This story is part of our “Beyond Sacramento” series, an initiative that lets you ask questions about our region that The Sacramento Bee explores and answers. Scroll to the form at the bottom of this article to submit your question.
This question was submitted by Bee intern Vincent Moleski on the most infamous white supremacist group in American history: “Was there ever a KKK presence in Sacramento?” We thought this part of Sacramento history was worth exploring.
The short answer: Yes, the Klan was here. And though the peak period of its power was short-lived, its membership included some of Sacramento’s most powerful politicos and officials.
From April to November 1922, The Sacramento Bee produced extensive coverage of the local Klan’s rise to prominence – and the surprising way it crumbled.
Reporters spied on elaborate initiations and rallies across the city, and published the names of hundreds of Sacramento residents who were confirmed Klansmen, including more than a dozen prominent city officials.
In dozens of stories, The Bee documented the height of the Klan’s second resurgence, spurred by the 1915 Klan-glorifying film “The Birth of a Nation.”
During this period, regional “klaverns” of the “Invisible Empire” were responsible for voter intimidation, election rigging and violence from coast to coast.
Here’s what we found in The Bee’s reporting from 1922:
The Klan raises its ‘hooded head’
“The Ku Klux Klan raised its hooded head last night for the first time in Sacramento,” The Sacramento Bee’s April 10, 1922, front page read.
The night before, six hooded Klansmen marched down the aisle of Westminster Presbyterian Church with “machine-like movements” following the Sunday evening sermon, The Bee reported. They presented the Rev. William Harrison with an envelope. Then they left.
Inside the envelope, Harrison found a $50 bill – and a letter he read aloud to his congregation.
The Bee reprinted the letter: “We as citizens of ‘The Invisible Empire’ deem it a privilege at this time, to render you, and the cause you represent, our loyal respect and steadfast support,” it concluded. “May God bless you. Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Sacramento Klan, Realm of California.”
When Harrison finished reading, the 800 congregants applauded, The Bee reported. The church used the $50 to pay off its debts.
This early coverage of the Klan suggests that not only did the organization face little opposition when establishing a klavern – or local Klan chapter – in Sacramento, but it also had support from a Presbyterian church leader.
An usher at the church, George Andrews, said in an interview that the visit was “opportune” and “inspired by the Almighty,” but denied Klan membership or any advance knowledge of the event.
Future reporting by The Bee showed that Andrews had been a dues-paying member of the Klan.
There was no public outcry following the front-page account of the church donation. The Bee at the time had a circulation of more than 40,000, nearly two-thirds of Sacramento’s population.
A series of initiations
Two weeks later on April 25, 1922, two Bee reporters spied on a “massive” initiation for the Sacramento klavern in Oak Park.
An estimated 300 Sacramento men entered the Muddox Building on Fifth Avenue, with hundreds taking “an oath to the fiery cross” and swearing allegiance to the Klan.
“A constant stream of humanity entered the building in the early evening and exited hours later in a militaristic double file,” reporters wrote.
Today, the Muddox Building belongs to the University of the Pacific.
Bee reporters published the names of 12 men they identified as entering the hall, including fire Capt.Thomas Baker, former city prosecutor H.N. Mitchell and former police Chief H.H. Sydenham.
The Bee also reported Edgar Fuller, a recently appointed deputy sheriff of Sacramento, to be the Kleagle – effectively, the CEO and recruitment officer – of the Sacramento klavern.
Reporters reached several of the men for comment but none admitted knowledge of a Klan meeting.
“I am not a member, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t become a member if the organization was right,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know what it is, and I wouldn’t join anything without knowing what it is.”
City manager Clyde Seavey soon emerged as the staunchest opponent to the Klan in city government. He quickly announced an investigation to determine whether city employees were KKK members.
But even as evidence mounted, it became apparent that soliciting confessions and punishing discovered Klansmen would not be easy.
City Council controversy
In an April 27, 1922 story, The Bee reported that city officials interviewed “were practically unanimous, not only in the condemnation of the Klan and its tactics, but also in asserting a policy which would forbid any public employee being a member of the organization.”
But nothing happened in the weeks that followed.
In mid-May, The Bee obtained Fuller’s weekly reports and printed the names and addresses of 144 confirmed Sacramento Klan members.
But the publicity did not shame the Klan, and may have drawn support and even new members for the organization. Once the group was out in the open, a would-be Klansman had scores of names and addresses to contact.
Confirmed Klansmen had few employment-related repercussions. On May 16, The Bee reported the swearing-in of 10 new sheriff’s deputies, including at least one man The Bee confirmed as a Klan member.
Rallies and initiations continued to occur in and around Sacramento: One on Folsom Boulevard about 17 miles from Sacramento drew hundreds. Another at the Odd Fellows Church. Another on Stockton Road south of the city.
City Council members were hesitant to punish confirmed Klansmen employed by the city, citing insufficient evidence: On May 19, five out of nine council members voted against firing 10 Klan members from the city fire and police departments.
These council members said anything short of a trial was “unamerican,” and a trial was scheduled for June 1, The Bee reported. But no evidence of such a trial was found in the Bee archives.
These events emboldened the Klan. There would be minimal consequences for overt action, and they continued to recruit.
And as it became clear that city government was not going to issue effective punishment, the KKK set its long-term sights on influencing the approaching November elections.
Aiming for political traction
Nationwide, the 1920s Klan added to its actions of terrorism and lynchings and channeled energy into another task: influencing local government.
In advance of Aug. 29 primaries in Sacramento, the Klan sent a notice to members, which The Bee reprinted. It sought to elect its own candidates on a “Good Government Ticket” by “[covering] the polls all day August 29.”
The KKK also demanded that Seavey, the anti-Klan city manager, be removed for failing to enforce Prohibition.
The Bee reported that the Klan also issued fake pamphlets urging Catholics to vote as a bloc, aiming to drive up anti-Catholic voter turnout.
But right before 1922 general elections in early November, The Bee published a series of exposés based on interviews with ex-KKK members, suggesting that Fuller, the chief officer of the Sacramento Klan, was fiscally irresponsible, manipulative and dishonest.
A sudden collapse
On Nov. 2, the Bee gave a rundown of the “local Klan’s workings” given by an “ex-member,” J.P. Monahan, “[ripping] aside the veil of secrecy from the local klaven.”
Monahan spilled dozens of Klan secrets. Fuller had been siphoning Klan money for personal use from the klavern’s beginning. Apparently, he took a too-large portion of the $10 Klan initiates paid. He increased the price of gowns by 50 cents, pocketing the change. And he tried, but failed, to force several Klansmen to fork over $100 so he could buy The Roseville Register, a newspaper.
Distrust of the organization’s leadership spread among Sacramento Klan members.
Disorganization and greed, not an ideological shift, crippled the local Klan.
Fuller ignored calls to resign, and when he did, he was reinstated by the Kleagle of California. He claimed his wife and child were kidnapped by Sacramento Klansmen, but they were found to be living in Oakland unscathed.
On Nov. 2, Fuller was arrested for distributing “dodgers,” or fake campaign bulletins, for his opponents. His mother posted his $1,250 bail, he pleaded not guilty, and the next day Fuller announced that he was going to Atlanta to meet with national KKK leadership.
Within a week, all charges were dismissed because of insufficient evidence. Fuller left town and moved to Oklahoma.
The Sacramento Klan disbanded that November, never to build up such a high-profile public membership again.