Ninety years ago today The Bakersfield Californian published the names of nearly 350 local members of the Ku Klux Klan, and a few days later, it added 50 more names. More than 300 were Bakersfield residents, and most of the rest lived in or near Taft and Tehachapi.
Within days members began resigning from the Klan. But Stanley Abel, Kern County's 4th District Supervisor, from Taft, proudly acknowledged his Klan affiliation and declared that the Taft group deserved "praise for the good work it has done."
Other prominent Kern County men, including Bakersfield Police Chief Charles Stone and several other Bakersfield and Taft city officials, were also exposed as Klansmen. Though many Americans denounced the Klan as a "menace," approximately 6 million other Americans -- including those in Kern -- paid the organization's $10 membership fee and became Klan members.
What explains this group's rise and widespread appeal?
At different times during the first century after the end of the Civil War three separate manifestations of the Ku Klux Klan emerged and all three primarily generated opposition and hatred toward specific minority groups. The first Klan rose in the South in 1866 during Reconstruction. The third Klan, also Southern, emerged in the 1950s as a response to the modern Civil Rights movement. Both had similar objectives: to thwart African-American political participation, civil rights, and economic and social advancement. Both groups used threats and violence, including murder, to accomplish their goals.
The 1920s Klan, the second Klan, differed from the first and third groups. It was national in scope and not merely a southern or anti-black organization. And while historians generally agree on what led to the emergence of the first and third Klans, they have grappled with explaining the underlying causes and the nature of the 1920s manifestation. One interpretation holds that the 1920s Klan rose in negative response to rapid changes taking place in the United States. Klansmen also saw Roman Catholic and Jewish immigrants, modernist culture, and a perceived decline in morality as threats to "true Americanism." Other interpretations point to local concerns regarding lawlessness and decency, particularly prostitution and violation of prohibition that motivated the Klan organization to action. Many in the dominant white Anglo-Saxon Protestant group shared the Klan's concerns and values, and thus some scholars argue that it was more mainstream than Americans today like to admit.
Regardless of the conflicting scholarly interpretations, Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel "The Clansman," which advanced a romantic vision of the Reconstruction-era Klan as saving southern white society from blacks and the federal government, planted the seeds that led to the emergence of the 1920s Klan. Director D.W. Griffith's 1915 landmark film, "The Birth of a Nation," based on Dixon's novel, popularized this interpretation. Though rightly denounced by civil rights organizations and liberal activists for its distortion of history and its promotion of racial stereotypes, the film enjoyed huge commercial success in the United States.
The movie premiered in Bakersfield in October 1915 and activities staged later that month at Kern County Union High School serve as evidence of the film's popularity. In preparing for the first big football game of the season, students celebrated with a parade and bonfire, at which seniors dressed as Klansmen. The film served as more than a curious example of popular culture; it also proved instrumental in facilitating the emergence of the 1920s Klan.
In November 1915 William Simmons of Georgia capitalized on the popularity of the film by organizing a new Ku Klux Klan as a fraternal organization dedicated to upholding "American values" and fighting lawlessness. Within six years the Klan became a national organization, generating substantial revenue from membership fees and the sale of white robes and other Klan paraphernalia. In the summer of 1921 some two hundred recruiters, or "kleagles," canvassed the nation to enlist new members and organize new chapters or "klaverns" of the national group. One came to Kern County.
That fall Kern Klansmen, whether acting in concert with the group's leadership or as vigilantes on their own, began threatening, beating, and running out of town those they believed to be breaking the law or not behaving in accordance with the Klan's prescribed moral standards. The escalation of violence led District Attorney Jess Dorsey to initiate an aggressive investigation of suspected Klan activities. In April 1922, Los Angeles County authorities raided the national Klan's Pacific Coast office and seized documents, including membership lists, which provided Dorsey a new weapon with which to combat the group. The following month The Californian published the names.
District Attorney Dorsey began to prosecute those suspected of Klan violence, and angry county voters launched recall campaigns against Abel and other Klan advocates, and soon the Kern Klan withered. The group did not completely disappear, but after 1922 it did not enjoy the growth, the visibility, or the open exercise of political power that many klaverns in other parts of the country achieved. The Tulare County Klan, by contrast, emerged as a cohesive group after the Kern Klan waned. It avoided violence, however, and went on to stage public events promoting the organization. Though demographic profiles suggest that most Kern Klansmen were quite ordinary Americans, some did engage in intense violence, even if that violence did not approach the levels of the murderous Klans of the Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras.
In 1926 the national Klan was severely tainted by scandal and depravation among many of its leaders, who had publicly pledged to uphold morality. Soon after, disgusted Klansmen throughout the nation repudiated the group and withdrew their membership, thus replicating at the national level what had happened four years earlier in Kern County.
Dorsey deserves credit for displaying extraordinary courage in pursuing the Klan and stifling its growth in Kern. He lost reelection in 1922, and spent nearly two decades in private practice, but in 1942 he returned to public service and was elected 34th District State Senator, and served admirably until his death in 1958.
Alicia E. Rodriquez, a 2011 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute Fellow at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, is an associate professor of history at Cal State Bakersfield. She is the author of "'Of Whom Shall the Third Party Be Composed?': Urban Laborers and the Origins of the People's Party in Dallas, Texas," which appears in "Southern Populism Revisited: New Interpretations and New Departures" (University Press of Mississippi, 2012).