Review: Steel Valley Klan

Steel Valley Klan

Steel Valley Klan, William D. Jenkins. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1990.

Summary: A study of Ku Klux Klan activity in the Mahoning Valley in the early 1920’s, its composition, and factors contributing to the rise and decline of its influence.

Beginning with the refounding of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915, there was a rapid rise in Klan activity throughout the United States in the early 1920’s, organized around fraternalism, nativism, and law and order, themes appealing to a broader cross-section of white Americans of northern European descent. Klan endorsements of political candidates played a significant role in many local elections. Historical studies have looked at this movement on a national basis and also looked at local manifestations–their distinct character, and the influences between local and national organizations.

Wlliam D. Jenkins, a professor of history at Youngstown State University researched Klan activity in the Mahoning Valley, in the cities lining the Mahoning River from Warren to Niles through Youngstown and Struthers, Ohio. At one time, in 1923 Klan activity in the Youngstown area reached a peak represented in a rally of 50,000 at “Dead Man’s Curve, celebrating victories in which Klan endorsed candidates won the mayor’s race, most of the city council seats, and all four school board seats.

Jenkins traces the rise of the Klan in the Mahoning Valley. Conditions were ripe for the Klan with the influx of both immigrants and blacks into the Valley seeking jobs in the rapidly growing steel industry. This was the time of Prohibition and the “blue laws,” and enforcement of such laws in immigrant and black communities became an issue in the city. Enter “Colonel” Evan A. Watkins, who became pastor of First Baptist Church in Girard, welcoming the Klan into his church. Jenkins traces the rise of his influence as pastor, and as editor of the Citizen newspaper, and a sought-after speaker at “100 percent” American functions. He advocated for a strong law and order emphasis throughout the Valley, a kind of moral crusade that was a response to the eastern and southern European Catholic and Jewish populations and the black populations coming into the Valley. The growing Klan presence identified candidates for the 1923 election who would pursue these values, and taking advantage of a non-partisan election, a result of a home rule initiative, succeeded in electing most of their candidates by uniting behind them in a crowded field.

Jenkins highlights several key findings in his research. One was that, contrary to previous scholarly opinion, Klan membership was not confined to working classes but crossed class and occupational boundaries. Also, Klan support was strongest among churches with a pietistic emphasis, not only fundamentalist churches but also many in the mainline denominations. It was sobering to discover that among these was the church I grew up in (thirty-some years earlier). Watkins skill in playing up the moral crusade aspects of the Klan and downplaying racist elements seemed key in lining up such support across such a wide cross-section of churches, organizations, and individuals. A notable opponent was the city’s major newspaper, the Youngstown Vindicator, whose opposition was pretty consistent throughout.

Jenkins also chronicles the decline of the Klan. A riot in Niles in 1924 between the Klan and the Knights of the Flaming Circle, an alliance of Irish and Italian opposition to the Klan served to intimidate the local Klan. Also, Watkins was shown up to be a ladies man and a fraud, was removed from his newspaper, and eventually fled the Valley. These events led all but the more extreme elements to disavow the Klan and from late 1924 on, their influence rapidly waned.

One always needs to exercise caution drawing parallels between historic events and the present. The rise of political movements that combine promises of moral advance with anti-immigrant and nativist appeals seems a perennial issue, and in other parts of the world as well as America. Is there a parallel between the support of the Klan’s efforts by a broad swath of the church establishment in the Valley for pietistic motivations, and the support of 81 percent of white evangelicals for a presidential campaign that was anti-immigrant, supported by nativist groups, and that promised court appointments and religious liberty protections?

I find it troubling that a former pastor from the 1920’s of the church in which I grew up was not troubled by “100 percent American” rhetoric and what this insinuated about Jews, Catholics, immigrant citizens and blacks in the Valley. Did law and order platforms and moral crusades for Prohibition and sabbath-keeping warrant turning a blind eye to the invidious elements that have always been a part of nativist groups?

Jenkins’ book raises those questions for me while casting light on a darker aspect of the local history of my home town. Sadly, I wonder if we will learn anything from these lessons of history.