By STEVE LAW, Special to the Labor Press
Lynchings. Burning crosses. Night riders disguised under white robes and hoods. Those images are widely associated with the Ku Klux Klan, which formed after the Civil War to terrorize Blacks and rob them of their newly won rights. What’s not so well-known is how the Klan faded from public view in the 1870s, then reconstituted as a mass movement a half-century later. By the early 1920s, the Klan attracted some 2 million members — becoming a dominant force in Oregon politics.
Even less well-known is how this newspaper led a gutsy crusade against the hate group a century ago—then abruptly fell silent while the Klan rose to power.
The 1920s-era Klan claimed to be nonviolent and law-abiding. Yet it remained openly racist and anti-Semitic, using intimidation to silence foes. In Oregon, the Klan mainly targeted Catholics, along with Japanese, Chinese and Jewish immigrants.
The Portland Telegram, an independent daily newspaper, broke the news June 17, 1921 that Klan recruiters were scouring the city to enroll members.
Before Portland’s three other daily papers weighed in, the Oregon Labor Press, predecessor of the Northwest Labor Press, followed up July 22 with a front-page screamer headline: “Ku Klux terrorizes the nation.”
“That the KKK, a murderous and cowardly organization, a branch of which is said to be forming in Oregon, is becoming a national menace to free institutions is shown by daily reports of its lawlessness in many parts of the country, but particularly in the South,” the Labor Press said.
The article cited recent mob violence in Texas where targets were tarred and feathered. “In a number of places, it is reported that the (Klan) has attempted to force workers to labor for lower wages than the prevailing scale. Negro workers, particularly, have been threatened….”
A page 4 editorial—presumably written by editor Clarence Mortimer Rynerson—issued a call to action: “The Labor Press wants to know now what the authorities of Oregon and of Portland propose to do.” The editorial called the Klan “a threat against the peace of the state.”
Taking on the Ku Klux Klan—and opposing racism—were not givens in the labor movement of that era. In the prior week’s issue, the Labor Press reported on the Portland Central Labor Council’s opposition to an employer proposal to import “50,000 Chinese coolies” to the Hawaiian islands.
The Labor Press bashed the KKK again in its next issue on July 29. “Ku Klux threatens Portland man,” blared a 16-inch-wide Page 1 headline. The story relayed how Walter Harris, an unemployed Building Laborers union member, received a letter threatening that the KKK would punish him if he didn’t get a job.
“One of the chief purposes of the Klan is said to be the maintenance of supremacy of the white race,” said an editorial in the same edition. “If the white race must resort to such methods to maintain its supremacy, it is not entitled to supremacy.”
If Rynerson was picking a fight with the Klan, he succeeded.
In the next issue on Aug. 5, an article headlined “Klan After Labor Press Editor” appeared atop Page 1. Oregon Klan leader Luther Powell, calling himself “King Kleagle of the Realm of Oregon,” wrote a letter to Rynerson criticizing his “scathing condemnation” in recent editorials. The letter listed the Klan’s stances, including white supremacy, protection of women, “100 percent Americanism,” the “eradication of gamblers, grafters, parasites, thieves, and degenerates,” “a just limitation on new immigration,” and a “closer relationship between American labor and capital.” If Rynerson didn’t support that agenda, the Klan letter warned, “then you would be a fit subject for a Vigilance Committee.”
Despite the personal threat, Rynerson didn’t back down. He printed the Klan’s letter in its entirety, along with a defiant, sarcastic response, referring to Powell as “your highness.” Rynerson invited the Klan’s vigilante group to his workplace and told Powell where to find him. “Tell the gang not to bother the girl in the front office… Just walk right into my private office,” he wrote.
That edition contained four articles about the KKK, including a sarcastic poem called “Old King Kleagle,” plus another editorial.
Over three weeks, Rynerson had published three banner headlines and three editorials attacking the Klan, even as Klan vigilante actions mounted in other states.
Rynerson suggested that his three-week press campaign against the Klan had turned the tide.
“The Labor Press turned on the light, and if need be will follow up the fight, though it now appears that the Klan is on the run,” he stated in his Aug. 5, 1921, editorial. “The Labor Press believes that its work against the Klan is nearly finished.”
Such wishful thinking continued with the next major Labor Press story on the Klan a month later. A Sept. 2 piece headlined “King Kleagle Abdicates his Oregon Throne” claimed Luther Powell had left the area, and suggested that credit should go to Rynerson, who had sent a copy of the threatening letter to the local district attorney.
But a month later, Powell convened the first public meeting of the Portland Klan, historian Eckard Toy later wrote. Within a couple years, only five U.S. cities enlisted more Klan members than the Portland chapter, according to historian Kenneth J. Jackson. The local chapter was named after Luther Powell.
Under the leadership of Powell and rival Klan leader Fred Gifford, chapters sprouted statewide. Only Indiana attracted more Klan members on a per-capita basis.
Oregonians’ anti-immigrant attitudes provided a receptive audience for Klan recruiters, says David Horowitz, a Portland State University cultural and political history professor who has written extensively about the Klan.
And the hate group’s meteoric growth was spurred by financial incentives that awarded recruiters like Powell and Gifford a share of member dues.
On Dec. 22, 1921, 6,000 people attended the Klan’s first public event in Portland, a paid lecture at present-day Keller Auditorium.
Labor Press goes quiet
But after the flurry of aggressive coverage of the KKK in the summer of 1921, the Labor Press barely mentioned the Klan for more than two years, according to a close review of back issues.
During the spring 1922 primary election campaigns, a host of local and state candidates sought political backing from Klan leader Fred Gifford. Gifford had become “pretty much the political boss of Oregon,” wrote C.C. Chapman, editor of Oregon Voter magazine at the time.
The Labor Press often reported on labor’s political endorsements, but was silent on the Klan’s growing influence. Given that Rynerson himself was a candidate for a legislative seat in Portland in the spring 1922 primary, he surely knew of the Klan’s clout.
In that 1922 primary, incumbent Republican Governor Ben Olcott openly attacked the Klan, fearing its growing influence. The Klan supported a GOP rival who nearly unseated Olcott in the primary.
The Klan next turned to a statewide ballot initiative aimed at shutting down Catholic schools.
When Walter Pierce—the Democratic candidate for governor—promised to support the anti-Catholic-school measure, the Klan agreed to back his long-shot campaign in the general election, according to the Portland Telegram. Registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats 3 to 1 in Oregon at the time, but Pierce scored an upset win over the incumbent Olcott. The anti-Catholic-schools measure also passed handily.
“Because of Klan influence, Pierce was able to win the governorship as a Democrat by 31,000 votes,” wrote historical scholar Ben Bruce in a 2019 paper on the Klan in Oregon in the 1920s.
But the Labor Press, in a Nov. 10, 1922 summation of general election results, didn’t mention the Klan. “In Oregon, the victory of Pierce for governor . . . . is largely due to local issues,” the paper wrote.
Why did the Labor Press go from aggressively covering the Klan to barely mentioning it?
Did Rynerson fear that attacking the Klan was now a losing proposition among voters? Maybe. But the silent treatment of the Klan continued well after he lost his crowded primary race.
Maybe unions supporting the Labor Press feared economic or political pressure from the growing Klan and its supporters within the ranks of labor.
The Klan openly attacked the handful of newspapers that dared to offer aggressive coverage of the hate group, especially the Portland Telegram. In 1922, the KKK mounted a boycott of the Telegram, threatening its employees and advertisers, and vandalizing its property. That’s according to a 190-page paper submitted by Francis Paul Valenti for his University of Washington master’s thesis in 1993. Valenti’s thesis looked how the Portland press covered the KKK and the anti-Catholic-schools measure.
The Telegram lost about 5,000 subscribers and was forced to vacate its downtown Portand offices.
Labor Press board minutes from that period contain no mention of pressure from the Klan or any financial pressures on the paper.
However, a brief mention in a 1950 master’s thesis by Lawrence Saalfield may provide a clue to the paper’s curious behavior.
“Another paper to face a boycott was the Oregon Labor Press in 1921,” Saalfield wrote in his 113-page thesis, Forces of Prejudice in Oregon, 1920-1925.
Saalfield also revealed that the Labor Press was printed by the same press that printed the Western American, the Klan publication based in Portland.
Darrell Millner, emeritus Black studies professor at Portland State University who has studied the KKK, said a Klan boycott may provide the best explanation for the paper’s changing approach to covering the hate group.
“Everything points to that being a logical conclusion to draw,” Miller said. “It’s not a good look for the Labor Press, but that’s the way the wind was blowing in those days.”
The Labor Press finally resumed critical coverage of the Klan in the fall of 1923, when the American Federation of Labor adopted an anti-Klan resolution at its national convention in Portland.
“Klan Approaches Treason, Declares the Convention,” said an Oct. 12, 1923 headline.
By that time, the Klan in Oregon was in a downward spiral, racked by internal power struggles, corruption scandals, declining membership and defections.
“The death of the Klan in Oregon was not brought about by its opponents,” Saalfeld concluded. “The Klan died by its own hand.”
By 1925, the Klan had largely disappeared as a major force in Oregon.
Steve Law can be reached at email@example.com. To read his recent series about the rise of the KKK in Oregon, see https://www.oregonarchive.org/the-ku-klux-klan-in-oregon-part-1-the-klan-arrives-in-portland.