Kalamazoo and the Ku Klux Klan
If we are to be even marginally truthful with ourselves, inquiries about who we are and where we came from must also include a rendering of the warts and the missteps, the unsavory and the shameful. They too must be acknowledged and critically reckoned with in such a way that acknowledges the ways in which earlier beliefs and structural legacies have continued to circulate unimpeded and absorbed, left to imprint themselves upon the present. The inheritances of the past are carried by communities and individuals into the present, and from there the future. History can be a helpful roadmap for understanding the social, economic, political and cultural conditions of a particular era, and how large and small-scale movements are born within these sometimes specific, sometimes generally broad circumstances.
Roaring 20s and the Spread of the Klan
Like many cities across the nation during the 1920s, Kalamazoo faced a considerable, if not relatively fleeting threat, from the Ku Klux Klan, after the terrorist organization attempted to gain a foothold in public affairs. Despite their lack of long-term success at electing local officials or in their efforts to recruit members, the Klan’s looming presence in Kalamazoo during this time period cast a pall over the city. While they may not have made the kind of strides they were hoping for, both the outward and covert support the Klan did receive was undeniably noteworthy. And where there was community support for the Klan during the mid-1920s, there too was both opposition and ambivalence, a mixture of the two which in large part contributed to the group’s diminished impact.
The Klan’s effort to infiltrate Kalamazoo politics, business and culture with their anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Jewish propaganda began in the later half of 1923, when the Klan settled into neighboring Van Buren County. As early as late December 1922, the Kalamazoo Gazette began to chronicle the organization’s impending presence in southwest Michigan, first in nearby Sturgis.
“It has been learned here that for several days there has been a representative of the Ku Klux Klan in this city looking over the field to see if it is advisable to push the formation of a chapter of that masked organization in this vicinity. A few Klan pamphlets have been delivered to various persons here. At present the indications are that the revival of the Invisible Empire, made famous in the civil war reconstruction period, will receive little encouragement in this section of the state.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 December 1922
While some Gazette reporters may have been dismissing the possible influence of a Klan invasion, their employer’s editorial positions were echoing Klan bullet points by publishing an editorial called “New Tides of Immigration” on 23 July 1923–the commentary’s gist being, that national immigration policy should restrict entrance to the United States to only those coming from Northern and Western Europe.
“Whatever changes congress may make in the existing immigration laws should be drawn with the idea of encouraging the coming to the United States of more persons of northern and western European stock rather than of opening the gates wider to peoples who have nothing in common with us. It is above everything else a question of assimilation and there can be no valid objection on the part of the United States to protect itself along such lines.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 23 July 1923
Throughout the summer of 1923, the KKK moved into Berrien, Cass and Van Buren Counties, finding support in all three. Rallies were held and crosses were burned on either side of Kalamazoo County. It was only a matter of time before Klan recruiters entered Kalamazoo, seeking to exploit the prejudices of local residents in hopes of gaining political and economic traction. As was the case in many communities, those first to embrace the Klan’s bigoted ideology were Protestant church officials. The first evidence that the Klan had made contact with local residents occurred when a Methodist pastor from Oshtemo, A. W. Baker, admitted to having attended a meeting in Kalamazoo sometime in late August. Soon afterward, Baker drafted a sermon for his congregation, detailing what he had gleaned from his time listening to Klan organizers. Baker said that roughly 150 persons had attended this first meeting, and that when it had concluded, Klan organizers asked the room to be separated into those who had joined and those who had not. According to Baker’s account, around sixty men stood in the ‘joined’ camp. It is not clear if Baker’s curiosity led to his endorsement of Klan principles or whether he had simply been reporting on the emergence of community sympathies for Klan activities. Having found success at stoking interest in Kalamazoo, the Klan sought to increase their numbers by organizing a rally at the Kalamazoo Armory.
When Klan officials attempted to book the Armory for a rally on October 17, the Kalamazoo Armory board requested “that three influential businessmen of Kalamazoo, acceptable to the board, so far sponsor the meeting as to sign the contract for the rental of the armory and allow a copy of the contract to be printed in the Gazette.” (Morrissette, 25) When the Gazette published the names of ten local businessmen connected to the sponsorship, the newspaper added the qualification that “it in no way declared them to be members of the Klan.” (Morrissette, 26) Ultimately, Colonel John G. Bersey of the State Armory board vetoed the use of the armory by the Klan, citing the likelihood of violence as the reason to ban access. Despite being denied use of the Kalamazoo Armory, the Klan rally still took place across the street during a rain storm with several hundred in attendance. By the end of 1923, the Klan had successfully moved into the area and garnered the support of hundreds of local men and women with little editorial resistance from the Gazette.
In February of 1924, William Heywood, a candidate running for village office in New Buffalo, MI was elected with Klan support, signaling to observers that the influencing of local politics was central to the group’s goals. After being denied access to the Kalamazoo Armory several months prior, the Klan successfully obtained permission to rent the large hall for a February 26th rally, featuring C. N. Jones as speaker.
“An audience which taxed the capacity of the armory last night listened to a detailed exposition of the principles and purposes of the Ku Klux Klan by C. N. Jones, an authorized representative of that organization. Hundreds who attempted to gain admission to the armory were turned away, every seat having been taken and standing room filled up long before the hour set for the address.”
–Kalamazoo Gazette, 27 February 1924
Packed to capacity, with an overflow crowd denied access because of occupancy rules, the Gazette reported on the content of Jones’ white supremacy message, which clearly resonated with attendees. In May, the Gazette reported that a group of Catholic students attending Notre Dame University roughed up Klan members in South Bend, Indiana, violently yanking off their hoods and masks.
Meanwhile, in Kalamazoo, the Methodist minister J.H. Peatling expressed his sympathies for the Klan and their “protection of our womanhood, the enforcement of our laws and liberty, the closer relationship of pure Americanism” among others, telling his East Avenue Methodist Church parishioners that he had “the kindest feeling toward you (the Klan) and your principles.” Such rhetoric likely led to the more insidious expressions of Klan activities around Kalamazoo during the summer months, with at least two accounts of cross burnings near Oakland Drive and the Westnedge Hill Neighborhood, alleged to have been done to menace an interracial couple and a Catholic family.
“A Catholic woman, who was a child at the time also remembered this event, with Klan members crowding the street from the top of the hill to Inkster Street. She also remembered seeing the oil spot where the cross had burned. The Oakland Drive cross-burning was apparently staged for the benefit of a prominent Catholic family that had recently moved into the area.”
The growth of Klan activities in Kalamazoo throughout the year culminated when the group held their “State Klanfab” parade and cross-burning on October 25th. Thousands of Klan members throughout the state paraded through downtown Kalamazoo streets while residents lined the sidewalks to observe.
“Klansman and Klanswomen of Michigan will hold their state klanvocation in Kalamazoo all day and night Saturday, Oct. 25, according to an announcement issued by the local unit. This will be the first general assembly of the Ku Klux Klan to be held in this city and will bring to Kalamazoo thousands of members of the order from many cities and communities of the state.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 October 1924
In 1925, the Klan’s growing popularity with a small, but active segment of the community, came to be a hot-button political issue when it was alleged that several city commission candidates were clandestinely supported by Klan officials. A local group called the Citizens Committee, comprised of civic and business leaders in Kalamazoo, claimed there was a Klan-endorsed ticket running in the November 2nd election. There were seven commission seats to be filled, with the candidate receiving the most votes elected to the position of mayor. 25 individuals were running, but it was a handful of those who the committee labeled as being linked to the white supremacist group. A published advertisement followed:
“We are informed that there is a determined effort on the part of the Ku Klux Klan, a recent organization in this city, to put forth and elect a ticket of candidates for the City Commission, at the coming municipal election, for the purpose of controlling the municipal affairs of Kalamazoo. We are told that the Ku Klux Klan propose in case they succeed in electing a majority of the new Commission, to discharge every member of the police force who is not a member of the Klan, and to dismiss from City employ, all appointive City officials who are not members of the Klan. We believe this is wrong, and that no secret organization should dominate City affairs.”
–Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 November 1925
The Klan responded to the Citizens Committee’s newspaper advertisement by both scoffing at the idea that they were using secretive means of influence and suggested that they were not endorsing particular candidates. However, they did add a cryptic qualification that “We do feel that the best interests of the City can be served by honest men, of good judgment, of all walks of life, who are known to be clean, straight and reliable…seven candidates having these qualifications will receive such support as we can give them as voters.” The seven candidates in question were likely Alfred Culverhouse, S.P. Mullie, George K. Taylor, G.F. Currier, C.A. Bradford, Peter Terburgh, and Marinus Ruster. Taylor garnered the most votes, becoming mayor, while Bradford, Culverhouse and Mullie also joined the commission. The three victorious candidates that disclaimed any association with the Klan, and who had been endorsed by the Citizens Committee, were Ernest Balch, Alfred Curtenins and Hubbard Kleinstuck. The Kalamazoo Gazette’s editorial response to the election results was typically tepid, if not sanctimonious, in its attempt to strike a chord of neutrality.
“It is no secret that factional rivalry played a strong part in determining the outcome of yesterday’s polls. Only three of the candidates who openly disclaimed affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan were elected. We hope, however, that every member of the new city commission will realize that while factionalism may be all right enough during a political campaign, it has no place whatever in the management of public affairs.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 November 1925
By the end of 1926, the Klan’s influence and activity was already beginning to wane, as members lost interest. It’s possible that the heated politics surrounding the city commission election worked to dilute the Klan’s appeal. Or like a trend that loses its luster and novelty over time, the kinds of messages and ideas that once stoked curiosity and bigoted pride, lost their allure.
Despite the Klan’s diminishing political and cultural presence, another high profile ‘Klonvokation” rally took place on July 2nd, 3rd and 4th. The Fourth of July parade, which ran from Crane Park to downtown, was witnessed by “several thousands of spectators” according to the Gazette.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, June 2023