A secret, ritualistic, vigilante organization founded in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Ku Klux Klan has had a continuing impact on Utah and American history. Although its agenda and methods of operation have changed over the years, the robed and hooded members of the "Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan" have consistently advocated white supremacy, Protestantism, and an ill-defined ideology of "100 Percent Americanism." Despite attempts to establish a national organization and program, the KKK and its various splinter groups have always been diverse entities responding primarily to local community issues.
The original Klan, devoted to intimidating the newly freed slaves, was a regional organization which had little direct impact on the residents of Utah Territory. However, Mormon missionaries in the South during the late nineteenth century often were targets of Klan-inspired threats and physical abuse. Consequently, Utahns viewed the KKK negatively and the LDS Church reaffirmed its doctrinal opposition to "secret Societies."
Inspired by pro-Klan novels and movies, most notably The Birth of a Nation, as well as growing xenophobia, a new Klan, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, was formed in 1915 intended to be a national instead of a regional organization. Within a decade this Klan movement had become a powerful force in American politics and society, with organizations in each state and a peak national membership of more than two million in 1924-25. The ideology of the original Klan remained intact, but the KKK of the 1920s thrived on nativism, anti-Catholicism, opposition to the cultural modernism of the Jazz Era, and violations of alcohol, smoking, and gambling laws.
The new Klan appeared in Utah in 1921 when a coalition of anti-Mormons, Masons, and non-Mormon businessmen formed Salt Lake City Klavern No. 1, which largely was a response to the economic power of the Mormon mercantile establishment and the political influence of the LDS Church. But the Klavern soon collapsed because of internal dissension, fear of economic reprisals, and the outspoken opposition of Mormon Church leaders and the press, particularly the church-owned Deseret News.
Ironically, just as the Salt Lake chapter collapsed, the Klan become active in Ogden in 1923 under the puritanical and anti-Catholic leadership of the Reverend Lemuel A. Garrison of the First Baptist Church. Then, in 1924-25, the Utah Klan suddenly experienced a rapid increase in membership and activity when Klan organizers (Kleagles) arrived in the state as part of a nationwide membership campaign. Klansmen appeared in Cache, Box Elder, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake, Utah, Carbon, Juab, Sevier, and Tooele counties.
The Klan was most active in Logan, Ogden, Provo, Helper and Price in Carbon County with their large immigrant populations, and in the city and county of Salt Lake, where anti-Mormon politics and nativism attracted members. Estimates of peak Klan membership in Utah range from two to five thousand, with perhaps half of the Knights residing in Salt Lake County. Some Mormons joined the Klan, but the vast majority of Knights were non-Mormons, Masons, and others from the ranks of the middle-aged and middle class. Cross burnings, outdoor initiation ceremonies, parades, and numerous acts of covert intimidation were commonplace. The Salt Lake Klavern even established a women's auxiliary, and hosted a regional Klonklave (meeting). However, the violence that marked Klan activities in other states was not a great part of the Utah Klan, although in Carbon County an elderly Italian man died from a heart attack after being chased by Klansmen, and a black man was hanged by a mob comprised largely of Klan members.
The heyday of the Utah Klan was short-lived. The city commissions of Logan, Ogden, and Salt Lake City passed municipal ordinances banning the wearing of masks in public, the LDS Church again issued strong anti-Klan statements and warned its members to not to join the secret order, and the immigrant population in most of the mining towns was too large and influential to permit ethnocentric community discord. Moreover, because of geographical considerations, diverse local agendas, and inadequate local leadership, the Utah Klaverns were never officially organized into a statewide administrative unit (Realm), nor did they publish a newspaper. Political efforts, whether through municipal electioneering or involvement in the anti-Mormon American party of 1923, were dismal failures.
Klankraft in Utah faced a bleak future, partly because the kinds of issues that fed Klan activity elsewhere--law and order, public and private morality, cultural modernity, and racial and ethnic assimilation--were real but not pressing concerns in the state; religiously, demographically, and culturally, Utah society was remarkably close to the Old America the Klan idealized. Yet the primary obstacle to the growth of the Klan was the strident opposition of the dominant Mormon Church, which effectively functioned as an instrument of social regulation for most of the population. By the late 1920s the Utah KKK was a dysfunctional organization represented by a handful of individuals who maintained membership in the national organization.
However, nearly fifty years later, the KKK reappeared in the state as part of the "third Klan movement" that rose in the 1970s as a reaction to various aspects of the civil rights movement (busing and affirmative action), increased immigration from Southeast Asia (notably Vietnam), and an economic recession. The modern Klan in Utah was founded in Riverton and went public by hanging effigies, burning crosses, and distributing recruiting leaflets in Salt Lake County. In contrast with the 1920s Klan, the charter members of the new Klan were mostly Mormon, poorly educated, and unskilled or semi-skilled blue-collar laborers. Despite modest success in obtaining recruits in Utah and Weber counties, the Klan was reduced to a handful of members by 1981. Driven underground by negative publicity from the press and close surveillance from law enforcement agencies, and also split by rivalries within and among Klaverns, Klansmen either left the organization or moved to Idaho to join the various white supremacist organizations such as the Aryan Nations then flourishing in the Hayden Lake area. Given the exposure of modern journalism and the public commitment to toleration and diversity, it is highly unlikely that the KKK or a like organization will ever again become a public force in Utah as it was in the 1920s.
See: Larry R. Gerlach, Blazing Crosses in Zion: The Ku Klux Klan in Utah (1982), and "A Battle of Empires: The Klan in Salt Lake City," in Shawn Lay, ed., The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s (1991).
Larry R. Gerlach