Smile Politely

The Klan in C-U and beyond

The Ku Klux Klan had a local headquarters next to downtown Urbana with a big electric “fiery cross” on the roof. Some of you may have noticed that it was highlighted during the Urbana City Council’s discussions on a resolution against structural racism earlier this year. I was already researching the history of white nationalist movements in the United States at that time. When I heard about this, I had to keep digging. I found Klan activity throughout Champaign County. I also found Klan ministers, Sheriffs, police chiefs, prosecutors, judges, and “prominent” members of the community and elected officials at Klan events and listed as dues paying members.

I found the Twin Cities in a moment of time where the banality of 1920s American white supremacy was on full display. I also found many of the same arguments and apologetics for extremism we hear today.

The local white newspapers would mock the terrorized Black residents. They would reprint Klan arguments that the Klan held no animosity to Black people, Jewish people or Catholics. Newspaper editors in Champaign County would variously complain about or embrace the need for vigilantism when the authorities failed to uphold “law and order.” The term was a common euphemism for white domination and enforcing the color line. In white papers, the controversy wasn’t white supremacy or even the merits of the original Klan.

The openly Republican Urbana Daily Courier wrote in 1921, “It is generally conceded that the Ku Klux Klan of the late [1860s] to start with had ample justification, and its leaders were men of the highest motives.” They blamed later “excesses” on bad apples following the organization’s “first successful efforts to administer justice.” They didn’t take issue with the Klan’s public stances, but they did suggest a name change due to the poor reputation.

A Republican paper in the “Land of Lincoln” repeating revisionist Klan apologetics may seem odd while Civil War veterans were still alive, but they were not alone. Northern textbooks had already long been taking an overtly white supremacist view of Reconstruction. College and public school textbooks here blamed the failure of Reconstruction on the Black people and their white allies, while deeming the various terrorist and Klan activities as necessary to restore white control and order.

It’s no wonder that the Champaign Daily News reported that the Klan heroes in Birth of a Nation “received greater applause” than the Yankees by local audiences. The overtly white supremacist film is often credited with helping launch the second Klan movement. Our own textbooks, however, reveal the “Lost Cause” narrative and white supremacy was already widely accepted prior to the addition of Klan cosplay.

It was in this environment that many white Protestant churches would become recruiting grounds for the second Klan movement. Klan members would show up to Champaign County area churches in their regalia with donations and Klan messages. The ministers would thank them publicly, deny any significant opposition among their flock, and sometimes publicly announce their support and membership in the Klan.

Many Northern Republicans embraced the “100% Americanism” and “Law and Order” messages of a movement modeling itself after a post-War Southern terrorist organization. There were massive local picnics, public gatherings, cross burnings, and Klan weddings. This included prominent Republicans such as J. J. Reynolds, a local Republican judge, “Urbana’s Santa,” and the Exalted Cyclops of Champaign County’s Zenith Klan No. 56 of the Realm of Illinois. It included the head of the Champaign County Republican Party and State’s Attorney Roy R. Cline, dues-paying Klan member number 180.

One such Republican was Champaign County Sheriff John Gray. He praised the Klan and infamous Klan raider S. Glenn Young. Young is best known for briefly becoming a dictator of Herrin, IL in Williamson County. He commanded a Klan army there wearing hand-cut tin stars for badges after they deposed the local law and political authority. Sheriff Gray and Young were close friends that had worked together and conducted raids throughout Champaign County prior to the events described in the book Bloody Williamson. Gray and Urbana police would receive praise in return for their cooperation with the Klan in Young’s Klan speeches and biography. Gray would go on to become the Mayor of Urbana.

I tracked several Klan leaders and other notable members long after the public Klan organization and activities faded away due to scandals, exposure, and declining public interest. The open secret of “the Invisible Empire” wasn’t hidden or censored. It just stopped being talked about. Newspapers would list other fraternal organizations in the obituaries of these men and even list the other known Klan members attending or acting as pallbearers. There would be no mention of any of their previous Klan activity, even in notorious cases of Klan minister J. F. McMahan or the “Exalted Cyclops” J. J. Reynods. The membership of the Klan overlapped with many political, business, and other fraternal organizations these Klan members stayed active in such as the Elks, Moose, and Masons. No matter how public and open the Klan members were, nobody ever seemed to mention it in their later years or coverage.

They often held powerful positions and shaped policy, never renouncing those beliefs or membership. They rationalized the same white supremacist views with the belief that they held no animosity or hate in their heart towards any other groups of people. No matter how much they believed others were inferior, or not yet civilized, or were a threat that had to be stopped, they generally argued they weren’t prejudiced. But white supremacy? That was just facts!

The targets of the Klan clearly understood what the Klan was about in their own newspapers, even as Klan members and polite society normalized their nonsense. This was exemplified daily in Black newspapers that circulated in the Twin Cities like the Chicago Whip and letters to the editor by local Catholics. In November 1924 the Klan throughout the Midwest was celebrating their election victories and a new immigration law that set quotas protecting Nordic and Anglo-Saxon “racial” majorities. The Klan wasn’t generally Hollywood villains and monsters. It was our grandparents and great-grandparents believing they were being very patriotic and defending America.

Some of the arguments have echoed through time, such as when there is ever a push to stop whitewashing other American perspectives from history. This line from a 1922 Klan advertisement could be uttered nearly verbatim at a school board meeting today: “In our schools and libraries are books that libel American citizens, books that create hatred and dislike among the people of different sections of America. The Klan is pledged to true history.”

Most importantly, the second Klan was just one of many white nationalist movements that exploded in the United States during a time of increased fear, conspiracy theories, and disinformation. Between Red Scares and the Great Migration, there was plenty of fuel for those embracing white nationalist mythology and brutal solutions to stopping “them” from destroying America. That undercurrent and its ideal vision of a nationalist American future is always with our society. It’s based on an idealized past; attempting to conserve a previous perfect union of “real Americans” that never actually existed.

In true Orwellian form, the fight continues to require us to stand up for the objective truth against those peddling lies and white nationalist mythology as “true history.”

Benjamin Beaupre has a blog detailing his extensive and ongoing research into this subject. For a further deep dive into the Klan’s presence in C-U history, read more and see a list of sources here.

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