“The Ku Klux Klan is the largest, most cohesive and most efficiently organized political force in the State of Colorado today.” So wrote the Denver Post following the decisive 1924 recall victory of Klan mayor Benjamin Stapleton.
In November of 1924, some 35,000 people gathered at a Denver stadium to cheer on newly elected Klan candidates, including governor-elect Clarence Morley, the stooge of Colorado Klan Grand Dragon John Galen Locke. Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans traveled from Texas to speak at the event. According to accusations, Evans previously had led a group of Klansmen to kidnap a black bellhop in Texas, flog him, and burn with acid the letters KKK into his forehead.
Upon entering office, Morley quickly laid out his Klan-friendly agenda. He sought to ban the use of sacramental wine in Catholic churches, forbid “aliens” from owning property, and fire Catholics from state positions (among other proposals). “Every man under the Capitol Dome a Klansman,” was Morley’s motto. (The Klan did have women members in the legislature.) Morley also appointed Locke as honorary colonel in the National Guard.
This history of the Klan takeover of Colorado government is almost impossible to believe from our modern perspective. Where Denver’s streets now are filled with Black Lives Matter protesters, they once were filled with parading hooded Klansmen. For that brief time, much of the state descended into madness, reversing its earlier progress. This was two decades after Black attorney Joseph H. Stuart won a seat in the state legislature and six decades after the Civil War.
Yet in the scope of history this was not so long ago. Our eldest Coloradans were young children when Morley took office. Morley died in 1948, a year some readers of this article remember. Robert Alan Goldberg, historian at the University of Utah and author of the 1981 book Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado, actually interviewed ten former Klansmen while researching his book. He writes, “It was necessary to use an alias when contacting Klansmen because the initial effort under my real name produced no interviews.” Moreover, Goldberg writes, “As late as the 1950s” in Cañon City, where the Klan had been especially strong, “the stores of some merchants remained off limits to Catholics.”
The material for this article comes from Goldberg’s book (unless otherwise cited), which I strongly encourage Coloradans interested in our state’s history to read. Hopefully greater awareness of this grim history will help save us the doom of repeating elements of it. Although the book no longer is in print, the University of Utah offers the pdf. Recently I interviewed Goldberg on these matters for my podcast. See also James H. Davis’s 1965 article, “Colorado Under the Klan.” Readers also might want to pick up Phil Goodstein’s 2006 book (which I have not yet read), In The Shadow of the Klan: When the KKK Ruled Denver 1920-1926, available at Capitol Hill Books.
Thankfully, the political and cultural success of the Klan in Colorado was short-lived. A courageous group of anti-Klan legislators, led by state senator William H. “Billy” Adams (who went on to defeat Morley in the 1926 governor’s race), successfully blocked most of the Klan’s legislative agenda. In 1925, Locke became the target of investigations for kidnapping and tax evasion, and he clashed with the national Klan, leaving the state Klan without effective leadership.
So what did the Klan stand for, and why was it able to gain momentum at this point in Colorado history? I think the best way to characterize the Klan is by its overriding commitment to group purity and superiority. The Klan’s group consisted of white, Protestant, native-born Americans.
This orientation toward the pure group or tribe explains almost all of the elements of the Klan’s agenda. The Klan was for its own group—and against everyone else, whether Catholic, Jewish, Black, or immigrant. The Klan preached “law and order”—by which it largely meant strict enforcement of the Prohibition laws, particularly against Catholic wine drinkers and Italian bootleggers. Under the “law and order” banner, the Klan often descended into lawless vigilantism. The Klan sought to repeal the public accommodation laws that barred discrimination against Black people. It distributed voter guides that classified candidates by religion and warned against those with “Roman Catholic affiliations and friendships.” It railed against “aliens.” It spread conspiracy theories about Papist plots. It attempted to purge the University of Colorado of Catholic and Jewish professors.
To get a better sense of the Klan’s views and agenda, we can turn to a Colorado Klan newspaper (one of several in the state), the Rocky Mountain American, published weekly out of Boulder from January 30 through July 31, 1925. The Klan was a fraternal and service-oriented group that often led charity drives. The masthead of the paper includes the phrase, “Non Silba Sed Anthar”—not self, but others. This orientation toward others extends only to members of the in-group; the masthead also says, “Put none but Americans on guard.” And the Klan had a very restrictive view about the true American.
The first edition of the Klan paper begins with the question, “Why the Klan?” The rambling answer mentions “decadence of public and private morals succeeding the war” (WWI) and government corruption. The essay explicitly denies that “race conflict” and “religious intolerance” played a dominant role in motivating the Klan. Here the writer protests too much. The same paper regularly published anti-Catholic and racist screeds, such as an execrable “joke” to the effect that it was better to be a “n___” than a Catholic. The essayist claims to be concerned mainly with “honest enforcement of liquor prohibition, popular distrust of dishonest officials, [and a] revolt against moral laxness in the individual.”
As Goldberg and I discuss, a major lesson from that era is that, where it arose, strong moral leadership among the intellectual elite against bigotry held the Klan at bay. Community leaders in Colorado Springs for the most part beat back the Klan. On the other hand, a disinterested and aloof elite in Cañon City (and elsewhere) stood by as the Klan rose to domination. And in Grand Junction, newspaper editor Walter Walker at first tried to control the Klan by opening a benign local chapter; his pandering failed when the Klan kicked him out and sharpened its hateful edge. I’ll leave to readers to judge whether Walker’s subsequent harsh public criticisms of the Klan (which earned him a beating by a Klan deputy sheriff) compensate for his earlier affiliation. Regardless, the lesson is that decent people need to stand up to bigotry, not ignore it or pander to it.
That the Klan ever dominated Colorado politics is horrifying, however short its reign. Yet many of the Klan’s ideas live on in certain pockets of today’s society. It is up to us to continually beat back bigotry and affirm that all people are created equal in their moral rights.