- The Ku Klux Klan in Western Pennsylvania, 1921-1928 by John Craig
John Craig has written a thorough “narrative chronicle” of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the western counties of Pennsylvania, particularly those surrounding Pittsburgh. His narrative covers a period during which the Klan first appeared, their rise in activities and membership through 1925, and their decline thereafter. He portrays the Klan as a secretive, fraternal, nativist society bringing together Protestants to defend themselves against a perceived onslaught of Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe. They provoked violent reactions, and were sometimes themselves responsible for the violence. Colonel William Simmons resurrected the KKK after seeing the movie Birth of a Nation in 1915, and recognizing its ability to [End Page 91] function as a fraternal organization that could generate much money for its founder. He was not very successful until he hired Edward Young Clarke as a publicist in the early 1920s.
Under Clarke the Klan spread throughout the country. Kleagles were sent into various communities to sell the organization. They burned crosses, marched into local Protestant churches to make contributions, and held public assemblies. Some Protestant ministers welcomed the hooded visitors, and even spoke on their behalf; others refused their contributions and asked them to leave. The Klan often portrayed itself as a moral organization intent on enforcing prohibition, gambling and prostitution laws. Sometimes Klansmen focused on immoral individuals through the burning of a cross on their lawn, or intimidating visits. In Pennsylvania these activities attracted several hundred thousand members within a few years.
At the end of 1922, however, a coup, led by Hiram Evans, overthrew Simmons. As the new Imperial Wizard, Evans emphasized Klan growth through the holding of massive public rallies. His lieutenant in Pennsylvania, the Exalted Cyclops Sam Rich, believed that confrontations, particularly through public rallies, would create even more rapid growth. Hence, in western Pennsylvania, Klansmen suited up to march through cities and towns with the goal of intimidating opponents. They provoked fierce reactions in many towns when they threw bricks, bats, and stones, and sometimes fired weapons. The Klan defended its marches on its constitutional right to express itself. Despite adverse public reactions, Rich was determined not to give up these marches.
But neither were their opponents. In Carnegie, Pennsylvania, a battle ensued in which a Klansman, Thomas Abbott, was killed. The Klan asserted that Patrick, “Paddy,” McDermott, had fired the shot, and sought his arrest and trial. When that failed, they proclaimed Abbott a martyr, and focused even more on their right to march. According to Craig, “cross burnings, mass demonstrations, and especially parades, were designed not only to provide promised thrills to Klan participants, but to frighten and intimidate Klan ‘enemies,’ primarily Catholics” (63). Thus, although the opponents were often the instigators, as at the Glendale bridge in Carnegie, the Klan brought guns determined to resist rather than avoid confrontation.
Such an attitude led to further marches and a major riot at Lilly, near Altoona, in early April 1924. A railroad and coal mining town, it harbored a large number of immigrants who were sure to resent the Klan message. The Klan opened fire when confronted by a fire hose directed at marchers. [End Page 92] Their indiscriminate firing led to several deaths and numerous wounded. The arrest of more than twenty Klansmen for carrying concealed weapons, rioting, and murder brought much national attention and increased Klan membership.
By 1925 Klan membership totaled between 260,000 and 300,000, according to Klan figures. But membership began to drop, until, by 1927, it was only 30,000. Craig attributes the Klan’s decline to a reaction against continued efforts to march. Many cities and towns refused to grant a parade permit unless the participants agreed to unmask themselves by opening their visors. Many participants, possibly threatened by the loss of patronage at their businesses, refused to march. Craig also cites efforts to switch local Klans from provisional to chartered status between October 1924 and March 1925. Craig speculates...