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

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

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