Walter Walker’s Sin and Reform

Colorado Mesa University’s Walker Field will be renamed. The airport in Grand Junction used to be called Walker Field, and its address remains Walker Field Drive. So who is Walter Walker? Dan West reviews, the president of the college, Tim Foster (a former Republican legislator) said Walker is “the leader of the Grand Junction Klan, the founder of the Grand Junction Klan.” West writes, “According to interviewees from the Mesa County Oral History Project, Walker helped bring the Ku Klux Klan to Grand Junction and was a member. He later turned against the group and published editorials in the Daily Sentinel attacking the KKK and was even the target of violence from Klan members.” On one hand, I have no problem with changing the name of the field due to Walker’s sins. On the other hand, I hope that we don’t lose the lesson of Walker’s reform.

A Daily Sentinel editorial provides important context: “Walter Walker . . . was the second owner and publisher of The Daily Sentinel who helped establish Mesa Junior College and the local veterans hospital, built The Avalon and brought air service to Grand Junction. . . . He was also responsible for bringing the Ku Klux Klan to Grand Junction in the 1920s. . . . Noel Kalenian provides a thoughtful treatment of Walker’s story [here] based, in part, on audio recordings of interviews with Walker’s contemporaries included in the Mesa County Oral History Project housed at the Mesa County Libraries. . . . The Klan was proving to be a political force in Colorado — and across the country — in the 1920s. Prohibition provided the Klan with a new platform to spread its anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, white Protestant nationalist rhetoric. It promised to clean up communities and rid them of bootleggers and moonshiners. But that’s not how the Klan operated here. Beer was served at meetings. It was more of a men’s social club. . . . Under Walker’s leadership, the club refused to take an activist position on the Klan’s tenets. But at some point, Walker was stripped of his leadership position and the club took a sinister turn. That’s when Walker started writing editorials warning of an organization ‘that preyed on prejudice to incite hatred,’ Kalenian wrote. . . . In September 1925, several local Klan leaders including a deputy sheriff and a police officer assaulted Walker as he walked from a barber shop to his newspaper office. But that didn’t stop his anti-Klan campaign and membership dwindled to insignificance by 1926.”

The Sentinel may be putting a positive spin on the “social club,” but its portrayal of Walker seems accurate. Here’s what Kalenian says: “According to [Robert Alan] Goldberg [author of Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado, which seems to be out of print], the Western Slope’s geographic isolation from Denver in an age of poor roads allowed the Klan in Grand Junction to function as a kind of social club similar to the Elk’s Lodge, but with cross burnings, grotesque robes and dumb, pointy hats. Membership in the Klan was so popular among Mesa County’s white Protestants that it seemed like everyone wanted to join, even people like future Oscar winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who thought about joining but didn’t), Al Look and Walker. Look and Walker later started an organization called the Soup Eaters to help poor and minority children in the Grand Valley. After leaving the Klan, Walker supported the presidential candidacy of Al Smith, a Catholic. The club under Walker’s leadership eschewed many of the Klan’s tenets, including prohibition. In fact, Goldberg says that the Grand Junction club served beer in their meetings. The club also refused to take an activist position on immigrants, African-Americans and Catholics, and kept the small minority of Klansmen who favored action against such people at bay.”

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