The Second Ku Klux Klan in Kansas City: Rise and Fall of a White Nationalist Movement


Like a prairie fire, a revived Ku Klux Klan (KKK) spread quickly across the nation in the 1920s, enrolling upwards of six million white, native-born Protestants into its ranks. Promoting "100 Percent Americanism," "Protestantism," "Law and Order," and the "eternal maintenance of white supremacy," the Klan found keen reception in quarters where the white majority population felt threatened by immigration, modernization, and illegal alcohol consumption.

The "Invisible Empire," as members daringly called it, was particularly strong in the country’s mid-section. Here national KKK leaders saw the hooded order’s best chance to restore America to the Arcadian days of its founding. So great was their hope that Kansas City was selected as the site of the KKK’s second national convention, or "klonvocation" in Klan-speak, in September 1924.

Addressing Klan members at Kansas City’s Convention Hall, Imperial Wizard Dr. Hiram Wesley Evans said, "This klonvocation, held here in the great Middle West, is assembled on the battlefield of the immediate future. Some of the Eastern States are today lost to true Americanism and must be re-won, but the American population of the Middle West [is] …left to do valiant battle."

Cover page of the Proceedings from the 2nd Klonvokation
Cover page of the Proceedings from the 2nd Klonvokation. Source: Internet Archive.

Despite the presence of 5,000 visiting Klan members, the 1924 klonvocation did not provoke recorded opposition from the city’s populations of Catholics (a prime Klan target in the 1920s), African Americans, or Jews. The Klan marched in no parades and burned no crosses. The convention was dedicated solely to the "official business of the organization," Klan leaders stated.

But the tedious administrative nature of the klonvocation in Kansas City obscures the tumultuous history of the KKK in the greater Kansas City area during the interwar years. This history includes the activities of Klan members from both sides of the state line who gathered to celebrate their shared white ethnic identity and transcend the historic divisions of the Kansas-Missouri border. This history is further complicated because Klansmen on the Kansas side of the line organized their city’s largest KKK chapter in part to battle the influence of Kansas City, Missouri, business and political interests in Wyandotte County affairs.

The local history of the KKK can best be understood in consideration of the national historical context of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Although Klan membership reached its zenith in that decade, the Invisible Empire is best remembered for the two most notorious phases of its history. First founded by six former Confederate officers in 1865, the post-Civil War KKK was dedicated to terrorizing African American freedmen and women back into submission and resisting the political Reconstruction efforts of the federal government. The Klan’s influence and violence spread across the South, its power and lawlessness alarming officials, who finally brought it down in 1872 with the mass arrest and conviction of its members.

After the second resurgence in the 1920s, the South saw another outbreak of Klan violence following the Second World War, as a response to civil rights demands and gains by African Americans. Like the first Klan, this version of the hooded order also sought to terrorize its victims back into their "place." This phase continued through the 1960s as the Klan killed civil rights leaders and workers, and destroyed African American churches. Heavy infiltration by the Federal Bureau of Investigation helped bring this bloody chapter to an end.

Situated between these two eras was another Ku Klux Klan, one that attracted millions of followers in the 1920s, most of whom would be described as otherwise "good, solid middle class citizens," in the words of Stanley Frost, a contemporary journalist. The stimulus to this Klan’s creation is more mysterious; its program of Americanism, Protestantism, Law and Order, and White Supremacy less definite than the simpler hates of other Klan eras. The amorphous character of the Klan of the 1920s gave it the flexibility to adjust to whatever local conditions it found.

The story of the KKK in the greater Kansas City area is best documented in the records of the chapters, or "klaverns," on the Kansas side of the state line. A dedicated core of anti-Klan politicians at the state and local level fought the KKK’s efforts to control Kansas. The battle left a paper trail that makes it easier to follow the tale of the hooded order in Kansas City, Kansas (KCK), than in Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO). But such was the uniformity of Klan appeal to a particular demographic group nationwide that a detailed look at the Kansas City, Kansas, men who joined the order will—if not unmask individual Missouri members—at least sketch a recognizable silhouette. It is almost certain that the traits of KCK members revealed below would be duplicated in KCMO if membership records existed.

The rich membership data revealing the Klan membership in KCK will be the second step toward understanding the Klan’s appeal to white, native-born Protestant men in the Kansas City area. A more immediate question is, what did this new Klan do in Kansas City? The history of 1920s-era Klan behavior included burning crosses, marching ominously down main streets, and intimidating enemies. Did the pattern prevail in Kansas City? The elusive "why?" will complete the picture after the activities of Klan members and the segment of society they represented are described.

The Klan’s road to Kansas City began in Georgia. Colonel (the title was strictly honorary) William Joseph Simmons raised the order from its post-Civil War grave in 1915, fulfilling a childhood dream to revive the KKK. A former Methodist circuit rider who made his living selling fraternal life insurance policies, Simmons lay recovering from an auto accident in an Atlanta hospital when a vision of Klansmen in flowing white robes stirred his imagination. "As the picture faded out," Simmons wrote, "I got down on my knees and swore that I would found a fraternal organization that would be a memorial to the Ku Klux Klan [of post-Civil War memory]." Simmons led 15 men up Stone Mountain, Georgia, on Thanksgiving eve 1915, where they pledged themselves by the light of a burning cross to Americanism, Protestantism, and the "eternal maintenance of white supremacy."

Simmons’s new order floundered despite unofficial service in World War One as a voluntary domestic spy service. The Klan counted only a few thousand members in 1920. The club likely would have withered away without the aid of Edward Y. Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler of the Southern Publicity Association. The pair sensed the Klan’s potential as a national movement and offered to market it across the country. Simmons, an admittedly bad administrator, agreed. His deal with Clarke and Tyler would loosen the Klan from its southern moorings for the first time and expanded its influence across the country.

The KKK arrived in Kansas City, Kansas, in early 1921. Led by King Kleagle George T. McCarron, a Missourian, a provisional chapter called the Sunflower Club was soon formed. McCarron’s "Kleagles" (Klan membership salesmen) found prospective members in the city’s small businesses, churches, factories, fraternal lodges, shops, union halls, and rail yards. Federal, state, and local government employees signed up, too. A year later the Sunflower Club received its charter from the parent Georgia Klan to become Wyandotte Klan No. 5, Realm of Kansas, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc. Chapters also formed in Rosedale (Klan No. 17), still a separate city in 1922, and further west in Bonner Springs (Klan No. 9). The chapter numbers represented the order each one was formed within the state. The Kansas City "Klavern" spawned a separate Argentine chapter (Klan No. 90) later in the decade.

Postcard of Minnesota venue in downtown Kansas City, Kansas
Postcard of Minnesota Avenue in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, the site of a large Klan parade in 1927. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

Beyond their status as slogans for the organization, what did the Klan’s version of Americanism, Protestantism, Patriotism, Law and Order, and White Supremacy look like in practice? The question can only be answered by newspaper accounts and the depositions taken during a state [Kansas] investigation of the order. The following list is therefore not exhaustive, and countless other Klan acts were likely committed in the Kansas City area in the 1920s. But their known activities locally included:

  • The Klan held rallies, which included cross burnings and initiation ceremonies, drawing upwards of 15,000 regional participants and spectators;
  • The KCK and KCMO Klans paraded 2,500 strong together down Minnesota Avenue in December 1927;
  • The Klans celebrated their cross-state community with picnics, concerts, and lectures to entertain crowds of up to 25,000;
  • The Klan engaged in philanthropy, donating money to widows, Protestant churches and hospitals, and even African American churches and hospitals, although black institutions received much less money and some declined the donations on principle. Considered un-American and un-Christian, Catholic institutions were excluded from Klan charity;
  • The Klan enforced "Blue Laws" on the Kansas side, prohibiting Sunday retail hours to shut down grocery stores owned by Catholics, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, another "un-Christian" church in Klan eyes;
  • The Klan boycotted businesses deemed disloyal to Kansas City, Kansas, such as those that advertised in the Kansas City Star (which was perceived to bolster the Missouri side) instead of the Kansas City Kansan;
  • The Klan conducted detective work for the county attorney; Kansas City, Kansas; and the national Klan organization. The Wyandotte County attorney belonged to the Klan, as did numerous other elected officials;
  • The Klan broke up lovers’ lanes "petting parties";
  • The Klan led efforts to remove "smut" magazines from drugstore magazine racks;
  • The Klan sought to ban Sunday movies;
  • The Klan brought the "Birth of a Nation" film epic—set in the post-Civil War era and portraying Klansmen as defenders of white women against black men—to Kansas City over the objections of African Americans and Union Army veterans, among others;
  • The Klan threatened to beat the school superintendent if he allowed a racially integrated school pageant;
  • The Klan threatened to beat and bomb African Americans who moved into majority white neighborhoods;
  • The Klan vandalized Catholic cemeteries;
  • The Klan’s threats of violence split Wyandotte Klan No. 5 when 450 men quit in July 1922 over the issue. Dissident Klansmen organized "reformed" Klans, but their efforts to replace the Georgia-based KKK failed;
  • The Klan got the Argentine High School dancing instructor fired for teaching "jazz" dancing;
  • The Klan removed Sinclair Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry from public library shelves and hid it in a vault because of its negative portrayal of a Protestant clergyman;
  • The Klan won more than 136 political races in Kansas City, Kansas, climaxing with their capture of City Hall in 1927, when Klansman Don C. McCombs won the mayor’s office. These Klansmen held City Hall for nearly 30 years, even after they were no longer formal members of the Klan itself.

Who were the men, women, and children who roiled the city with their white robes, violent threats, prying eyes, and sequestered books? How large was the threat?

Despite claims of 5,000 to 7,000 members in KCK in 1922, the actual number was closer to 1,100, with perhaps another 800 joining the men’s rolls over the decade. At least 400 Kansas City women joined the auxiliary "Kamelia Klan No. 27." Like their male counterparts, KCK Klanswomen engaged in philanthropic, social, and ceremonial activities. Wyandotte county boys joined the Junior Klan. A 1925 initiation ceremony in Tonganoxie, Kansas, "naturalized" 500 boys into the mysteries of the Invisible Empire. The Junior Klan’s one reported public appearance was also in 1925, when they presented an American flag to the pastor of Advent Christian church at 24th Street and Garfield Avenue.

Klan members posed with a railroad car
People in Klan costume posing with a Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad car. The railroad was one of the largest employers of KCK Klan members during the 1920s. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

No information on the women and boys who joined the Klan auxiliaries exists outside of the newspaper accounts. But the first 1,000 men who joined the Klan in KCK left a more detailed impression. Following the Klan’s advance across the country in the early 1920s, Kansas Governor Henry J. Allen dispatched undercover agents to collect information on Klan members for an ouster suit the state was preparing against the Invisible Empire. Membership rosters were among the valuable records collected by Allen’s agents, especially the rich records of Wyandotte Klan No. 5. The identities of more than 900 KCK men have been identified thanks to Allen’s list, now held at the Library of Congress.

The middle-class profile of the Kansas City Klansmen observed by journalists of the era begins to emerge when Klansmen are compared with Kansas City’s non-Klan population. The numbers used for comparison’s sake are based on the US Census Bureau’s high, mid, and low occupational status designations:

  • 4.4 percent of KCK Klan members engaged in high, non-manual, white collar occupations, such as attorney or physician. Only 1.7 percent of non-Klan citizens enjoyed this status;
  • 24 percent of Klan members were mid-level, non-manual workers, such as small business owners, managers, or public officials. Only 5.5 percent of the non-Klan citizens appeared in this category;
  • 27 percent of Kansas City Klan members were employed in low, non-manual jobs, such as clerks and salesmen, as compared with 14.8 percent of non-Klan workers;
  • 19.3 percent of the Knights were skilled, blue-collar craftsmen such as railroad engineers, carpenters, or machinists. 17.6 percent of the non-Klan population worked in this field;
  • 19 percent of Klansmen were apprentices or semi-skilled workers, such as railroad switchmen, brakemen, or meter readers. 23.2 percent of the non-Klan population was semi-skilled;
  • Only 3.2 percent of Klansmen toiled as unskilled workers, compared to 24.5 percent of the non-Klan population;
  • The unknown skill levels accounted for the remaining 3.1 percent of Klansmen and 12.7 percent of the non-Klan population.

The three most common Klan occupations were small business owner, clerk, and railroad engineer. Most Klansmen worked with at least one other Klan member. Twenty-five Klansmen employed a fellow member. Kansas City’s top 10 employers of Klansmen were Armour and Company; the city government of Kansas City; the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad; the Kansas City Railway Company; the Kansas City Structural Steel company; the Santa Fe Railroad; Swift and Company; the federal government; the Union Pacific Railroad; and the Wyandotte County government.

Henry J. Allen, Governor of Kansas who created a membership roster of Klan members
Henry J. Allen, Governor of Kansas who created a membership roster of Klan members. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

The most thoroughly Klan institution in town was the city’s south district court, which included Judge (later Mayor) Don C. McCombs, Chief Deputy Clerk James P. Fox, Junior Clerk Bina S. Quick Jr., Marshal Charles Pointer, and Deputy Marshal Charles Langford. In 1928 the Topeka Capital Journal reported that 10 Kansas City court marshals were Klansmen. The organization dedicated to Law and Order had its hand firmly one of the city’s most important sources of enforcement power. Additionally, both the police department’s day and night captains belonged to the KKK.

Another set of numbers puts the Kansas City Klan in class perspective. Combining the high, mid, low non-manual, and skilled craftsmen produces a number which can be described as the Klan’s Middle-Class Quotient (MCQ). Wyandotte Klan No. 5 had an MCQ of 75 percent. The MCQ of Kansas City’s entire population was 40 percent. The quotient for those ineligible for Klan membership—Catholics, Jews, African Americans and the foreign born—was 19 percent. Native-born white men were closest to the Klan members with an MCQ of 49 percent.

The MCQ grows in significance when it is applied to case studies of Klan chapters across the country. Nationally it remains close to the Kansas City metric: Aurora, Illinois, 79 percent; Denver, Colorado, 70 percent; Richmond, Indiana, 75 percent. Scores in the mid-70s prevail despite differences of geography and economy. Given the consistent 75 percent middle-class quotient across the country it is reasonable to assume the same percentage applied to Klan members in Kansas City, Missouri.

Additional demographic details from the lives of KCK Klansmen add to the portrait of the area Klan. The average member was 35 years old. He was married. He owned his home. He had a 50 percent chance of living on the same block as another Klansman. Some Klansmen had as many as six Klan members on their block. Kansas City’s thickest Klan block was found along Kansas Avenue in Armourdale, where eight Klansmen lived, including some of the most active members. Ninety-five Klansmen shared an address with another member, half of whom shared a surname. At least 88 Klansmen were related to another member. Numerous father-son, brother-brother, and father-in-law/son-in-law Klan combinations were found in the Invisible Empire.

A typical KC Klansman was born in Kansas or Missouri. Other fertile states were Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Nebraska, and Indiana. In other words, almost 90 percent of Kansas City Klan members had Midwestern or Middle West origins. The Klan may have had southern roots, but the Kansas City chapter did not. One exception to this is Arkansas native Thomas Y. Baird, who is best known as co-owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro Leagues team. Wyandotte Klan No. 5 had three foreign-born members despite Klan proscriptions against their inclusion with members from Germany, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Approximately one-third of Kansas City Klansmen had at least one foreign born parent.

The hooded order attracted numerous veterans. Fifteen percent of members served in World War One. Kansas City Klan chapters also included men who were veterans of the Spanish American War, the Philippines Insurrection, the Mexican Border War, and the South African (Boer) War. One elderly member had fought for the Union in the Civil War. Another claimed conscientious objector status on his World War One draft registration card. A Kansas City Klansman died on the eve of World War Two when he was training draftees in 1940. Klansmen led both the American Legion and United Spanish War Veterans in KCK. Klansmen also led many of the city’s fraternal lodges. The first three leaders of the Ku Klux Klan in Kansas City had been leaders of the city’s largest Masonic hall.

The typical Klansman attended a mainline Protestant church. Klansmen were Baptists, Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. No Klan members were discovered in the pews of fundamentalist churches such as the Church of the Nazarene or the Church of Christ. Kansas City clergymen joined the Klan. Pro-Klan churches in Kansas City included the First Christian, Central Avenue Methodist, London Heights Methodist, Metropolitan Avenue Methodist, Quindaro Christian, Trinity English Lutheran, State Avenue Baptist, Immanuel Baptist, Chelsea Baptist, Advent Christian, University United Brethren, and the Welborn Community churches.

At first glance, the middle-class composition of the 1920s KKK in Kansas City, Kansas, looks almost reassuring in contrast with the lynching and church bombings that appeared in the 1860s and 1960s. Certainly they were nothing like the Neo-Nazi skinheads who fill Klan ranks today. It is almost tempting to wonder whether the city was ever in real peril with such solid citizens behind the sheets. And yet like the Klan of today and its earlier eruptions, the folks who stocked the KKK in Kansas City also wrought violence and intimidation on their neighbors.

Kansas City Klansmen vigorously debated the type of violence Wyandotte Klan No. 5 would deploy. One group favored the night-righting, horse-whipping style of earlier vigilantes, while another promoted the subtler art of persuasion, a friendly face of intimidation. The first test of the competing factions came when school superintendent Matthew E. Pearson announced plans to integrate the annual spring pageant parade. The real infighting began when the group’s local leader, Exalted Cyclops DeVirda H. Burcham, was accused of planning an attack on Pearson for his affront to white supremacy. Depositions taken during the state ouster suit detailed how a special squad of "Kluxers" dressed in dark robes made especially for the operation would let the superintendent know he had "been dealt with by the Klan," although the assailants would not to try to "permanently maim or kill [him]." The incident concluded without physical harm to the victim when a delegation of Klan members dressed in nondescript clothing visited Pearson and convinced him to cancel his plans to "mix" the parade.

But the damage was done. The Pearson affair split the chapter nearly in two as men disgusted with even the thought of overt violence quit the order. While some deserters formed rival Klans which abjured violence, their reform efforts failed. Most of the prominent quitters found their way back to the doors of Wyandotte Klan No. 5. Pearson later denied any visit from the Klan and asserted the change in plans was his idea.

Pearson’s denial illustrates how the Klan’s violent power was not limited to physical injury. Intimidation could work just as well. The order’s historic reputation for violence combined with threats terrorized sections of Kansas City without throwing punches or cinching ropes. In October 1925, 100 men "purported to be members of the Ku Klux Klan" nailed a note to the door of the home of W.H. Summers, an African American man who had moved to 646 Troup Avenue, "normally a white section of the city," according to the Kansas City, Kansas, Kansan. The message warned Summers to move before nightfall. Summers complained to police. Captain Stanley Beatty told the frightened man the city could not afford to station a police officer at his home. Beatty promised to contact Klan leaders and verify if the hooded order was responsible for the threat or if other men were acting in its name. Given Beatty’s membership in the Klan the promise was an easy one to make.

Beatty’s role in quelling the episode reveals the structural violence Klan leaders could utilize in advancing the order’s agenda. When an organization controls the levers of power, physical violence is a convenient option but not a necessity.

Another issue was the question of where to educate Mexican children as more Hispanic families arrived from the south in Kansas City. Much to the concern of white parents, Emerson School in the Argentine district accommodated more than 100 Mexican children in its crowded classrooms. Neighborhood leader Dr. K.C. Haas of the Argentine Activities Association and a female representative of the Parent Teachers Association approached the Mexican consulate in search of permission to build a separate school for the immigrant children. The official agreed and the issue faded for a time thanks to the diplomacy of the Klansman Haas and his counterpart, the wife of a Klan member. But other Klansmen, impatient with the building of the segregated school, invoked the vigilante option and clashed with Mexican residents over the school question, showing once again the friction within the order over physical and other types of Klan violence.

The enforcement of white, Protestant cultural norms known as "Blue Laws" reveals another instance of the structural violence available to the Klan. Kansas City grocers and consumers had long ignored an 1868 city ordinance prohibiting the sale of foodstuffs on the Sabbath; Sunday to many Protestants. Most residents accepted the Sunday hours as a necessity. Milk and meat purchased on Saturday would spoil by Monday in a city where poorer residents lacked refrigerators. In the summer of 1923, however, County Attorney Justus N. Baird began surveilling the grocers to see who was violating the law. Dispatching a criminal investigator to collect names, Baird arrested more than 50 grocers over the following two weekends. The papers noted the religious aspect of Baird’s campaign in the surnames of the targeted businessmen: Moskos, Stempleman, and Fitzpatrick, men of Greek, Jewish, and Irish descent whose Sabbaths were not necessarily observed on Sunday. The grocers eventually won their case in court, defeating Baird, his assistant attorney, and his investigator, all three of whom belonged to the Klan.

What motivated Kansas Citians to join the hooded order? The deeper reasons appear to be changes in the economy, government, and the culture at the national, regional, and local levels.

The KKK of the 1920s, nationally and in the Kansas Cities, was in reaction to and a rejection of the increasing centralization of power of the preceding 30 years. A larger government bureaucracy had emerged to match the mass industrialization and corporatization of the economy and society. Governments at the local level employed the same economies of scale and professional expertise as the corporations to meet the complexities of modern life. One such innovation was the city commission form of municipal government. City commissions sought to take power from traditional neighborhood officials (the council-mayor system) in the city’s wards and distribute it "at large" throughout a community. The measure empowered large business leaders to promote their economic interests as the unified interests of the wider community. Tax money should be spent on improvements that benefitted the entire city, they argued, not for the neighborhood projects the insular-thinking ward council members preferred.

In KCK the city commission model tended to appeal to progressive businessmen who sought closer economic and political ties with KCMO interests. The older council-mayor model appealed to small business owners and longtime neighborhood leaders. KCK adopted the city commission model in 1909. Future Klansmen campaigned against it. A dozen years later one of the Klan’s first acts when it arrived in the city was to appoint "Major Generals" to oversee the city’s seven wards. (Rosedale would become the eighth ward in 1922). The generals functioned like the ward heelers of old and helped citizens file complaints with the police reporting potholes, bootleggers, and other undesirables in the neighborhood. Klan major generals were an attempt to regain the power lost to the city commission.

These same Klan members led a failed attempt in 1926 under the guise of the Representative Government League to restore the council-mayor form of city government. In 1940 these same men helped defeat a referendum to hire a city manager, another cinch in the belt of centralization in their opinion. The important thing to note is that their objection to centripetal political forces animated their activism before, during, and after the Klan was in town. Some historians of the Klan believe the hooded order served as a large-scale organizing force for preexisting political divisions within a city. It is no coincidence that the traditional neighborhood leaders who joined the Klan had led the Armourdale Business Men’s Club, the Sixth Ward Civic Club, the London Heights Improvement Association, the Argentine Activities Club, and the Riverview Booster Club. It is also no coincidence that Klansmen did not lead citywide service or business organizations such as the Rotary Club or the Chamber of Commerce. In this light, the Klan’s takeover of the Republican County Central Committee in 1926 wasn’t just a victory for the KKK, but a victory for a faction of the party and the city that felt it had been betrayed by big business leaders who saw the city’s fortunes linked with Kansas City, Missouri.

The deeper roots of their antipathy toward KCMO were planted in the 19th century and harvested by the Klan in the 1920s. The stumbling Klan movement Colonel Simmons surrendered to Edward Y. Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler of the Southern Publicity Association in 1920 soon found its stride under the new management. Capitalizing on Clarke’s previous success as a professional civic booster—clients dubbed him the "Doctor of sick towns" – the pair instructed their sales force to "find out what was troubling a community and to offer the Klan as the solution." And what troubled Kansas City, Kansas, was Kansas City, Missouri.

Formed by the 1886 consolidation of Armourdale, Armstrong, Kansas City, Riverview, and Wyandotte, Kansas City, Kansas, was an attempt to compete with Kansas City, Missouri, for the native wealth they saw gravitating to their powerful neighbor. But the conglomeration failed to unite the new city commercially or civically. Twenty years later some of the former independent towns regretted the merger. Old divisions and rivalries prevailed as Kansas City struggled to form a collective civic identity.

Whether it was Clarke’s suggestion or not, the Klan seized on the city’s historic sectionalism as an entry point into its politics. Uniting disparate civic club and neighborhood leaders, the Klan gave them a vehicle for combining and projecting their interests ahead of their rivals, locally and across the state line. The unique contours of KCK history and the Klan’s ability to present itself as the solution probably explains why the order thrived in Kansas more than Missouri.

By 1920 Kansas City, Kansas, wasn’t looking so much to compete with its powerful neighbor as to escape its influence. Emporia newspaper editor William Allen White’s entry in the 1924 Kansas gubernatorial race was portrayed by supporters as a principled protest campaign against Republican and Democratic candidates he viewed as insufficiently anti-Klan. But Kansas City Klansmen saw White’s run as a cynical Kansas City Star move to control Kansas politics with a candidate who shared their progressive outlook. Worse, White was associated with Kansas Attorney General Charles B. Griffith, a Klan foe who also sat on the state’s corporate charter board. The charter board had the power to make or break the Klan in the state. A Georgia corporation, the Klan had never received permission to do business in Kansas. If they did not defeat the anti-Klan board members in 1924 they could be ousted from the state on technical grounds. White’s campaign highlighted the importance of Griffith’s reelection. Griffith was also identified as a Star progressive. Following the triumph of the anti-Klan charter board candidates, pro-Klan legislators attempted to legalize the KKK in Kansas by law in early 1925. The measure passed the state senate but narrowly failed in the house thanks to parliamentary legerdemain. The Klan’s last resort was the US Supreme Court, which in 1927 declined to hear their case. The order was legally dead in Kansas, an unrecognized out of state corporation.

Kansas City men also joined the KKK to combat what Frederick Lewis Allen described as the "Revolution in Morals and Manners," in his best-selling history of the 1920s, Only Yesterday. Klan members feared the revolution. Their fear was rational; the world was changing. Sex was becoming more casual. Fashions were more revealing. Klan members countered the revolution by raiding petting and necking parties on the outskirts of Kansas City. They distrusted the automobile for the privacy it offered unmarried couples. The Klan opposed jazz dancing and jazz music as immoral and lascivious. As mentioned above, they succeeded in getting the Argentine High School dancing instructor fired for his violation of their traditional moral sensibilities.

William Allen White
William Allen White in 1924, during his campaign against the Klan. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

Perhaps at the root of their fears of changing power dynamics and mores was a perceived loss of prestige and predominance in American society. The old white, native-born Protestant America was giving way to a more diverse society. Part of the Klan’s appeal was its promise to reinforce or reinstate what it described as 100 Percent Americanism: patriotism, piety, Protestantism, and the prohibition of alcohol were major elements of the program. Immigration and urbanization threatened their way of life. "The eternal maintenance of white supremacy" comprised all these hopes and fears. Their enemies represented the changes they saw around them, and overwhelming them.

But it was not just the loss of power, but more broadly the loss of community which ignited the prairie fire that burned across the county in the 1920s, according to historian Leonard Moore. The waning political and economic power, the triumph of immorality, and the open disregard of Prohibition all undermined their feeling of a cohesive cultural community capable of leading America. Their desire for a return to the past created the most significant Klan events. The annual regional Fourth of July celebrations, which gathered up to 25,000 Klansmen from KCK and KCMO and smaller towns in their orbit, provided the largest occasion for joint Kansas-Missouri KKK events between the wars. The summer gatherings featured baseball games between Klan teams, concerts, and patriotic speeches by male and female Klan members. The celebrations concluded with the burning of a giant cross while a Klan band played the Star Spangled Banner.

Regional conventions also enhanced feelings of community between Kansas and Missouri Klan members. A November 1926 gathering of the Klans featured the Grand Dragons of the Missouri and Kansas KKKs at the head of a parade featuring men’s, women’s, and children’s Klan organizations. A troop of horses wearing Klan regalia led 40 automobiles adorned with "burning" electrical crosses. A September 1927 parade led to the site of a joint initiation ceremony for 150 new Kansas and Missouri members, where they laid down their historic enmity at the altar of the Invisible Empire.

The Kansas City, Kansas, Klan hosted a district Klan convention in December 1927 when Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans returned to speak. Some 2,500 Missouri and Kansas Klan members marched down Minnesota Avenue in his honor. Klan floats symbolized their causes: "The Little Red Schoolhouse" honored (Protestant) public education. "The Covered Wagon" commemorated the pioneer drive of old stock Americans who conquered a continent. And a coffin carrying the body in effigy of New York Governor Al Smith, the Catholic Democrat who would win his party’s presidential nomination in 1928, manifested the Klan’s stringent anti-Catholicism. The parade climaxed at the Eagles Hall, where 5,000 Klan men, women, and children gathered to enjoy a minstrel show.

The resurgent second Ku Klux Klan would draw to a halt by the end of the 1920s. Contributing factors to its decline included its illegal status in Kansas, internal disputes over the use of violence or other controversies, and the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 that cooled some of the anti-immigrant fervor that had fueled the rise of the organization in the first place. The Kansas Citians who joined it during the interwar years moved on to other causes. In Kansas City, Kansas, where political power was a major stimulus to Klan growth, members drifted away after taking City Hall and the local Republican Party machinery. The Klan had outlived its usefulness after that. The order’s illegality in the wake of the charter fight drove some members out of the organization. Neither patriotic celebrations, nor minstrel shows for that matter, depended on the Klan for an audience. The Ku Klux Klan had its moment during the interwar years in the two Kansas Cities. But that moment had passed.


Funding for this essay is generously provided by the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.