The Ku Klux Klan is not one of my favorite organizations and I don't
usually spend much time thinking about it. But recently I read a book
which tore open my memories of the subject with a sledge hammer.
Sybil Downing, a Denver author, has written a carefully researched book
called "The Binding Oath." It is an interesting mystery with a 1920's
feminist heroine, but the amazing thing about the book to me is the
picture she paints of the Klan in Denver in 1921.
In June, 1921 I was seven years old, living in a Denver suburb with
parents who talked politics a lot over the dinner table. Sometimes I
listened. Since reading Downing's book, I have been trying to pull
together my fragmented memories of the Klan in the twenties, which
reached its peak of power during my High School years. In those years,
young as we were, we learned to fear the Klan, its violence, and its
political strength in Colorado.
Liz O'Brien, the heroine of Downing's story, was one of the only two
women reporters for the Denver Post and her usual beat was
"Neighbors." One day she lucked onto an assignment to attend a press
conference being held by Dr. John Locke, the Grand Dragon of the Ku
Klux Klan in Colorado, to announce that he’s forcing a vote to recall
the city’s new district attorney.
She was shocked by the things he said, and at the very beginning of the
book wrote the words that jolted me. "Liz had to give him credit. He
understood Denver's underlying bigotry well. Negroes and Jews were
expected to stay in their own parts of town. Even the wealthiest
Catholics couldn't buy their way past certain gates. White Anglo-Saxon
Protestants made the rules and ran the show, firmly believing equality
was a fine idea if it wasn't taken too far."
That was the way it was in Denver in 1921. That's what I, a little
kid, assumed was the way everybody was. My mother and father were
fine, generous people, but they accepted the culture of their times. To
them and to me it was not bigotry, not prejudice, it certainly was not
hatred. It was simply the way things were. As I think back I am
appalled, and ashamed, but what do kids know at seven?
And into that peaceful nest of prejudice came the Ku Klux Klan in the
early twenties, ready to take over the state of Colorado. With them
the bigotry was quite deliberate. They hated the blacks and the Jews
and the Catholics. So far as I know they still do and they have added a
My scariest memory is of one night late in the decade when there was a
fire in the yard of our friends across the alley. We dashed over to
help. We found a huge cross burning fiercely on their front lawn on
South Broadway, and members of the Ku Klux Klan marching around in
their sheets watching and shouting. The doctor was mayor of Englewood
at the time, but I have no idea now what his specific "crime" had been.
As the Denver Post wrote in 1924, "...beyond any doubt the KKK is the
largest and most cohesive, most efficiently organized political force in
the state." They secured a variety of political seats, including
governor and the mayor of Denver. Their power started to fade in the
I would like to think that we have evolved since 1921, but it is going
to take a lot more than 100 years for us to accept universal tolerance
toward our fellow human beings. America has become a diverse nation but
all too many of us are refusing to accept it. The Klan still is in
existence, defending the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, male population
against all comers.
William Sloane Coffin understood it best. "Clearly God is more
comfortable with diversity than we are. After all She made it. We, on
the other hand, fear it more than we celebrate it. In fact, diversity
may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the
most dangerous thing for a society to live without."