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The 20th Century Ku Klux
Klan in Alabama
 

The "second Klan" was born atop Stone Mountain, Georgia, on Thanksgiving Night, 1915, called back into existence after a dormancy of four decades by Alabamian William Joseph Simmons. A native of Harpersville, Simmons held many civic memberships, but had failed at medical school and the Methodist ministry. He envisioned his empire to be a patriotic, fraternal organization, along much the same lines as other fraternal groups, but limited membership to white Protestant males. The order grew slowly, despite the super-patriotism surrounding World War I, but in 1921 a New York World exposť and U.S. congressional hearings combined to have the unforeseen effect of catapulting the order into the national spotlight. Simmons hired publicists E. Y. Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler, who utilized the latest marketing techniques to garner thousands of new memberships at $10 a head. Texas dentist, Dr. Hiram Wesley Evans, also an Alabama native, displaced Simmons as head of the Klan in 1923 and growth continued at a phenomenal rate until the order claimed between four and six million members nationwide. Alabama peaked at about 115,000 members during the mid-1920s, but Chicago was home to 50,000 Klansmen, Indiana was practically controlled by Klan politicians, and the order pushed through an historic public education law in Oregon.

In Alabama, the new order quickly and effectively involved itself in state politics under the guiding hand of tempestuous grand dragon James W. Esdale and political boss Horace C. Wilkinson. After an initially positive reception by the state's Big Mule/Black Belt coalition, largely due to lingering affection and nostalgia for the Reconstruction Klan, the new Klan engaged the oligarchy in a dramatic struggle for political control of the state. U.S. senator Oscar W. Underwood ran for president in 1924 and, at the Democratic convention in New York, proposed that the national party adopt an anti-Klan plank in its official platform. The measure precipitated a wild brawl between convention delegates in Madison Square Garden and failed to pass by only a single vote. All twenty-four of Alabama's delegates, though, voted to condemn the Klan. In 1926 the Klan played the leading role in electing many Klan members to public positions, most namely Bibb Graves to the Alabama governorship and Hugo Black to the U.S. Senate.

After the 1926 elections the Big Mule/Black Belt oligarchy waged a vigorous war on epidemic Klan violence. This violence, which the oligarchy had closed its eyes to since at least 1921, was carried out by the Klan against blacks, Catholics, Jews, and moral non-conformists. Newspaper mogul Victor Hanson orchestrated the press campaign, but it was led by Montgomery Advertiser editor Grover C. Hall, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials. State attorney general Charlie McCall, a Klansman elected in 1926, resigned from the KKK and launched a dramatic legal campaign against the order that netted historic convictions in a 1927 Blount County flogging. But the Klan eventually prevailed in Alabama's courtrooms, thanks to the legal talents of Horace Wilkinson and tolerance of the Klan and its violence by many public officials and plain folk.

Alabama's Klan played a leading role in the 1928 "bolt" against national Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, and nearly swung the state's vote to Republican Herbert Hoover. Afterwards, loyalist Democrats gained revenge on the shrinking Klan by expelling Senator J. Thomas Heflin and Hugh A. Locke from the party and defeating their respective runs for U.S. Senate and the governorship. During the 1930s a much smaller Klan terrorized blacks, unionists, liberals, and the few communists it could find. During the 1940s black voting rights increasingly occupied the Klan along with morality enforcement.