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Oregon Klan gives MLK Jr. a birthday gift

Now & Then


All this week, local schools are celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., culminating in the national holiday Monday. That’s when Pacific University will present a day of activities to honor the slain civil rights leader, who was born 85 years ago today, on Jan. 15, 1929.

Purely by coincidence, 1929 was also the year the Oregon chapter of the Ku Klux Klan dissolved.

For most of the Roaring Twenties, the Oregon chapter had been among the Klan’s largest and most influential — and western Washington County was a hub of Klan activity. In fact, two of the Klan’s most important Northwest gatherings occurred in the Forest Grove area.

Formed in 1921, the Oregon chapter of the Klan was not the same as the lynch-mob Klan of the post-Civil War South. Oregon’s Klan was fueled by economic upheaval as the Agrarian Age gave way to the Industrial Age, and by fears of socialism created by the Russian Revolution. Oregon’s Klan was viewed by many as a fraternal organization, which often cooperated with the Masons and various chambers of commerce on legislation.

African-Americans were not the primary target of Oregon’s Klan, in part because African-Americans were officially banned from the state by Oregon’s Constitution — the only such law in the country.

Instead, Oregon Klansmen mixed racial animosity with anger directed at Catholics, labor unions, public utility districts (which they viewed as communist), gay people and immigrants of all kinds, particularly Japanese, Muslims, Jews and Hindus.

A secret society by definition, the Klan did not release enrollment numbers, but historians say the number of active Oregon Klansmen ranged from 15,000 to 45,000 during its heyday. And the Portland area’s percentage of Klan membership was matched nationally only in Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis and two Ohio cities — Dayton and Youngstown — according to research from the University of Dayton.

The first major gathering of Oregon’s Klan was its state conference in 1923, held in the Hillside area a few miles northwest of Forest Grove. Heralded as a gathering of Protestant Christians, the conclave drew Klan representatives from across Oregon and southwest Washington, and was most notable for the 70-foot-tall cross that was lit during ceremonies near what is now the intersection of Clapshaw Hill Road and Hillside Road.

The choice of Hillside was not coincidental, because the idea of burning a cross on a hillside was made popular in a 1905 novel, “The Clansman.”

The choice of the Forest Grove area was not surprising either. In addition to the city being a leader in public power at that time, both the Hillside area and Gaston were seeing the start of Japanese farming communities. And nearby Verboort was home to a Catholic school, which — along with St. Mary’s Academy in Beaverton — was a focal point for Washington County’s Klansmen.

The Klan held its next state convention in Vernonia in June 1924. Opening with the aura of a community festival, the highlight of the first day came when the men of Vernonia beat Gaston’s finest in baseball, 7 to 5.

But the state convention was overshadowed by the national Democratic Convention being held the same week. A split between the Klan faction and the rest of the party led to a record 103 ballots (internal nominating elections) before Democrats nominated John Davis as their presidential candidate. Davis did not appear to be a Klan member but was acceptable to the group.

Still heavily influenced by Abraham Lincoln and abolitionists, the Republican party was not generally Klan-friendly — except in the south and west, including Oregon, where the Klan was heavily Republican and its favorite candidate was the aptly named Senate nominee, K.K. Kubli.

Despite all its Klan activity, Forest Grove also was one of the first Oregon cities to fight back against the organization. Near the end of a Ku Klux Klan parade through Forest Grove on November 27, 1923, Klansmen were pelted with eggs, one of which hit a Klan marcher on the arm and another the staff of an American flag. The Klan marchers quickly retreated and angrily demanded that police arrest those responsible and charge them with desecrating the flag.

Police detained a Pacific University student, Peter Duyck, but did not arrest him, or anyone else. In his 1984 book, “Forces of Prejudice in Oregon,” Catholic priest Lawrence Saalfeld noted that witnesses identified most of the egg-throwers as students from the Catholic school in Verboort.

The Klan maintained a certain amount of influence in Oregon’s 1925 and 1927 legislative sessions, but could not pass significant legislation. In fact, by 1927 the tide had turned so strongly against the Klan that the clause banning African-Americans from the state was finally stricken from the Oregon Constitution.

In 1929, a few months after Martin Luther King’s birth, the Oregon Klan disbanded. Its influence didn’t completely stop in the Forest Grove area, however, as a string of arsons in 1930 proved. Two homes and four barns were destroyed, all rented by Japanese farmers in the Hillside area.

The Bilderbacks research and write books about western Washington County history. To contact them or get more information, visit kenbilderback.com.




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