January 5, 2001
A page one story in the great moral daily down at Oklahoma City said something the other day about a newly released report from the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. The article stated that the role of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1921 violence on Tulsa streets was not thoroughly explored by the commission, and even hinted that the actions of the National Guard were perhaps less than honorable. I don’t know about how the National Guard performed – those troops are under control of the governor – but it should come as no surprise to anyone that the Klan may have been on the wrong side in that most regrettable incident./p>
Growing up in this small Oklahoma town in the 1930s, I heard the usual bad remarks about the Klan and its anti-Negro bias. Nationally, the KKK was fast fading from the scene as more rational tolerance emerged. By contrast, there were many stories about how noble the Klan was earlier in the 20th century. Politicians in this state and elsewhere around the U.S. began renouncing the hooded, pro-white organization about the time when Negroes were being courted and poll tax laws were under attacked. A powerful voting bloc emerged as a result, and politicians are very sensitive to things like that. They have been known to jump on the bandwagon whenever such opportunities present themselves.
But during the age of acceptance, perhaps best identified by the decades between 1900 and 1920, membership in the Klan was considered honorable. Many of the fabulous Cherokee Strip parades around the Perry square during that period featured stunningly decorated floats with several of the town’s fairest young ladies on board, smiling and waving to cheering thousands in town for the day. No stigma was attached to such participation. It was an honor to be asked to ride on the float, and many well regarded and respected businessmen of the community were very open about their membership in the KKK.
In this age of enlightenment, it is hard for us to believe that such a radical organization could exist here. I understand that the Klan of that time stood for an all-white, all-Protestant United States of America. Cross burnings on the lawns of those they despised were fearful events. In some Southern cities homes were burned and men were lynched by white-hooded Klansmen, and all-white juries rarely convicted the few proponents who actually were brought to trial. Something like that must have occurred in Tulsa in 1921, and it is a shameful burden we should never try to hide.
Yes, times do change, and the Ku Klux Klan still exists in several pockets of the country. There is no longer widespread, popular support for those night riders and virtually all politicians are quick to denounce the bigoted views spouted by those Klansmen of another era. The KKK of yesterday may have been a fearful, potent entity, but today the organization and its members are generally ridiculed and denounced. It has been consigned to a smelly trash heap of history, thank goodness, and that is good for all of us.