The Ku Klux Klan was controversial in the 1920s not only because of its intolerance and promotion of vigilante violence, but also because of its entry into American politics. During the first half of the 1920s, the Klan, which had previously been associated with the South, came to thoroughly dominate electoral politics in Indiana, supposedly helped elect eleven Governors (including Oregon’s Walter Pierce), and briefly controlled State Legislatures in the Western States of Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and Oregon.
At the national level, the Klan is alleged to have elected dozens of Senators and Congressmen in the 1920s. Though at the local level Klan politicians were both Republicans and Democrats, nationally it was the Democratic Party that was most associated with the Klan because of intense infighting at its 1924 Presidential nominating convention. Klan allies fought tooth-and-nail to oppose the nomination of New York Governor Al Smith because he was Catholic, and conflict between delegates went from rhetoric to fistfights. The negative publicity from this infighting supposedly helped Republican Calvin Coolidge win the Presidency that year by a landslide.
In this context, the inroads made into electoral politics by Washington State’s Ku Klux Klan seem relatively mild. Voting patterns on the Klan’s anti-Catholic school bill in 1924 suggest that while the Klan had many members in big cities, its main voting power (which was not very large) resided in small farming towns. Yet on the other hand, at the Democratic Party Convention earlier that year, delegates from Washington state, along with those from Oregon and Idaho, were unanimous in opposing a plank to the Party platform which would have repudiated violence associated with the KKK.
Notable Klan members elected to public office in Washington State include the Mayor of Kent, David Leppert, and Bellingham City Attorney Charles B. Sampley. Politicians who were likely members of the Klan include the Mayor of Blaine, Alan Keyes, and Wapato’s Director of Schools, Frank Sutton. Given that the Klan was a secret society, it is hard to differentiate Klan allies from Klan members, and it is likely that many other local elected officials in Washington state were Klan members.
Congressman Albert Johnson
Certainly the biggest question with regard to the Washington state’s Klan’s influence on local and national electoral politics comes through its relationship to Congressman Albert Johnson, Representative to the United States House from Washington’s Third Congressional District.
Congressman Johnson was a eugenics supporter and a national leader in demanding that the U.S. restrict most of its immigration to “Nordic” peoples. As Chair of the House’s Immigration Committee, he introduced and led a successful drive to pass what in 1924 became the most strict immigration law in American history. His intolerant views and political career grew independently of the Ku Klux Klan. He claimed to have been part of a mob that forced hundreds of South Asians out of Bellingham, Washington and into Canada in 1907, was elected in 1914 on an anti-immigrant platform, and played a leading role among Western Congressmen in calling for comprehensive anti-Japanese and anti-South Asian immigration restriction as soon as he arrived in the Capitol. Johnson was a member of the Freemasons, a group the Klan often sought to recruit from.
The Klan was public and effusive in its support of Albert Johnson. Time Magazine noted in 1924 that Johnson’s immigration restriction law was “generally supported by the West and South, admittedly with the backing of the Ku Klux Klan.” It reported in 1926 that one of the national KKK’s top four political priorities was the “Renomination and re-election of Representative Albert Johnson of Washington, so he can continue to be Chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and fight for restricted immigration laws.” The Klan wasn’t the only organization pushing immigration restriction, even though its spectacular growth in the early 1920s nationwide helped make its passage politically possible. We may never know whether Johnson was an ally of the Klan, a mentor, or even a member. But he certainly had the Klan’s admiration its support.
Next: Ch. 2, Luther I. Powell, Northwest KKK Organizer
“The Washington State Klan in the 1920s” by Trevor Griffey includes the following chapters:
- Citizen Klan: Electoral Politics and the KKK in WA
- Luther I. Powell, Northwest KKK Organizer
- The Ku Klux Klan in Seattle
- The Strongest Chapter in WA: Bellingham’s KKK
- The Ku Klux Klan and Vigilante Culture in Yakima Valley
- KKK Super Rallies in Washington State, 1923-24
- Social Klan: White Supremacy in Everyday Life
- The Washington State KKK and the U.S. Navy
- Non-Citizen Klan: Royal Riders of the Red Robe
Copyright (©) Trevor Griffey 2007