By Norman Rozell, Special to the Star
The 1921 post-war depression brought economic deprivations to the country. Battles were fought in Washington over a bonus for war veterans, many of whom remained unemployed. Strikes were commonplace and often resulted in physical confrontations and sabotage.
Farm markets were depressed as the domestic production of agricultural commodities in France and Great Britain recovered to pre-war levels. U.S. export prices fell. When farmers tried to sell surplus land, farm real estate prices collapsed. Undercapitalized rural banks then failed.
Events in 1921 and 1922 are indicative of the ugly forces which often come to fore in tough economic times. As early as 1915 one was the rebirth of a new type Ku Klux Klan. It was a terrorist society in nature but tried to legitimize itself with open political activities.
In Texas the Klan was to grow in political power through 1923. After Miriam Amanda Wallace (Ma) Ferguson defeated its candidate for governor in 1924, the Klan’s power began to slip. It was believed that Klan membership had declined to around 2,500 by 1928.
The Klan’s resurgence had coincided with a growing American nativist movement. Its members were united in their distrust of Catholics, Jews, black Americans and “other foreign elements.” The Valley was not immune to the sick spectacle of this hateful organization.
In truth this second incarnation of the Klan had little relationship to that of the Reconstruction Period following the Civil War. In the Valley it was likely advanced by those who had settled here from other areas.
They directed their activities not only against blacks but also “bootleggers, adulterers, Jews, pacifists, radicals, Catholics, and evolutionists.” Scare tactics were more evident here than violence.
On 8/26/21 Harlingen was celebrating the first lighting of the “white way”, this being the decorative street lights recently erected on Main (now Jackson) Street. As the block party on that Friday evening drew to a close, a disturbing specter appeared.
The front page article in the next day’s Brownsville Herald describes it:
Ku Klux Klansmen, 104 Strong, Parade Streets of Harlingen Last Night
A Ku Klux Klan parade, in which 104 knights of the invisible empire led by a fiery cross and a United States flag, was the startling conclusion to a civic celebration held in Harlingen last night.
The streets of the Junction City were thronged with people of both town and country who were celebrating the completion of the lighting system. Shortly after nine o’clock, when the streets were densely crowded, the klansmen appeared, robed and masked, marching in regular order, and without a command being spoken, every movement of the marchers being directed by motions of the leader.
Halting momentarily in the main part of town while a proclamation was being affixed to a telephone pole, the klansmen again took up their march, passing silently through the main streets of the city, then through the Mexican quarter, and disappeared as silently as they had come.
No attempt was made to follow them by any of the large crowd which witnessed the demonstration. Every klansman was skillfully disguised, and they moved in silence and with the precision that was described as “spooky.”
Several banners inscribed with legends such as “The Bootlegger Must Go”, “White Supemacy”, etc. were carried by the marchers. Their proclamation posted on a telephone pole was signed by the Harlingen Klan No.86 and gave notice to bootleggers, gamblers, and other lawbreakers that their presence in Harlingen was not tolerated by the klan.
The disguise worn by the klansmen consisted of the regulation white robe with a red insignia over the left breast from the shoulder almost to the ground. Their appearance was described by spectators as “weird” and “very impressive.”
A notice posted some weeks ago by klansman to the effect that the city was not disposed to favor the existence of bootleggers and advised them to get out of town. This was followed by the general exodus of booze dispensers, but the proclamation of the klan would indicate that there are some left.
This is the first demonstration of the Ku Klux Klan in the Valley. In various sections of the Valley Ku Klux Klan notices have been put up., and at Mercedes this week a donation was given in the name of the klan to a minister to apply to a specific charity. What the strength of the Klan is in other sections of the Valley is largely a matter of conjecture, but it is evident Harlingen has a healthy organization.
The next day another article appeared. It read:
Ku Klux at Mercedes Donates to Charity
The following communications received in Tuesday morning’s mail by the Rev. H. L. Dupree is indicative of the presence of Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mercedes.
“ Mercedes, Texas, August 24, 1921 Mr. H. L. Dupree, Dear sir: There has come to our attention the condition of one Mr.__who lives near this town and we members of the Mercedes Klan of the Invisible Empire desire to express our love for suffering humanity in a way befitting our membership ,which consists of the best of the True Americans of this community.
We have selected you to bear to Mr.__ a gift from our Klan ad as well to express our sympathy. The enclosed amount represents a small gift from each member. Yours for our community, its laws and humanity. “Ku Klux Klan”
Some courageous citizens of Harlingen were not to be intimidated. They addressed the situation head on. An ad hoc group let the newspaper know that they would act. The 8/30 paper headlined an announcement—Anti-Ku Klux Klan to Form at Harlingen The article stated that “An anti-Ku Klux Klan organization will be formed at a public meeting to be held at Harlingen tonight according to a prominent resident of the Junction City who was in Brownsville today. ‘The meeting will be public; ‘there will be no masking’, he said. ‘The people of Harlingen resent the parade last Friday night by the alleged Ku Klux Klan organization, and they declare it was not formed in Harlingen, but it was made up of supposed members from other towns up and down the Valley.’ The Harlingen man said no one in particular is backing the organization of the Anti-Ku Klux Klan society.”
Not to be deterred, that night citizens did meet and agreed to take a strong stand. The paper the next day explained what had transpired:
Invisible Rule Is Condemned in Meeting in Harlingen, Texas
Invisible government by the Ku Klux Klan or any other “unauthorized government” was condemned in resolutions passed at a meeting held at Lozano Hall in Harlingen last night. The parade of masked men Friday night was condemned.
The meeting is said to have been attended by a crowd of 150 persons from Harlingen and surrounding district. It was opened at 9 0’clock.
John C. Myrick, attorney, called the meeting to order and stated its purposes after which a committee on resolutions consisting of J. F. Seago and T. Kingston was appointed.
The resolutions adopted by the meeting follow: “Be it resolved: That we as a body, hereby express ourselves as being emphatically opposed to any form of vice or lawlessness, but that we favor controlling same by and through our regularly constituted form of government, not through any unauthorized government, visible or otherwise. Second, Be it further resolved that we, as representative citizens of Harlingen, do hereby unanimously condemn the action of any body of masked men, be they bandits, Ku Klux Klan, or any violators of laws of our land, and we do especially condemn the masked parade staged on the streets of our city Friday night August 26, 1921.
This act of integrity may have prevented further Klan activity in Harlingen, but in an unhappy note, parts of the Valley were to experience more.
(Next week: The Klan in other parts of the Valley.)