INSIDE THE KLAVERN
The Secret History of a Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s
Edited by David A. Horowitz
Southern Illinois Univ. 214 pp. $49.95; $19.95 paper
This strangely interesting (and insanely overpriced) little book contains the minutes of the meetings of a Ku Klux Klan chapter in (of all places) the northeastern Oregon town of La Grande between 1922 and 1924. The minutes were discovered in the estate of a La Grande man who died three decades ago and have now been edited, as well as thoroughly annotated, by David A. Horowitz, professor of history at Portland State University. They are, he writes, "the most complete set of Klan minutes ever to be uncovered," and they "provide crucial insight into the internal workings of a 1920s Ku Klux Klan."
They tell us, in fact, a number of things, the most important of which may well be that the traditional view of the Klan as motivated solely by racial and religious hatreds is far too narrow. These influences obviously must not be minimized, and in the South they may well have been dominant, but in other parts of the country they were actually considerably less important than the "attractions of fraternity and moral reform" that induced men and women to join "a popular crusade of mainstream citizens seeking to strengthen traditional values and practices in the freewheeling era following World War I."
Indeed, what will strike today's reader of these minutes is the minuscule space devoted to prejudice. Anti-Catholicism ran deep among the good burghers of La Grande, and pops up here from time to time, mainly in the form of exhortations against the Knights of Columbus and local businessmen who were members of it. The only significant reference to blacks in all these pages has to do with allegations of drunken misbehavior among "Negroes on the North Side" of town, and is couched in polite, albeit implicitly racist, language.
Instead the focus is mostly on matters that will be familiar to members of any fraternal order, whether they be Elks or Masons or Rotarians: membership drives, dues and budgets, organizational zeal, ailing members, moral and political reform. Most of the minutes were written by Harold R. Fosner, an employee of the La Grande Post Office who was appointed secretary, or "kligrapp," of the chapter in the fall of 1922. He was a zealous and loyal Klansman who recorded minutiae of the chapter's meetings with self-evident pride, and added commentary and asides, to wit:
"Klansman Earl Silvis is now confined in the local hospital, having underwent a slight operation from which he is doing nicely. Flowers have been sent to cheer his ward and Klansman Jap Choate has started to raise money in which to pay his doctor and hospital bills. Any Klansman who feels he can donate a dollar in this behalf shall be greatly appreciated, I'm sure. What more in this world or what greater pleasure can we have than giving to those in need? That little touch of brotherly love sets aglow a new fire in our hearts and makes the whole world akin."
As that passage suggests, the strongest impression these minutes convey is not of evil, or even the banality of evil, but of banality pure and simple. "Klansman Benet from Walla Walla was a visitor in our klavern and a real he-man, the kind that goes without a meal unless he can buy it from a Klansman and his talk on Klannishness put a bug in the ear of a good many of us." Substitute Rotarian or Odd Fellow for Klansman and you'd think you were reading a page from the novels of Sinclair Lewis, if not the actual words of George Babbitt himself.
Yes, the Klansmen of La Grange burned a cross from time to time, but it seems to have been in the service of what they thought to be the public weal rather than the oppression of racial or religious minorities. Kligrapp Fosner was determined that "we shall prove to this city that the Klan is being instrumental in cleaning up this town and that we stand for the full enforcement of the law, be he Catholic or Klansman, gentile, alien, or Jew." It is possible to read prejudice into that, but what it really sounds like is nothing more evil than small-town self-righteousness.
The Klan was not exactly a funny organization, but there are times when "Inside the Klavern" is a funny book, if unintentionally so. Here, for example, Fosner reports on a membership drive:
"The following men were rejected by the Board of Klokans and by a vote of the klonkave assembled: Howard Grove, part Indian; Roy Clapp, for bankruptcy too many times; William Snell, for living with a woman not officially his wife; Dr. R.J. Ruckman, for selfish motives; Morris Chinlund, bad reputation; Avery Harrison, for being involved in unlawful proceedings regarding an estate; Alonzo Dunn, character and affiliations questioned; Frank Childers, too fond of moonshine. These men were duly notified in a most pleasing manner for we bear no malice with the request that at the expiration of one year, should they so desire, they may re-petition for citizenship in this order. The man who was part-Indian was not requested to re-petition for membership in this order."
So there you have it. Those knights in their sheets of white, "the most noble band of men ever assembled and for the noblest cause in all the world," looked for all the world like a roomful of frat boys blackballing freshmen in Rush Week. Elsewhere the Klan may have been truly evil, but in La Grange it rarely rose above sophomoric silliness.
Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is email@example.com.