Museums have a responsibility to interpret all parts of history, even the most offensive ones. Although this painting of a Ku Klux Klan rider is a disturbing image, it nevertheless represents an important era in Kansas history.
The painting was discovered in a grocery and dry goods store owned by R.W. Smith in Melvern, Kansas. According to the donor's family, the Klan met on the second floor of the building in the early 1920s. There is no artist's signature but the work is presumed to have been painted by local resident Fred Judd, who completed a mural in a similar artistic style in the Melvern Masonic Hall. Judd's relationship to the Klan is unknown, but many Klansmen at this time also were members of fraternal lodges.
The Klan first infiltrated Kansas in mid-1921. It claimed to be a reform group promoting Christianity and white supremacy and arguing for limits on foreign immigration. Hostile toward a long list of "undesirable" persons, the Klan's main efforts focused against Catholics. Klansmen kidnaped and assaulted the Catholic mayor of Liberty after he refused them use of a hall he owned. Although many people agreed with the Klan's creed--as many as 200,000 Kansans may have been Klan members--most disliked its tactics. One journalist described the situation:
"Neighborhood after neighborhood, which had been peaceful and friendly . . . split into hostile groups by the Klan's arrival. Although actual violence was rare . . . communities lived in a state of uneasiness amounting to terror; and the Klans did not scruple to threaten even when they were too cowardly to execute."--World's Work, August 1923
Fighting the Klan
Not all Kansans supported the Klan, of course. One University of Kansas student wrote a satirical song, Daddy Stole Our Last Clean Sheet and Joined the Ku Klux Klan, that sold nationally. Newspaper publisher and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist William Allen White called the Klan "an organization of cowards" and mounted an anti-Klan gubernatorial campaign in 1924 (see political cartoon, below). Another who openly fought the organization was Henry Allen, also a journalist and Kansas Governor at the time of the Klan's infiltration. To White and Allen the Klan was not comprised of anonymous strangers but of fellow newspaper men, Methodists, and Masonic Lodge brothers.
Concerned that the Klan would disrupt government and cause civil unrest, Governor Allen embarked on a public campaign against the group. When the Klan threatened to parade hooded horsemen through Arkansas City on July 4, 1922, Allen declared it illegal to wear masks on Kansas streets. Although admitting he didn't like the Catholic church either, Allen declared the Klan's tactics "un-American." By reviling the Klan publicly, Allen hoped to create a division within its ranks pitting the moderate majority against the violent minority.
After months of investigating the Klan's activities at Allen's behest, the State Attorney General filed a petition with the Kansas Supreme Court charging that the Klan was a foreign corporation which required a Kansas charter to engage in business.
Under attack by the Attorney General, the Kansas Klan was already near death at the time the case reached the Supreme Court. Allen's efforts had helped create a schism between the terrorist wing and the peaceful but narrowminded majority, and Klan membership had begun to decline. Internal battles also developed over mismanagement of the group's finances. On January 25, 1925, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled for the Attorney General and Kansas became the first state to legally oust the Klan.
This painting, donated to the Kansas Museum of History by Robert McNabb in 1990, is an important symbol of the state's triumphant fight against the Klan.