—by Marshall Sprague (1909-1994)
Excerpted from “Colorado: A History”, published in 1984 by the American Association for State and Local History. Reprinted in paperback in 1996 by W.W. Norton & Company and available from Amazon.com.
“1921 marked the start of one of the most serious aberrations in the state’s history—the rise of the Ku Klux Klan under the Grand Dragonship of a strange Denver physician Dr. John Galen Locke. Many residents of Colorado, like Americans everywhere, found themselves full of fears after World War I—fears of hard times, of the communism of Karl Marx, of Eugene Debs and his American socialism, of the Industrial Workers of the World and their violence, of spies in the land working for foreign governments.
To these fearful people, especially in the Front Range cities, Locke’s program of “One Hundred Percent Americanism” had great appeal. They found joy in Klan activities, dressing in sheets, burning crosses on Table Mountain near Golden and atop Pikes Peak, and boycotting the businesses of their opponents. They persecuted Catholics and Negroes and, especially, successful Jews such as Jesse Shwayder, the son of a Polish immigrant who had created the huge luggage firm, Samsonite Corporation.
The Klansmen took advantage of the unemployment to attack recent immigrants to Colorado from Greece and Hungary who had jobs in the Denver smelters around the Globeville section and at the C. F. & I. steel works of South Pueblo. The Klansmen advised Denverites to cease patronizing restaurants bearing “foreign” names like Pagliacci or Benito or Ciancio or Wong or Torino.
By 1924 the Klan membership was large enough to elect the state’s governor, a senator, the mayor and chief of police of Denver, and a majority in the general assembly. But within months most of these Klansmen turned out to be inept public officials. And when Locke resigned in June of 1925 as Grand Dragon after being jailed for contempt of court in an income-tax matter, the power of the Klan ended abruptly and completely.”
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B50 Note: It is difficult to imagine the amount of power and influence the Klan held in Denver and Colorado between 1920 and 1926; Mayor Ben Stapleton and Governor Clarence Morley were both members of the “Silent Empire.” Eighty years later, Colorado is the only state in the country to have both houses of its legislature headed by African-Americans (Terrance Carroll and Peter Groff).
Marshall Sprague was a author and historian, well known for his prose about the American West. Images are courtesy of The Denver Public Library Western History Collection. The definitive resource on this topic is “Hooded Empire: the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado” by Robert Alan Goldberg, published by University of Illinois Press in 1981. A review of the book (from 1987) is available on Dark Cloud’s site.