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The Klan in Montana

by Bob Brown
| July 5, 2023 2:00 AM

History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Patterns and cycles seem to repeat over time.

Almost without exception, perceived threats to the racial, ethnic, or religious majority have triggered populist reactions to change. Ethnic minorities have been persecuted because of race; religious minorities because of faith; women and LGBTQ Americans because of gender and sexuality. Over time, all have found themselves in the crosshairs of the “defenders” of tradition.

Most people may think they hold a live-and-let live attitude, but there is also a strong strain of hostility among us by those who see differences as a threat to their established American way of life. These folks feel certain of their patriotic and religious beliefs. They see tolerance and compromise as weakness and disloyalty.

As founder Thomas Jefferson advised, there can be no successful democracy without “give and take.” When differences arise, people must work them out. If they can’t, then the Founders’ ideal of government by the people can’t work either.

The dividing lines seem brighter in the self-government of today. Less newsworthy are efforts to find solutions to problems. There are some who believe American democracy has “over-matured,” that our system of government has become so bogged down with uncompromisable beliefs, that rational thought is being crowded out by inflammatory “wedge issues.” Our system has become paralyzed by intolerance.

In pondering this, I’m reminded of a prominent example of intolerance in American History, the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan rose from the ashes of the Civil War-defeated South. Unable to accept the destruction of their slavery-based economic and social order, several hundred thousand southern men, most of them Confederate military veterans, donned white sheets to disguise their identities and terrorized the newly freed slaves, and the “scallywag” southern Whites who supported them.

The post-Civil War Klan was short-lived. Former Union General and President Ulysses S. Grant saw the KKK as a lawless uprising to reverse the hard-won verdict of the Civil War. Grant put the Klan down hard. Faced with force, it quickly disbanded. But its dedication to the “Lost Cause” remained an ingrained belief in the generations that followed.

Fearful of the threat of immigrants “yearning to be free,” the Ku Klux Klan was born again in the 1920s. The second time around, the KKK was not just focused on persecuting the minority of Black Americans, but also on Catholics, Jews, Native Americans, and “foreigners” particularly from Asia and eastern Europe. In, fact, to be a Klansman, a man must, in the words of national Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans, be “100% American.” When the Wizard spoke to a Klan throng 1,300 strong in Billings in 1924, he emphasized “the imperative of White supremacy,” “the menace of the Catholic Church,” and “the threat of immigration to the purity of American blood.” At that time there were an estimated 4 million Klansmen nationwide, and in records held by Grand Dragon of Montana, Lewis Terwilliger, there were 5,100 dues paying Montanans.

Montana’s KKK membership was comparatively low. In fact, there was strong resistance here especially in the mining region around Butte and Anaconda. There, many of the mineworkers were Catholic immigrants. The news of a secret Klan chapter organizing in Butte raised the Irish dander of Silver Bow County Sheriff Jack Duggan, who issued them an ‘official greeting’ in which he warned that in his jurisdiction, misbehaving Kluxers would be “shot down like wolves.”

Terwilliger’s records show that 46 Montana communities contained Klan chapters. Though we had several “cross burnings,” Montana was never fertile ground for the Klan.

By the end of the decade, the Ku Klux Klan had drifted out of existence in Montana and the rest of the country. But while its song ended, its melody lingers on. There are those still who prioritize their understanding of “Americanism” far higher than the Constitutional guarantees of equality and justice.

In fact, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland recently said that the top domestic threat of violence our country faces today is from the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the re-emerging KKK. Greg Ehrie, former FBI section chief for domestic terrorism operations says that “the ribbon of racial identity and White supremacy runs through all of them.”

The reborn KKK and other apostles of White nationalist supremacy are as dangerous as January 6 proved them to be. Stand strong against them, and anytime you feel discouraged, hoist one to Jack Duggan and Montana’s legacy of resisting the KKK and each new cycle of tyranny.

Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.