Ku Klux Klan holds its first Washington "Konvention" near Kent on July 14, 1923.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 4/02/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22702
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On July 14, 1923, the Ku Klux Klan holds its first "Konvention" in the state of Washington as part of an aggressive but short-lived recruitment effort in the Northwest. The two-part ceremony begins with a daytime picnic at People's Park at Renton Junction. It concludes with a larger evening ceremony and the initiation of new members four miles south near Wilson's Station, located between Renton and Kent. Though part of the crowd is interested in the Klan's message, other attendees are there for the show.


While the origins of the Ku Klux Klan date to the end of the Civil War in 1865, it was a second iteration of the organization that spread out of the Deep South and into Washington after the end of World War I in 1918. The time was ripe for this kind of movement in the United States, which was reeling from the shocks and social changes brought on by what was then called the Great War. The changes, which included labor unrest and race riots across the nation, had only seemed to accelerate in 1919. A sharp 18-month recession at the beginning of the 1920s further added to the discontent and suspicion. The "return to normalcy" promised by Warren Harding (1865-1923) in his successful run for the U.S. presidency in 1920 trumpeted a societal return to a more "traditional" America, which some viewed as a country that did not include immigrants or non-whites.

The Klan established its first Washington chapter, or "klavern," in Vancouver in late 1922. It moved north from there, establishing chapters in Auburn, Buckley, Seattle, and Walla Walla by mid-1923; a 1923 article in the Auburn Globe-Republican says there were also "branches in the nearby cities of Sumner, Kent and Puyallup" ("When the Ku Klux Klan ..."). During the spring of 1923 there were several rallies in the state, principally in the Yakima Valley. They were carefully hyped by the Klan, which understood how to generate publicity. The rallies frequently featured shows and entertainment to draw a crowd, and the Klan tailored its message to its audience. For example, while Blacks were a principal target of Klan antipathy in the South, in Washington the organization was more concerned with immigrants and Catholics. The delivery of the message was usually couched in pleasing platitudes, overlaid with a righteous veneer of "Americanism" (a then-popular synonym for patriotism) to make the audience feel good not only about the cause but about themselves.


Playing off the sudden surge in interest that spring, the Klan planned its first "Konvention" in Washington for Saturday, July 14. A recently passed state law prohibited gatherings of three or more persons with their faces concealed, except at masquerade balls. This was directed at the Klan, whose members often wore hoods that covered their faces during their gatherings. Two days before the meeting, King County Sheriff Matt Starwich (1879-1941) told the press that he and his deputies would be present at the event to enforce the law. Luther Powell (1878-1951), King Kleagle of the Washington Klan, met with him in an effort to get him to stand down. When Starwich refused, Powell telegraphed Governor Louis Hart (1862-1929) and asked him to send the National Guard to protect the Klan at the Renton rally. Hart declined.

There was some suspense that there might be a confrontation at the event over the wearing of the hood, but at the last minute the Klan saved face. "Luther I. Powell, king kleagle of the klan, stole a march on Sheriff Matt Starwich Saturday by holding the masked secret meeting of the convention at klan headquarters in Seattle. As a result, there will be no effort on the part of the klansmen to wear masks in public," snickered The Seattle Star ("Ku Klux Meet ...") in its afternoon edition.

This turned out to be a good thing. It was an especially warm day in the Puget Sound area, with temperatures reaching either side of 90 all through the region; Tacoma's 93 degrees was its warmest day since 1912. The heat may have affected attendance at the noon picnic at People's Park, which according to The Seattle Times had an estimated attendance of 400. Starwich showed up with his deputies, sized up the event and remarked, "This doesn't look like a disorderly gathering" ("Ku Klux Meet ..."). He turned down several requests for photographs with Klan leaders and slipped away later, leaving three deputies to keep an eye for concealed weapons.

The Gathering

The evening ceremony was mercifully cooler. It took place near Wilson's Station, located two miles north of Kent, and began as darkness fell at 8:30 p.m. Attendance estimates vary wildly. The Klan claimed 50,000 were there; other estimates say 20,000. Many of the local papers covering the event at the time said the total was lower. The Seattle Times put the total at 5,000, but given the paper's blatant anti-Klan stance, this may be a conservative estimate. The Kent Advertiser-Journal wrote of "2,500 to 3,000 automobiles" present ("Ku Klux Klan Meeting ..."), but this figure does not suggest an attendance dramatically higher than the Times figure. A short-lived Auburn newspaper, the Washington Co-Operator, is said to have estimated attendance between 10,000 and 20,000.

Whatever the number, the crowd was treated to a spectacle. Spectacular fireworks, some that dropped American flags on tiny parachutes, both started and ended the show. There was the burning of the cross. There was a dramatic march of the candidates who were being initiated – variously estimated between 500 and 1,200 – down a nearby hillside past the crowd. There was stirring rhetoric from the featured speaker, identified in a Klan publication as "Judge Jeffrey, Imperial Lecturer, Pacific Northwest Domain" ("The Story ..."). Many of his topics – fraternity between neighbors, separation of church and state, a free press, and free speech – were mainstream. But casually sandwiched in between these themes was a call for the supremacy of the white race. And there was the call of Us vs. Them: "He who is not with us is against us ... [yet] persecution and repeated investigations have but increased [the Klan's] hold upon the minds and hearts of America's best and bravest" ("The Story ...").

Though there were many attendees – some from as far away as California – who came to participate in the proceedings or at least listen to the message, there also was a large contingent who came just to see the show. In 1923, even a gathering of 5,000 represented a huge throng to those living in the more rural areas of Western Washington. With far fewer opportunities for entertainment then than now, some viewed the convocation, with its fireworks and pageantry, as an event unto itself. Others came to see if there might be a fight between the Klan and the sheriff and his deputies – Starwich and his men were known for their fondness for fisticuffs. But despite the public posturing, the sheriff and his subordinates were more interested in looking for illegal weapons than covered faces.


The Klan held sizeable rallies in 1924 near Issaquah and Yakima, but then faded away almost as quickly as it had come. Some of its adherents realized that its dark vision of an America overrun with minorities and immigrants was not going to happen. Others were disenchanted by Klan leaders who personally enriched themselves with the organization's funds while simultaneously preaching moral superiority. Within a few years the buzz generated by the Klan had faded in the state, though some chapters lasted into the 1930s. 


"Auburnites View Klan Initiation," The Auburn Globe-Republican, July 20, 1923, p. 7; Robert Whale, "When the Ku Klux Klan Came to Auburn," Auburn Reporter, April 1, 2022, website accessed March 6, 2023 (https://www.auburn-reporter.com/opinion/when-the-ku-klux-klan-came-to-auburn-whales-tales/); "Ku Klux Klan Meeting Draws Monster Crowd," Kent Advertiser-Journal, July 19, 1923, p. 1; "Mercury at 88 Sets High Mark for This Year," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 15, 1923, p. 1; John W. Nelson, "Ku Klux Meet Minus Masks," The Seattle Star, July 14, 1923, pp. 1, 15; "Wilting Klan Holds Picnic Without Garb," The Seattle Times, July 15, 1923, p. HH; "Ku Klux Defies Order," Tacoma News Tribune, July 13, 1923, pp. 1-2; "The Story of the Ceremony on the Night of July 14," The Watcher on the Tower (Seattle), July 21, 1923, pp. 4, 10; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ku Klux Klan in Washington, 1921-1925" (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org (accessed March 3, 2023); Trevor Griffey, "KKK Super Rallies in Washington State 1923-24," University of Washington Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project website accessed March 1, 2023 (https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/kkk_rallies.htm).  

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