The mystery of the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta unveiled

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[January 07, 2014]  ATLANTA — Say the words Ku Klux Klan and visions come to mind of white-robed members with pointed hoods covering their faces, burning crosses and terrorizing Southern communities. This is one aspect of the KKK that has been true since the organization was founded in Tennessee after the Civil War.

Another part of KKK history, a part that is not well known, is the pervasive nature of the movement in the Northern states. During the early decades of the 20th century, Indiana and Illinois were states with thousands of KKK members. The organization even invaded central Illinois, Logan County and the small town of Atlanta during the 1920s.

Bill Thomas of the Atlanta Public Library and Museum shed some light on this part of Atlanta history at the dinner lecture Friday at the Palms Grill Café. The title of Thomas' lecture was "The KKK in Atlanta — Why is it a mystery?"

The mystery is how an organization estimated at 200 members, some of whom were pillars of the community during its heyday in Atlanta, primarily from 1919 until 1928, could have so little documentation in the recorded history of the town.

"The KKK in the early decades of the 20th century may have been fomented by the growth of popular media at the time," said Thomas.

Radio, newspapers and the easy dissemination of news from other parts of the United States and even overseas brought to central Illinois the news of the Russian Revolution and the conversion of that huge country to communism, the dreaded red menace.

The first decades of the 20th century also brought an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia that was unprecedented in United States history. Thomas' contention is that these events contributed to a feeling of fear in the U.S., especially in small, insular communities. These immigrants were different from the residents of the U.S. whose families had been around for generations.

The new immigrants were mostly Catholic along with other religions, and their political experience was different from U.S. democracy. They were different. The U.S. until then was a predominantly white, Protestant country. This change in demographics may have contributed to the growth of the KKK as a reaction to this social upheaval in the world that flowed into the U.S.

Thomas went on to document the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta. Though the record is thin about the organization's activities in the community, several aspects of the KKK in other parts of the country were not in evidence in Atlanta. While in the South the organization was against blacks, Jews and any other non-Protestant religion, and members did burn crosses and resort to violence under cover of their hoods and robes, these activities were not the focus of the local group.

The Logan County chapter of the KKK was designated Chapter 152 of the national organization. The Atlanta-based chapter seems to have stressed Protestantism, patriotism and policies favoring the inception of Prohibition in the early 1920s.

While there were a few black residents in Atlanta at the time, Thomas stressed that there is no solid evidence of anti-black activities by the local KKK. In fact, the black population of Atlanta peaked in the decades after the Civil War and saw a steady decline in Atlanta in the first decade of the 20th century, even before the local KKK chapter's inception.

What few references there are to the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta can be divided into several categories.

At one time there were seven movie theaters in the town. One of them, the Liberty, did show a movie, a silent movie, that showed the Klan in a very positive light.

The Atlanta newspaper, the Argus, had advertisements announcing Klan lectures at Murphy Hall, a renowned Atlanta auditorium, in 1924 and 1926. There were several articles describing Klan members in full regalia entering Protestant congregations during Sunday services to applaud the good work of the pastors and members and then leaving a donation in the offering plate.

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One of the largest annual events in Atlanta was the county fair, actually a fair that represented three counties and took place each August. This event drew thousands from the surrounding area. The Argus records Klan events at the fair in 1925 and 1926. The odd thing is that the fair program for those years does not list the Klan events at the fair. The only mention of the time and date is in the Argus. Thomas indicated that this omission in the fair program may have been significant.

The site of the Atlanta Fair was also the site of a KKK rally in September 1923, about a month after the fair. This event drew an estimated 4,000 attendees, a very big deal. The guest speaker was a Dr. Mitchell, the head of the Texas state chapter of the KKK. His official title was the Grand Dragon of the KKK of Texas.

Other items in the Atlanta Museum show an ad in the Argus for an Atlanta business with early air conditioning and the words "Kome Keep Kool" in the body of the advertisement. The use of the letter "K" to start each word was a surreptitious way of broadcasting the Ku Klux Klan affiliation of the store owner.

The last item in Thomas' PowerPoint presentation was a photo of a parade of school children dressed in tiny Klan robes, an event seemingly sanctioned by local authorities. The KKK even had a children's auxiliary.

Several artifacts do exist from the heyday of the KKK in Atlanta. Thomas brought a display of KKK robes that had been the property of an Atlanta family. There is one each for a man and a woman and two in children's sizes. Thomas has been unable to uncover the iconic pointed Klan hoods with the eye cutouts that would complete the costumes.

The other artifact that was found is a stamp machine that when pressed on paper, produces a raised, embossed seal for the Logan County chapter of the KKK. This seal was found in an Atlanta home and donated to the Atlanta Museum. Thomas had it restored to working condition.

While Thomas gave a presentation that covered actual Klan events in Atlanta, "as a historian," he said, "I have attempted to make some interpretations from the material we do have." Chief among these are that the Klan in Atlanta was popular, accepted and highly organized. "The local Klan was most in evidence from 1922 until 1928 and stressed high moral standards and patriotism. There was no solid evidence of anti-black activities," he said.

The KKK in the Midwest soon fell upon hard times. The Grand Dragon of Indiana was caught embezzling from the organization's coffers and was arrested for raping a teenager. Following these events, the KKK fell into disrepute locally.

For a short time, the Ku Klux Klan was an important part of the social life fabric in Logan County and Atlanta. Remnants of it remain in the Atlanta Argus articles from the era and in the memories of local residents whose relatives may have been members.

Several members of the dinner lecture audience at the Palms Grill offered anecdotal stories that had been related to them over the years about the local chapter of the KKK.

As Thomas said: "This is part of our local history. It should not be ignored because of the unsavory reputation of the KKK in other parts of the country."


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