The Klan in Colorado

We cannot understand the present unless we understand the past. In that spirit, I have started to look more deeply into a rotten element Colorado’s past, the rise of the Klan in the ’20s.

In a recent article, I look at the life and work of the remarkable Joseph H. Stuart, an African American Colorado lawyer elected to the state house (I believe) in 1894. Back then, the Republican Party still was the party of Lincoln, and most black people were Republicans.

Distressingly, the Klan rose in Colorado in the 1920s and, for a time, took over the Republican Party. James S. Davis tells this story for Colorado Magazine (1965). “Grand Dragon” John Galen Locke established the Klan in Colorado in 1922, Davis writes. By 1924, the Klan selected “almost all” of the Republican Party’s candidates. By 1925, “In both the Senate and the House there was a majority of members elected from the Klan-controlled Republican party,” Davis writes. Governor Clarence Morley had close ties to the Klan.

Let’s pause here on Morley. The state’s biography of him notes that he didn’t actually enjoy many legislative successes. “Despite his apparent lack of legislative success, Morley was responsible for ratifying the Colorado River Compact, strengthening prohibition laws, developing a successful inmate labor program, and promoting legislation that allowed the state to carry its own insurance on its public buildings.” He developed “a police force, that many felt, enforced the prohibition laws too aggressively.” Morley was arrested in 1935 on mail fraud and later spent five years in Leavenworth. Wiki has Morley down as serving as governor from January 1925 through January 1927, after which he was succeeded by rival Democrat William “Billy” Adams. (I’m not sure how governor’s terms worked back then.)

Lynn Bartels quotes a document from the Center for Colorado and the West (a document that, unfortunately, I cannot find): “His [Morley’s] vitriol toward all things un-American was thinly veiled as an attack on Catholics, and further, on immigration. His goal wasn’t simply to eliminate the use of demon alcohol by banning the use of sacramental wine; it was to stop key elements of Catholic practice, thus the religion itself. Morley espoused the view that if public schools weren’t good enough for Catholic children, then Catholics should not teach in public schools. He agitated for the University of Colorado to fire all non-Protestant (that is, Catholic and Jewish) professors.”

Ed Quillen discusses Morley, Denver mayor Benjamin Stapleton, U.S. Senator Rice Means, U.S. Senator Laurence Phipps, and others in Colorado government associated with the Klan. Quillen notes (I don’t know where he got this), “Colorado, in a perversely progressive way, was the only Klan realm with a women’s auxiliary.” Quillen notes that the ’20s iteration of the Klan was inspired by the infamous and racist film, The Birth of a Nation. Quillen says the Klan’s “national leader, Imperial Wizard William Joseph Simmons . . . himself went to Denver to start building the Colorado Klan” in 1921. Here is an important detail: “Dr. Clarence Holmes, president of the Denver NAACP chapter, started a drive to integrate Denver’s theaters. The Klan burned a cross in front of his office and sent a threatening note, but he persisted.” The Klan chased one black man out of Denver with threats and (people suspected) bombed houses. The Klan in Denver kidnapped and beat two men, Patrick Walker and Ben Laska (a Jewish lawyer). Quillen quotes Robert Alan Goldberg: “Just two Klan-endorsed bills became state law: one requiring schools to fly the American flag and the other making ownership or operation of a still a felony.” (This doesn’t perfectly square with Davis’s account.)

Quillen writes that, in the ’20s, some of Colorado’s Italian “immigrants ignored Prohibition in favor of their traditional wine-making, which quickly evolved into bootlegging and violent struggles for control of the liquor trade.” The Klan actively participated in sheriff-sanctioned liquor raids. However, Quillen writes, “Colorado Springs Police Chief Hugh Harper was one of the few Colorado peace officers to fight the Klan from the moment it arrived.” Quillen notes, “C. C. Hamlin, publisher of the city’s two leading newspapers [and a Republican], The Gazette and the Evening Telegraph . . . flayed the Klan on the front pages and the editorial pages.”

Reviewing Phil Goodstein’s In the Shadow of the Klan, Sandra Dallas writes, “The Klan organized boycotts of stores owned by Catholics and Jews, although many female Kluxers refused to stop patronizing Neusteter’s, the high-fashion store that was owned by Jews.”

Back to Davis: Davis quotes the Denver Times, January 13, 1925 (p. 1) to summarize Morley’s inaugural address. (Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be part of the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection and is apparently only on microfilm at History Colorado, which seems crazy to me. It’s 2020 and we’re still using microfilm?) Morley laid out the following goals: “the establishment of a state reformatory for women, appropriation of funds to carry on negotiations for interstate river treaties, a minimum wage law for women, assistance in revival of the mining industry, elimination of further taxation on gasoline,” and so on. Klan-inspired items “included the passage of acts excluding certain aliens from residing in the state, eliminating from the prohibition law the right to obtain intoxicating liquors for sacramental use, amending the primary election law so that members of one political party could not participate in the primaries of an opposing party, and abolishing many state boards, bureaus, and commissions.” (Davis goes on to explain why the Klan favored some of these proposals.) A detail: The legislature passed a bill that “eliminated primary elections entirely,” but Morley vetoed it. Although the House was friendly to Morley, Davis writes, a coalition of Democrats and disaffected Republicans blocked most of Morley’s program in the Senate.

An odd detail: Morley gave a pre-inaugural address by radio, surreal to read, in which he touted Colorado’s treasures and told a dumb joke about “dry farming” as not relating to Prohibition.

Another Klan aim, writes Davis, was “repealing the civil rights laws, which would allow discrimination against Negroes.” (Here Davis cites the House Journal, p. 216, and the Denver Post, January 24, 1925, p. 14.)

A document from the Mesa County Library notes a curious detail: “Even people like future Oscar winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo” contemplated joining the Klan; he “thought about joining but didn’t.” (I have no idea what the source for that is.) Here’s what IMDB says: “Of his early politics, a much older Dalton Trumbo told how he asked his father for five dollars so he could join the Ku Klux Klan, a mass organization after the First World War. He didn’t get the five dollars.”

See also a write-up from the Denver Library.

Denver even had it’s own Klan newspaper for a few months, the Rocky Mountain American.

Westword‘s Conor McCormick-Cavanagh has a couple of informative write-ups on Twitter about the Klan in Colorado (one and two), specifically about Stapleton. Why did the Denver airport get named after a KKK mayor? McCormick-Cavanagh quotes Colorado state historian William Wei: “I suspect that it was, in part, a reaction to the civil-rights movement that was occurring at that time, during the mid-1960s. They came up with this way of honoring him and were implicitly opposing the efforts of civil rights.” See also McCormick-Cavanagh’s article in Westword.

This is some grim and distressing history to review. But review it we must, to prevent something similar from happening again.

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.