DENVER – As white supremacist organizations and the Ku Klux Klan are again in the news across the U.S. due to their emboldened resurgence over the past couple of years, we are taking a look back at the history of the Klan in Colorado—one of several western states that saw among the largest population of members in the early 1920s.
According to a 1965 article by James H. Davis published in Colorado Magazine called “Colorado Under the Klan,” John Galen Locke became the first Grand Dragon of the Klan in Colorado after it was founded in 1922. Other historians have written that Klansmen started organizing in Colorado in 1920.
The Klan population had been reduced to almost nothing by 1915 after it dwindled following the Confederate defeat in the Civil War, but William Joseph Simmons resurrected it with a rally on Stone Mountain in 1915. Fifteen other people became the founding members of the so-called “Second Klan.”
“The Birth of a Nation” was also released in 1915, helping to quickly spread the word of the resurgent Klan across the country by empowering anti-Catholic and anti-minority groups. Colorado, which was mostly Protestant at the time, made for a hotbed.
According to Davis, based on interviews he did with former Colorado Supreme Court Judge Francis J. Knauss and Rocky Mountain News reporter Harvey Sethman for the 1965 story, Locke was extremely successful between 1922 and 1925 in getting Klansmen or Klan sympathizers into most political offices on the local and state level in Colorado.
Denver’s mayor from 1923-1931, Benjamin Stapleton, was a member of the Klan as well, and was said to be a close confidant of Locke’s. While he initially denied being a Klansman, he appointed several KKK members to Denver’s government.
That angered anti-Klan folks in Denver, including District Attorney Philip Van Cise, according to Robert Goldberg’s book, “Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado.”
They forced a recall election of Stapleton in August 1924, but Goldberg writes that the Klan turned out in droves to raise money and electioneer for Stapleton.
According to Goldberg’s book, after he'd been pressured by Locke, Stapleton made a speech ahead of the election at one of the Klan’s area gathering spots: South Table Mountain. In the speech, according to Goldberg, Stapleton said: “I have little to say, except that I will work with the Klan and for the Klan in the coming election, heart and soul. And if I am reelected, I shall give the Klan the kind of administration it wants.”
He won the recall election, and the Klan burned crosses on South Table Mountain to celebrate, according to Goldberg.
Stapleton was elected as state auditor in 1932, but ran successfully for mayor again in 1935, 1939 and 1943. His ties to the Klan weren’t uncovered until after he left office, according to a 1999 article in the Rocky Mountain News.
Not only was Denver in the Klan’s grasps at that time: the Klan infiltrated the state Republican Party, according to Davis, and picked “almost all” the Republican candidates who ran successfully for office during the 1924 elections.
By 1925, Davis says a “majority” in both the state Senate and House were Klan members. Clarence Morley also became governor that year. There are differing stories as to whether he was actually a member of the Klan, but historians say there was no doubt that he was deep in the pockets of Locke and the Klan. Davis writes:
“[Locke] could seemingly count on the passage of any desired legislation. The executive as well as the legislative branch of the government seemed to be in the doctor’s pocket. Governor Clarence Morley could not make a move without first consulting the Grand Dragon. Harry T. Sethman was close to the governor during the first part of his administration because he was thought erroneously to be a Klansman. Mr. Sethman observed that Morley was constantly on the telephone talking to his “master.” If the Governor was too busy to call, his personal secretary would be requested to phone for instructions. One man in the governor’s office had as his primary duty the carrying of written messages between the Capitol and Locke’s Glenarm Place office. For all practical purposes Locke was the governor.”
Davis wrote that there was ever-increasing pressure from the Klan to pass measures that were deemed favorable to it, and that Morley was pressured to give the boot to a high-ranking government official. Morley also appointed Locke to several commissioned positions.
The Klan also pushed for moral matters that included a crackdown on bootlegging and the use of wine during sacrament, the new celebrity of Hollywood, and the rise of swing and jazz music, according to Denver historians.
The Denver Public Library writes that the groups under fire from the KKK and government had a voice in the Denver Express, but that other local papers “were silent or neutral.”
Some business leaders stood up to the Klan, according to Phil Goodstein’s book, “In the Shadow of the Klan: When the KKK Ruled Denver 1920-1926.”
But some of the Klan rallies in the Denver metro area—including in Arvada, Boulder and Golden—drew thousands of people. One Klan picnic in Denver reportedly drew 100,000 people, according to the Denver Public Library.
Goodstein also wrote that while the Klan grew quickly and had a stranglehold on local and state governments, that there were few violent episodes during their brief reign. Some minority groups were driven from white neighborhoods, but there wasn’t as much violence here as there was in other places across the country, he wrote.
And as fast as Klan-backed members of the government rose to power, they were stifled just as quickly.
Bipartisan blocs of Democrats and Republicans got together to block some of the Klan measures in the Legislature, according to Davis, and corruption probes into officials led to a quick demise. When Locke was probed for tax evasion, some of the Klan fell apart and its power waned in the government.
Morley was out of office by 1927, and the Klan declined both in Colorado and nationally over the next decade or so before nearly disappearing again by World War II.
It saw a resurgence starting in 1946 across the country, and while there were Klan chapters in Colorado operating over the next several decades, there are no official Klan groups currently operating in the state, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Click here or tap the image below for photos of the KKK in Colorado between 1920 and 1940.