Time Machine: History of the Klan in Iowa
The rise - and fall - of the KKK in Iowa
With white supremacist rallies in the news and the recent picture of five teens in Creston wearing white hoods in front of a burning cross, it’s perhaps time to consider the Ku Klux Klan’s history in Iowa, one of the state’s and the nation’s darker chapters.
We’ll start with the evening of Oct. 3, 1922, a night when hundreds of men gathered in a grove west of Cedar Rapids on Red Ball Road. They came alone or in groups, riding in Fords and touring cars, trying as best they could to be stealthy.
The men wore white robes and hoods. They burned a cross and inducted more than 100 men into the Cedar Rapids branch of the Ku Klux Klan.
It was one of the larger demonstrations of Klan activity in Eastern Iowa, and it disbanded as quietly as it had formed.
The Klan is a 150-year-old group that includes an estimated 130 groups that advocated for white supremacy while attacking blacks, Jews, immigrants, Catholics, gays and lesbians.
The Klan was formed in 1866 in Pulaski, Tenn., as a fraternal organization aimed at protecting the property of whites, punishing outlaws and preventing blacks from voting in the period following the Civil War. Within a year, the band realized its power and took on the role of regulators and morphed into a renegade operation worse than the lawless element it set out to pursue.
In 1871, Congress passed the Third Enforcement Act, authorizing President Ulysses S. Grant to declare martial law to suppress the Klan. The Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional in 1882, Reconstruction was over, and the Klan faded.
IN EASTERN IOWA
Offshoots of the KKK, though, began to appear across the country.
In Eastern Iowa, the White Caps wrote threatening letters that included a skull and crossbones. Lawmen were not immune from White Cappers nor were aldermen up for election.
One merchant in Mechanicsville was told to remove sand and paint from public benches outside his store or “be dealt with in a manner that he would not soon forget.”
In 1891, an irate Mason City man gathered a group of White Caps to threaten his son-in-law. The news report said the masks worn by the group were made by the man’s wife.
CEREAL CITY KLAN
In 1915, the KKK was reorganized in Alabama by former Methodist preacher William J. Simmons, who was inspired by the film, “Birth of a Nation,” that portrayed the Klan as saving downtrodden Southern whites from black enemies and carpetbaggers.
The Klan moved swiftly and secretly to establish branches across the country to enforce “the right of the white-born, freeborn American to make his country the first in the world.” It sent organizers to Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas in 1921.
Rumors that 300 to 400 men had pledged to the Klan in Cedar Rapids were thought to be false until that night on Red Ball Road, which was the beginning of Cereal City Klan No. 9 of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
A former state “king kleagle” on the Klan, the Rev. Otis Spurgeon, said in September 1921 there were 10,000 Klan members in Iowa. That number spurred other organizations, such as the Masons and the American Legion, to denounce the KKK.
In August 1924, a thousand people showed up at Cedar Park between Cedar Rapids and Marion to see what had been advertised as a Klan rally. Only one man showed up — an organizer trying to form a Linn County Klan to compete with the Cereal City Klan, which the national KKK viewed as an outlaw organization.
On Sept. 7, 1925, Myrtle Underwood Cook, 51, was reading by a window in her Benton County home when she was shot and killed. She was president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union and head of the Benton County women’s division of the KKK.
Her funeral was held in the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Vinton because her own rural church was too small. Her minister, the Rev. A.A. Wright, was a Klan leader and suggested at her funeral she was murdered because of her opposition to bootleggers.
Robed and hooded KKK members attended the funeral and carried her coffin to the Vinton cemetery. Women’s Christian Temperance Union members and their world president, Anna Adams Gordon of Evanston, Ill., wore white robes embroidered with flaming red crosses. Her murder was never solved.
The Iowa Unsolved Murders website reports the Methodist Episcopal Church’s new minister, the Rev. Clarence Kleckner, “had moved to Vinton only three days before and was unaware of what he was getting into” when the church agreed to handle Cook’s funeral.
After the Klan’s membership surge in the 1920s, its presence in Iowa waxed and waned, increasing a bit in the 1960s as civil rights became a national issue and again in the 1970s, when affirmative action took hold.
A group of Klansmen in Johnson County tried to stage a revival in the late 1970s, though they were not affiliated with the national organization. The group was behind occasional cross burnings but apparently got lost one night and lit a cross across the river from the sheriff’s house.
In 1992, a riot broke out in Dubuque when more than 450 anti-Klan protesters objected to a Klan rally of about 50 in Washington Square Park. When the rally was over, two Klan members were beaten, and two people were arrested. Meanwhile, 3,000 anti-Klan demonstrators gathered for a unity rally that same day at Eagle Point Park in Dubuque.
GONE FROM IOWA
In 2000, Charlie Lee Lynch, born Charles Aaron Tucker, tried to form a Klan chapter in Benton County. His grandmother had worked with Myrtle Cook and had attended Klan rallies. He found few takers.
As of 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League, Klan groups were active in 22 states. Iowa was not one of them.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, says the number of Klan-related groups is at a 14-year low, with between 5,000 and 8,000 members, “split among dozens of different — and often warring — organizations that use the Klan name.”
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