The Ku Klux Klan went through three distinct stages in its long career as a terrorist organization. Founded by confederate veterans of the Civil War in 1866, the original KKK enforced a reign of terror against newly freed African American slaves throughout the south. Although racist feeling was high in Oregon in the 1860s and 1870s and a hate group that used KKK- like methods terrorized Chinese immigrants in Portland the KKK didn’t get a foothold here before being eradicated by the Federal government in 1871. The original Ku Klux Klan was through as an organization by 1875, but its methods of terror and its ideology of white supremacy flourished underground throughout the country.
The Multnomah Hotel was the Portland headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan from 1921 – 1925. Photographer unknown. Portland City Archive.
The aftermath of the Second World War and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement saw a resurgence of support for the Ku Klux Klan and the organization was reborn once more. Working through “front organizations,” such as White Aryan Resistance, Aryan Youth Movement and Eastside White Pride, the KKK gained new support in Portland, but only as a marginalized, violent, semi-underground organization. Under attack financially after such high profile cases as the Mulegeta Seraw murder in 1988, the KKK was forced even further underground where it still exists as a violent faction of the political right wing.
Often seen as a rural cultural group in the long struggle between urban and rural culture in America it is interesting to note that the KKK, after 1914, drew the majority of its power from cities and achieved its greatest political success in Portland. The reasons for the unique aspects of the KKK’s development are many.
The 1920 census proved what keen observers had known for some time: the dominance of rural culture in the United States was passing. The 1920 census was the first time in American history that urban population was higher than rural, a trend that would continue for the next century. The grandchildren of the pioneers were moving away from the farms where they were raised and finding a new culture and a new experience in American cities, especially in the north. The so-called Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north had been underway for decades, but significantly picked up during the Great War. Northern cities were seeing a large influx of African Americans and racial tensions rose with the population.
Along with African Americans most U.S. cities were also seeing growing populations of immigrants, mostly from Southern and Eastern Europe. Anti-immigrant feeling, always strong among the American working class, contributed to a growing value in “white identity” and a rise in racist attitudes and policies in American cities like Portland.
Fred Gifford, Grand Dragon of the Oregon Ku Klux Klan, kept papers in his desk that he said could send Mayor George Baker to prison for a long time. He liked to brag about it and order Baker around. Photographer unknown. Portland City Archive.
In addition to these factors Portland was influenced by its isolation. Since the 19th century Portland had been considered the “end of the earth” by most Americans. Before the railroad came in the 1880s the trip to Portland, either overland or by sea was a weeks long journey that was only survived by the toughest. Even after the railroad began to serve Portland it was still a grueling journey that took days of traveling under harsh conditions. This isolation led Portland to turn inward and the small social world the city created was dominated by fraternal organizations such as Moose, Elk, Masons and Kiwanis. Most Portlanders, regardless of class or wealth, belonged to at least one fraternal or beneficial society. Even new immigrants founded their own social groups. Fraternal organizations were vital to the social function of the city and any group that presented itself as such could find support.
This was the situation that Brace Calloway, a KKK organizer known as a kleagle, found when he arrived in Portland in 1921. Calloway had been ordered by the Imperial Wizard, the group’s national leader, to keep his organizing plans secret, but after checking into spacious quarters at the Multnomah Hotel Calloway made himself available to reporters from both the Oregonian and the Portland Telegram. After an interview with Calloway appeared in the Telegram he was recalled and replaced as kleagle by Luther Powell, who had just finished organizing klan chapters, known as klaverns, in Medford, Klamath Falls and Roseburg. The organizing in Oregon was part of a nation-wide plan to spread the Invisible Empire as a fraternal organization. By the time Powell began to organize in Oregon klan membership stretched from Atlanta, KKK headquarters, to California and as far north as Maine. Their largest strength was in the south, especially Georgia and Texas, but they also gained large numbers in the Midwest, especially Indiana and Ohio, and the west coast.
Luther Powell was a talented organizer who knew the key to a successful organizing campaign was to start with the most influential people possible. He quickly named Fred Gifford, an electrician for the Northwest Electric Company and business agent for the Electrical Workers’ Union, as Grand Cyclops, or local leader, and took up residence in the Multnomah Hotel. Their first move was an organizing coup that compromised the city leadership and announced the klan’s presence with authority.
Mayor George Baker, Police Chief Leon Jenkins and several other city officials received an invitation to a reception at the Multnomah Hotel. They all claimed that they had no idea it was a KKK event, and that is probably true. When the city officials gathered Luther Powell and Fred Gifford, in full hooded-regalia, stepped out from behind a curtain and a photographer snapped a picture that was published in the Portland Telegram. The men included in the picture said they were surprised by the appearance of the hooded klansmen, and in the picture surprise is evident on Chief Jenkins’ face. The move was brilliant because it not only compromised the officials by implying their support for the klan, it began a huge uptick in KKK membership in Portland. Holding large public meetings at Civic Auditorium, with support from Mayor Baker, large hooded parades on foot and in cars and cross burnings at Mt. Tabor and Mt. Scott, the klan inducted as many as 1100 members at a time.
Mayor Baker steadfastly denied that he ever joined the KKK, but he did their bidding several times before his falling out with the organization in 1924, and he actively courted their political support. Many historians have doubted Baker’s claim that he never joined the klan. Baker was a strong booster of fraternal organizations and a member of at least two dozen groups, so most people have assumed that he joined the KKK as well. Klan member, and publisher of the KKK newspaper the Western American, Lem Dever told the true story in his 1925 book Masks Off: Confessions of an Imperial Klansman. Dever, who personally doubted Baker’s “racial qualification” for membership, claimed that the mayor never joined the organization. Grand Dragon Fred Gifford bragged that he had evidence that could have sent the mayor to jail for a long time, which he held over Baker’s head. The mayor was certainly involved with several illegal activities that could have sent him to jail and blackmail by Gifford would easily explain his subservient, but antagonistic relationship with the klan.
Luther Powell claimed that the klan was “the antithesis of lawlessness,” but the group’s activities involved several episodes of violence in Oregon. Klansmen in Medford, Coos Bay and Oregon City were charged with abduction, intimidation and torture and at least one murder of a black man in Coos Bay was believed to have been committed by the klan. In Portland, local klansmen abducted a woman, accused of immorality, and burned a K into her breast with acid. It is clear that the klan’s support for “law and order” was only for public consumption and not for practice.
The KKK’s large membership in Oregon led to strength at the polls. The klan backed candidates and initiatives and were credited with several electoral victories. KKK support was vital in the election of Walter Pierce as governor and the passage of the “Public School Bill” which outlawed Catholic and parochial schools and was declared unconstitutional before it went into effect. In addition they supported many local candidates who were elected to the state legislature and local governing bodies. Most notably K.K. Kubli, who became president of the State Senate, and Dow Walker and J. Howard Rankin, who were elected to the Multnomah County Commission all received heavy support from the KKK during their campaigns.
Financial scams by Luther Powell and other klan organizers and the rampant corruption of KKK backed public officials, liker Walker and Rankin who were both recalled after less than two years in office, led to the demise of the KKK in Oregon by 1926. That story will be told in my upcoming book Murder & Scandal in Prohibition Portland: Sex, Vice and Misdeeds in Mayor Barker's Reign.