Rocky Mountain Racism

This past May at the Cannes Film Festival, Spike Lee screened his latest movie, BlacKkKlansman. The audience gave the film an extended standing ovation and Variety’s chief film critic, Peter Debruge, later wrote, “If D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was ‘like writing history with lightning,’ as Woodrow Wilson described it way back in 1915, then Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the roll of thunder that was eventually sure to follow.”

The film stars John David Washington (son of Denzel) as Ron Stallworth, a young black police officer in 1970s Colorado Springs who decides to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan with the help of his partner, Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver). Together, the two cops work to expose the KKK’s efforts to control the city. Believe it or not, the film is based on the true story of Stallworth, who detailed his experiences in his 2014 memoir, Black Klansman.

One of the reasons the film is receiving accolades is precisely because Lee does not paint Stallworth’s story in isolation; instead, he situates the 1970s Klan in the center of a long timeline of white supremacy in the United States. In fact, the film closes with footage from last year’s fatal white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, and the film release date coincides with the rally’s one-year anniversary.

Movie poster for BlacKkKlansman. (IMDB)

That Stallworth’s story takes place in Colorado might surprise some moviegoers, but as the film alludes to, the Centennial State has a long history of Klan activity — and it’s not the first time the KKK attempted to control a Colorado city. In fact, for a short period of time, the Ku Klux Klan pretty much controlled the entire state.

Although Spike Lee’s film takes place in the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan originally took root in Colorado back in 1921, just as thousands of other chapters formed in cities and towns across the United States.1 Three years later, the Klan claimed to have 50,000 members in Colorado, or roughly 5 percent of the state population. The Denver chapter alone claimed 17,000 members, making it the second largest KKK chapter in the U.S. behind Indianapolis.2 Comprised of a mix of Democrats and Republicans, the Colorado Klan appealed to a wide variety of white men and women across the political spectrum because they successfully drew on the rhetoric of Protestant moralism and western populism.

The Grand Dragon of the Colorado Realm was a homeopathic physician named Dr. John Galen Locke. Described as either a “short, fat man” with a Van Dyke beard or a “Buddha with a goatee,” Dr. Locke was a charismatic but eccentric leader with a gift for organizing.3 Under his direction, the overriding public focus of the Colorado Klan concentrated on prohibition, crime control, and police corruption, yet deep-seated xenophobic and anti-Catholic beliefs underlined his agenda. Denver newspapers reported attacks on Mexican, Greek, Italian, black, and Jewish populations throughout the early 1920s.4 The Roman Catholic population of Denver became a particular target of the KKK due to its growing presence within the city. The Catholic population rose from 28,772 in 1916 to 37,748 in 1926, when it constituted nearly fifteen percent of Denver residents.5

The women’s branch of the Colorado Klan played a significant role in anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish activism, including promoting an economic boycott of all non-Protestant businesses.6 A note sent to a Denver female Klan leader illuminates this process: “Please remind our ladies,” it began, “that the Sun Drug Company with several drug stores in the city and Neusteter Clothing Company … are run by Jews.”7 Although the tactics of female Klan members proved subtler than their male colleagues’ use of terror and violence, women of the KKK wielded a soft power that may have been more effective in regulating community behavior.

The Ku Klux Klan at a fair in Cañon City, CO in the 1920s. (Recuerdos de Pandora/Flickr)

By November 1924, the groundswell of support for the Klan among white working- and middle-class Protestants translated to a victory for the organization in state and local elections. Klan members dominated Colorado’s government at almost every level. Colorado’s two U.S. Senators, its governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state auditor, attorney general, Denver’s mayor, a University of Colorado regent, four Denver District Court judges, and a majority of the state legislature all were members of the KKK. One of these state legislators was Dr. Minnie Love. Running as a Republican, Dr. Love’s platform focused on reforming the state’s health and welfare institutions with Klan ideology in mind.

Once in control, the Klan-backed government set out to make their presence known. For example, Denver’s new mayor, Benjamin Stapleton, appointed fellow Klan member William Candish as the new chief of police. Candish encouraged all of his Protestant officers to join the Klan by offering them perks and promotions. Conversely, all Jewish and Catholic officers were reassigned to work night shifts or take on other undesirable responsibilities. Candish also ordered his men to enforce forgotten city ordinances in order to harass non-Protestant and non-white business owners, including an old law that prohibited Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, and black businessmen from employing white women.8

A year later, the federal government arrested Dr. Locke for tax evasion, and his legal and financial troubles spelled the end of the Klan’s brief stranglehold on Colorado government. After the national KKK expelled him from the organization, a schism erupted among Klan members of the state. Dr. Locke founded a rival group, the Minute Men of America, which siphoned off a large portion of Klan members loyal to the physician.9 The women of the Klan also split. Dr. Minnie Love decided to follow Locke, forming the auxiliary group the Minute Women of America. (It should be noted that the women traded in their white robes and hoods for Betsy Ross outfits).

By 1927, Coloradoans voted out the Klan from all government offices, KKK chapters folded across the state, and Colorado tried to move past its brief flirtation with a Klan-controlled government. And yet, as the Minute Men and Women of America demonstrate, Colorado’s white supremacists found alternative ways to organize while the Klan went into a brief hibernation. For example, another splinter group, the Colorado Cycle Club (the CCC – get it?), operated well into the 1940s, right around the same time the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced in the state in its current iteration.

Historian Kelly J. Baker has argued that it is a mistake to assume that in our post-Charlottesville/Trump world, white supremacy has gone “mainstream.” As the history of the Colorado Klan demonstrates, and as Spike Lee shows in his film, racism has always been mainstream — it is woven into the very fabric of America. The organizations may change names or outfits — its members may wear white hoods, Betsy Ross outfits, or tailored three-piece suits — but the hate, the fear, and the violence they inflict on marginalized communities is a constant in this country’s history. The story of how the Ku Klux Klan took over Colorado’s government in the 1920s should be a warning to all of us about the dangers of complacency and our unwillingness to reconcile our past with our present.

Further Reading

Baker, Kelly. Gospel According to the Klan: the KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 2011.

Blee, Kathleen M. Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. new ed. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2009.

Goldberg, Robert Alan. Hooded Empire: the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.

Gordon, Linda. The Second Coming of the KKK: the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition. New York, N.Y.: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

Laugen, R Todd. The Gospel of Progressivism: Moral Reform and Labor War in Colorado, 1900-1930. Timberline Books. Boulder, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 2010.

Notes

  1. Southern whites formed the original KKK in the 1860s in response to Reconstruction. The group, which focused on terrorizing and inflicting violence upon African Americans, lasted until the 1870s. In 1915, white supremacists in Georgia revived the organization and expanded their “anti” platform to include Catholics, Jews, and non-Anglo immigrants. By the 1920s, this second iteration of the KKK became a nationwide movement. Return to text.
  2. Marylyn Griggs Riley, “Krazy Kool/Klean Kafe,” Box 2 FF 37, Senter, Laurena and Gano, Family Papers 1870-1976 (MSS WH988), Western History and Genealogy Center, Denver Public Library. Return to text.
  3. Griggs Riley, Krazy Kool/Klean Kafe, Box 2 FF 37, Senter, Laurena and Gano, Family Papers 1870-1976 (MSS WH988), Western History and Genealogy Center, Denver Public Library. Return to text.
  4. For a full accounting of newspaper reports of Klan violence in Colorado, see Carolyn D. Tozier, “Ku Klux Klan: An Analysis of its Treatment in Denver Newspapers, 1921-1925” (master’s thesis, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, 1976). Return to text.
  5. Phil H. Goodstein, In the Shadow of the Klan: When the KKK Ruled Denver, 1920-1926 (Denver: New Social Publications, 2006), 5. Return to text.
  6. Historian Kathleen Blee shows how ideations of gender and race influenced over a half-million, native-born Protestant women to join the WKKK in the United States during the 1920s. Blee demonstrates that women of the WKKK did not, in fact, play a peripheral role in the organization’s activities, but rather, worked as vital actors on several fronts. Kathleen M. Blee, Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 125. Return to text.
  7. Letter to Laurena Senter from Klanswoman #8716, Senter, Laurena and Gano, Family Papers 1870-1976 (MSS WH988), Western History and Genealogy Center, Denver Public Library. Return to text.
  8. Goodstein, In the Shadow of the Klan;Griggs Riley, Krazy Kool/Klean Kafe, Box 2 FF 37, Senter, Laurena and Gano, Family Papers 1870-1976 (MSS WH988), Western History and Genealogy Center, Denver Public Library. Return to text.
  9. Laugen, The Gospel of Progressivism: Moral Reform and Labor War in Colorado, 1900-1930, 176-178. Return to text.

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One Comment

Sarah

Excellent article Jackie! So proud of the accomplished woman that you are! I just saw the film yesterday and broke down sobbing when evil 45’s face came on calling racists “fine people”. Thank you for the role you’re playing in this fight so many are sadly fighting!

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