Our dishonorable past: KKK’s Western roots date to 1868

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tags: KKK



Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Gray Matters column for Seattlemagazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at knute.berger@crosscut.com or follow him on twitter @KnuteBerger.

The images are haunting. A family dressed in full Ku Klux Klan regalia prepares for a wedding in Sedro-Woolley. A downtown Seattle hall is filled to the rafters with folks in hooded garb for a Klan gathering. Stories circulate about one of the largest Klan rallies ever — with more than 25,000 people gathering in a field near Issaquah. Tens of thousands of whites living in Washington and Oregon were, for a time, enthusiastic members of an organization with one of the most hateful histories in America.

The shameful story of our region’s part in the Klan revival of the 1920s is well-documented. Inspired in part by movies like “Birth of a Nation” and a desire to mainstream white supremacy, the Klan resurgence of 1915 to 1930 was a national phenomenon, attempting to remake the Klan as a patriotic middle-class, fraternal organization no more threatening to whites than the Elks or Eagles.

What is less well-documented is that the first stirrings of the Klan on the West Coast and in the Pacific Northwest appear to have occurred much earlier. Looking at our histories, you would think nothing like the Klan tainted our evergreen shores until the early 20th century. But on closer look, the first signs of the Ku Klux Klan in California and Oregon go back nearly to the birth of the Klan itself half a century before that revival. Indeed, as I’ve found as a result of writing about the ugly strains of racism in our region, historians are concluding that the Western states, as much as the Deep South, were a battleground of race, class and immigration both before and after the Civil War.

Nearly 150 years ago, as early as 1868 — following shortly on the Klan’s post-war birth in Reconstruction-era Tennessee — the KKK’s influence vaulted the Rocky Mountains to inspire a spate of racially-focused night raids, robberies, threats and arson attacks on the West Coast stretching from Southern California to Western Oregon. This was no Klan revival, it was Klan behavior in the West almost from Day One. ...




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