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The KKK in Nebraska

Monday, June 18, 2012

A giant KKK rally in McCook 1924. Don Gibson photo.
When we think of the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) we usually think of the organization, which was formed in the South, after the Civil War.

At that time it was considered a fraternal organization, made of up of white aristocrats from the Old South, who were disenchanted with the North's implementation of Reconstruction. As we know, the organization quickly changed into something more sinister. At its worst it became groups of white men in hooded sheets, scaring blacks, with demonstrations involving burning crosses and men on horseback -- sometimes involving lynching parties and murder.

It has been said that had Abraham Lincoln not been murdered, and had lived to oversee the bringing the South back into the Union peacefully and fairly, the Ku Klux Klan would never have been an issue. But Lincoln died, the administration of Reconstruction was often bungled, and the South was thrust into 100 years of bitterness and very slow change.

Will Brown
As the grievances of the Southern whites were gradually addressed, the influence of the Ku Klux Klan slowly subsided in the South, and while it never went away, the Ku Klux Klan was largely a thing of the past in the South, entering the 20th Century.

In the years following World War I, into the 1920s and '30s, conditions changed in the United States, to the point that the Ku Klux Klan made resurgence -- in the North. In the South, falling prices of cotton, floods on the Mississippi, and devastation of the cotton crop by the boll weevil, caused thousands of blacks to look to the North for employment, where wages were five times what they were making on the Southern farms.

Henry Ford and the birth of an auto industry demanded workers, many of whom had been drafted into the Army during World War I, and this shortage of workers was repeated in cities all across the North. Blacks from the South were more than willing to move north for those jobs.

Northern white workers were not prepared for the influx of workers from the South, regardless of their skin color. The black population in Nebraska doubled between 1910 and 1920 (to 5 percent of population in Omaha, 1 percent Outstate Nebraska).

Workers felt threatened by the newcomers. What is more, there were rabble-rousers ready and willing to stir those doubts and misgivings into hatred, in the form of the new Ku Klux Klan.

The first Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was formed in Nebraska in 1921, but the seeds for the formation of the KKK were sown in Omaha in 1919, in one of the worst tragedies that ever took place in our state. In that year, some 25 race riots took place, from Texas to Iowa. In Omaha, a young lady was assaulted by a black man, whom she later tentatively identified as one Will Brown, a 41 year-old, who was crippled with severe rheumatism. Though Brown steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, he was placed under arrest at the Douglas County Jail.

Forty-six policemen and several detectives were placed on guard around the jail to protect Mr. Brown. A mob formed outside, which eventually grew to an estimated 15,000 angry men. They looted guns from nearby shops, and brandished those weapons as they gradually closed in on the guards. They set fire to the courthouse, and, in the riot that ensued, killed a 16-year-old student and a 34-year-old business man, and prevented fire fighters from doing their job.

Omaha Mayor Smith attempted to reason with the mob. His reward was a blow on the head by a thrown brick, which knocked him unconscious. When he came to he found a rope around his neck and the rope thrown over a lamp post, ready for his lynching. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Mayor Smith was saved from hanging.

Will Brown was not so fortunate. The mob broke into the courthouse, overpowered the guards and strung up Mr. Brown by the neck to another lamp post. As his body was swinging, it was riddled with bullets from the stolen guns. Finally, his body, soaked with fuel from the "red danger" fire truck lanterns, and then thrown on a funeral pyre, made up of blazing wooden doors and desks taken from the courthouse.

The actor Henry Fonda was a boy of 14 at the time and watched the carnage from the second floor window of his father's shop. He described the incident as the most gruesome thing he had ever seen. That event had a large influence on Fonda's choice of films in his future movie career -- as "The Ox Bow Incident," and "12 Angry Men" might indicate.

As one would expect, the KKK was strong in the urban areas of Nebraska, around Omaha and Lincoln. But also, for some reason the KKK took root in outstate communities across the Midwest as well. In many communities there was no Negro population to demonstrate against. It mattered not, and often the ire of the Ku Klux Klan was directed against Jews, or Catholics, or any newly arrived immigrants, "foreigners who take our jobs," such as the Greeks in Omaha. In York, a burning cross was planted in the front lawn of a Missouri Synod Lutheran who was the son of an early German settler of York County.

In York, several demonstrations of the KKK drew crowds of 2,000 or more. One such meeting was an initiation ceremony of a number of new "2nd degree" KKK members. Guards in white sheets and hoods rode horses around the perimeter of the field where the ceremony was taking place, "to make sure that the ceremony was not interrupted."

On July 25, 1924, in McCook, some 10,000 spectators watched a parade of more than 200 costumed KKK members, mostly men, but some women, from several Southwest Nebraska towns, march down Main Street. The parade was said to have been peaceful. Then, the large crowd listened to the "King Kleagle," from Kansas City, deliver a stirring address on "Americanism" at Main Street Park (now Norris Park. McCook's Ray Search was a young man at the time, and was able to identify several of the local KKK leaders (by the peculiar gait or the shoes they wore). A number of the leading KKK members were also leading business men in McCook. They never publicly admitted to being associated with the KKK.

While the KKK in McCook was generally peaceful, there are stories that some black porters on the Burlington Railroad, who made their homes in east McCook, were threatened by the KKK, and at least some of those workers did, indeed, leave town.

In the 1920s, 18 hooded and robed McCook Klansmen entered a protestant church carrying an American flag and a flaming cross. They gave the minister a Bible and a $30 donation, after which the leader of the Klansmen delivered a prayer, calling on God to deliver strong. upstanding, God-fearing men to lead our country.

Some protestant ministers welcomed the KKK and its financial help; however, most congregations denounced the organization for its stand against minorities and the Catholic Church, and the KKK's all too apparent strong-arm tactics. As the '20s gave way to the '30s, it became more and more apparent that most KKK members valued the fraternal aspect of the group, and its demonstrations of patriotism a good deal more than its less desirable demonstrations and tactics. The parades, the drama of secrecy, and the violence became less glamorous; and there were increasing rumors of corruption of key members of the organization.

Membership began to dwindle. Eventually it lost its influence on the American population and became just a memory. There are attempts to revive the influence of the KKK from time to time, along with emergence of other groups -- such as the New-Nazi Party, led by "The Farm Belt Fuhrer," Gary "Gerhard" Lauck, who launched his own Neo-Nazi movement from his home in Lincoln, Nebraska. But these offshoots have never approached the 1920s KKK in numbers or influence on the American public. For this we are indeed grateful.

Source: Nebraska History.org; "Ray Search Remembers McCook"

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By