The Story of the Ku Klux Klan in America and in Iowa
The Beginnings of the Klan
In 1865, after the Civil War, some white people in the South decided to form a group to protect themselves and to terrorize black people. Black people, who had been slaves before and during the war, became free after the war. Some white people who previously had all the power and wealth, resented their losses and feared retaliation by the newly freed blacks. The people who organized this group called it the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It lasted only a few years, disbanding in 1869.
However, a half century later, during World War I (1914-1918), the KKK began to reorganize. It was prompted by a movie, The Birth of a Nation, which showed the first Ku Klux Klan organizing to defend white people, especially women, against blacks, especially men. The movie played in Des Moines in 1916. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protested. The members were afraid that it would create a backlash against blacks. For the NAACP, which had just organized in Des Moines in 1915, this was one of its first actions.
The Klan Moves Into Iowa
The Klan gained strength after the First World War, drawing from white Protestants in small towns and cities. The beginning of a serious movement came in 1920 when a paid recruiter was hired. The Klan appealed to people who believed their beliefs were superior to the beliefs of immigrants, Catholics, Jews or “colored people.” The Klan supported what they called “clean living” and attacked “dope, bootlegging, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, unfair business dealings, sex, marital 'goings-on,' and scandalous behavior."
Although the Klan had started in the South, it began to gain strength in the Midwest. There were many followers in Iowa—in Davenport, Sioux City, Waterloo, Ottumwa and Des Moines, among bigger cities. But it had followers in smaller communities too—Centerville, Manly, Cherokee and Red Oak. Several groups opposed the Klan, including the newly formed American Legion, Masons and the Farm Bureau, as well as the NAACP.
In their ceremonial and public occasions, Klan members wore white sheets with peaked hoods. They took on fantastic titles, such as Imperial Wizard, Imperial Kleagle (chief of staff), Grand Goblin (sales manager) and Grand Dragon. They had special names for membership fees (Klectoken). A particular sign of their presence in a community was a burning cross, which they would set up and light in the front yards of those they wanted to frighten.
The Klan’s peak year was in 1924, when they influenced many elections across the country, including an Iowa race for the United States Senate. The Klan helped the campaigns of many school board members, succeeding in electing representatives of their point of view, but in 1926 many of them were voted out.
There were many other ways that the Klan upset people. One was to stride silently in uniform into a church, and deposit money at the altar. One black congregation in Centerville, a coal-mining town in southeastern Iowa, received $100 this way. Many of the church’s members thought that the Klan was their friend after that.
Friend or Enemy?
But one woman, Emma Simms, didn’t think so. Emma wrote to the national office of the NAACP about her concerns. Robert Bagnall, an NAACP official, wrote back to her explaining that the Klan tried to gain favor with some groups, in order to separate them from their allies. Specifically, in Centerville, they tried to separate the blacks and the Jews. They planned to isolate first the Jews and later deal with the blacks. So Emma had a letter she could take and read to people who had been fooled by the gift from the Klan.
In Sioux City in northwest Iowa, some white officials proposed constructing a cemetery solely for colored people. A newspaper editor, J.N. Boyd, wrote to Robert Bagnall at the NAACP, complaining about this proposal. Robert wrote back to him suggesting that the Klan was behind the proposal. He said the black community should protest loudly.
In Des Moines the Klan gained support from some white Protestants in neighborhoods near Italian Catholic and black communities. These Klan supporters feared the cultural and ethnic differences of their new Catholic and black neighbors. The NAACP and Council of Churches joined forces to create Interracial Council in 1924. The council tried to end discrimination in a number of ways, from swimming pools to schools. Some historians think this may have been in response to the activities the Klan was carrying out.
In the little town of Manly in north central Iowa where blacks and Catholics had come to work on the railroads in the years before World War I, the Klan tried to intimidate both groups. Others in the town fought back, ridiculing the Klan. After many years there were strong signs of racial harmony. An example was in 1951 when a black homecoming king and queen, Leroy Dunn and Delores Dunn, were crowned at the high school.
The Klan Declines
The Klan died down nationally and in Iowa by 1930. There had been five to six million Klan members in 1924. There were probably fewer than 100,000 in the whole country by 1930. They were seen as cruel, foolish and unethical. They were denounced widely. Also, when the Great Depression hit, people preferred not to spend scarce dollars on membership in the Klan.
The Klan officially disbanded in 1944 when the federal government demanded payment of more than $600,000 in back taxes. It reorganized in 1946 and continued to operate against blacks, mainly in the South, until the 1970s. Klan members wanted to intimidate blacks to prevent them from voting or gaining power. But the national civil rights movement succeeded in empowering so many blacks, that the Klan had little influence.
Another resurgence of the Klan came in the 1980s, protesting affirmative action programs that tried to create a better balance of white and black students in colleges and black and white employees in government. This latest resurgence touched Iowa, at least symbolically, in Dubuque in the early 1990s. Dubuque had tried to diversify its population by soliciting blacks to come to town. Crosses were burned in the front yards of some black families. While this was a symbol of the Klan, there was no evidence that the Klan was really organized in Dubuque. A chapter of the NAACP had been organized in Dubuque in 1989 and was able to rally public opinion against such actions. In 1991 the NAACP branch had 400 members, and the support of many institutions in town.
The peak activity of the Ku Klux Klan in Iowa was in 1924, when many towns and cities experienced cross-burnings, Klan parades and political activism. Its appeal faded rapidly, however. It was never again a force in Iowa, despite national attempts to give it new life.
- Brigham, Jeremy. “Civil Rights Organizations in Iowa.” Chapter 13 in Outside In: African-American History in Iowa: 1838-2000. Des Moines, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa. 2001.
- Chalmers, David. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. New York, New York: New Viewpoints-A Division of Franklin Watts. 1981.
- Chase, Hal. “Chapter 6: You Live What You Learn: The African-American Presence in Iowa Education, 1839-2000.” ,Outside In: African-American History in Iowa: 1838-2000. Des Moines, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa. 2001.
- Fisher, Allen and David Hay. In The Heart of the City: A History of First Presbyterian Church, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1847-1997. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: First Presbyterian Church. 1997.
- William J Maddix, “Blacks and Whites in Manly: An Iowa Town Overcomes Racism.” The Palimpsest, 1982: 130-137.
- Randel, William Peirce. The Ku Klux Klan: A Century of Infamy. New York, New York: Chilton Books. 1965.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Jeremy Brigham.