Klan resurgence in Colorado overstated, but KKK has a history in the Centennial State

theGRIO REPORT - The Ku Klux Klan does not appear to be having a resurgence in Colorado, despite a report by a Durango newspaper, but the Klan has a long history in the Centennial...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Despite a report by a Durango Newspaper, the Ku Klux Klan does not appear to be having a resurgence in Colorado, although the Klan has had a long history in the Centennial State.

On February 27th, a story in the Durango Herald claimed that there has been a sharp uptick in Klan membership in Colorado, citing a Fort Lewis College librarian, a spokesman for the National Socialist Movement — which was cited in the article as being “America’s largest Nazi Party,” — and a Grand Wizard of a regional Klan group.

However, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said that while there are Klan groups in Colorado, their number isn’t growing rapidly.

“It went from one chapter in 2010 to two in 2011,” Potok told theGrio. “And these chapters tend to be tiny. I certainly don’t think there’s some Klan resurgence in Colorado.”

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But Potok, who is quoted in the article regarding a general surge in activity by what he called “the radical right,” says there is something happening in country, including in states like Colorado, that should raise alarms.

“What is surging is the anti-government, so-called ‘patriot’ movement, of which the militia movement is the armed wing,” Potok said. “It’s what we called the militia movement in the 1990s, and that’s surging nationally. That’s where we’re seeing truly explosive growth.”

Ed Quillen, a longtime Denver Post reporter who in 2003 wrote an in-depth report, the rise and fall of the Klan in Colorado politics, for the Colorado Independent, says he hasn’t seen evidence of a revived Klan.

However, Quillen says the state does have a history of KKK activity that dates back to the mid-19th century, which peaked during prohibition in the 1920s.

In fact, by 1924, Colorado’s governor and a mayor of its capitol were affiliated with the organization.

“In 1924 [the Klan] pretty much took over the Republican Party” in Colorado, Quillen told theGrio. “They did it the good old fashioned way: grassroots. They went to caucuses, got people elected.”

From Quillen’s 2003 report:

After the general election of 1924, the governor, Clarence Morley, was a Klansman. Benjamin Stapleton, the mayor of Denver, consulted the Klan when making appointments. U.S. Senator Rice Means was elected with open Klan support. The state House of Representatives had a Klan majority. Klansmen marched and burned crosses in small towns throughout the state, from Great Plains through the mountains to the Western Slope. A city council, or the mayor’s office, or the police and sheriff’s departments, or the county government — many fell under the Klan’s control.

As Denver, Pueblo, Grand Junction, Canon City and scores of other towns and cities succumbed to the Klan, only one major city escaped: Colorado Springs. Then as now, El Paso County was a GOP stronghold, but the party leadership actively opposed the KKK, and the Invisible Empire never gained power at the base of Pikes Peak.

The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was a national movement that gained its greatest political success in Colorado — perhaps because Colorado, in a perversely progressive way, was the only Klan realm with a women’s auxiliary. It was national organization of white Protestants who supported “100 percent Americanism” and opposed lawlessness — especially the rampant violation of Prohibition.

Indeed, with a small black population, most of the Colorado Klan’s targets were Jews and Catholics — Italians in particular. But the Klan’s targets were varied. According to the article 5 when the KKK ruled Kolorado, “Ordinances passed during that time” prohibited: ”…Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican and black businessmen from employing white women”.

And during his campaign for governor, Morley declared, that “not for myself, mind you,
do I wish to run, but for the benefit of the Klan.” And once elected, he attempted to root out Catholics from state government. Meanwhile, from 5 when the KKK ruled Kolorado:

Klan-supported candidates assumed the offices of lieutenant governor,
secretary of state, attorney general and state supreme court justice. True to his campaign slogan, “Every Man under the Capitol Dome a Klansman,” Morley tried to eliminate Catholics from government.

A week after the election, Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans and the Grand Dragons of several states arrived at Union Station to bask in the great victory. A motorcade flanked by Denver police officers brought the “dignitaries” through downtown to the Brown Palace for festivities. That night, 35,000 Coloradoans packed Cotton Mills Stadium in south Denver to hear the Imperial Wizard speak.

During big events like these, Klan members would burn crosses in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, and those fires could be seen from Denver due to its mile-high elevation.

According to Quillen, the Klan’s activities were tied in part to their support for the ban of alcohol under prohibition, which included an exception for sacramental wine — which allowed Jewish and Catholic communities to keep certain quantities. And while there is evidence of periodic violence against black Coloradans at the hands of the Klan, they were not the focus of the state’s KKK leaders.

“Colorado didn’t have a lot of black residents,” Quillen said. “Italians were Catholic and they drank wine when prohibition was effect so they were violating our constitution etc, and they sent their children to parochial schools and not public schools.” Quillen said.

The Klan’s reign in Colorado was brief, and Quillen says that they were removed as a political force by 1926.

“State Senator Billy Adams of Alamosa led the fight against the Klan,” Quillen said, given that the state senate maintained a non-Klan majority. Adams was elected the next governor after Morley and is the namesake of Adams State college in Alamosa.

Today, Colorado is a very different state. Hate crimes actually declined by 30 percent in the state in 2011. And Denver’s mayor, Michael Hancock, is black.

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport