The Ku Klux Klan in Arizona?

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Birth of a Nation Theatrical Poster

Birth of a Nation Theatrical Poster

  We saw the evil that hate groups can create in Charleston, South Carolina, with the racially motivated murder of nine African Americans. Churches with predominantly black parishioners have been burned in the South, a total of seven so far. The Ku Klux Klan the epitome of evil protested the attempted removal of the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina government buildings. A coincidence? I don’t believe so. After the fires are investigated I am sure some of them will be cases of arson and the arsonists will have ties to white supremacists, most likely the Ku Klux Klan.

  Living in Arizona you may wonder could this happen here. Is the KKK in Arizona? The answer to both questions is yes. After Senate Bill 1070 was made law, many white supremacist organizations, hate groups and individuals following their ideology moved into Arizona. Thanks to the anti-immigrant rhetoric espoused by Arizona politicians including the former Governor, members of the legislature, and some county Sheriffs, they saw our state as friendly territory and a breeding ground where they could share their cause and recruit members. 

  The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified 16 active Hate Groups in Arizona including a Black Nationalist group, Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists and even border militias. In 2014 Klan flyers appeared in four states, Texas, Louisiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania, announcing they were recruiting or warning that they were watching over neighborhoods. Currently the KKK is not considered active in Arizona. Although they are not listed as active, the KKK has been in Arizona in the past and is here now. The Western White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan have a website and Arizona chapter that is currently recruiting. There was a time when the KKK was very active and even made in roads into local politics and government positions in the state including Pinal County. This story is about when the KKK came to Arizona.

  Following the Civil War, like many Americans, Confederate veterans and southerners moved west seeking new opportunities. Many of them were bitter towards the Federal government at the loss of the war and the changes brought to the occupied south. They brought their culture, attitudes and prejudices with them. Although there was no known or at least reported KKK activity in Arizona, there were probably former members of or people that had been influenced by the ideas of slave ownership and the KKK in Arizona. Arizona newspapers reported on KKK activities around the country but it was not until the early 1900s that the KKK was mentioned in relation to Arizona.

  In 1905 the Oasis newspaper published in Nogales, Arizona printed an article with a title “Sees the Ku Klux Klan Coming”. The article was said to be the response from the most prominent and bitterly hostile opponent of joining together the Arizona and New Mexico Territories, to the question, “Why do you oppose so bitterly the proposition of annexing New Mexico to Arizona”.  The prominent opponent, interviewed in Tucson, was not named but his alleged response was, “I lived many years in the South and I know how we had to resort to killing Negroes in order to secure decent government. Now I know full well that should we be joined to New Mexico there will have to be adopted the same policy of murder and repression to keep the Mexicans in subjection and have any chance for decent government.” 

  To the newspaper’s credit, it denounced the response saying, “Now how is that for an argument? Was there ever anything more pitiful conceived? Those who are murdering helpless Jews in Russia probably feel the same way. Yet the man who made the assertion herein quoted thinks himself a reasoning, thinking human being.”

  At the time there were many prominent Arizona businessmen and politicians opposed to joining New Mexico as one territory and then a state. The main reason being that Mexicans controlled the politics in New Mexico and outnumbered the Anglos.

  In 1908, a theatrical production came to Arizona. It had been running successfully for three years in the south and east and it was said that over four million people had seen it. The play was “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon, Jr. The play was based on two books by Dixon and was a romanticized version of the Ku Klux Klan. In the books and play Dixon argues that the Ku Klux Klan saved the south from “negro rule”. Performances of The Clansman were to begin at the Elks Theater in Phoenix on Dec. 8, 1908.

  An article appeared in the Arizona Republican on Nov. 29, 1908 contrasting The Clansman with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The article called The Clansman the “White Man’s” play even as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the story of the sufferings real or imaginary of the negro.

  “As the champion of the white race, The Clansman clearly has a world wide mission. What the whites of the south did to the negro in 1867-70 so would the white men of other climes do to the black, yellow or brown races who should attempt to domineer over them. British Columbia would as quickly resent the overlordship of the Japanese and California fling back on Asian shores the Yellow Peril as the south overcame the domination of the African.

  “In its pro-negro sentimentality the United States had lost sight of essential facts of nature. These are, first, that the colored races are inferior branches of the human family, and secondly, the superior will never allow itself to be ruled by the inferior. “The Clansman” drives these facts home as neither newspaper nor book nor orator could possibly drive them. It emphasizes the manifest destiny of the white man to be on top and to stay there.”

  In 1915 D.W. Griffith adapted a script written by Dixon and based on his books and play for the movie “The Birth of a Nation”. The message of Dixon and perception of the Klan being the heroic saviors of the south was spread throughout the country. With the popularity of the movie, “The Clansman” began touring again as well as a companion play “Ku Klux Klan”. Along with the “Red Scare”, immigration concerns, prohibition and rapid industrialization of the country, this would give rise to a new and larger Ku Klux Klan. The rebirth of the Klan would peak in the 1920s with its membership exceeding four million. Herbert Ely a well known Phoenix attorney active in the civil rights movement said “the KKK was strong here many years in the 1920s – 1930s.” 

  In Arizona the Klan was active between 1921 – 1925 in Phoenix and Tucson as well as in some of the rural areas especially mining towns. They would influence state and local elections and create fear and anxiety among many citizens. Their activity and influence would bring about investigations of the Klan on county and state levels.

  The Klan focused its attention on numerous political and social problems around the country which allowed them to gain support throughout the country. In the East they concentrated on Jews and Catholics and in the South, maintaining white supremacy and keeping order over the black population was the main concern. Out west, law and order and Catholicism were of concern especially immigration from Mexico which meant more Catholics.    

   On June 7, 1921 the Klan announced that they were in Arizona by dropping off a photograph of nine white robed hooded Klansmen with a burning cross in the background at the Arizona Republican newspaper office. Along with the photo was a message, parts of which said that the photo was taken at a high point of Telegraph Pass overlooking Phoenix. “The organization known as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, now forming in this state, are part of the national organization which was again brought to life on the top of Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, Georgia in 1915.” It went on to tell some of the history of the Klan and talked about their “sacred principles” which included “development of character, the protection of the home, chastity of womanhood and the maintenance of white supremacy.”

  In December, the Arizona Republican reported that the local Salvation Army received a gift of $100 “from an unexpected and a somewhat mysterious source the local organization of the Ku Klux Klan of whose membership nobody knows anything.” Sue Wilson Abbey says in her article “The Ku Klux Klan in Arizona 1921 – 1925” which appeared in the Arizona Journal of History, “The first Klan recruiter arrived in Phoenix sometime in April, 1921. The first year was spent in setting up the Klan organization and building up membership.”  The Klan was able to get support from Protestant churches and organizations like the Masons. The Klan uses Christianity and morality to promote their agenda. With prohibition the law of the land, the KKK was able to get support by pushing for law and order, the end of gambling, vice and liquor.

  Newspapers in Arizona reported an event on March 22, 1922 that brought the realization that the Ku Klux Klan was active in Maricopa County. The story was about a local school principal that had been whipped by alleged members of the KKK. On March 21, Rolin P. Jones, a “white” school principal in the Lehi School District, had been lured out of his home in Lehi under the pretense that an automobile accident had occurred down the street. (Lehi is now part of Mesa.) Jones saw a car about 200 yards from his house. As he approached the car, five men armed with pistols forced him into the car and drove to a secluded spot along the Consolidated canal. There he was whipped with a leather quirt and branded with acid on his forehead and cheeks with the letters KKK.

  The incident was the result of Jones having been accused by a female student of inappropriate behavior with her. Charges against Jones had been dismissed by the Mesa Justice Court. An attempt to file charges in another court had been dismissed. The girl’s father, two brothers and nine other men were indicted on charges of aggravated assault. The County Attorney and even Jones himself reportedly did not believe it was the work of the Klan. Jones said he knew some of his attackers. The Republican newspaper received a letter signed by Camelback Clan No. 6, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan taking responsibility for the attack on Jones because of a miscarriage of justice.

  The same week, Aubrey Carter, a “negro” had been taken at gunpoint outside his home and driven into the desert. He was tied to the framework of the car, whipped and had KKK painted in red on his chest. He was told by one of the assailants he had been whipped because “he had sized up a (white) woman” while in an elevator at the Phoenix National Bank building where Carter was in charge of janitorial work. The assailants’ parting words as reported by Carter were “Report to the police, the Sheriff’s office, the newspapers and let them know the Ku Klux Klan has been active.” It was reported by the newspaper that “this is the third mob attack in which the letters K.K.K. have played a prominent part in this district during the past two months.”

  The third incident happened around March 5th when Ira Haywood, a negro bootblack was whipped by the KKK after touching a white woman on the arm while helping her down from his shoe shine stand. In April, Pete Condos, a Greek Café owner, was whipped, tarred and feathered.

  During the trial of the assailants of Roland P. Jones, the prosecutor, County Attorney R.E.L. Sheperd argued against admitting the letter purported to be written by the Klan as evidence. Governor Thomas Campbell announced that he had a list of 300 Klan members in Arizona and regretted that many of them were prominent people in Phoenix. Campbell along with John Dunbar, Editor of Dunbar’s Weekly, a political newspaper, were subpoenaed to testify in the trial. Dunbar had also claimed to have a list of Klan members. The list submitted by Dunbar which had 20 names included Maricopa County Attorney R.E.L. Sheperd who was forced to remove himself from the case.

  The Jones trial ended in a hung jury. At the request of Maricopa Bar Association a grand jury was called to investigate the Klan in Maricopa County. During the hearings it was revealed that many prominent members of Maricopa County were on the Klan’s membership list. Among the names listed were Maricopa County Sheriff R.G. Montgomery and several of his deputies; Tom Akers, City Editor of the Arizona Gazette; Ernest Hall, Secretary of State; R.R. Earhart, State Treasurer; State Veterinarian R.L. Hight, Willis H. Plunkett, Mayor of Phoenix; and the managers of the local Western Union and telephone companies. A Yuma County retired Superior Court Judge, Frank Baxter was also listed. When Baxter died over forty robed Klansmen escorted his coffin to the grave sight. 

  Testimony at the grand jury hearing revealed that there were four Klans in Maricopa County: the Butte, Camelback, Glendale and Superstition. The investigation may have revealed more but the records and files of the Arizona Klan had been secretly moved to Texas when word came down about the pending hearings. A list of alleged Klan members confiscated during a California grand jury investigation included Tempe Mayor Cecil M. Woodward and Court W. Miller, Editor of the Tempe Daily News.

  Tom Akers, who had resigned as Editor of the Arizona Gazette, following the grand jury hearings, was tried for the kidnapping and assault of Ira Haywood the shoe shine attendant. Akers along with his co-defendant Harold Taffe, an advertising executive were acquitted.

  The Klan in 1922 had their own newspaper in Phoenix, “The Crank” it was published by Dr. H.A. Hughes an avowed prohibitionist who ran for governor twice as a Democrat, losing both times in the primary. The KKK also attempted to expand around the state and was able to set up local Klans in Holbrook, Prescott, Yuma, Globe, Bisbee, Tucson, Florence and other towns although these Klans were not as active as those in Maricopa County.

  In Globe, the Miami Silverbelt newspaper said that most members were mine management personnel who discriminated against the Mexican workers. In Tucson, activities were limited to cross burnings and acts of intimidation. In smaller towns, there were fiery crosses burned and the passing out of flyers denouncing the Pope and calling for the end of gambling and vice. During a benefit dance for the Catholic church in Tombstone, Klansmen burnt a cross outside the building and set off several dynamite charges near an area where children were playing. No one was hurt. 

  In Florence, the Pinal County Klan went after a Superior Court Judge Stephen H. Abbey. Abbey was a well respected member of the judiciary in Pinal County. The Klan first attempted to have Abbey defeated in the primary election by speaking out against him. When that failed members of the Klan attempted a recall. The recall petitions were denied because they were filed too early. Arizona law says that a recall cannot be filed until after the person has been in office a minimum of six months. Abbey said that the people behind the recall were Earl P. Patterson, the Pinal County Attorney, and J.D. Bennett, the County Clerk. Abbey said that Bennett had admitted to him that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

  Later on Abbey was assaulted by Bennett and another court employee. He then took to carrying a gun in court with him. He said it was for protection against the Klan who were trying to take over the judiciary as it had other county offices. Some Pinal County newspapers supported Abbey in this. Another recall was attempted. This time it was successful making Abbey the first judge to ever be recalled in Arizona.

  The year1924 was an election year in Arizona. During the primary the Pinal County Klan met to endorse E.W. Samuel a Democratic candidate for Governor. At the meeting the Klan said that Samuel was a fellow Klansman. It then became an issue in the statewide elections. Samuel and other Klan supported candidates were defeated. After the losses in the elections and the exposure of prominent people in government and business, Klan activity and membership began to wane.

  Sightings of Klan activity continued now and then. Phoenix in the 1950s and 60s was known by many African Americans as the Mississippi of the West. There are even stories of a local Klan group burning crosses in the mining town of Hayden in the 1950s.

  Arizona became known as the “state of hate” after SB1070. Recently there was a protest in Phoenix with many Confederate flags flying and armed protesters. The protest was over South Carolina removing the confederate flag from government buildings. Even Republican Presidential candidates have taken an anti-immigrant, nativist stand, so we know it can happen here.

  Be vigilant; speak out against hate and racism. Call out the corrupt politicians and those that use lies, hate and fear to get elected and promote their personal and political agendas. 

John Hernandez (783 Posts)

John Hernandez lives in Oracle. He is retired and enjoys writing and traveling. He is active in the Oracle Historical Society. He covers numerous public events, researches historical features and writes business/artist profiles.

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