10 Well-Known US Figures Affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan

10 Well-Known US Figures Affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan

Larry Holzwarth - October 3, 2017

Three different iterations of the organization called the Ku Klux Klan have emerged on the American landscape. Twice the group faded into near nothingness. Today’s version evolved after the Second World War, largely in opposition to the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Less rooted in the terroristic costumes of its predecessors, the Klan of today is still regarded as a hate group and despite claiming a Christian heritage it has been condemned by virtually every Christian denomination.

Earlier versions of the Klan claimed a greater influence politically and socially than today’s, particularly in the South and Appalachia. Many politicians needed and sought Klan support. Unlike the first version, which opposed civil rights for newly freed blacks during reconstruction, the second stood largely in opposition to the rising political influence of Catholics and Jews in American life. Catholics, represented by increasing numbers of Italian and Irish immigrants, were of particular concern to Midwestern and Southern Protestants, who feared loyalty to Rome would replace American Christian values.

This message of racial and ethnic purity grew at the same time and was reflective of similar movements in central Europe during the first half of the 20th century. Both the second and third iterations of the Klan espoused views of nativism, a view which is reflected in 21st century America First movements.

Because of its influence in the South, Mid-West, and Appalachia, many American political and social leaders were required to acknowledge the existence of the Klan as a political entity and some leading American citizens were members or welcomed Klan support. Here are some such leaders, and some who may not have been in the Klan despite common belief to the contrary.

10 Well-Known US Figures Affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan
Nathan Bedford Forrest was a legendary cavalry leader noted for his refusal to take prisoners and his hit and run tactics. Wikipedia

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was a legendary Cavalryman. Although often called the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, his association with the Klan was short and less involved than previously believed.

When the first Ku Klux Klan was formed in Pulaski, Tennessee following the Civil War Nathan Bedford Forrest was an early joiner, at the invitation of another former Confederate general, George Gordon. Forrest was sworn in as a member in Nashville’s Maxwell House Hotel, although historical evidence that he served as the first Grand Wizard of the Klan is thin. One reason for such speculation is that Forrest’s nickname during the war was “Wizard of the Saddle”, encouraging former southern troops who joined the Klan to refer to their leader in the familiar old terms as a “Grand Wizard”.

Just two years later Forrest was denying his membership in the Klan, or any formal association with it, to a Cincinnati newspaper. Orders issued from the Klan’s leadership were attributed to the Grand Wizard by title, rather than Forrest by name, allowing him deniability. By 1874 Forrest was calling for the abolition of the Klan and the elimination of those who attempted to terrorize blacks in the South, supporting an act to “…exterminate those men responsible…”

To his detractors, Forrest’s membership in and leadership of the Klan is undeniable, cementing his reputation as a genocidal racist. Forrest’s war record was one of a brutal enemy who treated prisoners harshly, if and when he allowed them to be taken. But evidence of his activities directing, or even participating, in Klan activities post 1866 is almost entirely anecdotal, and significant evidence exists to support his assertions that he was not an active member.

10 Well-Known US Figures Affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan
Official Photograph of Associate Justice Hugo Black in his judicial robes, early in his tenure on the Supreme Court. Library of Congress

Hugo Black

A former US Senator from Alabama, Hugo Black became the 5th longest-serving Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in US History. His influence on US law in and beyond the 20th century is significant. Appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Black was a liberal stalwart, although he occasionally surprised court observers, such as when he upheld the right of the United States Government to intern Japanese Americans during World War II.

Black’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan was revealed when his resignation letter to the organization was discovered and exposed to the world by a Pittsburgh newspaper reporter. Black admitted membership but claimed he resigned from all Klan activities prior to taking his seat as a United States Senator.

When Black’s association with the KKK became an issue prior to confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice, the President of the United States, FDR, said simply that “…a man’s private life is supposed to be his private life…” and refused to withdraw the nomination. During his career in the Senate, Black consistently opposed anti-lynching legislation when it was debated throughout the 1930s. He remained an active supporter of FDR’s policies and was an advocate of the Supreme Court packing plan.

In 1937 Black was well known for opposing the Catholic Church on institutional grounds and although he was no longer a member of the KKK gave speeches at Klan meetings throughout Alabama while serving in the United States Senate. In many of these speeches, he spoke out against the influence of the Catholic Church. Later in his career, he spoke out against segregation in public schools. Like many southerners of his generation, his positions on race and equality issues were complicated, but there is no doubt that he was at one time an active member of the Ku Klux Klan.

10 Well-Known US Figures Affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan
Sculptor, Painter, and Klansman Gutzon Borglum circa 1919. American Institute of Art

Gutzon Borglum

Gutzon Borglum, whose full name was the impressive-sounding John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, was a sculptor and painter who is perhaps most famous for the mammoth outdoor carvings of Stone Mountain in Georgia (which he did not complete) and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. During his career, Borglum also carved statues of several saints and apostles for inclusion within Episcopal Churches and Cathedrals, including the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Borglum’s father Jens was a polygamist Mormon, with two wives at the time of his son’s birth, although he later divorced one of them and renounced polygamy and Mormonism.

In 1915 Borglum began work on the Stone Mountain carvings of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, hired by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. He was to include in the great frieze an altar to the Ku Klux Klan; his acknowledged membership in the organization was helpful to his landing the commission.

Borglum had joined the Klan on top of Stone Mountain, and his strong white supremacist beliefs were appealing to the sponsors of the monument. World War I intervened and work was suspended; when renewed Borglum had been approached to build Mount Rushmore. At the same time financial backing for Stone Mountain dwindled, and with his attention drifting to the Black Hills his Georgia sponsors fired him and hired new visionaries to complete the Stone Mountain work. Borglum went to South Dakota.

Still Borglum remained a Klan member and participant in Klan activities, even as he built the huge edifice with its likenesses of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. Today, the museum at Mount Rushmore contains correspondence from highly-placed Klan officers to Borglum offering both congratulations for his achievements and approbation for his strongly racist views, in the very shadow of his great bust of Abraham Lincoln.

10 Well-Known US Figures Affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan
Kaspar Kap Kubli made the KKK a dominant force in Oregon state politics for many years. Library of Congress

Kaspar Kubli, Jr.

Kaspar Kap Kubli Jr. (which was his real name, as indicated by the designation of “Jr”) was an obvious candidate for membership in the KKK. His membership should not be taken lightly, however, and he accepted a free membership (based on his improbable initials) and was a dedicated and enthusiastic supporter and practitioner of Klan activities.

Away from the Klan Kubli was an Oregon politician; a member of the Republican Party who believed in and supported the vibrancy of local politics over the national stage. Kubli was an early and avid supporter of tax money being used to build roads – a progressive viewpoint in the early 1920s – and a supporter of the National Guard and benefits for war widows in the aftermath of World War 1.

Kubli also strongly supported legislation which proposed the forced sterilization of many “undesirables” including homosexuals, the criminally insane, epileptics, and others. This legislation not only passed but led to more than 120 forced sterilizations in Oregon before the United States Supreme Court found the law to be unconstitutional in 1921. Nazi Germany would not pass a similar law until the 1930s.

Kubli’s KKK activities were well-received among his voters, and he used his popularity and KKK connections to actively recruit candidates for the state legislature from other districts, strengthening his voting bloc in Oregon. In the mid-1920s, with the backing of the KKK, Kubli introduced and pushed through legislation which forbade the wearing of religious clothing while teaching in both public and private schools, forbidding priests, nuns, and brothers, from wearing their religious garb in parochial classrooms. The law remained in effect until 2010. Kubli also helped pass legislation proposed which mandated public school attendance between the years of 8 – 16, eliminating parochial education. Although the law passed, the Supreme Court struck it down before it could be placed in effect.

10 Well-Known US Figures Affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan
Edward L. Jackson, Secretary of State and Governor of Indiana, tried to bribe his predecessor for the KKK’s benefit. Bain News Service

Edward L. Jackson

Former attorney and judge Edward L. Jackson was the Governor of the State of Indiana for a single term, 1925 – 1929. He had previously served as Secretary of State. Throughout his political career, he was an active member of the KKK and was supportive of Klan goals and policies in the performance of his political offices. While serving as governor he was charged with having attempted to bribe his predecessor, but was acquitted of all charges on a legal technicality.

Jackson had recently opened a law practice in Lafayette Indiana following a stint in the Army during World War I, which he managed to spend entirely in the nearby areas of Toledo Ohio and Battle Creek Michigan. Approached by then Governor of Indiana James Goodrich to finish the term of the recently deceased Secretary of State, Jackson accepted. Later he ran for the office on his own, and having caught the political bug he decided he needed a higher office and the political backing to acquire one. The Grand Dragon for Indiana, D.C. Stephenson, was desirous of removing Roman Catholic political power and influence within the Hoosier state and found Jackson to be his man.

Jackson’s relationship with the Klan was soon problematic for him, and whether he became an active member remains in dispute. Jackson certainly could be found in the company of Klansmen, and he actively supported Klan approved agenda in the state capital. While still Secretary of State Jackson attempted to bribe the governor to appoint Klan members to various non-elected but influential positions in the state government. The amount of the bribe was $23,000, the source of the money was the state Klan organization, and the governor was a multimillionaire who rejected both because the action or the amount – historians aren’t sure which – offended his sensibilities.

Jackson would have other difficulties with the Klan while serving his own term as governor, which would lead to Klan members leaking the details of his associations – and the attempted bribe – to the press. The statute of limitations had run out, preventing Jackson from conviction, and he served out his term as governor as a shamed lame duck, eventually retiring to an apple farm. The Klan gradually faded from influence in Indiana politics.

10 Well-Known US Figures Affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan
In compliance with the Selective Service Act, Bell registered for the draft in 1941 – despite being 51 years of age. Library of Congress

Arthur Hornbui Bell

Arthur Bell was an attorney and a former vaudeville performer who entertained the troops during World War I as part of a husband and wife act known as Bell and Bell. By 1922 Bell was a practicing attorney in New Jersey and the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan for the Garden State. Bell was notably anti-semitic and was deeply concerned over the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in American life and politics. He called New York Governor Al Smith, a Catholic, “unfit for office” and wrote anti-Catholic and Jewish polemics.

As an attorney of some note and influence, Bell was valued for his writing abilities, and he produced articles and op-eds for publication, as well as writing the introduction for other’s works. Under his own name, he published a book drawing direct comparisons between the Catholic men’s organization the Knights of Columbus and the Ku Klux Klan with the subtitle “America or Rome.” This work argued that Catholics held their first loyalty to the papacy in Rome while the Klan was the true supporter of American values and political beliefs.

Bell was active in converting former US Army property into recreation property for exclusive use of Klan members and their families. Camp Evans, formerly an Army Signal Corps station, became a Klan property for this purpose and served as the headquarters for the New Jersey Ku Klux Klan until 1935, when it was purchased by a Christian fundamentalist group. By the late 1940s, Bell was actively trying to merge the German American Bund – a pre-World War II Nazi sympathizer group which supported the notion of Aryan Supremacy – with the Ku Klux Klan. This led to his dismissal as Grand Dragon and a gradual decline of his influence.

Bell believed and preached that Roman Catholic desire for world power would lead to religious warfare against the persecuted protestants religions, a viewpoint he lightened in his later years when he advocated for the teaching of religious tolerance – although in racially segregated schools.

10 Well-Known US Figures Affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan
The final Creek lands in the United States were swept up in the Oklahoma Land Rush, when the luckiest got there sooner. McLenny Album

Wyatt Tate Brady

Wyatt Brady was a Missouri shoe salesman who relocated to the so-called Indian Territory after surviving a robbery attempt. The Indian Territory was the land occupied by the Creek sect of the Cherokee tribes who had resided there since the Trail of Tears during the Jackson Administration. While there, Brady married a Creek woman, becoming as a result an adopted tribal member, and a fighter for Creek rights against the Federal government in Washington DC.

He became one of the founders of the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and owned and operated the Brady Hotel, and was a popular employer with the reputation of hiring and promoting black, Native American, and white workers without evident prejudice.

When oil workers who were not becoming rich attempted to organize in 1917, a vigilante group calling themselves the Knights of Liberty (a local group connected to the KKK) attacked and tarred and feathered many of their leaders. Brady was identified as both the leader of the Knights of Liberty and the primary applier of tar. When the Klan decided that it was time to construct a meeting hall – called a Klavern – in Tulsa they created the Tulsa Benevolent Society and provided it with $200,000 to purchase land suitable for their use. The land was purchased from a parcel owned by Rachel Brady – Wyatt’s wife – and near by the Brady Hotel.

Brady freely admitted his Klan membership though he claimed to have resigned from the Klan when registering as a member of the Democratic Party. Several areas of Tulsa remain named for him, although Tulsa’s Brady Street no longer honors the town founder. Originally named for Brady, in 2013 it was re-dedicated to honor Civil War photographer Matthew Brady – who has no other connection with Tulsa or Oklahoma. The renaming was instigated by groups opposing Wyatt Brady’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

10 Well-Known US Figures Affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan
Klansmen visiting the Capitol Building in Washington DC circa 1925. Library of Congress

Theodore Bilbo

Bilbo was a twice-elected governor of Mississippi and a two-term US Senator who developed the reputation of being an unrepentant white supremacist, a segregationist, and a dedicated member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Bilbo was not averse to using the known prejudices of his constituents for political gain; while campaigning for Democrat Al Smith in the 1928 Presidential Election he helped spread (some say he originated) a rumor that the Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover, had maintained an illicit relationship with a black woman. The illicit nature of the relationship paled in immorality compared with the racial overtones – at least to those Democrats who had been reluctant to support the Catholic Smith. Soon the religious issues faded when considered against the Republican’s racial faux pas, in their estimation. Hoover won anyway, but not in Mississippi.

Throughout his career in politics, Bilbo was pro-white workers at the expense of all others. In 1938 he proposed a rider to a New Deal bill – which he strongly supported – which would have mandated the deportation of 12 million black workers to Liberia. Bilbo’s speeches were invariably racist, and he opposed throughout his career the idea of blacks being franchised with the vote.

Bilbo is also of historical not as being the first governor in the history of the United States to sign into law a state sales tax. On the Ku Klux Klan, Bilbo proudly admitted his membership and claimed that all members of the Klan were members for life. “No man can leave the Klan…Once a Ku Klux, always a Ku Klux,” he said. He also opposed anti-lynching bills in the late 1930s, saying in a floor speech in the Senate that passing one such bill would “…open the floodgates of hell in the South.” He warned that making lynching illegal would increase rapes, murders and other crimes including, ironically, lynching.

10 Well-Known US Figures Affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan
In the 1940s Robert Bird founded a Ku Klux Klan Chapter in Sophia West Virginia and served as its Exalted Cyclops. Wikipedia

Robert Byrd

Robert Byrd was a Senator from West Virginia from 1959 -2010, making him the longest-serving member of that body in the history of the United States. By the latter years of his tenure in the Senate, his accumulated power and knowledge of that body were nearly immeasurable. Still, he suffered considerable political embarrassment over discussions in the press and other media regarding his membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

Byrd didn’t simply join the Klan. When no chapter was available for him to join, he actively recruited friends and friends of friends, pumping hands, explaining beliefs and tenets, cajoling, persuading, and calling in favors, to create a new chapter in Sophia, West Virginia. He was successful in bringing in 150 new members, who understandably elected him as their leading officer, with the title of Exalted Cyclops. Soon the Cyclops was in correspondence with noted Klansman Theodore Bilbo, explaining his opposition to a desegregated military and deploring “race mongrel(s)”.

Byrd promoted both the Klan and his position in it, not shy about addressing senior Klan leaders (Grand Wizards) with statements such as “…The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth…”. But when Byrd began planning his run for the House of Representatives his ardor for the Klan cooled.

He would later explain to voters that his interest was primarily along the lines of anti-communist activities. By the end of his career Byrd was openly lamenting ever being involved with the Klan, stating that “…intolerance had no place in America…”, a far cry from his statements decades earlier, when he referred to potential intermingling of races as “…a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”

10 Well-Known US Figures Affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan
A young captain of artillery, Harry S Truman in 1917. The Truman Library

Harry S Truman

No period goes behind the S in Truman’s name because it isn’t an initial. It’s simply a letter he placed there to burnish his image when first attempting to become a County Judge back in Missouri. Being a judge wasn’t like being a judge presiding over legal cases in a courtroom either. He was more of a commissioner, and he used his time as such to work long and hard at improving the roads in his district, the beginning of his lifelong love of roads and travel by automobile.

It was while running for this judgeship that the relatively unknown Truman was asked if he wanted to join the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The individual who approached Truman was employed by his own benefactor – Tom Pendergast – and therefore to be trusted. He promised more votes, including the support of all fellow Klansmen in the district. Truman needed votes. He gave the envoy ten dollars for membership dues. Later he found out that the Klan was virulently anti-Catholic – particularly anti-Irish Catholic.

As a captain of artillery in World War I, Truman had commanded a battery which included several Irish-Catholics, many of whom he still drank and played poker with in the local Freemason’s Hall. Truman wasn’t about to tolerate prejudice against any of “his boys”. He summoned the messenger, renounced his membership, and demanded his ten dollars back.

That is the known extent of Harry Truman’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, a brief use of their influence to burnish his credentials, quickly disposed of, and never revisited. Truman is frequently denounced as a Klan member, and technically maybe he was despite never attending any meetings, being initiated, or swearing any oath. As President, he desegregated the military through the use of an Executive Order when a bickering Congress failed to act, enraging Southern Democrats but is still considered by many to have been a racist. His Klan membership is definitive proof. Maybe. Maybe not.


Sources For Further Reading:

Middle Tennessee State University – Ku Klux Klan

Southern Poverty Law Center – Active Ku Klux Klan Groups

CBS News – Disturbing Photos of The Modern-Day Ku Klux Klan

PBS – Grant, Reconstruction and the KKK

US News – KKK Groups Still Active in These States

News Channel 3 – Report Says KKK Groups Are Still Active, One Is in Michigan

DW – Four Active Ku Klux Klan Groups in Germany

Smithsonian Magazine – The Ku Klux Klan Didn’t Always Wear Hoods

PBS – Top 5 Questions About the KKK

National Geographic – The Ku Klux Klan