A near century-old photo. A KKK meeting under a banner proclaiming “Jesus Saves.”
It is an incongruity to followers of Jesus; a reminder of things we’d rather forget.
It’s an affirmation to many who are suspicious of Christianity in general or Evangelicals in particular. “See?” just a bunch of racists.
Complicating the matter is the lack of available information. Most assume the photo to be in the South. Many would assume it is a perverted church service being led by the Klan.
History reveals little more than is in the photo.
This image shows a photograph from the early 1920s, probably in Portland, in which robed and hooded Ku Klux Klan members share a stage with members of the Royal Riders of the Red Robe, a Klan auxiliary for foreign-born white Protestants. A large banner reading “Jesus Saves” occupies a prominent position on the wall at the rear of the stage and testifies to the strong role that Protestantism played in the KKK philosophy of “100 percent Americanism.”
United States involvement in World War I signaled the end of the Progressive era of American politics, while the end of the war ushered in a new conservativism in the nation. Americans—especially those of the middle class—felt increasingly threatened by both foreign and domestic forces that were beyond their control. Fears of communism and unchecked immigration spurred the formation of patriotic and nativist groups throughout the country during the post-war period. In response to the latter, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924 which severely restricted the number of immigrants who could enter the country. Within the U.S., the migration of Southern blacks to the industrialized cities of the North was viewed as an economic and racial threat by the North’s predominantly white labor base. Catholics and Jews were still viewed as “foreign” religions that threatened the fabric of American life. Capitalizing upon these fears, the founder of the Second Ku Klux Klan, William Joseph Simmons, created a nation-wide organization that both perpetuated and profited from this new conservatism.
The Klan philosophy of “100 percent Americanism” rested primarily on three attributes: belief in a philosophy of white supremacy; adherence to Protestant or “American” Christianity; and the superiority of native-born Americans. Given Oregon’s long history of racial exclusion and the fact that almost 90 percent of the state’s population in the early 1920s was native-born, white, and protestant, Klan organizers had little trouble enrolling new members. These kleagles played to the economic, religious, and political concerns of “ordinary” middle-class citizens by stressing the threats posed by immigrant labor, “foreign” religions, and communism. In addition, the KKK’s militaristic culture enhanced its appeal among members of other organizations structured along strict hierarchical and ideological lines. Recognizing this fact, the Klan organizers directed their initial recruiting efforts at local law enforcement officials, protestant clergy, and members of fraternal groups such as the Masons and the Elks.
To enhance the strength and influence of their organization, the KKK established auxiliary groups like the Royal Riders of the Red Robe for white Protestants born outside the United States and the Ladies of the Invisible Empire for women. Both of these affiliates helped support what in the early 1920s became one of the strongest state Klans in the country.
An email to the Oregon Historical Society requesting any further info (location, church, main figures in the center) elicited no further information. The quoted text above is all that is known. Attempts to identify the men shaking hands at the podium were fruitless.
Note the distinction of the Royal Riders of the Red Robe: they couldn’t join the Klan because they were “foreign born.” Be sure not to check your “Protestantism” and “racism” at the door, fellas; only your country of origin.
The Royal Riders of the Red Robe was only nominally a separate organization from the Klan. It was listed in the Klan’s Pacific Northwest Domain Directory, shared an office with Seattle Klan Local 4, and had its meetings with similar rituals in the same places as the Seattle Klan. Beginning in 1923, Klan events and propaganda came to regularly feature Royal Rider initiations and news.
The Grand Ragon (as opposed to the Klan’s Grand Dragon) of the Pacific Northwest Realm of the Royal Riders of the Red Robe was J. Arthur Herdon, and the King County Ragon was Walter L. Fowler. Naturalized but not native-born citizens in Seattle’s Royal Riders were organized into another Klan Auxiliary, the American Krusaders, on October 18, 1923.
“Nominally separate” could be interpreted as “married to their cousins,” I suppose. And what about that creativity of changing Dragon to Ragon? That would fail a 1st grade creative writing assignment.
History reminds of the distressing, unbiblical and anti-gospel collusion of church and racism, of cultural-Christianity and hatred. The image is gross and repulsive. It is shameful.
But, given our proclivity for selective amnesia, we should never forget it.
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