Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 29, 2011

Loraine Anderson: TC's dark past

Book sheds light on black hole of state history

Local columnist

---- — A night of Ku Klux Klan terror in Traverse City 87 years ago this month earned the city a mention and footnotes in a new book, "Right in Michigan's Grassroots: From the KKK to the Michigan Militia," by JoEllen McNergney Vinyard, an Eastern Michigan University history professor.

The reference is a dubious distinction but important.

It indicates how far-reaching the Klan's 1915 revival was in the Midwest.

The Invisible Empire of Ku Klux Klan took hold in Michigan in 1923 with a series of summer rallies and demonstrations, peaked in 1924 and was all but over by 1928. Estimates of its memberships have ranged from 265,000 to 875,000.

The KKK might have been a "secret" organization, but it wasn't invisible.

The chaotic Traverse City demonstration started Aug. 9, 1924, with three dynamite explosions downtown and simultaneous cross-burnings around town and at several city street intersections. The explosions caused a near stampede at the Lyric Theater (State Theatre today), broke store windows and ignited panic on a busy Saturday night downtown. Some residents feared the city was being bombed.

Traverse City is far from being the only Michigan city or town mentioned in the book. KKK demonstrations attracted thousands of "ordinary" citizens in towns and villages across Michigan in the early 1920s. The movement was particularly strong in the Great Lakes states, including Michigan, because its industrial base attracted blacks from the South and immigrants, particularly from mostly Catholic southeastern Europe.

"This book is about the people who supported movements that others, then and later, would denounce as disgraceful," Vinyard wrote. "They were ordinary people, known mostly to family, friends, coworkers and neighbors, but they were not down-and-outers."

The second Klan expanded its focus beyond blacks. Anyone who wasn't "100 percent American" qualified as a target: immigrants, especially if they didn't speak English; Jews because they weren't Christian; and Catholics because, though American, took orders from the pope and sent their kids to parochial schools.

It was the time of Prohibition, the "Red Scare" and "Red Raids." Michigan was in a severe depression in 1920-1921.

Vinyard's 342-page soft-cover has long been needed in Michigan. It sheds light into a black hole in state history.

It is among the first books to so thoroughly expose the extent of Klan activity throughout the state in the 1920s.

It also examines the rise and demise of other right-wing grass-roots leaders and movements in Michigan over the last 90 years: "Radio priest" Father Charles E. Coughlin in Detroit in the 1930s, the John Birch Society after World War II in the mid-1900s and the Michigan Militia in the 1990s.

Vinyard identified some similarities among the groups she studied. They're based and thrive on the fear. Their members feel unheard and left out, which can transform into hate politics. The movements often arise during economic downturns and high unemployment. They are intense but short-lived. Funding is often invisible and comes from wealthy power bases and special interest groups that have something to gain from the rhetoric and hoopla.

The book sells for $27.95 and is available at Horizon Books in Traverse City.

Associate editor Loraine Anderson can be reached at 933-1468 or