By Jim Tortolano
If you think of Anaheim today, it’s likely that the images come to mind might be Mickey Mouse or the Angels baseball team. But almost a century ago, it was known as a hotbed of America’s most notorious terrorist organization.
Long before Disneyland or the Anaheim Ducks, Anaheim in the 1920s was a rural community dominated by the descendents of its founders, who created a colony in 1857. Orange County’s first city was created by German immigrants desiring to create a grape- and wine industry in the Santa Ana Valley.
The name of the city means “home” (heim) by the Santa Ana River.
In the Twenties, the established order in Anaheim was upset by the local ripples of a movement that roiled the entire country after World War I. The original Ku Klux Klan was founded in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. Robed, hooded Klan members terrorized newly-free former slaves during the Reconstruction period, and helped to restore “white rule” in the former states of the Confederacy.
The Klan declined as Jim Crow laws institutionalized racial segregation in the South, but it rose again – this time on a more national basis – in the Twenties. Many reasons are given, from the huge popularity of the pro-Klan silent film “Birth of a Nation” to a backlash against the growing numbers of Catholic immigrants in the nation. Prohibition was also an issue.
While there were many Klan groups scattered across California, Anaheim got much of the notoriety, possibly because of its proximity to Los Angeles.
In 1924 a slate of candidates who turned out to be members of the local Klan were elected to the Anaheim Board of Trustees (forerunner to the City Council). The challengers claimed that city fathers – German Americans with a tradition of wine and beer – were lax in enforcing the national prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcohol. The Klan candidates linked the incumbents with bootleggers in campaign rhetoric.
Unlike the Klan in the South, this version was not so concerned about blacks; there were few in Orange County in this day. Members were primarily white Protestants from the more conservative churches who opposed alcohol and what they called “Romanism,” i.e., the perceived dangers of the influence of the Catholic Church and its adherents.
After winning the April election, the new majority fired known Catholics from city jobs and sought to crack down on the liquor trade. Large rallies and initiation ceremonies were held. One at Pearson Park on Harbor Boulevard reportedly attracted 20,000 people at a time when the city population was about 10,000.
Rev. Leon C. Myers of the First Christian Church of Anaheim was the driving force behind the Anaheim “klavern,” which flaunted its power. A cross was burned in front of St. Boniface Catholic Church on Lincoln Avenue and robed Klansmen were a kind of unofficial private police, stopping and interrogating citizens.
Major intersections are entrances to the city were marked with the letters “KIGY,”which stood for “Klansman, I Greet You.”
Resistance to the KKK’s power rose from within and without. Opponents launched a “Detour Anaheim” movement to boycott the city, and local residents formed USA (Unison, Service, Americanism) to fight the Klan.
A break in the battle occurred when a secret list of Klan members – obtained perhaps through financial incentives – revealed that four of the five trustees were in the KKK, and nine of 10 police officers. A recall effort was launched and the “Battle of Anaheim” was on.
In those days, Anaheim had three newspapers: Plain Dealer, Bulletin and Gazette. The Plain Dealer supported the Klan slate, while the other two favored the recall.
A turnout of 95 percent of the eligible voters in February 1925 to the special election proved to be a landslide defeat for the Klan, resulting in the ouster of their four trustees. Shortly after, the police officers that belonged to the KKK were fired, even though it temporarily left the city with one patrolman.
Anaheim was not unique in having some Klan members (estimated at about 300). Other Orange County cities did also, and the KKK rolls included city officials in Fullerton, La Habra and Huntington Beach.
The Klan, which reached a peak of an estimated 6 million members in 1924, declined dramatically during the Great Depression. It was revived in the South in the Fifties and Sixties and was connected to murders, bombings and other violence against the civil rights movement.
Today’s Klan is estimated at about 6,000 members nationally, and is regarded as more of a curiosity than a threat.
Although the brief, highly visible reign of the Klan is largely forgotten in local history, some connections remain. Within Orange County, an auditorium, a school, a park and a mortuary still existing today were named after local leaders who led a secret life as “white knights” of a very different kind.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, www.anaheim.net, Wikipedia, Orange County Weekly.
Categories: History of Orange County