The Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan

Without warning Four shots ring out and echo through the valley of Poorman’s Gulch outside of Lead South Dakota.  Father Belknap lies bleeding on the ground.  He’s been shot at point-blank range by four .45 Caliber rounds.  Here on the ground, he will bleed to death in his priestly vestments that he’d quickly put on, having been lured to this spot by being told a member of his flock desperately needed last rights.  The brutality of this crime will shock both Catholics and protestants across South Dakota.  The year is 1921 and Father Belknap’s killers will never be found. The rise and fall of the Klu Klux Klan in South Dakota is next.

This episode features interviews with:

Dr. Michael GĂ©rard White, Film professor and head of the Hot Attic Film school at Wayne State College and teaches film criticism and production.

Shelby Hagerdon, a historian with a major in film theory. Currently earning a master's degree in film theory next fall.

Lori Miller, Director of Research and board member for South Dakota Voices for Peace and South Dakota Voices for Justice.

Before we get started a little business this month, I just wanted to say that if you are looking for something to laugh about after this serious topic you Should Check out my friend Dan Bublitz Jr’s Podcast the Art of Bombing. Traveling comedians share the stories about their most embarrassing onstage moments and what they learned from them. It's a fascinating and hilarious look behind the microphone of working comedians. That’s The Art Of Bombing available on all major podcast platforms. And a Special thanks to John E and Leah S for your donations to the new Sioux Empire Podcast. My sincerest thanks for Your donations that help make this show possible. Donations are accepted through Venmo and Patreon, more details at the end of the show. Thank you! On with the show. (Deeper Voice) Before we dive in, here are a few background notes to be aware of. First, the history of the many organizations that have called themselves the Klu Klux Klan over the years are large, complex, and highly charged! This episode should under no circumstances be taken as an exhaustive history of the topic. Today I am telling you the story of the Klan as it existed in South Dakota. In a state that despite having South in the name, was not, in fact, part of the confederacy. However even SD history is quite extensive. This is a fly over version of the KKK in SD. This outline and overview may be followed up with your own research if you so choose. And now to establish a little bit more background. 3:18 [Dixieland music/civil war music?] Our story begins in the mid to late 1860s. The Southern United States, the former confederacy, lies largely in ruins economically, culturally, and in many cases literally. When the smoke of cannon fire settled, the average citizens of that region found their lives turned upside down. There was no victorious welcome home for veterans who had suffered ridiculously grotesque deprivations during the war, only to lose everything all over again upon returning home. The industrial scale warfare that at the time was pioneering. Left a landscape of burned cities and infrastructure not so different from the wastelands that would be familiar to Europe after the world wars in many places. The usual thing historically, when you have large groups of unorganized and impoverished young men, is trouble. They become organized and wreak havoc by pushing their feelings of injustice and their own political and cultural views. In this case they organized secret societies with names like Pale Faces and the White Brotherhood. In Tennessee in 1865 six young men decided to form a club.. The name they chose based on the Greek name for the circle "kuklos." Combined this with good old fashioned American mispronouncing gave birth to the name we recognize today, the Ku Klux Klan. In April 1867, a collection of former Confederate soldiers, officers, and politicians met in Nashville, Tennessee, to give their growing band of bruts direction. Former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was chosen as the first Grand Imperial Wizard. The man upon whom Forrest Gump was famously named. 5:13 [clip from forest gump?] The Klan, which had started as a juvenile kind of social club to entertain themselves by terrorizing “black people”, gradually escalated from mostly psychological terror to physical violence and terrorism. Despite having a newly appointed leader the organization was extremely decentralized and rouge elements acted beyond the control of the fledgling leadership. Explosive growth combined with poor planning and weak central authority meant the group became more brutal, unstable, and savage as its numbers continued to grow. By January 1869, Imperial Wizard Forrest ordered the dissolution of the order. His reasoning was that the Kian had become perverted in some localities (which was really saying something) and that public opinion was against the Klan. Apparently it’s hard for terrorists to win a popularity contest. Who knew.(slightly higher tone) However, The Klan survived as small splinter fringe groups in the deep south through the 1870’s, 1880’s and the 1890’s. The Klan that eventually emerged was one that spread to South Dakota, becoming a radically different organization than the one that started in the 1860’s. The Klan of the 20th century was created through the growing income inequality in the rapidly industrialized gilded age. Economically hard times for many Americans, and industrialization brought a cold brutality to daily life; that Americans had never experienced before. There was tremendous frustration throughout society and this gilded age provided a scapegoat for their frustrations in the form of cheap immigrant labor. 7:10 [Traditional Chinese music] Immigrants from the west, from China were brought in to build the railroads, the train tunnels, and work the mines. Chinese workers helped build and run the mines in Deadwood and their incredible stories are too much to tell here and will be featured in their own future episode of the podcast. I’ve been fascinated by their story since I was 12 and have visited the famous Boot hill cemetery in Deadwood. My Curiosity couldn’t help but notice so many grave markers with chinese characters. [Irish Folk Music] Non anglo european immigrants in the industrial east came from countries like Ireland, Italy, and greece and many other mediteranian countries. Today we would consider that group of people as “white.” Important to note that Nativist (or european Americans born in the United States, not to be confused with Native Americans or the indingenous people who were already here) Up to this point were a relatively homogenous group of Anglo Europeans with a protestant background. That strict definition was what Americans of the time considered quote “white”. There is a book about this topic that I highly recommend to aid in understanding of how the definition of whom Americans call “white” has shifted with time. “The History of White People” Book by Nell Irvin Painter. To give you the short version, these new immigrants were not considered true whites by the Nativists. Many of the new arrivals were catholic, especially the Irish and Italian immigrants and there were also many Jewish in the new wave of immigrants. These people carried ideologies from Europe that were strange to americans like socialism, communism, and anarchism. This difference of religion and culture combined with the perception that immigrants were “scabs” who were here only to drive down wages during a time of economic upheaval. This disparity set Nativists on a collision course with these new Americans and waiting in the wings to absorb these frustrations was the semi dormant Klan. In 1901, one of the first catalyst events that pushed nativism mainstream occurred when President William McKinley was killed by a self-professed anarchist who spoke with a foreign accent. This exploded nativist sentiment and a slowly re-growing Klan benefited by latching on to this movement however it would take a blockbuster event to marry nativism with this new Klan. 9:39 [1902 Dance Hall Music] At this point the first traces of the reborn and rebranded Klan were showing up in South Dakota’s historical record. A Grand Masquerade Ball was held at the Miners Union Hall in Central City. It hosts a string orchestra from Billings Montana and an Oyster bar. Admission is $1. The event is organized by the Ku Klux Klan and the name is displayed proudly in their 1902 ad in the Deadwood Pioneer Times. That same year, the final catalyst to joining nativism to the new Klan would begin with Thomas Dixon Jr. Dixon, published his books The Leopard's Spots in 1902 and a sequel The Clansman, An Historic Romance of the Ku Klux Klan in 1905, hailed as literary successes and were, considered (Forgive me for the metaphor,) “The Harry Potter books of their time.” Dixon drew on his own Carolinian experiences and told how the Carolinas had “twice been saved from black degradation.” So part of why I use the Harry Potter metaphor is the part that logically comes next. Its a trope now but back in 1905 the pipeline between popular books and blockbuster movies was literally being invented, largely by the film we’re about to talk about. That Film is Birth of a Nation 11:02 [Interview on Birth Of A Nation] So needless to say the film’s impact on South Dakota’s fledgling Klan can’t be understated. It’s first screening in the area was in Grand Forks, North Dakota where it ran for a week straight to sold out packed houses. The movie grossed 18 million dollars nation wide, and was the first film ever screened at the white house. Stepping in to harness this energy was an ex-Methodist circuit rider and revivalist lecturer, "Colonel" William J. Simmons of Atlanta. On Thanksgiving Eve 1915, just before the Atlanta showing of The Birth of a Nation, Simmons gathered on Stone Mountain with some old Klan members to relaunch the Invisible Empire 2.0. When the movie played in Atlanta, the billboard announced the organization of "The World's Greatest Secret, Social, Patriotic, Fraternal, Beneficial Order." Apparently Keyword stuffing was a thing in 1915. Back in South Dakota, screenings of Birth of a Nation began in Deadwood in May of 1916. Luxuriously large ads fill the Deadwood Pioneer-Times with photos, large graphics, and glowing reviews speaking of the excitement and the importance of the film. The Lead Daily caller, wrote of these screenings, “In view of what is known of the abortive mental construction of certain censor boards it is not surprising that the picture has been placed under the ban in some states, but in reality there is nothing there to offend the intelligent mind. The reflection cast - and it is a dark one - is not upon th negro, but upon the carpetbag reconstrucionists of the southwho exploited the negro in carring out thier own ulterior schemes. The untutored mind of the negro, just freed from slavery, could not be expected to grasp the significance of political relations and there is nothing the the picture which shows in other than the dupe of unscrupulous leaders,” It goes on like this and ends this part of the film review with “The Picture puts the stima upon the leaders and not upon the negro.” As someone well versed in nerd culture I can’t help myself from seeing this through the lens of a modern blockbuster, complete with a rabid fan base, masked vigilantes, and even themed cosplay at the event. The Lead Daily caller describes: “An attractive item in connection with last night’s performance was the costuming of eight young ladies of Lead, who acted as Ushers, in gowns of the period of reconstruction.” 13:29 [Music from Birth of a Nation] In 1917 East River got its turn, the film screened at the Orpheum theater in Sioux Falls. Their review is much less glowing of the film, they celebrate it’s story but go to pains to note that the Klan featured in the film are not the same as the then rising Klan. From the Argus Leader February 1917: “When first hastily gotten together it is said these modern knights enrolled the best and noblest blood in the old south.” It goes on further. “They were disbanded when the hoodlums and desperate characters of the land took up the order and used it to cover their own deeds, bringing down upon the name of the “Clansmen” the odious reputation they have ever since borne.” Essentially saying they are ok with the Klan in principle, terrorizing black people to keep them in line and quote “defending white virtue” but that things got out of hand when they expanded membership. All nuance aside, the screenings at the Orpheum were packed. In Rapid City that spring the Dreamland theater screened Birth of a Nation to large enthusiastic crowds. The Rapid City Journal would close its review and report by saying. “History has its skeletons in the closet, the same as families and individuals, and they are no worse off for being brought to light and shown up, even in glaring frightfulness, to the people who have a right to know.” The film had lavish screenings with large graphic ads in Sisseton and many other South Dakota towns that year. For a while after that excitement for the Klan simmered in South Dakota for some, while others spoke out against the Klan. They took the hidden part of the hidden empire very seriously and the records of their activities in this time are scant but we do know that they were growing. On a cold January evening in 1918 an automobile slows and stops on a backcountry road eight miles outside Ethan. A man is ejected from the car and then the car pulls away, leaving William Rempfer stranded in the middle of nowhere. With no other choice, Rempfer starts walking toward Ethan. Rempfer would later claim in a complaint to the governor that he knew the men who kidnapped him off the streets of Mitchell and dropped him in the country. He would call the episode a “Ku Klux Klan” outrage. On the national stage in 1919 when two public relations promoters saw the whole thing as a money making scheme and seized control of the leadership. Edward Young Clarke and Mrs. Elizabeth Tyler. Clarke and Tyler agreed that a profit of 80 percent should be realized to consider the movement a success and then launched their money making venture. Imagine a pyramid scheme complete with a highly aggressive recruitment, that kicks off in 1920. Clarke and Tyler were highly ambitious with the Klan and did not want it confined to the South. They saw the financial potential of expanding the organization in the north, especially with all those potential northern Klans paying dues to them. 16:06 [1920 Dance Hall Music] To broaden the group's national appeal they shifted the organization's focus. Nativism was the goal with an attack on everything even remotely alien in nature. The Klan actively opposed Blacks, Jews, Roman Catholics, Asian Immigrants, and immigrants in general. The Klan also launched attacks on dope, bootlegging, rustling, graft, violation of the Sabbath, commercialized sex, adultery, questionable business ethics, or any other scandalous behavior as judged by the Klan vigilantes. With the Klansmen themselves exempt of course. The pyramid scheme style money generation was a wild success in growing the organization. In 1921 the national Klan had at least 100,000 members and was still growing. I can’t express how… Shady this arrangement was or how much this movement was driven by a racist nerdom so to describe it, here is a quote from an article written by historian Charles Rambo for South Dakota history, a journal published by the state historical society. He describes the ridiculous arrangement of the 20’s Klan as such: “its phenomenal growth can be directly attributed to the inventive nature of the many Kleagles or recruiters who were receiving at least four dollars of the original ten dollar klectoken or initiation fee required. The King Kleagle or state realm leader got one dollar. The Grand Goblin who was the regional domain head got fifty cents; two dollars and fifty cents went back to the Imperial Kleagles, Clarke and Mrs. Tyler in Atlanta; and two dollars went to the Imperial Wizard Simmons.''* If a higher klecktoken or initiation fee could be garnered then the initial recruiter could count on an even greater profit. Besides the initiation fee and regular dues, members bought the regalia from the Atlanta office and received all publications through the Atlanta headquarters.” The Grand Goblin… Anyway, Ramo says this version of the Klan makes its first appearance in July 1921. The principal Klan salesmen appear to have been from Indiana. and began to gain support in the southeastern corner of the state around Canton and Beresford. This new version is of the Klan isn’t big on subtly, they announce their existence and their pledge to fight the state’s non-partisan league to a Sioux Falls reporter on the condition that their names be kept anonymous in the report. I don’t want to rabbit hole here but the Nonpartisan League (NPL) was a political organization founded in 1915 in the United States by Arthur C. Townley, former organizer for the Socialist Party of America. On behalf of small farmers and merchants, the Nonpartisan League advocated state control of mills, grain elevators, banks and other farm-related industries in order to reduce the power of corporate political interests from Minneapolis, Minnesota and Chicago, Illinois. That’s right kids, South Dakota and rural America used to have a much more socialist! Anyway as we said earlier, something like socialism was extremely unamerican in the eyes of the new Klan and they weren’t having any of it. The next day after the Klan declared war on them in the local papers, State Manager for the Nonpartisan League Tom Ayres wires the Governor demanding protection from the Klan for himself and the people of South Dakota. The governor is on a trip to Niagara Falls when he receives the message and tells the Associated Press that he will “keep an eye on the situation.” Fearing the Negative Press in South Dakota will hurt recruitment, the Imperial Wizard himself William Simmons wires the Argus leader on July 9th that the Klan is a reputable organization and that the talk of them attacking the Nonpartisan league are false and not from him. From his wire: (Wizard Voice) “Ku Klux Klan has several authorized representatives in Sioux Falls. Reports emanating from Sioux Falls that this organisation is formed to fight South Dakota Farmers is a contemptible falsehood. It is a legally chartered, patriotic, and fraternal organization.” The state’s media and much of the public remain wary of the Klan but the condemnation by the press is not universal. The Aberdeen News seems to think the Nonpartisan league is alarmist and that the Klan isn’t so bad. They write on July 14, 1921: “Tom Ayres prates and prattles. With space in Sioux Falls press to fill, he has dug up the Ku Klux Klan bugaboo. Wonder if Tom or the people he is trying to worry have any real understanding of what the Ku Klux Klan actually is and the part it played in American History?” That quote is 99 years ago but you can hear the internet comment section “um actually” intonation. I make a prediction right now that somewhere in social media this episode will trigger a comment along the lines of “do you have any real understanding of what the Ku Klux Klan actually is and the part it played in American History?” On the national front, in September Edward Clarke, the ugh… Imperial Kleagle… gets investigated for tax fraud as he apparently hasn’t paid a dime in taxes on all the Klan apparel they have been selling. Stick a pin in this side note, it's going to come back up. And so the invisible empire spreads across South Dakota infecting small towns along the way. It's impossible to say how many small silent, never reported cases of harassment or intimidation happened that were inspired by or directly orchestrated by the Klan in this time period. There is one shocking cold case in the area that stands out to many as a possible action by the Klan or its supporters. 21:23 [Somber Music] The Lead Daily Call, October 26, 1921 in a full page front page headline proclaims: “Father Belknap (Belk Nap) Cruelly Murdered” “Crime startles and shocks the entire hills country” “Well loved priest lure to his death on a plea that his holy offices were required by a dying man - shot down by his assassin in cold blood without warning” Father Belknap had been lured out that night believing he was needed quickly to administer last rights to a dying man. Four shots would ring out through the valley of Poorman’s Gulch, where his body would be found by a nearby resident drawn by the shots, with four .45 caliber bullet holes in his body. The brutality of the Crime shakes both the protestants and catholics of the community of Lead to the core. The Knight of Columbus offers a $500 reward for information leading to the murderer's capture as does the county. Authorities seek to pin the murder on a drifter named Andrio Rolando and and a massive regional search for the man began. Rolando will never be found. Many in the community are very suspicious of the Rolando theory and think that local law enforcement don't want to find the killer. There are accusations back and forth between those who think Rolando was the killer and those who suspect a broader conspiracy by men “living amongst us even now.” But nothing but mistrust ever comes of it. One year later the community will mark the murder with a memorial service, to this day and probably forever now, the case is unsolved. [Somber Music Refrain] 1922, In the communities around Fort Meade, a cavalry post just east of Sturgis, a rumor started that a unit of Black troops would be transferred to the post. This kicks off an explosion of Klan recruiting and activity in the Sturgis area despite the fact that Black families had already peacefully been living with white counterparts in the community for some time. There were still several individual Black residents who were prominent members of the community, but the fear of large numbers of colored troops with authority moving to Fort Meade apparently frightened many. The rumor comes up again around the base again 1923 and 1924 but the deployment of black troops never actually happens. Not to be left out, the Eastern side of the Sioux Empire starts seeing more openly reported Klan activity in 1923. On a warm night in June residents of Pipestone Minnesota are confused to see a burning cross on the horizon just north of town. About a week later another fiery cross was reported a mile and a half southeast of Madison South Dakota. Before it burns itself out of fuel it is witnessed by more than 100 residents. The Argus Leader speculates that this series of Crosses is a signal to the orders membership to rally for some kind of activity. An atmosphere of fear that more crosses will soon burn over every town in the region spreads. The summer continues with national reports found in local newspapers of mass violence and martial law due to the Klan in Oklahoma. That is its own crazy story that won’t fit in this podcast but needless to say the Klan was front and center in papers in South Dakota even if the local Klan was not as active in the latter summer of 1923. On September 20th the Pierre Capital Journal editorializes “If you think there is no truth in the assertion that the Ku Klux Klan is a bad thing for a state and the nation, give a thought to Oklahoma where martial law reigns supreme and citizens live in fear of flogging and house burning without the protection of the military.” The Doland Times-Record concurs and on the 21st writes: “If half the reports regarding the Klan are correct the Oklahoma executive should have the moral support of the entire country. There is no room in the United States for an organization of this character.” Despite the general public being appalled in South Dakota by the violence in Oklahoma, not everyone was critical. A Pastor in Gayville would step out as a vocal proponent of the Klan. Reverend C. Eldon Stuck went on the attack against critics of the Klan. From the September 27th, 1923 Argus Leader: “That the Ku Klux Klan is not un-American, but is serving a valuable purpose in keeping the ship of state on an even keel” was the declaration of the Rev. C. Eldon Stuck, Methodist pastor of Gayville, in his regular Sunday evening sermon. Rev Stuck vigorously assaulted those who are criticizing the klan without, he asserted, knowing its principles and purposes. After reviewing the things which he declared the Klan stood for, including the tenets of the Christian religion, white supremacy, protection of pure womanhood, just laws and liberty, the upholding of the constitution, the separation of church and state, free public schools, free press and speech, sovereignty of state rights, limitation of foreign immigartion , and local reforms, the pastor declared: “These are the thing this great organization stands for, and if anyone can see wherein they are unchristian, not loyal, un-brotherly, or las of all, un-American, then I say to you the fraternal organizations that are found throughout the United States are as well un-American, and should be classed as such by the people of the nation.” “It Stands for one flag, one Bible, one God. Call it un-American if you will. It is not anti-jew, anti catholic, or anit negro. It si pro-American first, last and always, and may God’s blessing rest upon this organization if the things outlined here are true and I have very reason to believe that they are.” Still quoting the Argus leader now: Rev Stuck spoke before a large audience, attracted by advanced announcement of the subject for the evening. I’m not sure if the crowd was into it or not, the Argus Leader simply cryptically said “His defense of the Klan has aroused much interest in the community.” The sermon’s response was loud and clear from the Edmunds County Democrat: “The Ku Klux Klan does not become permeated with the odor of sanctity simply because some foolish and fanatical preacher gets up in his pulpit every once in a while and makes a mockery of the religion of Jesus Christ by praising the Klan. We have fools and fanatics in every walk of life and unfortunately the ministry is not exempt. If it were, the church would make better headway. But it is distressing that any man who professes to follow the glentel teachings of the Nazarene, who’s creed was love, should take with an organization that preaches and practices hate. Any preacher who can reconcile the spirit of Christiantiy with the propaganda of intolerance and cruelty should find little difficulty in demonstrating that the devil is the model Christain gentleman.” They are not alone in their repudiation of the clan that fall as the mayor of Sioux City denounces the organization in a fiery address. Local Klan members respond with an angry letter campaign of anonymous residents. He tells the local papers that “when the writers come out in the open and make themselves known he will argue with them. Though the klan contends that it advocates every good American principle it’s secret tactics are evidence enough to every right thinking person that the members are moral cowards.” It's clear the Klan is not universally accepted and may in fact be opposed by the majority of South Dakota residents, but that doesn’t mean the Klan is backing down. Far from it. 1924 would be the biggest year yet for open Klan activity in South Dakota. [Old Cross] 29:26 In addition to the documented cases of Klan activity there would be the less reported but still life altering for victims harassment, threats, and violence the Klan would inflict on a small scale, often not making the paper. Here are a couple of accounts from 1924 collected by the previously mentioned historian Charles Rambow. For example, in that year. one suspected bootlegger in Redfield, South Dakota, received KKK attention. Blacky Smith, a coal hauler by profession, was bootlegging on the side and was supposed to have a rather loose deal going at home where his wife was the principle attraction, or so the Klan believed. The Klan contacted Blacky and suggested that he either leave town or the bull whip and tar and feather medicine would be applied. Blacky and his wife left quickly for some unknown destination. On another occasion, a lady of ill repute from Rapid City was invited to leave the Gate City. She laughed at and mocked the supposedly righteous leaders of the Pennington County Klan. She was then whisked off the street one September evening and taken to Farmingdale where she was stripped and bathed in tar and feathers. Needless to say, she also hurriedly left the Rapid City area on the next train. In February the Argus Leader reported that Klan literature and copies of the Klans official publications are showing up all over town and being received by many residents at their homes across the city. Later that same week the Argus Leader reported on a College freshman Wayne Myers, who won an oratorical contest at Sioux Falls college for his talk “The Modern Ku Klux Klan” which was critical of the organization. Myers received a mysterious phone call from someone claiming to speak for the Klan who demanded that Myers stop giving the speech if he wants to win any more contests. Myers insists that he was not threatened with bodily harm, however tells the Argus Leader that he will go on giving the speech and that after this episode he says he was clearly on the right side of the question for opposing the modern Klan. That week the Klan opens an actual official headquarters for the Sioux Falls area at 120 North Main Ave over the Smith Hardware Store. Then on February 25th A cross is lit in Sioux Falls that no one can miss. It’s spotted around 10:30 PM and is 8 feet high and 4 across. The finishing touches being two bright red railroad flares attached at each end of the arms. It's impossible to miss as it's erected and ignited without anyone noticing directly in the middle of the intersection at Phillips Ave and Fourteenth Street. This is an extremely provocative and visible spot in downtown Sioux Falls. Anyone looking down Philips to the south would have seen it like a brilliant red light on the horizon. A reporter for the Rapid City Journal describes the crowd that gathered to examine it as huge with waves of people and automobiles following the light to see what was happening. 32:06 [Ominous Music] That same day, reports arrived in Sioux Falls of the Klan burning crosses in St. Lawrence. Though authorities in Hand County dismiss them as the work of some practical joker because they are shoddily constructed, I believe they were the work of a local Klan. St. Lawrence is quite close to Wessington where I grew up. Roy McNeil, the grandfather of two of my half siblings would tell us kids stories about the Klan activity during this time in the Wessington Hills and said that he had even found a large stash of Klan robes and regalia in the old Wessington Theater’s attic before the building was demolished. As Catholic kids growing up in that area we heard stories about how the Klan had once been in the area and been a serious threat in our grandparents' time. Father O'Neill of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Wessington once told some parishioners that he kept a firearm in the rectory because he feared that one day the Klan might attack him or the church. I have no doubt he had heard the stories about what happened to Father Belknap in 1921. In March Otto Schalow of Pipestone wrote to the Argus Leader about how he fears that the Klan will bring the violence of Mer Rouge, Louisiana to the region. For context In August 1922, members of the Ku Klux Klan abducted two white men—Filmore Watt Daniel and Thomas Fletcher Richard there. After torturing and killing the men, the Klansmen disposed of their bodies in nearby Lake where the bodies were found months later. Following the killings, Louisiana Governor John M. Parker sought help from the U.S. Department of Justice in suppressing Klan violence within the state. Back in Gayville Reverend Stuck, who spoke last year about the virtue of the Klan was asked by the board of his church to stop speaking on that topic. Instead of complying he resigns in protest. A cross is burned in Cavour South Dakota where many local farmers claim they have joined the Klan for a membership fee of $16 and that the cross was the signal for their first meeting as newly minted Klansmen. Remember, the actual fee to join is $10 meaning the Klan recruiter in the area figured he could get away with fleccing these men for an extra $6 each and pocket the difference. A practice encouraged by the organization to drive more recruitment. In mid March the Klan literature circulating in town started targeting a member of the Argus Leader Editorial Staff. They are particularly angry with this unnamed but pretty clearly referenced reporter for pointing out the money making pyramid scheme like structure of how the Klan handles member dues. The man they are targeting outs himself in an awesomely sarcastic and defiant editorial in the Argus Leader on March 18th. That staff member is Bryton Barron, and in his editorial “Can We Believe Anything Else From The Klu Klux Klan Hereafter?” He doubles down on his attack, pointing out the Klan literature attacked Barron for not being a true christian and called into question his character but never actually denied that over half of their dues were going out of state, meaning that thousands of dollars are being siphoned out of the state’s economy by the Klan. [Civil War Music] In an interesting episode of living history, a surviving civil war veteran from Sioux Falls Col. C. A. B. Fox writes to the Editor of the Klan’s newsletter the Fiery Cross and shares what he sent them with the Argus Leader on April 15th, He requested that they not hold a planned rally in Sioux Falls on Memorial Day, as that day is set aside by the State of South Dakota to honor dead heroes. He signs his letter with the most impressive signature lines I’ve ever seen. Sincerely yours, Col. C. A. B. Fox Past Department Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic 216 Menlo Ave Sioux Falls, SD He’s not the only one speaking up. Religious leaders in Brookings ban together to stand against the Klan in their area. The Brookings Ministerial Association passed the following resolution that same week: “We The Members of the Brookings Ministerial Association, hereby go on record as absolutely opposed to the Ku Klux Klan organization because we stand against all efforts which create racial, religious and Social prejudice, resulting in hatred, bitterness, and oftentimes violence. Any organization which proposes law enforcement aside from regularly constituted civil authority is un-American.” In May more anti Klan letters fill the Argus Leader and more crosses burn, announcing the birth of new chapters in Watertown and White Lake. In June, several young men in the Deadwood area received death threats in letters sighed with KKK and to keep up the pious image they were trying to project in Sioux Falls, they held an outdoor vesper service in what is now Cherry Rock park that was attended by more than 100 members. 36:02 [1924 Street Dance] On the evening of August 6th, 1924 one of the most dramatic events of the Klan’s history in South Dakota would unfold in Sturgis. A well-attended community dance was in progress in Sturgis while up on the hill directly to the northeast above Sturgis, the Klan burned several large crosses. Suddenly, a clattering broke out from two Browning automatic machine guns that had been mounted on the adjoining hill by several resentful cavalrymen from Fort Meade. The "unarmed" Klansmen leaped for cover and returned fire with hand guns. Apparently, the cavalrymen only wanted to throw a scare into the Klansmen because they shortly ended the engagement and fell back from the hill. Authorities would later tell the Deadwood Pioneer-Times that “Several deputies had been secreted along the creek in anticipation of such an attempt and they quickly closed in on the soldiers,” one might interpret that as some of the Klansmen who had returned fire with their side arms were in fact these deputies. Just saying. The Soldiers realized they were cut off and tried to ditch their weapons and blend into the street dance crowd on mainstreet. Townspeople ended up catching the soldiers who were then handed over to their commander the next morning for court martial. Three soldiers were arrested: Sergeant Bell, Corporal Moore, and Bandmaster Corporal McCluskey. McCluskey had actually not been part of the attack and had just been attending the street dance, wrong place, wrong time, so he was released shortly after that. Aside from one very shot up car whose occupants had taken cover behind some rocks when the shooting started, there were no injuries from the incident. It was learned later that some of the cavalrymen wanted to bring a piece of light artillery, but had reconsidered. The men involved in the firing upon the Klansmen were either cashiered from the military or were quickly and quietly transferred to more peaceful pastures. 37:50 [Rugged Old Cross] The Klan is just getting started in Sturgis. On August 23rd, just weeks after the machine gun incident the Klan held a Konklave in Sturgis. An Estimated 12,000 spectators parked along the hills to watch as 160 new Klan members were sworn in beneath 3 massive burning crosses. It's the first Klan Konklave ever held west of the Missouri river in the United States. In September a much more civil battle with the Klan rages in city hall as the Mayor grants permission for the Klan to use the Sioux Falls Coliseum for a rally but is then forced by public outcry from citizens to withdraw permission during an extremely heated counsel meeting. By the end of the Meeting Mayor McKinnon declared that he would keep the Klan off city property if quote “I have to use every member of the Sioux Falls Police force to do it.” In response, rumors started spreading especially in Iowa newspapers that the Klan was pulling members from multiple states to stage a masked march on Sioux Falls in response to the slight. The Klan literature calls it a march to “wake up Sioux Falls.” In the Argus Leader on September 23rd the city Chief of police vows to stop any such march. He said: “We look with suspicion upon anyone wearing a mask, He may be a thief, or a murderer and instructions will be given to officers to arrest anyone under a mask” Klan activities continued into 1925 when in March, in Hot Springs, the Klan interrupted services at a local church. According to the Argus Leader: “Twelve Members of the Ku Klux Klan visited the CHristian church here Sunday evening in the midst of the service, tapped once on the bell in the vestibule to announce their approach, and marched down the aisle to the pulit, where Rev. C. B. Osgood was preaching. The leader stepped forward and made a short address commending the work of the church. He handed a small sack to the minister and the party marched to the rear door. The sack was found to contain 25 silver dollars.” Now this was actually not an uncommon thing for the Klan to do in an area where they were trying to project legitimacy. In several other areas of the country the Klan succeeded in gaining the support of these ministers and in recruiting their talents against the local Cathohc, Jewish, or foreign elements. Fortunately, the local Ministerial Association had already made their peace with the Catholics in Sturgis. Father Columban Bregenzer (Breg En Zer) , the popular and respected rector of Saint Martin's Academy since 1903, worked closely with the Presbyterian minister, CD. Erskine (Ersk ine), and several others of prominence in the community, some who were active Klansmen, to keep the lid on the religious tension and to keep a bad situation from getting worse. On more than one occasion the Klan was known to have paraded in full regalia up to Reverend Erskine's pulpit to present a purse of persuasion, thirty or forty dollars, to the congregation. This sort of internal give and take left the religious elements shaken and suspicious. The Catholics, for instance, were said to be organizing and arming to protect themselves. Fortunately, the wide scale violence that both sides prepared for never came to fruition. The peak Klan event in South Dakota would happen that summer when it was announced that the National Ku Klux Klan Konklave would be held in Belle Fourche, SD that summer on the 4th of July. It was billed to be the largest Klan gathering in a single place in history. Some early reports estimated that as many as 100,000 Klansmand would travel from across the country to be there. The National Konklave in Texas the previous year had drawn 75,000 people. At the time of the event the Klan itself estimated membership nationally at 11 million in the United States, 25,000 in South Dakota, and 11,000 in the Black Hills area. On May 17th 1925 the Klan interrupted Belle Fourche church services to present purses of persuasion to the local protestant churches as part of laying the groundwork for the upcoming convention. Some stats from the preparations for the Gathering to give you some perspective. 10,000 new Klan robes ordered, 3,000 candles ordered, Seven Brass Bands, The state Drum Corps, eight string quartets, and an unknown number of other musical organizations brought in by train. $3,000 in fireworks (Around $44,000 in July 2020 Money). 400 additional special police men sworn in for security. Parking for 30,000 cars is prepared. Railroad companies across the US provided special Klan rates for travelers to attend the Rally. The Deadwood Pioneer Times estimates that this will be the largest gathering of people in the history of South Dakota up to that date. As you may have guessed by now the event did not live up to the hype. Though the weather was perfect and everyone who attended agreed it was a great Klan event, attendance was estimated at closer to 22,000. There were smaller rallies across the state that summer and it truly was the Summer of the Klan in South Dakota for all of the dances, socal events, parades, and rallies the group held. That fall a group of young college students showed their potential strength at Spearfish Normal School. A local fraternity of the KKK had been formed earlier and by 1925 had gained a substantial membership. Dr. Woodburn, an ordained minister and then president of the normal school, held chapel at ten o'clock every morning. At one of these sessions he delivered a provocative sermon against the Ku Klux Klan. A number of young men of the fraternity took exception to his comments, went out one night to Dr. Woodburn's garage, borrowed gasoline from his own car, and set a flaming cross in his front yard. Only the fast thinking on the part of neighbors kept his house from burning. Dr. Woodburn delivered no more anti-Klan speeches, at least not in public. In 1926 the Klan began running large ads in South Dakota newspapers as part of a new tactic to gain recruits and polish their image in the community. These ads spoke nothing about what they were against or of vigilatiny actions but talked about their charity work and even called the Klan a Religious organization that is not a church but a friend to all true protestant churches. Fewer large gatherings happened in South Dakota than had taken place in 1925 but in Sioux City they still managed to hold a large parade. The event had almost not been allowed to proceed but then at the last minute the Klan leadership agreed that they would parade without their masks, and that convinced city authorities to allow the march to move forward. One parade of note occurred in downtown Sioux Falls in late August to celebrate the Tri State Konklave. A crowd estimated at 10,000 watched as nearly 500 Klansmen paraded back and forth through downtown Sioux Falls. All participants were required to be unmasked. The Argus Leader reports that a large police presence kept everything calm and kept traffic flowing and the whole thing went off without disturbance. A quarter page ad in the Rapid City Journal in October would unknowing serve as the death rattle of the Klan as a large national presence and would also mark the end of the largest Klan open activities in South Dakota. 1927 was a very bad year for the Klan nationally. Internally it was a wreck. Hiriam Evans of Texas was now in full revolt against Joseph Simmons, the Atlanta Imperial Wizard, and many splinter Klans began to form for no other reason than the prospect of making money. The imperial Kleagles, Clarke and Tyler, were under state indictment for disorderly conduct and adultery. They were also charged by the rival Klans with appropriating substantial sums from the national treasury for their own private use. (Shocker) The general public was being daily "entertained" by stories of Klan violence, beatings and lynchings, directed against an ever growing number of critics who saw the Klan as a lawless threat to themselves, their families, and their dreams of what Americans should be. The movement had become stale and seemed to have run out of relevant or significant issues by 1927. There was still, of course, the election of 1928 that would kindle a dying ember, but this was not enough to revitalize the North and South Dakota Klans. Historian Charles Rambo also says that the extinction of the local Klans can also be attributed to the fact that the KKK just plain scared many people. Enough threats were issued and enough emotion aroused that many were fearful that continued Klan activity could lead to disastrous consequences. Anti-Klan opposition was growing, the Catholics were organizing for a possible showdown, and any little slip could have erupted into a regrettable situation. There was probably also an economic relationship. The Klan was hurting business. Many people who were not sold on the purpose of the Klan remained disassociated by staying away from the businesses that had Klan support or hired Klan employees. It is also probable that the general economic recession, which was already keenly felt in this area and would result in the national economic collapse in 1929, had diverted local attention from the supposed threat of the Catholic, Jewish, and alien minorities. As Klan strength declined, the North and South Dakota organizations were merged with the Minnesota Klavern. The Tri-State Realm was perpetuated for a time after 1927 by the inevitable die-hards, but by the middle 1930s the north central Klan was dead. Just a bunch of costumes in attics found by men who would tell their grandchildren about finding strange things from a time when the invisible empire was a force to be reckoned with in the Sioux Empire. So that’s it? The Klan is gone forever? Not exactly. The Brand is pretty ruined at this point in South Dakota but some of the legacies of the Klan continue into modern times. There was an infamous episode where students at Dakota Wesleyan burned a cross in 1961. Every once in a while Klan flyers with bags of candy show up in playgrounds or on peoples doors in a town in South Dakota but as far as an open organization operating like it did in the 1920’s, we won’t see its like again in South Dakota. So is the story over? Well, the robes and stupid names are gone but theoriginal causes of the Klan are still exist today and perhaps even stronger than when the Klan was formed so long ago. Descrimination against those who are different from oneself is evidence that equality is still a battle being fought in South Dakota. In fact, you could argue many of them thrive in the age of the internet. Who needs a rally in Belle Fourche when you can set up a secret Facebook group or Discord? There is no need for a hood when you can hide behind a keyboard.


  1. My mother grew up until she was 7 in Mellette County on the edge of the Badlands in the early 1920s and she remembered the local Klan burning crosses on top of one of the buttes; she said you could see it for miles.


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