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The Roaring 20s and the Roots of American Fascism
Part 5: Preachers & Klansmen

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In 1924, the Hearst papers, the American Legion, and the Ku Klux Klan led the charge for the Americanization" of schoolbooks, loyalty oaths for teachers, and harsher immigration legislation. These three organizations would become deeply tied to fascism in the following decade. Several members of the American Legion were involved in the fascist plot of 1934 against FDR. The Hearst papers would become an open propaganda outlet for the Nazis and fascism. The Klan would go on to form an alliance with the American Bund.

W.J. Simmons, a former Methodist circuit rider from Atlanta, established the second Klan in 1915. The original Klan had died out and disbanded. The second Klan would be disbanded later on, only to be reborn again. In the first four years of rebirth, the Klan was relatively small. Not until 1920 did it grow to mammoth proportions.

Two factors with roots in the late 1800s set the stage for the rebirth of the Klan. The first was massive immigration from Europe. The American Protective Association, formed in 1887, was virulently anti-alien. The group was particularly strong in the Midwest, where the Klan became strong in the 1920s. The other factor was the populist movement of the 1890s which sought to unite blacks and poorer whites against mill owners and the conservative elite of the South.57

The Klan remained relatively small through 1919. It wasn't until Simmons met publicists Edward Young Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler in 1920 that the membership increased, peaking at around 4,500,000. The huge increase in Klan membership was largely a product of the Red Scare. Simmons had a contract with the two, giving them 80 percent of all membership dues. Clarke and Tyler promoted the Klan as rabidly pro-America, anti-black, anti-Jewish, antiunion, and most importantly, anti-Catholic.

The race riots in the summer of 1919 also contributed to the rapid growth of the Klan in 1920. In 1919, race riots occurred in Chicago, Washington DC, Elaine, Arkansas, Charleston, South Carolina, Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee, Longview, Texas and Omaha, Nebraska. Through the first half of the decade, the Klan would be a serious force in both the North and South.

The message from the new Klan was that it meant business. Many people believe the Klan was just a bunch of racist, hooded night-riders. The reality is that the Klan has always been closely associated with religion. Besides blacks, Jews, and immigrants, the Klan attacked bootleggers, dope dealers, nightclubs and roadhouses, violations of the Sabbath, sex, and so-called scandalous behavior.

The early 1920s saw a rash of lynchings, shootings, and whippings; the victims were most often a Black, Jew, Catholic or immigrant. Additionally, women of scandalous behavior, as determined by the Klan, were subject to abuse. In Alabama, a divorcee was flogged for remarrying. In Georgia, the Klan, led by a minister, administered 60 lashes to a woman for the vague charge of immorality and failure to go to church. In Oklahoma, Klansmen whipped girls found riding in automobiles with young men. In the San Joaquin Valley of California, the Klan flogged and tortured women for morality charges.58

In Chicago, Miss Mildred Erick was beaten almost into unconsciousness, and had crosses carved on her arms, legs, and back by Klansmen. The Klansmen's attack was provoked by her conversion to Catholicism.59

In November, 1921, a case in Asheville, North Carolina became the focus of the national media. The Reverend Abernathy, of the First Christian Church, sent a letter to city officials calling for a purity campaign and the arrest of two women, Etyln Maurice and Helen Garlington, and two black men, Louis Sisney and Maurice Garlington. The women were charged with prostitution, fornication, and adultery. Both women received a sentence of one year in the county jail.59 The campaign was similar to an earlier one in Athens, Georgia launched by the Reverend M.B. Miller of the First Christian Church. Miller headed the Klan in Athens.

There are thousands of examples of women receiving much harsher treatment than the Asheville case. What brought Asheville to national attention is that Asheville was the home of William Dudley Pelly and the Silver Shirts. Many of the regions in which the Klan were strong in the 1920s later became centers of pro-fascist groups in the 1930s. Pelly would later move his Silver Shirt organization to Indiana, an area that had a strong Klan in the 1920s.

With its anti-black, anti-union, anti-communist, anti-socialist, anti-Jew, and extreme nationalist agenda, the Klan's platform was remarkably like that of the Nazis. By the 1930s, the Klan served as a bridge between nativist groups and fascists. On August 18, 1940, the Klan formalized an alliance with the American Bund at the Nazi encampment of Nordland, at Andover, New Jersey. Before this, a Nazi agent had offered former Klan Grand Wizard Hiram Evans $75,000 to control the Klan's voice. When James Colescott succeeded Evans, the Klan entered into its collaboration with the American Bund.

After the alliance with the Bund was formed, the Klan embarked on a plan to infiltrate unions in an effort to Americanize them. After Pearl Harbor, the Klan intensified these efforts, particularly in the Detroit area. Once inside the unions, Klansmen spread pro-fascist literature, and succeeded in provoking wildcat strikes to hinder the war effort. Their efforts went so far as to organize opposition to purchasing war bonds.

Probably the Klan's most successful effort to disrupt the war effort was the Detroit riot. This Klan-inspired riot was an attempt to prevent blacks from occupying their new homes in the Sojourner Truth Settlement, a housing project. The riot caused several deaths, and an interruption of war production. Amplifying its effect, the riot was of tremendous propaganda value to America's enemies. Germany and Japan seized on the riot, and aired lurid broadcasts of it to demoralize American troops.60

Today, one cannot understand the Detroit area without looking at the influence of fascism in the area. The riot was provoked by the Klan which was closely associated with fascism and the Bund at the time. However, there were many other fascist organizations active at the time within the Detroit are. The Black Legion, the Wolverine Republican League, Father Coughlin, and several other fundamentalist ministers of hate as well be shown later in this chapter. Michigan was one of the hot spots for fascism as several of the strongest supporters of fascism within the halls of congress came from Michigan. 

Detroit was not the only riot inspired by the Klan designed to stop war production. Another Klan-inspired race riot occurred on June 15, 1943 in Beaumont, Texas. A mob of over 4,000 attacked the black section of the city, looting stores and burning buildings. Twenty-one people were killed, and production in the area was slowed for months.

Today's modern, or the third Klan formed an alliance with neo-Nazis domestically, and in England, Sweden, Canada, and Australia. An American sergeant stationed in Bitburg served as the Klan's recruiting officer in Germany. Currently, much of the hate and pro-Nazi literature in Germany (where it is illegal) comes from the United States.61

Klan-inspired lynchings and riots were common in the 1920s. Over 450 people were lynched; almost all were black.63 Lynchings became so frequent that Representative L. C. Dyer of Missouri introduced a bill in 1921 to make lynching a federal crime. The bill passed the house but failed in the Senate, due to a filibuster by southern senators. Lynching was not the only method the Klan used to dispose of blacks. On December 9, 1922 a mob in Perry, Florida burnt a black man at the stake after he was accused of murder.64

The most noted act of Klan-inspired violence was in Rosewood, Florida, which was chronicled in a recent film. In January 1923, the tiny town of Rosewood came under attack by a white mob. The mob was incited by a report of a white woman having been assaulted by a black man in the nearby town of Summer. The riot resulted in several residents of Rosewood being murdered, and the black portion of town being burnt to the ground. The black residents, fearing for their lives, fled into the nearby swamps and relocated. No charges were ever filed against the mob, which was reported to have had several Klansmen from outside the area.

Although Rosewood is the most widely known race riot of the 1920s, it was not the bloodiest. The Tulsa, Oklahoma riot of 1920 was far more horrific. A mob of over 10,000, some wielding machine guns, attacked the black section of the city, destroying thirty-five square blocks, and leaving over 300 dead. The mob used at least eight airplanes to spy on the blacks and may have even used the planes to bomb some areas.65


The listing of all the race riots and lynchings of the 1920s would fill several volumes. Many, such as Rosewood, were reported nationally. The Nation reported that the state of Florida was unconcerned about the fate of Negroes. A few northern newspapers decried the massacre, but most adopted a more apologetic view of the Klan and its violence. The Tampa Times justified it by proclaiming that blacks "are anything but a Christian and civilized people." The Gainesville Sun went even further, stating that lynchings would prevail as long as criminal assaults continue on innocent women, and closed the editorial equating the massacre with the death of a dog.

Today, most peoples' image of the Klan is one of a violent gang of racists clothed in bed sheets, and view the Klan as a pariah of some sort. Even with the rise in membership since 1980, the Klan is still a shadow of its former self. However, the real legacy of the Klan is not related to hooded nightriders or cross burnings. Rather, the real legacy is the role the Klan played in developing what now constitutes the religious right.

It was common place in the 1920s for ministers to lead the local Kaverns. The same holds true today. One such example is the Reverend J.M. Drummond, who was the keynote speaker at a Klan rally near Estill Springs, Tennessee on July 7, 1979.66 Drummond is an Identity minister, as is Pete Peters, another minister closely associated with the Klan.

The Identity religion teaches that Aryans are the true Jews of the Bible, and that Jews, Blacks and other minorities are children of Satan. Two of the more influential developers of the Identity religion began their ministries in the 1920s.

The Red Scare of 1919 resulted in the purging of anyone holding even the mildest liberal views, clergy included. With few liberal clergymen remaining, the result was a gigantic chasm into which the Klan and the radical right moved, shifting the spectrum to the far right. The result can still be seen today in the linkage between racism and religion. A study conducted in the 1960s detailed this linkage, and will be presented in a later chapter. Since that study, the linkage has become even more pronounced, with the rise of the Identity religion in recent years.

The evolution of the present religious right from the 1920s Klan can best be shown by the careers of Gerald Winrod and Gerald Smith. In November, 1925 in Salina, Kansas, Winrod established the Defenders of the Christian Faith. The Defenders were extremely conservative, and in April, 1926 Winrod began publishing a monthly magazine, The Defender. Winrod supported prohibition, and was rabidly opposed to the theory of evolution.

The teaching of evolution, as well as the Scopes trial, was one of those issues that become a watershed event in shaping later movements. The teaching of evolution would define what has evolved into the religious right. Although there were fundamentalists before the 1920s, the fundamental religious movement was revitalized and defined by the Scopes trial. In fact, the term "fundamentalist" was coined in the 1920s. Many early fundamentalists, such as John Franklyn Norris, were openly supportive of the Klan. Norris was a Baptist preacher from Texas, and also had a parish in Detroit, flying between the two cities. Norris also ran a seminary, one notable graduate of which was John Birch. Birch's death at the hands of Chinese communist forces in the late 1940s spawned the formation of the John Birch Society in the 1950s.

In 1926, Winrod led a campaign to ban the teaching of evolution locally, as well as in California and Minnesota. He appointed a committee to examine textbooks, and in Minnesota he helped William Bell Riley draft the bill which was introduced in the Minnesota legislator.

Riley was a force in the conservative wing of the Baptist Church during the 1920s. Like Winrod, Riley was rabidly opposed to the teaching of evolution, and was also extremely anti-Semitic. In 1934, he published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and an article on communism, attempting to show they were part of a conspiracy at work in Roosevelt's New Deal. Riley preached:


"Today in our land many of the biggest trusts, banks and manufacturing interests are controlled by Jews. Most of our department stores they own. The motion pictures, the most vicious of all immoral, educational and communistic influences, is their creation."68


The above quote, from one of Riley's sermons, is indistinguishable from Hitler's propaganda. It is a clue that, if Riley was not outright pro-Nazi, he certainly harbored sympathy for fascism.

Riley was not the first clergyman to tout the Protocols. On February 12, 1919, the Reverend George Simons testified in front of the Senate's Overman Committee, shocking listeners with the tale of a secret worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Simons cited the Protocols as evidence. It is generally assumed that Simons obtained his copy of the Protocols from Dr. Harris Houghton of military intelligence. Houghton had obtained his copy from the Czarist immigrant Boris Brasol.17

With his congregation of 3,500, Riley exerted tremendous influence in the upper Midwest. Jewish leaders regarded his church as the center of the area's anti-Semitism. However, Riley's influence extended far beyond his area and time. In 1902, Riley founded Northwestern Bible Training School, which in 1935 became the Northwestern Theological Seminary. He also assisted in the preparation of The Fundamentals, a statement of fundamentalist belief. Just before his death, Riley placed the leadership of Northwestern under the direction of Billy Graham.

On March 2, 2002, the ghost of fascism came home to roost on the head of Riley's chosen successor, Billy Graham. On that day, an additional 500 hours of Nixon tapes were released. In a 1972 conversation between Nixon and Graham, the preacher expressed his contempt for, as he saw it, Jewish domination of the media. Graham is heard on tape saying referring to a Jewish owned newspaper:


"his stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain."


Later in the conversation, Graham expresses further opinions about Jews:


"They swarm around me and are friendly to me. Because they know I am friendly to Israel and so forth. But they don't know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to control them."74

In response to the new revelations, Graham apologized profusely, claiming a lack of memory of the incident. This latest example of Billy Graham's anti-Semitism should come as no surprise to those that have followed his career. Graham's career has been marked with similar incidents.

In the 1950s, Graham was embroiled in an incident revealing his anti-Semitism. The incident stemmed from his portrait gracing the cover of the January 1957 issue of The American Mercury, and his friendship with the Mercury's owner, Russell Maguire. Maguire had acquired a huge fortune from oil and munitions. Maquire owned the company that made the Thompson submachine gun, and had acquired the Mercury in 1952.

In 1951, Maquire donated $75,000 to Billy Graham to produce a film extolling the virtues of free enterprise and the development of God-given natural resources. The film Graham produced was called Oiltown, USA. Graham continued his friendship with Maguire after producing Oiltown, and wrote several articles for the American Mercury. By the time Graham's portrait graced the Mercury's cover, the magazine had earned a reputation as overtly anti-Semitic and hard right. Maguire and the Mercury were ardently anti-communist, and also called for the abolition of the income tax, the UN, NATO, the ACLU and Zionism. Throughout the 1950s the Mercury, under the guidance of Maguire, supported Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Other writers for the Mercury included J. Edgar Hoover, Ralph de Toledano and George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. De Toledano's resigned from the OSS after refusing to work with liberals. Maguire was an open backer of fascism and fascist organizations, and was an early supporter of Rockwell. Rockwell often complained about Maguire's miserly donations.

By January 1957, the Mercury was at loggerheads with the Anti-Defamation League over charges of anti-Semitism. Despite their public apologies, the religious right and Billy Graham cannot rid themselves of their past support of fascism and anti-Semitism any more than a leopard can change its spots.

Conservative theological circles today still regard Riley highly, carefully sweeping his collaboration with the Jayhawk Nazi, Winrod and his anti-Semitism, under the rug. Yet, anti-Semitism is still present in the Baptist church. Like many right wing groups, today the Baptist church cloaks its anti-Semitism behind a thin veil. It comes bubbling to the surface in the position the Baptist church has adopted in recent years of reaching out to Jews so they may be converted to Christianity. Jewish leaders describe this program as condescending. It is also manifested in the strong support for Israel due to the misguided beliefs of many of the fundamentalists. The reconstructionists a sub branch of the religious right believe the end of the millennium marks the end times and the approaching battle of Armageddon with the conversion of Jews to Christianity.

Winrod's lingering influence and anti-Semitism were also readily apparent in the 1980s in Kansas. At that time, Kansas became a hotbed of support for the Posse Comitatus, a far right-wing, extremely anti-Semitic group. The Posse Comitatus, which was founded by a former Silver Shirt leader, subscribes to the Identity faith.

Nor is this the end of the Winrod continuing influence. In March 2001, Winrod's son Gordon, now age 74, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for kidnapping six of his grandchildren. The children had been living in North Dakota. Windrod's two daughters assisted in their kidnapping and were brought to trial separately. The children have received mental health treatment after being returned to their fathers.

The younger Winrod began buying land in Ozark County, Missouri in the 1960s and eventually opened a church he called Our Savior, in which he preached his hate of the Jews. Winrod's congregation consisted mostly of his adult children and a few followers. Two or three times a year he would mail every resident of the county his Winrod Letter, despite numerous complaints. During his trial he repeatedly referred to the proceeding as a "Jewdiciary."76

The Posse's rise to popularity in the Midwest, and in Kansas in particular, provides another example of how, old prejudices, hate and fascist leanings lingers on for generations. Indeed, racism in Kansas can be traced back prior to the Civil War. Further evidence of Winrod's lingering influence on Kansas is seen in the 1999 attempt by the Kansas Board of Education to ban the teaching of evolution.


Although Winrod claimed he was not a member of the Klan, he did nothing to oppose the group.69 During the 1920s an estimated 100,000 residents of Kansas were Klan members. In the 1924 race for governor, both Democratic and Republican candidates sought the Klan's support. There was a solid base of support in Kansas at the time for candidates that attacked Catholics and Jews. Winrod would depend on that base in his later run for senator.

It wasn't until the 1930s that Winrod adopted full-blown fascism as his ideology. After 1934, Winrod accepted the Nazi's justification for their anti-Semitic policies. His view was that the Nazis were only acting to save Germany from Jewish radicalism, economic exploitation and racial lust. In 1935, Winrod called Hitler a devout Catholic.69 Eventually, Winrod was indicted for sedition in the 1940s.

An even more direct link between the 1920s and today's far right groups can be established by tracing the origin of the Identity religion. The Identity religion is based on racial hatred, and has been adopted by many current far right groups including the Aryan Nations, the Posse Comitatus, various Klan klaverns and militias.

Reuben Sawyer, the pastor of Portland, Oregon's East Side Christian Church, was the first to combine the Klan with Identity religion. Sawyer was instrumental in the British Israel Federation, and during the 1920's was a popular speaker in the Pacific Northwest. It was out of the British Israel Federation that the Identity religion emerged. Sawyer was a leader of the Klan in Oregon, and the founder of its women's auxiliary. Besides being the first to combine the Klan and what was to become the Identity religion, Sawyer was the first to combine anti-Semitism with anti-communism, as the following quote illustrates:


"Jews are either Bolshevists, undermining our government, or are shylocks in finance or commerce who gain control and command of Christians as borrowers or employers. It is repugnant to a true American to be bossed by a sheenie. And in some parts of America the Kikes are so thick that a white man can hardly find room to walk on the sidewalk. And where they are so thick, it is Bolshevism they are talking. Bolshevism, and revolution"70


It was from such views that the Identity religion developed. Among those credited with its founding was a young minister, Gerald Smith. Smith began his ministries in Soldier's Grove, Wisconsin, by revitalizing a Disciples of Christ congregation. In 1923, Smith accepted a pulpit at the Seventh Christian Church in Indianapolis. He soon built the congregation to over 1,000. At the time, the Christian Evangelist noted that Smith a prominent figure among the Hoosier Disciples. As the 1920's progressed, he moved to other pulpits in the Indianapolis area. In 1929, he left Indiana for the Kings Road Christian Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.

While at the Kings Road church, he worked with the Klan, not against it. Smith's self-promotion and social activism soon alienated many of his wealthy backers. Soon, Smith aligned himself with one of the most notorious fascists of the time, Huey Long. In 1934, he resigned his pulpit at Kings Road to work with Long's Share the Wealth organization. In 1936, Smith endorsed Eugene Talmadge, the racist governor of Georgia, for reelection, and also aligned himself with another well-known fascist, Francis Townsend.

In 1939, Smith met Merwin Hart, head of Utica Mutual Life, and soon received support from the New York Economic Council. No doubt, Smith's campaign against the CIO figured prominently in the decision to support him. Living in Michigan at the time, Smith began broadcasting on WJR, a station owned by an enemy of Roosevelt. There he received further support from such leading industrialists as the Dodge and Olds brothers. In 1938, he supported the campaign of Arthur Vandenberg, a senator with fascist leanings. Smith also cultivated a friendship with Henry Ford.

In 1942, the FBI received a tip that Winrod helped Smith start The Cross and Flag, a notorious fascist publication that continued well into the 1960s. Following WWII, Smith moved to California, and founded what has become the Identity religion. In the 1960s, Smith moved to Arkansas, and started several grandiose projects, one of which, the Christ of the Ozarks, was completed in 1966. It was soon followed by a Bible museum.

Smith's legacy is his founding of the Identity religion, a religion based solely on hate, teaching that Aryans are the true Jews of the Bible, and that Jews and other minorities are children of Satan. The Identity religion has became almost universal among far right groups today. It acts as the glue holding the various factions of the far right together and to justify their hate.