Ku Klux Klan in Oregon

The Ku Klux Klan arrived in Oregon in the early 1920s during the second Klan, and quickly spread throughout the state, aided by a mostly white, Protestant population as well as racist and anti-immigrant sentiments already embedded in the region.[1] The Klan succeeded in electing their members in local and state government, which allowed them to pass legislation that furthered their agenda. Ultimately, the decline of the Klan in Oregon came with its struggle in other states as well as nationally, and activity faded in the 1930s.[2]

A group of klansmen gathered in their robes and hoods.


Racism in OregonEdit

Starting when it was still a territory, Oregon had several laws prohibiting both enslaved and free African Americans from living in the state. The first, in 1843, outlawed slavery except as part of a sentence for a crime. It was amended in 1844 to set a restriction on how long slave owners had to move their slaves out of state before the state would free them. However, free blacks were also not allowed to remain in the state, the punishment for staying being a lashing, although this provision was repealed before ever being enforced. A second law was passed in 1848 that barred African Americans from migrating into Oregon but allowed those already residing in the state to stay; this law was overturned in 1854.[3] When Oregon was admitted into the Union in 1859, there was an exclusionary law included in its constitution that prohibited blacks from living in the state, owning property, or entering into contracts.[4] The 14th Amendment effectively overrode this law, but it was not officially repealed until 1926.[5]


Ku Klux Klan Expansion into OregonEdit

With similar views of racism, white supremacy and anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant stances, it was easy for the Klan to move in to Oregon. The first member of the Ku Klux Klan was sworn in by Major Luther I. Powell in 1921 in Medford. During the same time, other members of the Klan were at work searching for new recruits across the state to add to their numbers and organize local chapters and klaverns.[2]


Poster for the film Birth of a Nation

Early recruitment in Eugene was led by Powell, with help from local members and other associates of Powell, who would speak to the public alongside showings of the D. W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation. In tandem with a religious revival in the area, they appealed to residents' concern for keeping foreign influences out as well as their desires for patriotism and morality. There were already over 80 members when a local newspaper wrote about the Klan arriving in town, and shortly thereafter the group would be formally organized under Exalted Cyclops Frederick S. Dunn, who was employed at the University of Oregon as department head of Latin studies. Members of Eugene Klan No. 3 quickly became involved in local politics, voicing not only moral stances against alcohol and prostitution, but anti-Catholic views as well, that resulted, directly and indirectly, in the ouster of several teachers and local leaders, which also coincided with the sudden resignation of Mayor O. C. Peterson, Chief of Police Chris Christensen, and City Attorney O. H. Foster. Additionally, many candidates endorsed by the Eugene Klan obtained local office in the fall of 1922. However, efforts to include the University of Oregon in their sphere of influence did not succeed, due to opposition from students, graduates, and faculty and administration, though this did not mean that there was no Klan presence on campus. The Klan was able to keep speakers and activities contrary to their values to a minimum; several members had business ties to campus life, a few were alumni, a few more faculty and students. Even the football graduate manager Jack Benefiel and coach, C.A. "Shy" Huntington were klansmen. When the state legislature passed the Compulsory Education Act in 1922, the Klan's presence put Lane county among the 14 counties in the state where voters were in support of the measure.[1] In March 1924, the Klan joined forces with the local post of the American Legion (which at the time was led by klansman George Love) to oppose Peter Vasillevich Verigin announcing that he would send around 10,000 of his Doukhobor followers from British Columbia to settle in the Willamette Valley. Ultimately, after a rally against the Doukhobor in Junction City in August, not much else would be done due to the murder of Verigin and very few Doukhobor actually moving, and their eventual return to Canada. Other than the Doukhobor incident, one of the last notable activities of Eugene Klan No. 3 was June 27, 1924 at the Lane County Fairgrounds. They held a parade through downtown, with participants and spectators from all over Oregon and from various Klan-related organizations, joined also by the city band and another local organization's band. There were fireworks and a burning cross above them on Skinner's Butte, and they gathered afterwards at the fairgrounds for an initiation ceremony, lit by cross covered in red lights instead of fire. Eventually, after the resignation of Fred L. Gifford from his post as Grand Dragon, in addition to national issues within the Klan, Klan No. 3 died out in the 1930s, although the exact time is not clear.[1]


In 1922-1925, the Ku Klux Klan saw unlikely growth in Tillamook, a small county found on the northern Oregon coast. Soon after the rise of the Klan's presence in Portland, Oregon, the Klan was established in Tillamook. the Klan found lots of success in Tillamook. The KKK also offered recognition of many native-born Protestants who were not previously accepted in their society. The KKK was originally drawn to Tillamook because of the lack of external opposition and threats. While no klansmen were directly involved with local political occupations, becoming allies with the KKK was essential for any politician to succeed and get re-elected.[6]


The Ku Klux Klan's development and growth across America was widely known as the "Middle-Class Movement".[7] Initial growth in Portland, Oregon was fundamentally founded on this principle. The traditions of the middle class, as well as their populist beliefs, complimented the black exclusion laws that existed in the mid-1800s. In addition, there were anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese sentiments present because of the populations of such groups in Portland and the surrounding areas.[1] Portland was not fully made up of middle-class citizens, however, and its political activity was often anti-populist. The Klan had a very deep and complex presence in Portland, and no membership records exist of Klan members in the early 1900s. During the months of February and April of 1922, over two thousand klansmen participated in induction ceremonies; the specific number of Portland klansmen is still unknown, but the state was estimated to contain more than 50,000 members. Members of the KKK in Portland came from a variety of backgrounds including doctors, lawyers, businessmen, clerks, and many other professions. Mount Tabor was home to many cross burnings.[7][8]

The 1924 bidding process for the replacement of the Burnside Bridge ended with a suspicious winning bid; the public would later learn that the 1924 contract was given for $500,000 more than the lowest bid. Having moved the bridge location to profit by selling their land, three Multnomah County commissioners were recalled as a result of the scandal, and a new engineering company assumed control of the project. The KKK had backed the commissioners and the enabled their system of kickbacks and grafts; the ensuing "rotten bridge scandal" removed much of their clout even by 1924.[8]


Black Exclusion LawsEdit

Around 1840 to 1850, residents of Oregon generally did not support slavery, however, they also did not want to live alongside African Americans. As a result, section four of article XVII was amended to prohibit slavery in Oregon, and force slave owners to remove slaves from the state. Once in effect, freed male slaves could not stay in Oregon for more than two years, and a female slave could not stay longer than three years. Any free African American who refused to leave would be subject to lashings and beatings. Eventually, the lashings were prohibited in 1845. [9]

The Territorial Legislature enacted the second exclusion law on September 21, 1849. This law specified that "it shall not be lawful for any negro or mulatto to enter into, or reside" in Oregon. This law targeted African American seamen who could be tempted to jump overboard and swim to the coast to escape. Lawmakers were concerned that blacks would "intermix with Indians, instilling into their minds feelings of hostility toward the white race". The second exclusion act was later rescinded in 1854.[9]

Notable figureEdit

Walter M. PierceEdit

Walter M. Pierce

Walter M. Pierce was an Oregonian politician from 1886 to 1942. During those years, he served in elected offices such as county recorder, state legislator, governor, and U.S. congressman. Pierce was an active participant in social movements such as populism and progressivism. Eventually, Pierce was elected to the Oregon state senate, placing him at the forefront of these social and political reforms. His views on social reform mirrored those of the middle class, and at the time, the Klan perfectly fit the contradicting social and political values held by the middle class. Pierce was a supporter of both radical populism and democratic populism, which led to his eventual support and partnership with the Ku Klux Klan. After an unsuccessful run in 1918, Pierce was elected Governor of Oregon in 1922, while the political power of the Ku Klux Klan simultaneously emerged in Oregon. The Klan supported Pierce during his campaign for governor and was in close communication with Pierce as he was in office. After his retirement from political office in Oregon, Pierce would go on to be elected to Congress in 1932.[10]


  1. ^ a b c d Lay, Shawn; Toy, Eckard (1992). "Robe and Gown: The Ku Klux Klan in Eugene, OR". The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. pp. 153–179. ISBN 9780252071713.
  2. ^ a b "Ku Klux Klan". The Oregon Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 25, 2020.
  3. ^ "Black Exclusion Laws in Oregon". The Oregon Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 25, 2020.
  4. ^ Or. Const. Art. XVII § 4.
  5. ^ "Oregon Secretary of State: Later Developments". sos.oregon.gov. Retrieved March 25, 2020.
  6. ^ Toll, William (1978). "Progress and Piety: The Ku Klux and Social Change in Tillamook, Oregon". The Pacific Northwest Quarterly. 69 (2): 75–85. ISSN 0030-8803. JSTOR 40489652.
  7. ^ a b Johnston, Robert D. (2003). The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-12600-5. JSTOR j.ctt4cgbrc.
  8. ^ a b Chandler, J. D. (2016). Murder & scandal in prohibition Portland : sex, vice & misdeeds in Mayor Baker's reign. Charleston, SC: The History Press. p. 110. ISBN 978-1-4671-1953-5. OCLC 928581539.
  9. ^ a b "Oregon Exclusion Law (1849)". African American National Biography. Oxford University Press. September 30, 2009. doi:10.1093/acref/9780195301731.013.33707. ISBN 978-0-19-530173-1.
  10. ^ Robert, McCoy (2014). "The Paradox of Oregon's Progressive Politics: The Political Career of Walter Marcus Pierce". Oregon Historical Quarterly. 115 (2): 258. doi:10.5403/oregonhistq.115.2.0258. ISSN 0030-4727.