength was spent.
Chalmers, David M. Hooded Americanism: The First Century of
the Ku Klux Klan. Garden City: Doubleday, 1965.
Fry, Henry P. The Modern Ku Klux Klan. Boston: Small, Maynard,
Jackson, Kenneth T. The Ku Klux Klan in the City 1915-1930.
New York: Oxford, 1967.
Snell, William R. "Masked Men in the Magic City: Activities
of the Revised Klan in Birmingham, 1916-1940." The Alabama
Historical Quarterly 34 (1972): 206-227.
Wade, Wyn Craig. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America.
London: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
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