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This article discusses notable figures in U.S. national politics who were alleged to have been members of the Ku Klux Klan prior to their public careers.
Harry S. Truman the Missouri politician who became president in 1945 dallied with the Klan briefly. In 1924, he was a judge in Jackson County, Missouri, which includes Kansas City. 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, became Truman's bitter enemy in later years, so this version is suspect.
According to Hinde and 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 requirement 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, which was anathema to the Catholic Pendergasts. The Klan allied itself against Truman and with the Rabbits, and 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 and point out that his close friend and business partner Eddie Jacobson was Jewish, and assert 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.
West Virginia's Democratic United States Senator Robert C. Byrd 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 claimed to have 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 defended the Klan in his 1958 U.S. Senate campaign when he was 41 years old.
Despite being the only Senator to vote against both African American U.S. Supreme Court nominees (liberal Thurgood Marshall and conservative Clarence Thomas) and filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Byrd has since said joining the Klan was his "greatest mistake." The NAACP gave him a 100% rating on their issues during the 108th Congress. However, in a 2001 incident Byrd repeatedly used the phrase "white niggers" on a national television broadcast.
Wyn Craig Wade has asserted that Edward Douglass White, the Chief Justice of the United States from 1910 to 1921, told Thomas Dixon "I was a member of the Klan" at the 1915 White House screening of The Birth of a Nation. No evidence has been found that corroborates his alleged admission. Note that his membership would have been in the 19th-century Klan, not the 1920s revived organization.
Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Hugo Black. In 1921, Black successfully defended E. R. Stephenson in the sensationalistic trial for the murder of a Catholic priest Fr. James E. Coyle. He joined the Ku Klux Klan shortly after, thinking it necessary for his political career. Running for the Senate as the "people's" candidate, Black believed he needed the votes of Klan members. Near the end of his life, Black would admit 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."
United States Senator from Mississipi Theodore G. Bilbo revealed his membership in the Ku Klux Klan in an interview on the radio program Meet the Press. He said, "No man can leave the Klan. He takes an oath not to do that. Once a Ku Klux, always a Ku Klux."
United States Senator from Indiana James Eli Watson, was a defendant in a lawsuit wherein it was alleged by William M. Rogers, an avowed Klansman, that Watson had forced him to sign an affidavit recanting testimony before a Senate committee that Watson was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Bibb Graves, was the 38th Governor of Alabama 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. Almost certainly Graves was the Exalted Cyclops (chapter president) of the Montgomery chapter of the Klan, but both Graves and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, another Alabama Klan member, were more opportunists than ideologues, politicians who used the temporary strength of the Klan to further their careers.
Edward L. Jackson, 32nd Governor of Indiana was a member of Indiana branch of the Ku Klux Klan, he became involved in several scandals that continued throughout his term in office. He was tried on bribery charges related to his Klan activities but not convicted because the statute of limitations had expired.
Clarence Morley, 24th Governor of Colorado was a member of the Ku Klux Klan which was an important force in Colorado politics during the 1920s and largely responsible for the division of the Republican and Democratic votes that enabled him to take office.
George Gordon, Congressman 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.
Warren G. Harding was 29th President of the United States from 1921 to his death in 1923, and was from Ohio. Though there have been rumors about his membership, they are largely unsubstantiated. Given his high support for civil rights it is highly unlikely that he ever officially joined.
Wyn Craig Wade states Harding's membership as fact and gives a detailed account of a secret swearing-in ceremony in the White House, but bases this claim on a private communication in 1985 from journalist Stetson Kennedy. Kennedy, in turn had, along with Elizabeth Gardner, tape recorded the "late 1940s" deathbed confession of former Imperial Klokard Alton Young, who claimed to have been a member of the "Presidential Induction Team" as Young was dying in a New Jersey Hospital. Young also claimed to have repudiated racism on his deathbed. Wade says,
Wade also states that “This matter was a major issue in letters sent to Coolidge during the 1924 election”, and gives a reference to “Case File 28, Calvin Coolidge papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.” In this file there is a letter from Wizard Edward Young Clarke to President Calvin Coolidge on 27 December 1923, charging Wizard Hiram W. Evens with trying to turn the Klan into a “cheap political machine”. “It [the Klan] was to be an organization designed to up-build and develop spirituality, morality, and physically the Protestant white man of America.”
In their 2005 book Freakonomics, University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner wrote of their visit to Stetson Kennedy's Florida home and 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?"," (New York Times Magazine, January 8, 2006, pp. 26–28), Dubner and Levitt, publicizing a new, revised edition of Freakonomics, indicated that they no longer accepted Stetson Kennedy's testimony about the Klan.
Primary source material on file at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus does not contain evidence of Harding's alleged membership in the Klan. Primary source material on file at the Marion County (Ohio) Historical Society (Warren G. Harding Collection) also does not confirm or indicate any involvement in the Klan, nor support the idea of Harding’s alleged Klan membership. The Site Administrator[who?] of the Harding Home Museum (Ohio Historical Society property) in Marion, Ohio, draws a relationship between Harding's alleged Klan activities directly to the rumor-mill stirred up after the President died in 1923 and Mrs. Harding in 1924.
The 1920 Republican Party platform, which essentially expressed Harding's political philosophy, calls for Congress to pass laws combating lynching. Harding was the first American President to publicly denounce lynching and did so 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. While the bill was defeated in the Senate, such activities would be in direct conflict with Klan membership.
In his book, The Strange Deaths of President Harding, historian Robert Ferrell Ph.D. claims to have been unable to find any records of any such "ceremony" in which Harding was brought into the Klan in the White House. Also, John Dean, in his 2004 book Warren Harding (edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger), also could find no proof of Klan membership or activity on the part of the 29th President to indicate support of the Klan. 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.
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 (though not of Warren), 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:
...knowing 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".
Anthony also details Harding's induction into the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, a Shrine organization, during the convention week (making note of the conical hat used by the Tall Cedars in the ceremony); Anthony writes that he feels that the charges made by Grand Wizard Alton Young (reported by Wyn Craig Wade in 1985) against Harding were in "retaliation for the Shrine speech and another anti-bigotry speech made by Harding at the dedication of the Alexander Hamilton statue at the Treasury Building" in the previous month of May 1923.
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.
David Duke, a well-known white nationalist pundit, 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 claims to have 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, Louisiana.