Ku Klux Klan members in United States politics
This is a partial list of a few notable historical figures in U.S. national politics who were members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) before taking office. Membership of the Klan is secret. Political opponents sometimes allege that a person was a member of the Klan, or was supported at the polls by Klan members.
Politicians who were active in the Klan
In 2018, The Washington Post reported that, by 1930, the KKK, while its "membership remained semi-secret, claimed 11 governors, 16 senators and as many as 75 congressmen — roughly split between Republicans and Democrats".
Supreme Court Justices
In 1921, Hugo Black (D) defended E. R. Stephenson in his trial for the murder of a Catholic priest, Fr. James E. Coyle. E.R. Stephenson's daughter had converted to Catholicism and married a man of Puerto Rican descent, and Coyle had conducted the wedding. Hugo Black got Stephenson acquitted in part by arguing to the jury that Puerto Ricans should be considered black under the South's one drop rule. Black, a Democrat, joined the Ku Klux Klan shortly afterwards, in order to gain votes from the anti-Catholic element in Alabama. He built his winning Senate campaign around multiple appearances at KKK meetings across Alabama. Late in life, Black told an interviewer:
at that time, I was joining every organization in sight! ... In my part of Alabama, the Klan was engaged in unlawful activities ... The general feeling in the community was that if responsible citizens didn't join the Klan it would soon become dominated by the less responsible members.
News of his membership was a secret until shortly after he was denied as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Black later said that joining the Klan was a mistake, but he went on to say, "I would have joined any group if it helped get me votes."
On the Supreme Court, Black wrote the opinion in Korematsu v. United States, which upheld the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Black also wrote the opinion in Everson v. Board of Education, a key case about the separation of church and state.  Some have argued that his views on the separation of church and state were influenced by the Klan's anti-Catholicism.
Despite his former Klan membership, Black joined the Supreme Court's unanimous decisions in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which outlawed judicial enforcement of racially restrictive covenants, and Brown v Board of Education, which outlawed school segregation. Justice William Douglas would write years later that at least 3 (and possibly as many as 5) Supreme Court justices were originally planning to rule school segregation constitutional, but Black had actually been one of the 4 justices who were planning to strike down school segregation from the beginning of the Brown case.
Members of the Senate
Theodore G. Bilbo
Robert C. Byrd (D), the U.S. for West Virginia, was a recruiter for the Klan while in his 20s and 30s, rising to the title of Kleagle and Exalted Cyclops of his local chapter. After leaving the group, Byrd spoke in favor of the Klan during his early political career. Though he later said he officially left the organization in 1943, Byrd wrote a letter in 1946 to the group's Imperial Wizard stating "The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia." Byrd attempted to explain or defend his former membership in the Klan in his 1958 U.S. Senate campaign when he was 41 years old. Byrd, a Democrat, eventually became his party leader in the Senate. Byrd later said joining the Klan was his "greatest mistake," and after his death, the NAACP released a statement praising Byrd, acknowledging his former affiliation with the Klan and saying that he "became a champion for civil rights and liberties" and "came to consistently support the NAACP civil rights agenda". In a 2001 interview, Byrd used the term "white niggers" twice during a national television broadcast. The full quote ran as follows: "My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practice that. There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time. I'm going to use that word. We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I'd just as soon quit talking about it so much." Byrd later apologized for the phrase and admitted that it "has no place in today's society," and did not clarify the intended meaning of the term in his context.
Joseph E. Brown
John Brown Gordon
Rufus C. Holman
Rice W. Means
John Tyler Morgan
Members of the House of Representatives
George Gordon (D), U.S. Representative for Tennessee's 10th congressional district, became one of the Klan's first members. In 1867, Gordon became the Klan's first Grand Dragon for the Realm of Tennessee, and wrote its Precept, a book describing its organization, purpose, and principles.
William David Upshaw
Homer Martin Adkins
Bibb Graves (D), was the Governor of Alabama. He lost his first campaign for governor in 1922, but four years later, with the secret endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan, he was elected to his first term as governor. Graves was almost certainly the Exalted Cyclops (chapter president) of the Montgomery chapter of the Klan. Graves, like Hugo Black, used the strength of the Klan to further his electoral prospects.
Edward L. Jackson
Edward L. Jackson (R), was the Governor of Indiana in 1925 and his administration came under fire for granting undue favor to the Klan's agenda and associates. Jackson was further damaged by the arrest and trial of Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson for the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer. When it was revealed that Jackson had attempted to bribe former Gov. Warren T. McCray with $10,000 to appoint a Klansman to a local office, Jackson was taken to court. His case ended with a hung jury, and Jackson ended his political career in disgrace. There is, however, evidence that Jackson joined the KKK himself.
Clarence Morley (R), the Governor of Colorado, was a KKK member and a strong supporter of Prohibition. He tried to ban the Catholic Church from using sacramental wine and attempted to have the University of Colorado fire all Jewish and Catholic professors.
Elmer David Davies
Elmer David Davies (D), a Federal Judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, was a member of the KKK whilst at university.
John W. Morton
William L. Saunders
A notable number of local officials were also Klansmen, resulting in such as the "reign of terror" inflicted by Louisiana by crony "exalted cyclops": Bastrop mayor, John Killian Skipwith, known as Captain J. K. Skipwith, and Mer Rouge mayor, Bunnie McEwin McKoin, MD, better known as Dr. B. M. McKoin (and whose surname was variously misreported as McCoin, M'Koin and McKoln in media).
John Clinton Porter
Benjamin F. Stapleton
Benjamin F. Stapleton (D), was Mayor of Denver in the 1920s–1940s. He was a Klan member in the early 1920s and appointed fellow Klansmen to positions in municipal government. Ultimately, Stapleton broke from the Klan and removed several Klansmen from office.
Kaspar K. Kubli
David Duke, a politician who ran in both Democrat and Republican presidential primaries, was openly involved in the leadership of the Ku Klux Klan. He was founder and Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-1970s; he re-titled his position as "National Director" and said that the KKK needed to "get out of the cow pasture and into hotel meeting rooms". He left the organization in 1980. He ran for president in the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries. In 1989 Duke switched political parties from Democrat to Republican. In 1989, he became a member of the Louisiana State Legislature from the 81st district, and was Republican Party chairman for St. Tammany Parish.
Alleged members of the Klan
Edward Douglass White
Edward Douglass White, a Democrat and the Chief Justice of the United States, was alleged to be a Klansman in one unverified source. More complete is legal historian Paul Finkelman in American National Biography (2000) about that single report: "Although the moviemaker D. W. Griffith claimed White endorsed his racist movie, The Birth of a Nation (1915), and asserted that White had been in the Ku Klux Klan, there is no evidence to support either of Griffith’s contentions."
Warren G. Harding
The consensus of modern historians is that Warren Harding was never a member, and instead was an important enemy of the Klan. While one source claims Warren G. Harding, a Republican, was a Ku Klux Klan member while President, that claim is based on a third-hand account of a second-hand recollection in 1985 of a deathbed statement made sometime in the late 1940s concerning an incident in the early 1920s. Independent investigations have turned up many contradictions and no supporting evidence for the claim. Historians reject the claim and note that Harding in fact publicly fought and spoke against the Klan.
The rejected claim was made by Wyn Craig Wade. He stated Harding's membership as fact and gives a detailed account of a secret swearing-in ceremony in the White House, based on a private communication he received in 1985 from journalist Stetson Kennedy. Kennedy, in turn had, along with Elizabeth Gardner, tape recorded some time in the "late 1940s" a deathbed confession of former Imperial Klokard Alton Young. Young claimed to have been a member of the "Presidential Induction Team". Young also said on his deathbed that he had repudiated racism. In his book, The Strange Deaths of President Harding, historian Robert Ferrell says he was unable to find any records of any such "ceremony" in which Harding was brought into the Klan in the White House. John Dean, in his 2004 book Warren Harding, also could find no proof of Klan membership or activity on the part of Harding. Review of the personal records of Harding's Personal White House Secretary, George Christian Jr., also do not support the contention that Harding received members of the Klan while in office. Appointment books maintained in the White House, detailing President Harding's daily schedules, do not show any such event.
In their 2005 book Freakonomics, University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner alluded to Warren Harding's possible Klan affiliation. However, in a New York Times Magazine Freakonomics column, entitled "Hoodwinked? Does it matter if an activist who exposes the inner workings of the Ku Klux Klan isn't open about how he got those secrets?", Dubner and Levitt said that they no longer accepted Stetson Kennedy's testimony about Harding and the Klan.
The 1920 Republican Party platform, which essentially expressed Harding's political philosophy, called for Congress to pass laws combating lynching. Harding denounced lynching in a landmark 21 October 1921 speech in Birmingham, Alabama, which was covered in the national press. Harding also vigorously supported an anti-lynching bill in Congress during his term in the White House. His "comments about race and equality were remarkable for 1921.”
Payne argues that the Klan was so angry with Harding's attacks on the KKK that it originated and spread the false rumor that he was a member.
Carl S. Anthony, biographer of Harding's wife, found no such proof of Harding's membership in the Klan. He does however discuss the events leading up to the period when the alleged Klan ceremony was held in June 1923:
[K]nowing that the some branches of the Shriners were anti-Catholic and in that sense sympathetic to the Ku Klax Klan and that the Klan itself was holding a demonstration less than a half mile from Washington, Harding censured hate groups in his Shriners speech. The press "considered [it] a direct attack" on the Klan, particularly in light of his criticism weeks earlier of "factions of hatred and prejudice and violence [that] challeng[ed] both civil and religious liberty".
In 2005, The Straight Dope presented a summary of many of these arguments against Harding's membership, and noted that, while it might have been politically expedient for him to join the KKK in public, to do it in private would have been of no benefit to him.
It was falsely rumored, in his lifetime, that Harding was partly of African-American descent, so he would have been an unlikely recruit for the Ku Klux Klan.
One common misconception is that President Calvin Coolidge was a Klan member, a claim that Klan websites have spread. In reality, Coolidge was adamantly opposed to the Klan. According to Jerry L. Wallace at the Coolidge Foundation, "Coolidge expressed his antipathy to the Klan by reaching out in a positive, public way directly to its victims: Blacks, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants, with whom he had good relations—especially so for Irish Catholics—going back long before the rise of the Invisible Empire . . . [and] sought to highlight their positive achievements and contributions to American life." Ironically, many Klan members voted for the Republican Coolidge in the 1924 presidential election because the Democratic presidential nominee John W. Davis denounced the Klan at the party's convention.
Harry S Truman
Harry S Truman, the Democratic politician who became president in 1945, was accused by opponents of having dabbled with the Klan briefly. In 1924, he was a judge in Jackson County, Missouri. Truman was up for reelection, and his friends Edgar Hinde and Spencer Salisbury advised him to join the Klan. The Klan was politically powerful in Jackson County, and two of Truman's opponents in the Democratic primary had Klan support. Truman refused at first, but paid the Klan's $10 membership fee, and a meeting with a Klan officer was arranged.
According to Salisbury's version of the story, Truman was inducted, but afterward "was never active; he was just a member who wouldn't do anything". Salisbury, however, told the story after he became Truman's bitter enemy, so historians are reluctant to believe his claims.
According to Hinde and Margaret Truman’s accounts, the Klan officer demanded that Truman pledge not to hire any Catholics or Jews if he was reelected. Truman refused, and demanded the return of his $10 membership fee; most of the men he had commanded in World War I had been local Irish Catholics.
Truman had at least one other strong reason to object to the anti-Catholic requirement, which was that the Catholic Pendergast family, which operated a political machine in Jackson County, were his patrons; Pendergast family lore has it that Truman was originally accepted for patronage without even meeting him, on the basis of his family background plus the rt that he was not a member of any anti-Catholic organization such as the Klan. The Pendergast faction of the Democratic Party was known as the "Goats", as opposed to the rival Shannon machine's "Rabbits". The battle lines were drawn when Truman put only Goats on the county payroll, and the Klan began encouraging voters to support Protestant, "100% American" candidates, allying itself against Truman and with the Rabbits, while Shannon instructed his people to vote Republican in the election, which Truman lost.
Truman later claimed that the Klan "threatened to kill me, and I went out to one of their meetings and dared them to try", speculating that if Truman's armed friends had shown up earlier, violence might have resulted. However, biographer Alonzo Hamby believes that this story, which is not supported by any recorded facts, was a confabulation based on a meeting with a hostile and menacing group of Democrats that contained many Klansmen, showing Truman's "Walter Mitty-like tendency ... to rewrite his personal history". Sympathetic observers see Truman's flirtation with the Klan as a momentary aberration, point out that his close friend and business partner Eddie Jacobson was Jewish, and say that in later years Truman's presidency marked the first significant improvement in the federal government's record on civil rights since the post-Reconstruction nadir marked by the Wilson administration.
- "How social media spread a historical lie", by Jennifer Mendelsohn and Peter A. Shulman, The Washington Post, March 18, 2018. Retrieved January 26, 2021.
- Roger K, Newman, Hugo Black: a biography (1997) p 97.
- Ball, Hugo L. Black pp 16, 50.
- Hugo Black's membership was the subject of Ray Sprigle's 1938 series of articles in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for which Sprigle lost the Pulitzer Prize.
- See New York Times August 14, 1946, Page 14
- Pianin, Eric. "A Senator's Shame." Washington Post 19 June 2005.
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- "NAACP Mourns the Passing of U.S. Senator Robert Byrd | Press Room". www.naacp.org. Archived from the original on July 7, 2010. Retrieved August 27, 2016.
- Senator Robert Byrd interviewed by Tony Snow, Fox News, taped on March 2, 2001, originally broadcast on March 4, 2001 (posted to YouTube on Jan 17, 2009)
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- "Defeat Becomes Overwhelming as Belated Returns Come In; Anti-Klan Majorities Mount". Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. Denver. 1926-09-16. p. 8. Retrieved 2020-06-06 – via Newspapers.com.
- Ku Klux Klan in Alabama during the Reconstruction Era. The Encyclopedia of Alabama
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- "Who Was Edmund Pettus". Smithsonian.com. Retrieved 7 March 2014.
- Moseley, Clement Charlton (1973). "The Political Influence of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, 1915-1925". The Georgia Historical Quarterly. 57 (2): 235–255. JSTOR 40579519.
- "Governors" (1995), p. 198 harvp error: no target: CITEREF"Governors"1995 (help).
- Staff of the Parke-Harper News Service (August 9, 1922). "M'Crae Leads Two to One; Cubage and Herbert Wilson Races Close; Toney Has Carried Seven Counties". Fayetteville Daily Democrat. 28 (223) (Evening ed.). Fayetteville: Democrat Publishing Company. p. 1. OCLC 18126013 – via NewspaperARCHIVE.
- Glenn Feldman,Politics, Society and the Klan in Alabama, 1915–1949 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999); Rice, 138.
- Gugin, Linda; St. Clair, James E. (2006). The Governors of Indiana. Indiana: Indiana Historical Society Press. pp. 276, 278. ISBN 978-0-87195-196-0.
- Colorado Governors: Clarence Morley. State of Colorado collections. Retrieved November 9, 2016.
- Bartels, Lynn (March 4, 2014). "The Spot: Bob Beauprez bypasses KKK member, attacks Hickenlooper as most 'extreme' governor". Denver Post (blog).
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- "Thomas J. Terral". oldstatehouse.com. Archived from the original on November 14, 2012. Retrieved April 14, 2012.
- Charles C. Alexander, "Defeat, Decline, Disintegration: the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas, 1924 and After", Arkansas Historical Quarterly, XXII (Winter 1963), p. 317
- "Georgia: Governor Clifford Mitchell Walker". National Governors Association. Retrieved November 9, 2016.
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- "John W. Morton Passes Away in Shelby". The Tennessean. November 21, 1914. pp. 1–2. Retrieved September 25, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
To Captain Morton came the peculiar distinction of having organized that branch of the Ku Klux Klan which operated in Nashville and the adjacent territory, but a more signal honor was his when he performed the ceremonies which initiated Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest into the mysterious ranks of the Ku Klux Klan.
- "News & Observer". Archived from the original on August 19, 2014. Retrieved February 20, 2020.
- "Ku Klux Unmasked At Torture Probe By Defiant Victims", The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 10, 1923, page 1. Retrieved January 25, 2021.
- "WARRANTS OUT FOR KLAN IN MOREHOUSE; Captain Skipwith, Exalted Cyclops, Charged With Conspiring to Murder. NEARLY A SCORE ACCUSED Jeff Burnett and Dr. McKoln Among Alleged Men Rouge Hooded Kidnappers Sought.", The New York Times, April 19, 1923, page . Retrieved January 25, 2021.
- White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866 by Michael Newton, McFarland, 2016, page 63.Retrieved January 25, 2021.
- Kevin Starr, Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (1990), pp 138–139.
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- White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866, by Newton, Michael, McFarland & Company, 2016, page 60.
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- Paul Finkelman, "White, Edward Douglass"; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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- Wade 1987, 165, 477.
- Ferrell, The Strange Deaths of President Harding (1996).
- New York Times Magazine, January 8, 2006, pp. 26–28
- Republican Party Platform of 1920 (available from the American Presidency Project of the University of California, Santa Barbara Archived 2006-08-11 at the Wayback Machine).
- James D. Robenalt, “The Republican president who called for racial justice in America after Tulsa massacre: Warren G. Harding’s comments about race and equality were remarkable for 1921” Washington Post June 21, 2020
- Phillip G. Payne (2009). Dead Last: The Public Memory of Warren G. Harding's Scandalous Legacy. Ohio University Press. pp. 118–20. ISBN 9780821418185.
- Anthony 1998, 412–413.
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- McCullough 1992, 164.
- Steinberg, 1962. Salisbury was a war buddy and former business partner of Truman's. Salisbury believed that Truman attempted "to give Jim Pendergast control of [their] business." Truman alerted federal officials about Salisbury, leading to Salisbury's conviction for filing a false affidavit. Salisbury contradicts Hinde's statement that the meeting at the Hotel Baltimore was one-on-one, naming at least six individuals who were present. Salisbury states that at the meeting, Truman had to receive a special dispensation to join, because his grandfather Solomon had been a Jew; however, Solomon was not a Jew, and the rumor of Truman's Jewish ancestry was only spread later, by the Klan, once the political lines had been drawn so that Truman was the Klan's enemy.
- Wade, 1987, 196, gives essentially this version of the events, but implies that the meeting was a regular Klan meeting, rather than an individual meeting between Truman and a Klan organizer. An interview with Hinde at the Truman Library's website ("Oral History Interview with Edgar G. Hinde" by James R. Fuchs, 15 March 1962, retrieved June 26, 2005) portrays it as a one-on-one meeting at the Hotel Baltimore with a Klan organizer named Jones. Truman's biography, written by his daughter (Truman, 1973), agrees with Hinde's version, but does not mention the $10 initiation fee; the same biography reproduces a telegram from O.L. Chrisman stating that reporters from the Hearst papers had questioned him about Truman's past with the Klan, and that he had seen Truman at a Klan meeting, but that "if he ever became a member of the Klan I did not know it."
- McCullough 1992.
- Truman 1973.
- Truman 1973; McCullough 1992, 170.
- Hamby 1995.
- McCullough notes this extensively in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Truman. While Truman had been raised in a family with Southern and Confederate leanings, he still said that he believed "in the brotherhood of all men before the law" (McCullough, p. 247). His work on civil rights was politically damaging but extensive nonetheless.
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- Newton, Michael White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866 McFarland & Company, North Carolina, 2016.
- Steinberg. Man From Missouri. New York: Van Rees Press, 1962.
- Truman, Margaret. Harry S Truman. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1973.
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