If you were a native-born white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant Austinite interested in joining the hooded ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, the summer of 1922 was a pretty friendly time to be alive — after all, you had company everywhere you looked. During the hate group’s so-called second coming in the early 1920s, our burgeoning local chapter, Capital City Klan No. 81, held its meetings quite openly in a former union hall atop a grocery store at the southwest corner of East Fifth and San Jacinto Streets — and at its peak in 1924, the Austin Klan boasted an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 members, or roughly 10 percent of Travis County’s eligible population of white men.
The Klan that rose to prominence in the 1920s was a different beast than either the fearsome masked riders of the Reconstruction era or the later segregationists of the 1950s and ’60s — this Klan, strange as it may sound, fashioned itself as a middle-class fraternal organization, leaning on philanthropy and Protestant support for prohibition as an eerily wholesome veneer atop the violent underpinnings of its rhetoric.
Though slightly more subtle in its second iteration, the organization’s message still celebrated white supremacy — its original expression of hate in the oppression of freed slaves was simply diversified, casting a wider net across supposed parties of American moral rot including a host of non-white immigrant groups, Jews, Catholics, Communists, bootleggers, and peddlers of sexual promiscuity.
…the Klan was easily at its most popular in the United States during the 1920s, when its reach was nationwide, its members disproportionately middle class, and many of its very visible public activities geared toward festivities, pageants, and social gatherings.
In some ways, it was this superficially innocuous Klan that was the most insidious of them all. Packaging its noxious ideology as traditional small-town values and wholesome fun, the Klan of the 1920s encouraged native-born white Americans to believe that bigotry, intimidation, harassment, and extralegal violence were all perfectly compatible with, if not central to, patriotic respectability.
With this in mind, the archives of the Austin American-Statesman reveal a local Klan painfully visible in Austin’s social and political fabric during the early 1920s, with the organization’s newfound understanding of public relations ensuring a steady flow of stories placed in the newspaper that just happened to highlight various deeds of hooded altruism — food for the poor, money for widows, firewood for orphans.
Between coverage of Klan baseball teams, Klan circuses, Klan barbecues, and women’s Klan auxiliaries, the news found time to examine the group’s increasingly well-attended initiation ceremonies, its deep roots in local law enforcement, the rise of Klan-backed politicians, at least one outrageously suspicious murder, and countless other acts of Klan-related violence.
Along with the frequent and often friendly local media appearances, the sheer volume of Klan-hosted public events in Austin doubtlessly attracted many of its new members:
Between September 1921 and March 1924, the city witnessed two Klan parades, two large public Klan gatherings, at least four mass Klan initiation rallies, a week-long Klan circus, and the public screening of a Klan propaganda movie. The first of the Klan parades, which brought Congress Avenue to a standstill on the night of September 2, 1921, attracted about 30,000 spectators — the equivalent of more than three-fourths of the native-born white population of Travis County. The second parade involved a group of 70 Klansmen marching into the Texas State Capitol building. The two gatherings where KKK speakers delivered public lectures took place in the Capitol grounds and Wooldridge Park, and drew crowds of about 2,000 and 4,000, respectively.
But despite the acknowledgement of public Klan events at well-loved Austin locations like Wooldridge Square and the Capitol itself, the historical record appears to overlook one notable gathering held in the heart of the city on August 24, 1922 — a speaking engagement extolling the Klan’s values at what was then called Second Ward Park, the block-sized public plaza at 422 Guadalupe Street now known as Republic Square.
The rally, first announced the day before with a series of ads in the newspaper, declared itself to be “not a political meeting,” and sought to further entice the public with promises of a brass band and plenty of ice water. Its two speakers “of national prominence” were the Reverends A. C. Parker and Alonzo Monk, both Texas clergymen and deeply committed Klansmen with a reputation for skilled oratory as traveling promoters of the organization’s virtues.
Rev. Parker, a Dallas insurance executive and founder of several churches in his home city, was also reportedly the president of the Dallas Sunday School Association and an “Exalted Cyclops” (or leader) of the city’s Klan chapter. Rev. Monk hailed from Arlington, where he served as minister of its First Methodist Church. Both speakers were introduced by W. L. Barlow, an Austin lawyer who once ran unsuccessfully for county attorney with the Klan’s enthusiastic support. Barlow would later be appointed special assistant to the U.S. attorney general in 1934, holding jurisdiction over criminal prosecutions in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Newspaper coverage described the rally as “one of the largest open air audiences which has been assembled in Austin within recent years,” with the size of the crowd “overflowing the block” and estimated between 5,000 and 7,000 Austinites. “For nearly three hours the audience, most of them standing throughout, listened to the speakers and applauded their remarks,” wrote the Statesman. Several selections from the event’s two speeches were quoted in the paper, mostly those of Rev. Parker.
“The Ku Klux Klan stands for everything that is essentially American. It believes in pure, unadulterated Americanism . . . we believe that American customs should be observed and that everybody in America who calls this their country should put America first.”
— Rev. A. C. Parker
More than 200 robed Klansmen patrolled the masses, with many more seated on the outdoor dais “under a canopy of American flags, surmounted by a great electric-lighted cross, bearing an American flag at its top.”
“America has the scum of foreign nations together with some fine citizens gained from other countries . . . They say we are against immigration. That is partly true; we are against the scum that comes to us from the four corners of the world, but we are not against the good immigrant. America is like the great melting pot of the world, but like other melting pots, it’s got a lot of refuse matter in it and the pot needs skimming.”
— Rev. A. C. Parker
Both speakers, the paper explained, “declared their addresses were non-political.”
“The Klan stands for white supremacy. We believe in the races keeping within themselves. We don’t hate the negro, we’re his friends, but he’s got to remember that we are white and members of the superior race.”
— Rev. A. C. Parker
In keeping with the 1920s Klan’s sober moral code, Parker then made a slightly jarring shift from outspoken racism to the condemnation of roadside necking.
“And there is another thing we are against. That is this night joy riding on the highways, this business of parking cars by the lonely roadside after the midnight hour . . . a woman who would go out with a man and sit with him in a car parked in a lonely spot on the public road after midnight is no lady. She’s just a woman, that’s all . . . we’re going to stop it, I can tell you that.”
— Rev. A. C. Parker
The second speech by Reverend Monk was less exhaustively transcribed in the newspaper, though he reportedly also “indulg[ed] in a tirade against the class of men who were referred to as ‘stealers of American women’s virtue.’”
Dr. Monk concluded his address at 10:45 p.m. Dr. Parker then took the floor with the announcement that a Klan meeting is never closed without prayer. Requesting his audience to bow their heads, he then uttered a brief prayer. At the conclusion of the prayer, the band struck up “America” and then played “The Star Spangled Banner.” This concluded the mass meeting.
— Austin American-Statesman, August 25, 1922
The motivation behind the Klan’s choice of Republic Square as a venue for its rally is unexplained in news coverage at the time, but it’s notable that between roughly 1870 and 1927, the square and region surrounding it was heavily associated with the city’s population of Mexican immigrants, so much in fact that some simply called the neighborhood “Mexico.” It takes some reading between the lines, but hosting a mass salute to Protestant values and white supremacy in the center of a strongly Catholic immigrant enclave certainly aligns with the Klan’s general methods of intimidation.
Members of this community celebrated Diez y Seis de Septiembre, a holiday observing the September 16 declaration of war for Mexico’s independence from Spain, in the square each year — meaning that less than a month after the Klan’s big night, the Austin American-Statesman estimated roughly 3,000 Mexicans would travel to the neighborhood from settlements up to 100 miles away for a three-day fiesta of dancing, music, food, and “several speeches by both Mexicans and whites.” As for the reborn Klan of the 1920s, though it never fully disappeared from Texas, the group declined as quickly as it rose. By 1928, most of its members had drifted away for good.
The decimated ranks of the modern Klan have attempted a few rallies in downtown Austin since the group’s resurgence in the civil rights era of the 1950s and ’60s. Each time, they’ve faced resistance in similar numbers as the supportive crowd at the 1922 rally, with 40 Klansmen versus 5,000 protesters in 1993 and roughly a dozen members against 2,000 objecting Austinites in 2005. But the Klan hasn’t returned to Republic Square, for whatever reason — and though it’s a little shameful to acknowledge the warm reception an older Austin extended to its members, you’ll probably agree it’s a lot harder for a Klansman to find any friendly faces around here these days.