The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado flourished for about five years, a half-decade in which the Invisible Empire made no attempt to hide itself. In truth, it ran the state. The state chapters of the Klan bore many of the stigmata that made the national organization easy to laugh at and fear: there were the ranks of society's losers with names out of Faulkner, the pre-disposition to violence or the threat of it, the pathetic delusions of the lesser mind risen high, and gussied up in the garb of medieval pagan priests. There was a strong whiff of the ludicrous and pretentious.
There have been three main risings of the Klan and its brother societies. The first came at the end of the Civil War when the South was in the hands of the Federal Army. Stalwart Republicans were waving the Bloody Shirt, and carpet-baggers cashing in on the newly enfranchised blacks. It had aspirations of being a guerrilla army continuing the War. It proclaimed itself as the defender of Protestantism and white Womanhood, allegedly under attack from the Irish/Catholic immigrations from southern Europe and former slaves plotting to impregnate any passing white woman. Two factors combined to quell the initial rising. The first was the Federal Cavalry; the second was that the Southern elite made the transition to the new nation of business, not land. This left the sacred prejudices in the hands of poor whites and the increasingly simian churches that tended them.The third rising took place after the Second World War, and was the result of the increasing importance the Black American played both in combat and in the workplace. Returning, these soldiers were not about to see themselves as inferior any longer.
The Klan revived solely to try and keep the Blacks from usurping uneducated whites from the workforce and enduring the resulting decline in social standing.Both of these times were often marred by grotesque violence, from the common lynching to the somewhat fouler castration.
But the second rise of the Klan happened right after the First World War, and it was a far more complicated 'movement,' if such a word can be dressed-up for application to thinly organized and restrained mobs. White, Protestant America - aside from its racial and religious prejudices - also tended to be rural America, the farmer, and small town. Outside the South, there were few racial tensions because there were few people of other races, and these already ensconced in easily denoted ghettos and areas. Such was the case in Denver.
Middle America seethed with many hatreds with beginnings harkening back to Hamilton and Jefferson's conception of the new nation. Railroads, banks, and Big Business were clearly seen as tools and weapons of the East Coast, i.e. Catholics and Jews and other foreigners. Further, the War to End All Wars and the nation's participation in same bolstered an always latent isolationism in a country peopled with those willingly escaping from the horrors of Europe.
Many of these feelings combined to support the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado, a state that had, essentially, no Blacks and a docile and pleasant Hispanic community of Catholics not exceeding 15%
of the state's population. Isolationist inclinations, crossed upon fear of Catholic secret societies seeking to draw the nation into the Pope's intrigues, produced Protestant secret societies with results intellectually laughable, physically damaging.
Combined with the classic impetuses for Klan formation was another belonging solely to the 1920's: Prohibition and the rise of the Mafia. While the Ku Klux Klan was predominantly Protestant and defensive, the Mafia was predominantly Catholic and immigrant, which is to say, on the make in the New World. In the case of Prohibition, potential Klan members could equate law-breaking and violence with the r10b, which meant the City, which meant all those Catholic hoodlums featured in the papers. The fact that many Klan gatherings were never so impolite as to refuse a guest a beer - plus the cherished history of Moonshine in Appalachia - was one of those sequential thought patterns totally absent within the Klan.
Another feature of the second Klan rising was the economic condition of the United States after the First World War. Reverting to traditional Isolationism, the U.S. found itself unable to explain its participation in the War, the Treaty that followed it, and the existence of the League of Nations to its average citizen. It also could not explain the great expansion of wealth that swept its cities but seemed to avoid the more rural states. Like Colorado.
All these factors (ignorance, fear, bigotry, and class) combined to make a fertile field for the formation of the Klan again. In Colorado, only the advent of a Man on Horseback was needed to unite the bubbling potential.
Few horses, however, could comfortably hold the body of John Galen Locke, a Denver doctor who had been among the Klan's early members. Like another clone of the Klan in Germany, Locke hardly fit the physical ideal. Weighing in at 250 pounds compressed into a short body, Locke further amused himself and others by the cultivation of a goatee. His voice was shrill. He did not drink. He did not participate in sex. (Hitler was a vegetarian with an equally suspect sex life...) Yet, within a few years, John Galen Locke would own the Governor of the State of Colorado, the Mayor of Denver, and run the state. From his office at 1345 Glenarm Place - not far from the seats of Government – our state was literally ruled by the Ku Klux Klan.
But Locke was no Hitler in the making. He preached non-violence. He had been married to a Catholic and employed two Catholic secretaries, paying their pew rents. He seems not have been driven by bigotry or by gold lust. He wanted political power, and he got it. The history of the Klan in Colorado is not one of violence, but of politics.
This is not to say there was no violence. Early signs of the Klan's arrival came with the police being notified of death threats to local Blacks. These incidents started after a secret visit in 1921 by Imperial Wizard William Joseph Simmons, national leader of the Klan. However, the presence of the Klan seems not to have increased or decreased the amount of violence on the recently retired Frontier. In fact, the Klan posed as a law and order outfit.
In Denver (where this article is primarily concerned), the Klan was aided by a city government that could politely be called inept and, more accurately, genially corrupt. Prostitution and bootlegging were allowed within limits. The small Black community was making small attempts to get out of their ghetto. Denver's Jewish community tried to expand beyond its West side neighborhood, called Little Jerusalem by Denverites. Actual crime, crossed upon the threat of actual racial equality, triggered some bombings, and the Klan came to notice. But the government, weak to begin with, never confronted the Klan because it was never sure of its support. Worse, Protestant churches kept their digits to the thermals, and when it began to blow favorably upon the Invisible Empire, pulpits sometimes supported the Klan. Sometimes, the ministers were part of the Klan.
Whatever faults Locke had, management was not one. He cultivated all rising powers in the state, and where his professed social stances didn't work, his evident charm did. In the 1923 mayoral election, Ben Stapleton was elected over obviously corrupt non-entities with both anti-Klan support and the votes delivered by John Galen Locke's efficient organization. Why did Locke campaign for a candidate who publicly condemned the Klan? Stapleton held Klan membership number 1128. Locke approved of Stapleton's campaign stance, evidently conveyed his feelings to the Klan membership, and soon owned Denver. He sought power, and within four years he had it.
(Those upset about Nichols Hall at C.U. being named for a participant of the slaughter at Sand Creek must be apoplectic that they landed at an airport named for a Klan member.)
Protected from and by municipal power, the Klan stepped up its campaign to elect judges. During this period, violence attributable to the Klan rose. Beatings, kidnappings, and death threats became pronounced, yet hardly in the same league as Eastern cities during elections. The violence did serve to unite formerly unaffiliated anti-Klan elements.
Stapleton, once in office, was not quite as pliable as Grand Dragon Locke would have liked. To keep Stapleton in line, Locke circulated a recall petition. It passed, and Stapleton was forced to run again. Through wheeling and dealing, Locke squashed Stapleton further down into his pocket and then had him re-elected by a huge majority, reinforcing the power of the Klan. Locke now turned to the Governor's race.
On May 13, 1924 - only the first anniversary of the organized Colorado Klan - the state convention was held. During the meeting, Locke outlined the Klan's political agenda. It would try to control both parties.
Primarily because of Aaron Burr's Tammany Hall in New York, most immigrants to the United States were Democrats. This placed them in the same party as the displaced Southern aristocrats and poor, who equated Republicans with Reconstruction and early Black Power. But the former were the larger element, increasingly Catholic, and so the Klan was regularly scourged at national Democratic conventions. While providing cliques favorable to the Invisible Empire, it was the Republican Party that proved most susceptible to the Ku Klux Klan.
Locke's plan was a marked success. Rice Means, then Denver's City Attorney, was elected to the Senate. Clarence Morley, a District Judge, was elected as Governor. Both were friends of Locke and dedicated Klansmen.
Means was a veteran or the Spanish American War, decorated for heroism. He was not able to turn his military success into political power and so, like others, joined the Klan. With the power of the Invisible Empire behind him, Means had an easy election. Nevertheless, the Klan's opponents were as much to blame as Locke was due credit: one of Means’ opponents was described as one who 'never shook a hand without losing a vote.'
On November 5th, the day after the election, the Klan was in control of 1.) the state Republican party, 2.) all but four counties east of the Rocky Mountains, 3.) the City of Denver, 4.) the state government, where even the two elected Democrats had Klan backing, and 5.) had made many gains in other areas, including the judiciary. When Imperial Wizard William Simmons had visited Denver in 1921, he had come in surreptitiously. Now, a week after the election, Simmons' successor, Hiram Evans, was feted at a massive party at the Brown Palace Hotel. The Klan was in control.
Trouble lurked around the bend. The Klan had promised much to many, promises often mutually exclusive. It also controlled only a minority share of the electorate. Its strength was in the political power of John Galen Locke and the weak opposition.
And while the Governor immediately went to work with an agenda of half-baked, unconstitutional, and bizarre bills, the rumblings of a Silent Majority began to be felt. Illustrative of his legislative hopes was a bill to ban sacramental wine at religious - i.e. Catholic - services. Besides being bigots and self-righteous, the Klan below the top leadership was as monumentally inept as Locke was - there is no other word, considering his rise - brilliant. Exactly two (2) Klan bills ever became state law: one outlawing stills and another demanding the Pledge of Allegiance in the state's schools.
The Klan in Colorado was something of a paradox. If less offensive or more fascist, it might have obtained more staying power. As it was, it meant ill feebly, incoherently, and rather passionlessly. The fact was, most of the competent people in the Klan had joined simply for the offered political machine and the votes engendered. Once in power, they fell out among themselves.
Stapleton was not happy under Locke's rule. In November of 1924, he and other Klan malcontents tried to set up a paper Klan while passing a law banning Locke and his Georgia-based national from Colorado. They soon enlisted Rice Means to their cause.
Locke soon provided them with a cause celebre. In January of 1925, loyal Locke followers kidnapped a 19 year old East High school student. The youth was forcibly married under threat of being neutered to a pregnant woman. It was Locke's contention that the youth, a Klansman, should do the honorable thing.
Unsurprisingly, others - even within the Klan - took a somewhat different approach. Locke was arrested, but released by loyal public servants only coincidently Klan members. However, Locke was seen as a hypocrite even within the Klan after all the talk about law and order.
Stapleton deputized 125 American Legionnaires to by-pass the Klan infested police force, and this group in a series of raids rounded up hookers and bootleggers. To absolutely nobody's surprise, a complicated series of pay-offs and bribes within the police department were uncovered.
Scandal rose all about Locke as corruption arrests continued. Like Al Capone, Locke had somehow neglected to file income tax statements for a lengthy period, 1913 to 1924. He was jailed.
Locke in jail was the Klan in chaos. Without his smooth political hand, the organization found itself with no common center, and acrimonious debate was sometimes replaced with violence.
Because the Colorado Klan was something of a success story for the national Klan, Imperial Wizard Evans asked (told) Locke to step down. He did, and took the Klan down with him. He formed a new group, called the Minute Men of America. This was June 25, 1925. Of Denver's 17,000 Klan members, 5000 walked out with Locke. Almost 11,000 refused to re-join the Klan in disgust at the infighting. It was prophetic. Within two years, both the Klan and the Minutemen were reduced to insignificance.
So weak had the Klan become it actually joined the Industrial Workers of the World (the I.W.W. – the 'Wobblies' - a socialist labor grouping that produced Joe Hill and Big Bill Robinson) on a few issues to milk a brief tag as a 'progressive' party. This was not, according to Robert Alan Goldberg (author of Hooded Empire and the authority of the Klan in Colorado), that surprising. The Klan was, in Colorado at least, simply a means to power in the establishment built upon the supposed prejudices of the masses. Even the Klan needed to be pro-Labor, it was. But like the Wobblies, the Klan was seriously flawed without leadership or competence.
By the time Locke himself died of a heart attack in 1935, the nation was concerned with more important matters. To the end, Locke made a poor bigot. A Jew and Catholic were among his pallbearers.
Walter van Tilberg Clark, author of The Oxbow Incident, may have hit upon the one great threat offered by the Klan. His famous book is the story of a lynching based upon false information. Written in the 1930' s and set in the Old West, The Oxbow Incident struck many as an allegory about European fascism and at least a few as a description of American Fascism. Not only could "it
happen here," it had and continues to happen here: in a thousand small and greater ways. Considering how far the Klan came in Colorado - from inception to state rule took five years - it takes no great leap of the imagination to say that with a few breaks going another way - like Locke being more violent and propelled by race hatred: a Hitler - things could have gone much worse. As it was, the Klan in Colorado reads much as a street gang come to glory, run by cynics. It calls to mind - again - America's continued good fortune, taken for granted. It calls forth Sophocles.
Far-stretching, endless Time
Brings forth all hidden things,
And buries that which once did shine.
The firm resolve falters, the sacred oath is shattered;
And let none say, "It cannot happen here."
Because it almost did.