Collapse of Ku Klux Klan in Oregon by 1930s suggest ways to curb uptick in bias crimes now

Oregon has one of the nation’s most severe bias problems, according to a recent report

July 14, 2023 5:30 am

Concerns about the growing hostility toward communities of color has risen dramatically in the wake of the killings George Floyd and Breonna Taylor along with six Asian American women in Georgia. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Fever in the Heartland is one of the most pertinent new books this season, especially for Oregon where extremism is on the rise.

It is a thoughtful history and an engrossing if disturbing read by author Timothy Egan about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s – its high water mark nationally – and its local and regional impacts. The Klan became a power in many states and took over the state of Indiana, dominating its government, businesses, churches and almost everything else. That was its strongest outpost nationally. 

Its next strongest, among the then-48 states, was Oregon, which had the second-highest number of Klan members per capita. 

The racist, anti-semitic and nativist Klan controlled Oregon’s top state and local officials, from governor on down. That reflected grass roots strength: more than 50 chapters statewide, more than 30,000 “sworn” members and many more who were unofficial but supportive. Thousands joined a single massive chapter in Portland. Oregon had the right demographics for the organization, being overwhelmingly white, Protestant and native-born. It also had the right history; among other things, the state constitution originally banned Black people from living here. 

The Klan exploded in prominence in Oregon in 1921 and 1922, but by 1930 the air had left the balloon, and it collapsed. 

Why did this happen? In a paper extensively recounting the Klan’s activities in Oregon, Chapman University researcher Ben Bruce argued that “poor leadership, corruption, political overreach, mismanagement and bigoted violence caused the Klan to collapse just as quickly as it came to prominence. In the words of Catholic historian Lawrence Saalfeld, ‘the death of the Klan was not brought about by its opponents. The Klan died at its own hand.’” He also said that criticism of the Klan by many Oregon newspapers was a key factor. 

The Klan was tightly organized, almost in a military fashion, which is a major contrast to today’s loosely-networked extremists. 

The question of what happened remains relevant now as Oregon confronts a wave of domestic terrorism aimed in many cases at targets the Klan would have approved. 

A legislative-ordered report on domestic terrorism from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, released July 1, showed a massive increase in “bias incidents” – reported to a state-established bias hotline. Reports increased by a startling 178% since the hotline launched in 2020. The data about incidents is extensive, and it has been thoroughly collected and analyzed. It has not, so far, led to many answers to the problem.

The commission’s new report listed five proposals, two of them endorsing continuing efforts by the hotline, two more involving help for victims of bias crimes and proposals to fix gaps in Oregon laws that make prosecution difficult in some cases. One example cited “graffiti on property belonging to a victim in a non-protected class.” Those proposals all sound sensible – as far as they go.

There wasn’t much, however, about effectively combatting or trying to curb bias crime. One early commission idea intended to curb the incidents was, the report noted, rejected: “The mental health-bias crime link suggested in sentencing judgments is likely spurious: Many persons with mental health disabilities do not engage in bias-motivated acts, and many persons who engage in bias-motivated acts do not have mental health diagnoses.”

A March 2022 report from the Secretary of State’s Office, entitled “Oregon Can Do More to Mitigate the Alarming Risk of Domestic Terrorism and Violent Extremist Attacks,” offered a few more thoughts. Some involved better communication and coordination among state agencies, better definitions of terrorism and extremism and to “establish a statewide strategy with specific, measurable outcomes for countering violent extremism.”

But what’s the strategy, exactly? Where does this leave us when it comes to doing something about hate crimes beyond picking up the pieces after they happen?

Maybe the collapse of the Klan offers a few clues. 

One big lesson from back then was in messaging. Newspaper campaigns and other media efforts help shift the minds of many people about what was acceptable and what wasn’t. Newspapers have less impact in Oregon than they once had, but lines of communication –social, personal and organizational – probably can be tapped.

Another lesson was the way the Klan fell apart when it was directly challenged, often by criminal cases and publicity about the details of them. Stronger enforcement against bias crimes probably has to be part of the picture. 

A third point might involve leveraging in new ways the mass of data being collected and looking for patterns – geographic, ideological, psychological – with the aim of splintering and diminishing the networked groups driving the extremism. Much of the analysis developed so far has related to the types of crimes and the victims. More effectively going after the perpetrators will involve heavy analysis of the nature of the incidents, what underlies them and what it tells us about who is doing it – and what connections the perps may have. They can be pursued more effectively if we know more about them. 

The means for doing all this are falling into place. 

In his book, Egan was careful not to make explicit comparisons between the last ’20s and this current one. Still, the next logical step may involve doing, with purpose, what many Oregonians did almost inadvertently a century ago. 


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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.