Randy Stapilus: Lessons from the Klan's reign in Oregon

From Library of Congress files, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons##Ku Klux Klan rally held in Portland circa 1921-22, when the city’s Klan membership ran upwards of 15,000.
From Library of Congress files, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons##Ku Klux Klan rally held in Portland circa 1921-22, when the city’s Klan membership ran upwards of 15,000.

"A Fever in the Heartland” is one of the most pertinent new books this season, especially for Oregon, where extremism is on the rise.

It is a thoughtful history, and an engrossing if disturbing read, from Timothy Egan. It’s about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s — its high water mark nationally — and its local and regional impacts.

The Klan became a power in many states. It took over the state of Indiana, dominating its government, businesses, churches and almost everything else. That was its strongest outpost nationally.

Its next strongest outpost, among the then-48 states, was Oregon. It had the second-highest number of Klan members per capita.

The racist, antisemitic and nativist Klan controlled Oregon’s top state and local offices, from governor on down. That reflected grass roots strength.

The Klan had more than 50 chapters statewide, encompassing more than 30,000 sworn members and many unofficial but supportive sympathizers. Thousands joined a single massive chapter in Portland.

Oregon had the right demographics for the organization, being overwhelmingly white, Protestant and native-born. It also had the right history, as the Oregon Constitution originally banned Black residents outright.

The Klan exploded in prominence in Oregon in 1921 and 1922. By 1930, the air had left the balloon, and it collapsed.

Why did this happen?

In a paper extensively recounting the Klan’s activities in Oregon, Chapman University researcher Ben Bruce argued that “poor leadership, corruption, political overreach, mismanagement and bigoted violence caused the Klan to collapse just as quickly as it came to prominence.”

He explained, “In the words of Catholic historian Lawrence Saalfeld, ‘The death of the Klan was not brought about by its opponents. The Klan died at its own hand.’”

Bruce said criticism from many Oregon newspapers was also a key factor.

The Klan was organized tightly, in almost military fashion. That’s in stark contrast to today’s loosely networked extremists.

The question of what happened remains relevant now, though, as Oregon confronts a wave of domestic terrorism aimed in many cases at targets that would have met with Klan approval.

A legislatively commissioned report on domestic terrorism, released July 1 by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, showed a massive increase in “bias incidents” — reported to a state-established bias hotline. Reports increased by a startling 178% since the hotline launched in 2020.

The data about incidents is extensive, and it has been thoroughly collected and analyzed. It has not, so far, led to many answers, however.

The commission’s new report listed several proposals, two of them endorsing continuing efforts by the hotline, one offering help for victims of bias crimes and one fixing gaps in Oregon laws that often makes prosecution difficult. One example of the latter cited “graffiti on property belonging to a victim in a non-protected class.”

There wasn’t much, however, about effectively combating or trying to curb bias crime.

One early commission idea ended up being rejected, the report concluding, “The mental health/bias crime link suggested in sentencing judgments is likely spurious: Many persons with mental health disabilities do not engage in bias-motivated acts, and many persons who engage in bias-motivated acts do not have mental health diagnoses.”

A March 2022 report from the Secretary of State’s Office, “Oregon Can Do More to Mitigate the Alarming Risk of Domestic Terrorism and Violent Extremist Attacks,” offered additional thoughts. They included better communication and coordination among state agencies, better definitions of terrorism and extremism and creation of “a statewide strategy with specific, measurable outcomes.”

But what’s the strategy, exactly? Where does this leave us when it comes to doing something about hate crimes beyond picking up the pieces after they happen?

Maybe the collapse of the Klan offers a few clues.

One big lesson from back then was messaging. Newspaper campaigns and other media efforts helped shift the minds of many people about what was acceptable and what wasn’t. Newspapers have less impact in Oregon than they once had, but there are plenty of lines of communication — social, personal and organizational — that could probably be tapped.

Another lesson was the way the Klan tended to wilt in the face of direct challenge, often via criminal cases and publicity stemming from them. Stronger enforcement against bias crimes probably has to be part of the picture as well.

A third point might involve leveraging in new ways the mass of data being collected to identify patterns — geographic, ideological and psychological. The aim would be splintering and diminishing the networked groups driving the extremism.

Much of the analysis so far focuses on types of crimes and victims.

More effectively going after the perpetrators will involve heavy analysis of the nature of the incidents — what underlies them, what that tells us about who is driving it and what connections the perps might share. They can be pursued more effectively if we know more about them.

The means for doing all this are falling into place.

In his book, Egan was careful not to make explicit comparisons between the last ‘20s and this current one. Still, the next logical step may involve doing, with purpose, what many Oregonians did almost inadvertently a century ago.

Guest writer Randy Stapilus is a former reporter and editor who has turned to writing and publishing books from Carlton. He has devoted his career to covering politics and government in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. In addition to publishing books for himself and others through the Ridenbaugh Press, he maintains a blog at www.ridenbaugh.com. In addition, he continues to write for print and online news publications, including the Salem-based Oregon Capital Chronicle, where this piece originally appeared. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com. 


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