When The KKK Ruled Colorado: Not So Long Ago

The Ku Klux Klan had no presence in Colorado in 1920. By 1925, Klan members and sponsored candidates controlled the Colorado State House and Senate, the office of Secretary of State, a state Supreme Court judgeship, seven benches on Denver District Court, and city councils in some Colorado towns. Mayor Ben Stapleton of Denver and Governor Clarence Morley of Colorado were also Klansmen. The Klan was stronger in Colorado than any other state. How did the Klan gain power so quickly and absolutely?

William Joseph Simmons of Georgia called for the resurrection of the Klan in 1915. By 1920, only 5,000 or so members had joined in Alabama and Georgia. Clearly, the old organizing prejudices weren’t enough to mobilize a respectable membership. The Klan developed a new recruiting message focused more on the menace that Catholics and Jews posed to the “nation’s Protestant ideals” than on Blacks. According to the excellent history Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado by Robert Goldberg, the KKK posed as saviors of “Old Time Religion” and Americanism. As adherents to the Pope and their “polytheistic” religion of saints, Catholics were seen as completely excluded from such Americanism. Colorado was predominantly Protestant, and this message played well here. Conspiracy theories about a secret Catholic government of overlords abounded, much as such stories about Jews make the circuit today. The Klan also stood for fair elections, for law and order against the backdrop of Prohibition bootlegging and rampant crime, and against the loosening of morals brought by new music, new dances, and Hollywood, things the general public could get behind.

While Catholics, Jews and Blacks spoke out against the Klan in newspapers such as Denver Express, Denver’s major papers were silent or neutral. The Klan infiltrated both political parties. Local Klan chapters preyed on local prejudices and divisions. Business owners proudly displayed Klan stickers, and protestant elites and working people, men and women, were quick to join. Barring a few exceptions, such as Denver District Attorney Philip Van Cise, a fierce Klan opponent, few politicians or Protestants spoke out against the Klan, allowing them to consolidate influence and power rapidly.

Strangely, part of the Klan’s appeal was that it functioned as a social outing for many Protestants. In fact, members in Grand Junction flocked to the KKK not so much from prejudice, but because they thought of it as another Elk’s lodge, except with hoods and weird cross burning ceremonies out in the desert. Even Dalton Trumbo tried to join because it was the hot “thing to do.” In Denver, the Klan held picnics (one drew 100,000 people), auto races (a Catholic won. See photo), and had many other events. Of course, the old Klan sometimes reared its ugly head, driving Blacks from white neighborhoods and discriminating against Italians and Mexicans. Beginning in 1925, the Klan’s power in Colorado waned. The Colorado Grand Dragon was investigated for tax evasion, and corruption scandals rocked Klan office holders. But for those few short years, the Klan ruled Colorado. For more information on the Klan in Colorado, visit Western History. Search our Digital Photos to see more pictures of the Klan in Colorado.

Doesn't this sound at all familiar to anyone? Isn't this the same kind of "hate mongering" we reading in the news, and hearing on the streets? The Klan, no matter who they were, gained their power in Denver by first claiming to be new, different, and better. They professed American values that would make us all great again, but, in a funny twist, those values meant exclusion of Catholics, Jews, and Blacks. Things have changed very little. The targets may be a little different, but the same "polluted" message is being spread in much the same way, and that's why this will never be an advanced, civilized society.

In reply to by Stan Dyer (not verified)

Hi Stan - Thanks for reading and commenting.

Throughout its history the Klan, and the ideals it supports, have seen varying degrees of public support.

Sadly, racist ideologies and organizations have always been a problem that the American people have had to deal with, whether they are expressed openly in public marches and legislation, or in more subtle methods.

In reply to by Stan Dyer (not verified)

And, Mexicans, Native Americans, Asians, et. al.

thank you Stan. You verbalized my thoughts exactly. Yikes! the rhetoric we're hearing has that ring to it that reminds us that history can repeat itself because we have short memories for the past. I think we should be worried about increased "permission" to harass, bully and single people out for their race, country of origin, religion...
I grew up on Western Slope in fifties/sixties and remember talk of KKK, but I think Coloradans at the time were naive to the meaning behind this hateful organization (as the article said, it fed into the need to belong to a group).
btw, I'm white/once Catholic/sorta Democrat but wish to be in the middle (not left or right). This is a big country; enough room for us all.

My grandfather was a barber and had his own shop in Canon City in the early 1920s. He was told by the KKK not to cut Catholics hair. He told them he didn't ask a man his religion before he cut their hair. Consequently, the klan burned a cross in his front yard.

Hmmmm, I've been around for a while, & never heard of an authentic Christian or a Republican who was a KKK member.

History' repeating with an other Stapleton

My father, born in the early teens and an Eisenhower Democrat, had vivid memories of Klan rule in Denver. He particularly recalled Klan anti-Catholicism and Klan efforts to outlaw Catholic use of wine in the Mass, brought to an end when the bishop threatened to shut down parochial schools, dumping their students on the tax-supported public school system. He also remembered businsses with NO ITALIANS - NO IRISH or other such signs in the window. Occasionally asw drove around in the Fifties, he would point one out. (The sign was long gone by then.)