On March 5, 1923, the Washington State House of Representatives in Olympia fails to act on a bill intended to quell the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the state, and the legislature's adjournment three days later ensures that no action will be taken on the measure. The proposal, Supplemental House Bill 26, would have prohibited wearing in public masks, hoods, caps, or other coverings over the face making one unrecognizable. The legislation is strenuously opposed by the Klan, and the failure to bring it to a final vote illustrates the group's significant political influence at the time in the halls of state government.
The Second Klan
In February 1915 The Birth of a Nation was released. Directed by D. W. Griffith (1875-1948), the film depicted the South in the aftermath of the Civil War beset by "vengeful former slaves, opportunistic white scalawags, and corrupt Yankee carpetbaggers ... until respectable white Southerners" -- the Ku Klux Klan -- "rose up and restored order" (Mintz). Technically brilliant, it greatly influenced the future of film despite its hateful themes, and was seen by millions of Americans in the months following its release.
The original Ku Klux Klan had almost entirely ceased to exist by the late 1800s but, in what most historians believe was not a coincidence, nine months after The Birth of a Nation was released, William Joseph Simmons (1880-1945), a part-time preacher living in Atlanta, Georgia, founded what became known as the Second Klan. On Thanksgiving Day 1915 he gathered 15 like-minded men at Stone Mountain near Atlanta. There he torched a pinewood cross, giving birth to the twentieth-century Ku Klux Klan. Its growth was slow at first, as Simmons busied himself creating strange rituals and an alliterative vocabulary for the new Klan, and more than four years later it had only a few thousand members, almost all in Georgia and Alabama.
That would change in June 1920, when Edward Young Clarke (1877-?) and Mary Elizabeth Tyler (1881-1924), owners of a for-profit fundraising operation called the Southern Publicity Association, took on Simmons as a client. Clarke and Tyler were talented hucksters who saw huge business potential in the reborn Ku Klux Klan, and they were not wrong. They established a Klan Department of Propagation, began training recruiters, called Kleagles, then sent them around the country spreading the word and signing up new members. The Second Klan was, at its heart, as much a pyramid scheme as a secret society. By December 1921 more than 700,000 men had joined, and it soon grew much larger. From each $10 membership fee, Simmons got $2 and Clarke and Tyler took $8, out of which they made a net profit of approximately $2.50 per new member even after paying all the recruiting costs.
The Klan in Washington
By its peak in 1925, the Second Ku Klux Klan was believed to have had more than four million members nationwide, and perhaps 40,000 in Washington, although the latter number is probably considerably too high. The number of local groups (called Klaverns) in the state was somewhere between 42 and 59, depending on the source consulted. Precise quantification is impossible, and it is even unclear when the Second Klan first became active in Washington.
The national organization assigned local Klaverns a number in the order of their establishment in any given state. Klavern No. 1 in Washington, called the Columbia River Klan, was started sometime in 1922, probably by Luther Ivan Powell (1878-1951), a star Klan recruiter who almost single-handedly had made the organization a formidable political force in Oregon. But more than a year earlier, on August 4, 1921, The Seattle Star reported that the Klan had already organized five groups just in Tacoma, with more in Kent, Auburn, and other areas. A month after that, The Seattle Times began publishing a multi-part Klan exposé prepared by The New York World. It named only three states in which the Klan was not active, and Washington was not one of them. And on September 13, 1921, on its front page, the paper identified G. L. Williams of Atlanta as the "King Kleagle" of "the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan" in Washington ("Seattle Ku Klux Klan!").
Because the Klan's membership rolls were a closely held secret, and almost all its records were destroyed in subsequent years, these historical discrepancies now seem beyond resolution. A couple of facts seem obvious: There were clearly local Klan groups in the state before Klavern No. 1 debuted in Vancouver in 1922, and certainly by the end of that year the Klan's presence had become large enough to cause concern in many quarters.
A Dairyman Takes on the Klan
The primary target of the original Ku Klux Klan was recently freed African American slaves. The Second Klan threw a much wider net, vilifying not only blacks, but also immigrants, resident Asian Americans and Mexican Americans, Catholics, Jews, and the unemployed. It also opposed, at least doctrinally, immorality of all sorts, supporting aggressive enforcement of Prohibition and condemning the relaxed morals of the Jazz Age.
By the end of 1922 Owen R. McKinney (1863-1942) had seen enough. McKinney, of rural Pierce County, was a dairy farmer and president of the Pierce County Milk Producers' Association. He had served the county's 35th legislative district as a Republican member of the state House of Representatives since 1909, dealing mostly with issues of importance to his rural constituents and to the dairy industry. But shortly after the legislature convened for its 1923 session on January 8, McKinney introduced a bill aimed directly at the Ku Klux Klan. He appears to have acted alone, and from all available evidence he was simply someone who believed that the KKK's agenda was inimical to fundamental American values. His ultimate failure demonstrated that in less than two years the Klan had become a political force in the state.
The Washington legislature in 1923 was almost entirely a Republican affair. In the Senate, 39 of the 42 seats were held by Republicans, with the Democrats having but one and the Farm Labor Party two. In the House of Representatives, the Republicans held 85 seats to the Democrats' nine and Farm Labor's three. The governor, Louis F. Hart (1862-1929), was also a Republican. Although the Ku Klux Klan was still most closely associated in the public mind with the Democratic Party, an association dating back to before the Civil War, both major political parties were well represented in its ranks.
As noted above, as early as August 1921 the Klan claimed to have five chapters operating in Tacoma, the Pierce County seat, and certainly more were in place by 1922. Its early strength in McKinney's county probably played a role in his decision to try to legislate the Klan out of existence. For whatever reasons, on January 17, 1923, he presented House Bill 26 (HB 26), which he told reporters was "designed to bar the Ku Klux Klan from the state" ("Hooded Orders ...").
House Bill 26
McKinney did not start with a blank slate. In 1909 the legislature had passed a law titled "Disguised and Masked Persons:"
"Any assemblage of three or more persons, disguised by having their faces painted, discolored, colored or concealed, shall be unlawful; and every person so disguised present thereat, shall be guilty of a gross misdemeanor; but nothing herein shall be construed as prohibiting any peaceful assemblage for a masequerade [sic] or fancy dress ball or entertainment" (1909 Wash. Laws).
McKinney's proposed HB 26 amended that statute to make it specifically applicable to those "wearing any mask, hood, cap or other headdress covering the face so as to make such persons unrecognizable" ("Hooded Orders ..."). The amendment also empowered peace officers to arrest persons so disguised without a warrant. In introducing the measure, McKinney made it clear that "This bill applies to the Ku Klux Klan and all similar organizations" ("Hooded Orders ..."). All in all, it seemed a modest proposal, perhaps even unnecessary, given that the older statute already prohibited "concealed" faces. And, at first, it seemed likely to have clear sailing to passage.
Forcing the Klan Out of the Shadows
Outside of its top leaders, Klan membership was largely anonymous. No doubt this anonymity particularly appealed to men from Northern states who were not virulently racist, did not want to be publicly associated with the violent Reconstruction-era Klan, but sympathized with the Second Klan's positions on immigration, public morals, religion, or other issues. Anonymity was absolutely central to the Klan's success, and on January 25, 1923, with his HB 26 ensconced in the House judiciary committee, McKinney announced that he wanted to introduce an additional amendment that would "require secret organizations in the state to file a list of their membership, duly attested by officers, with county auditors" ("Changes Being Made ...").
Later that same day, Governor Hart received a long telegram from Luther Powell, "King Kleagle of the Pacific Northwest Domain," which read in part:
"Seattle Klan, Spokane, Tacoma, Olympia, Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Walla Walla, Colfax and many other klans throughout the state of Washington, composed of high ranking Masons, Odd Fellows, K.P.'s [Knights of Pythias], Protestant ministers, eminent attorneys, real Americans from every walk of life, both Republicans and Democrats, strenuously oppose any legislation or bill as proposed in House Bill 26 or revisal of same" ("New Anti-Klan Bill ...").
Hart passed the telegram on to the House judiciary committee, which ignored an offer by Powell to furnish additional information. A day later the committee chair, Republican Mark M. Moulton (1876-1954) of Benton County, proposed to redraw HB 26, but not as McKinney had proposed. The revision would "prohibit the appearance in public of 'any person or persons' wearing a mask or hood" ("New Anti-Klan Bill ..."), dropping the "assemblage of three or more persons" requirement that appeared in the existing statute (1909 Wash. Laws). Moulton explained that the ban would not apply to "mask balls or the use of masks or hoods at initiations in halls or rooms regularly used for such purposes ("New Anti-Klan Bill ..."), nor would it require the disclosure of names that McKinney had pushed for. But the clear intent was to force Klansmen to shed their anonymity by going hoodless in all but members-only meetings, a requirement that it was believed would lead to the Klan's diminishment, if not demise. An unnamed Seattle lawyer who served on the House judiciary committee predicted to The Seattle Times that whichever bill made it to a vote would be viewed favorably by a majority of the legislature. Neither would.
Things Fall Apart
Both McKinney's HB 26 and the proposed (but not yet drafted) substitute bills drew additional Klan criticism. The head of the Colfax Klavern, E. C. Wessels (1892-1974), telegraphed Whitman County's four House members to complain that "religious intolerance is creeping into politics" and "should be killed" ("Klan Sends Its Second ..."). This was rather rich, coming from an organization that had as a core tenet the belief that the only acceptable creed was Christian Protestantism. Of more concern was a threatening letter sent to Owen McKinney, bearing drawings of three hooded figures and the warnings "a horrible sepulchre has just arrived" and "Beware, beware, beware" ("Klan Sends Its Second ..."). McKinney brushed it off as joke.
By January 30 committee chairman Moulton had received telegrams from Klan units in Hoquiam, Aberdeen, Bellingham, Colfax, Pasco, Kent, Kalama, Sumner, Walla Walla, Tacoma, Puyallup, and Spokane, which gives some indication of the extent of the Klan's penetration of the state by early 1923. All complained of discrimination and persecution, with one claiming "We are only guilty of being a society of native-born Americans" ("Klans Make Protest"). Despite the deluge of telegrams, it was reported that both McKinney's HB 26 and the still-undrafted substitute bill would be taken up at the committee's afternoon session on February 2.
That didn't happen, and for more reasons that just the Klan's campaign against the proposals. According to newspaper accounts, there were only 17 lawyers serving in the House of Representatives in 1923, and they made up the entire judiciary committee. Four of them also served on the appropriations committee, five on the roads and bridges committee, and three on the revenue and taxation committee. Several controversial and heavily contested matters were before the legislature that year, including Blue Sky laws regulating the marketing of securities in the state (a version of which had been vetoed by Governor Hart the previous year) and a state income tax. With so much going on, Chairman Moulton often had difficulty summoning a quorum on the judiciary committee.
But the protests against the anti-Klan legislation were also a factor, and by February 4 it was apparent that there was some opposition on the judiciary committee to HB 26 or any substitute. The Seattle Times reported that day:
"This press of other business elsewhere, coupled with the flood of telegrams that has descended during the last ten days upon legislators from Ku Klux Klan organizations back in their home communities, has resulted of late in a manifestation in many places of indifference towards an anti-klan bill" ("K.K.K. Legislation Lags").
Nonetheless, on February 8 Moulton managed to pull together a quorum on the judiciary committee. Ten members (nine Republicans and one Farm Labor member) reported out an anti-Klan bill that largely conformed to the amended version of McKinney's HB 26, now designated HB 26-S. Three members (two Republicans from King County and one from Clallam County) issued a minority report that proposed that the measure be "indefinitely postponed" ("New Klan Bill O.K.'d").
Delayed to Death
After the February 8 vote, the uninitiated might imagine that HB 26-S would have gone to the full House for consideration and, if passed, on to the Senate for approval or rejection. That's not how things happen in American legislatures.
After the judiciary committee voted on HB 26-S, its majority and minority reports were read to the full House. Pursuant to the standard procedure, it was then referred to the powerful rules committee (which determines whether, and in what order, to schedule bills for consideration on the floor of the House). The rules committee placed HB 26-S on the second-reading calendar for debate and possible amendment. On February 28, 1923, immediately after the second reading to the full House, Representative McKinney moved that the rules be suspended, that a third reading be dispensed with, and that the bill be placed on the calendar for a vote by the entire House. Insufficient numbers of his fellow legislators agreed, and HB 26-S went back to the rules committee yet again to await calendar assignment for a third reading.
On March 2 the legislature's apparent slow-walking of the anti-Klan bill was criticized in a short but pointed editorial in the staunchly anti-Klan Seattle Times:
"It is pertinent to inquire what is delaying the bill designed to control the Ku Klux Klan?
"The impression is gaining that the Legislature with an excess of timidity fears to bring the bill out of committee.
"There need be no misgivings on that score. This is still a government by the people through their duly elected representatives and not by groups or cliques or pillow-cased orders.
"The Legislature should meet the issue fairly" ("Reform Plan is Postponed ...").
But time was running out. The 60-day legislative session was scheduled to end on March 8, and the full House was to wrap up its consideration of bills by noon on Monday, March 5. On that day HB 26-S was placed on the bottom of the calendar of 12 bills awaiting a vote. But McKinney was not giving up. He again asked that the rules be suspended to allow final House action on the measure, and he was again refused. A fight over a filibuster against another bill (perhaps contrived by opponents of the anti-Klan measure) took up more time. McKinney asked that the time for ending the consideration of bills be extended to 4 p.m., and was again voted down. When the speaker's gavel fell at noon only HB 26-S remained unconsidered, and then and there it died.
Owen McKinney felt ill-treated, and complained publicly that he had "not had fair play in the last few days ... The Ku Klux Klan issue is a live question all over the United States, and I asked to have substitute House Bill 26 brought out for a vote" ("Anti-Ku Klux Measure Dies"). Speaking of Oregon, he said, "Our neighboring state is now under the control of this organization. It acted too late" ("Anti-Ku Klux Measure Dies"). He also thought it necessary to deny that he was a Roman Catholic, as the Klan had alleged.
The Seattle Times was no happier, running a front-page editorial on March 27, 1923, that was headlined "Seattle Has No Room for Hooded Mobs" and warning, "If Seattle accepts and approves an order which teaches men to work by stealth to attain their selfish aims in the safety and anonymity of masked crowds, this city would be inviting the unhappy notoriety that has come to Oregon and Louisiana" ("Seattle Has No Room ...").
Until 1969 the Washington legislature met only every second year. No new anti-Klan legislation was introduced in 1925, and none was needed. Klan supporters had managed to qualify an initiative for the state's 1924 ballot that would have required all children between the ages of 7 and 16 to attend public schools. It was aimed directly at Catholic schools and, remarkably, an almost identical initiative had passed handily in Oregon in 1922. In Washington it was soundly defeated, with more than 58 percent voting against it, a huge loss that did much to weaken the Klan's public allure. This, combined with a growing awareness of the pyramid-scheme nature of the organization and various Klan scandals around the country, including the Indiana Grand Dragon's conviction on rape and murder charges, caused the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan for the Realm of Washington to essentially disappear almost as quickly as it had emerged four years earlier.
A few isolated Klaverns hung on until the late 1930s, mostly in Whatcom and Skagit counties, but the Second Klan's short but blazing Washington run was effectively over. Owen J. McKinney, having served his district as a citizen-legislator for 14 years, retired from the House after the disheartening 1923 session and went back to work on his dairy farm. In 1944, two years after his death, what was left of the national Klan organization was dissolved, unable to pay its taxes.