Monday, March 3, 2014

The Kontinental Klan

Prohibition’s failure had some consequences no one seemed to anticipate. Illegal moonshine flowed more freely than legal booze either before or after the nation went dry. Illegal traffic in liquor fostered criminal activity which led to organized crime. But another rather bizarre consequence was the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan across the Pacific Northwest. The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan claimed a platform that claimed to be anti vice and corruption It was also pro patriotism in the wake of World War I. The Klan targeted blacks, Jews, Catholics, and foreign born people. In Montana, since there were very small African American and Jewish populations, the KKK targeted Catholics and foreign-born residents.
Montana’s leader, or Grand Dragon, was Lewis Terwilliger, a former mayor of Laurel. Terwilliger christened Butte the “worst place in the State of Montana” because of its cultural diversity and its many Catholics. Little wonder that Butte is where Montana’s first chapter organized in 1923. There were eventually some forty chapters in a number of Montana cities and towns during the depressed 1920s into the 1930s.
On September 10, 1925, Laurel residents were shocked to see a burning cross on a butte four miles west of the city. The Laurel Outlook reported that the fire lit up the night sky and "it looked like all the dragons, wizards, witches, ghosts—or whatever they are called—from all over the country had gathered there." Wearing their customary white flowing robes and peaked hoods, some 2500 members gathered on the butte. Fireworks announced the initiation of one hundred new members.
Nationally, the Klan organized in Georgia in 1915 retaining much of the dress, rules, and cross-burning of the original nineteenth century organization. In Montana and the Northwest, however, the Kontinental Klan, as it was called, was not as violent as its counterparts elsewhere. Prospective members had to be native born, white, Protestant, Gentile, and American citizens. Interestingly, many of Montana’s 5,000 members were women who belonged to separate women’s chapters of the Kontinental Klan.

Women of the Billings Ku Klux Klan  No. 7 gave this memorial marker in 1928. What is marked, however, is a mystery; only the stone remains. Courtesy of Harry Axline.

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