|Grinnell Herald October 23, 1923, p. 1|
Federal legislation in the 1870s put a serious crimp in Klan activity, although vigilantism against African Americans continued. Iowa witnessed relatively few lynchings—one of the deeds commonly associated with the KKK—when compared to the totals of other states. Moreover, Iowa's lynchings mostly victimized whites rather than African Americans.
None of these lynchings had taken place in Grinnell, so it must have been a surprise to readers of the January 18, 1907 Grinnell Herald to find an editorial taken from the Charles City Intelligencer: "A Wise Note from Charles City." The article offered a reproving account of the lynching earlier that month of James Cullen, a white man accused of having murdered his wife and step-son. A crowd of about 400 had taken Cullen from the Floyd County jail and had promptly hanged him from the Main Street bridge over the Cedar River. The editorial objected to vigilantism, here not obviously attributable to the Klan, but the hanging must have stirred anxiety and uncomfortable memories among Grinnell's mostly liberal elite.
|Main Street Bridge, Charles City (http://www.usgwarchives.net/ia/floyd/postcards/mainbr.jpg)|
(image changed on recommendation of Beth's comment below 5/4/2016)
The next summer (June 6, 1924) the Herald published a short article on a meeting of the KKK in nearby Gilman. Apparently an Ohio representative—one of the Klan's official, paid recruiters who were part of the Klan's "second wave" in the 1920s—addressed "quite a good-sized crowd" in Gilman's park, explaining the "aims and objects of the Klan." "A delegation of knights [KKK members] in their robes was present, and formed a circle around the speaker's stand," the paper continued. Afterwards, those wishing to join the Klan were invited to meet off-site with officials; the Herald remarked that "we understand [that] quite a few were sworn into the order."
Reports like these appeared occasionally in the press, all with the same vagueness that unsettled those opposed to the Klan. For example, in late October 1922, the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette published a short piece on what even the headline admitted was a rumor—an organizing meeting of a local chapter of the KKK in nearby Nevada, Iowa. The newspaper reported that "Despite the fact that no definite information is obtainable the rumor [of the meeting] generally is accepted as true."
|Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette October 28, 1922|
|The Iowa Bystander November 20, 1920, p. 1|
|The Bystander August 11, 1921, p. 1|
****Consequently, it appears that only episodic reports of the Klan's success in 1920s Iowa made it into print. And, so far as I could discover, no further mention of the Klan appeared in Grinnell's newspapers. It is surprising, therefore, to note that at about this same time the college newspaper found several occasions to mention the Klan. In its January 6, 1923 issue, for example, the Scarlet and Black offered editorial criticism of something called "The Oracle," apparently a group of college upper-classmen, including "the huskiest and most hard-boiled athletes," who attempted to "regulate the morality and enforcement of traditions at Grinnell College." The S&B likened the group to the Klan, which, like the Oracle, kept its membership secret and felt free to enforce ("in the dead of night") its opinions upon people who had no voice in choosing them.
The following week (January 13) the college newspaper included yet another article that referenced the Klan. This time the paper directly attacked the Klan, borrowing from an article written by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, co-editors of the literary magazine, The Smart Set. Mencken and Nathan had apparently defended the Klan as "typically American," but had also criticized the Klan's opponents as being two-faced, often supporting the very ideas for which they criticized the Klan. "The fundamental cause...of the existence of the Ku Klux Klan," the paper opined, "is the weakness of human passions: envy, jealousy, and anger." In this view, the Klan fed off the desires of men who wanted to punish others with what they themselves could not do.
|Scarlet and Black January 13, 1923|
Little more was said about the Klan until the following autumn, when, according to the S&B (September 19, 1923), a freshman student used the KKK outfit as a costume for his performance during initiation rites. About a month later (October 31, 1923) the college paper reported on a "stunt" performed at Homecoming by students dressed to represent Klan members, hooded in white robes. Everyone seemed to think the stunt very humorous.
***What explains this spate of local attention—some serious, some not so serious—to the KKK? For one thing, the Klan's revival in the 1920s was certainly real, and may well have resulted in a chapter right here in Grinnell. But even if Grinnell did not have its own KKK, the increased visibility of the Klan nationwide surely made the Klan more familiar to Grinnellians, both on and off the campus. Like many other towns in Iowa, Grinnell had been host to showings of Birth of a Nation, the film that had helped revive the fortunes and reputation of the KKK. Grinnellians, therefore, were familiar with the peculiar costume of the Klan's members and knew something about the vigilantism that the organization advocated. The burning cross at the Country Club had perhaps most forcefully brought home to Grinnell the reality of the Klan's revival, but long before that fiery cross was planted on the Country Club grass, Grinnellians were familiar with the Klan.
Over the long haul, however, the KKK seems to have had little impact in Grinnell. Throughout the rest of the 1920s, the subject almost completely disappeared from local newspapers. Nationwide the Klan's fortunes ebbed with the outbreak of the Great Depression, but in Iowa, where the agricultural depression was already in evidence by 1924, the Klan may have suffered reverses even sooner, leaving towns like Grinnell only lightly affected by the post-World War I KKK recovery.