In 1992, workers readying for an auction at a home near the sleepy village of Fremont, Mich., stumbled across three wooden trunks hidden in a secret attic compartment. Inside, they found a large cache of Ku Klux Klan documents and artifacts.
The items documented the membership and movements of the 679 members of the Newaygo County Klan No. 29. The papers, robes and photographs had been hidden for almost seven decades.
Most of the Klan artifacts and papers were sold piecemeal to private collectors, but Frank Boles, director of the Clarke Library at Central Michigan University, was able to save one nondescript shoe box filled with membership cards.
The documents, hidden by Ledford Anderson, secretary-treasurer of the Newaygo County Klan, were never expected to see the light of day, let alone be sold.
For more than a decade, the membership records were stored in the library archives, until Craig Fox, a British doctoral candidate in American studies, happened upon the collection on the Internet.
That find led Fox to write the first book on the Michigan Klan, “Everyday Klansfolk: White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan,” published by Michigan State University Press.
It’s fair to ask why a history of the KKK in Michigan has never been written. Foremost, “secret” is the operative word. Another possibility is that writing about the Klan is a grim business and one that still garners lots of negative reaction.
"Mask," the current exhibit at the MSU Museum, stands as proof. Some of the several hundred masks on display are scary, but none is scarier than the robed and hooded mannequin of a KKK member Maybe it takes a Brit to step away from the inherent controversy, raw images and disturbing history of the Ku Klux Klan to write about the nation’s largest secret society, one whose influence held Michigan in a tight grip during the 1920s. Fox is a self-described independent scholar of American history and culture who spent two years studying in the United States as a doctoral student, including doing archival research in Michigan for one year.
Although Fox was attracted to Michigan because of that shoe box full of Klan records, he also used Klan documents in the MSU Special Collections and the Labadie Collection (part of the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan) for his exhaustive research.
Fox wanted to conduct a locally focused historical case-study in an area that hadn’t been extensively examined before.
“I took stock of the regional studies that had been done so far and then went on the lookout for archival sources from regions that would plug a gap in our knowledge of the wider movement," he said.
Boles said that for a few years in the 1920s the Klan exerted a strong political influence on Michigan and was close to electing Klan members to the highest political offices. In neighboring Indiana, one of the bastions of Klan memberships, the governor was a Klan member.
President Warren G. Harding was also a Klan member. Boles said a referendum on banning private education in Michigan was even proposed by the Klan.
“Opposition to it may have resulted in the oddest political coalition in Michigan history," Boles said, "including Conservatives, Dutch Reformed and Catholics."
He said that shining the light of history on the Klan membership may be disconcerting for families in Newaygo County in western Michigan, but the survival of records from the area was “sheer happenstance.”
“They are no more guilty — there were Klan chapters all throughout Michigan, and Newaygo was not unique.”
He also pointed out that the 1920s Klan was not like the original, violent organization of the 1860s South or even the latter 1960s version.
“It was a broadly based organization, which was mostly anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic," he said. "A lot of people felt that way, and they were not perceived as fringe or kooks."
At the height of its power in the 1920s, the “Invisible Empire” had what Fox called “staggering membership numbers,” exceeding 6 million members nationwide. Although Michigan membership is difficult to pinpoint, Fox cites reports of between 265,000 to 875,000 members.
In Lansing, the Klan was able to muster more than 15,000 members for a march down Michigan Avenue on Labor Day in 1924.
Many prominent businessmen, doctors and lawyers found their way to Klan membership, including Dan F. Gerber, the founder of Gerber Baby Foods.
“History is a warts-and-all kind of business, and my view is that if it happened, then surely it’s worth knowing about," Fox said. "You can’t simply edit out the chunks you don’t like, and I’m not sure how ignoring the murkier parts of the past is supposed to benefit anyone.”
In his book, Fox details a 1920s Klan that was as likely to be a social organization sponsoring community picnics as it was a hate-mongering secret society.
Fox said one gauge of the popularity of the Klan in the 1920s was the emergence of the “faddish Klan-themed merchandise,” including flags, knives, lamps displaying a robed Klan figure and Klan music records. The Michigan Klan newspaper covered Klan weddings, funeral and baptisms with the same interest as mainstream weekly newspapers. Newspaper editors and owners were often found on Klan rolls.
“I’d say that in many important respects — the types of people who joined, and the types of appeals that were made by the KKK — Michigan was pretty typical of most other states where the Klan was a presence,” Fox said.
“The KKK came relatively late to Michigan (outside of Detroit, where it had some presence earlier), only really taking hold statewide in the summer of 1923. Perhaps as a consequence, it never really succeeded in gaining the political clout that it had managed to muster up in Indiana.”
The author said that as a national movement, the Klan peaked in 1924 and was all but dead by 1926.
“Michigan’s flirtation with it, whilst enthusiastic, was probably shorter than most,” Fox says.
The decline of the Klan, which was built on profitable pyramid schemes, came about through greed and financial incompetence.
Fox said that although the Klan phenomenon was national in scope, there were also regional variations: “In the South, it inevitably turned its vitriol upon African- Americans. In the Southwest, it often targeted Mexicans and, on the Pacific coast, Asians."
In Michigan, it denounced "Romanism," lashing out at immigration and "the specter of Catholicism.”
In his book, Fox says the Klan "was far more ensconced in American life than many of us would like to admit.”