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KKK's history in Worcester.

That unfortunate incident about the Ku Klux Klan costume at Worcester Technical High School has something to teach this community, particularly about the episode that put Worcester at the gritty heart of the Klan revival in the 1920s.

Most people think of the Klan as the night riders in the South after the Civil War, terrorizing black communities and establishing Jim Crow segregation across the South. But few are aware that, after the original Klan faded away in the 1880s, it was revived in the North and Midwest in 1915 and again in 1920 with somewhat different aims.

Its target in the 1920s was not primarily black people but also "foreigners,'' notably Jews and Catholics.

The massive stream of immigrants after 1880 -- mostly Irish, Jews, Italians, Germans and French-Canadians -- alarmed many established Americans. They feared that the core principles of America were under attack.

Hiram Wesley Evans, a brilliant organizer and shrewd promoter, got hold of the Klan's assets in 1920 and used the mixture of greed and prejudice to build a formidable movement. Membership cost $10. It was split three ways -- $4 to the recruiter, $6 to regional headquarters, divided between the King Kleagle and the national headquarters. There was plenty of leakage and lots of fraud.

The KKK spread like wildfire across the Midwest and Northeast. New England was aflame. Prejudice against French-Canadians was strong in Maine and New Hampshire. In Rhode Island, the Italians were the suspects. And almost everywhere there was suspicion and animosity against the Irish and their Catholicism.

Worcester was not immune. In addition to the usual native American resentment, this city was home to many thousands of Swedes, who brought with them ancient DNA memories of the 17th-century religious wars between Catholics and Lutherans. For a time, Sweden banned the Catholic religion. Some propagandists called the Pope the Antichrist and the "whore of Babylon.'' It took centuries for such feelings to fade away.

All this was exacerbated by the situation in Worcester's factories. Whereas Swedish immigrants had long resented the ability of Irish immigrants to speak English, the Irish soon found reason to resent the favored status of Swedish workers at plants like Norton.

The Norton workforce was mostly the creation of the formidable John Jeppson, who regularly canvassed his birthplace in Sweden for skilled pottery and iron workers. By 1900, it was said, you almost had to know Swedish to make it at Norton.

Klan promoters arrived in Worcester in 1922 and began to sign up members. They were well received in the British-American Orange lodges and among the Swedes in North Worcester. On September 27, 1923, King Kleagle Eugene Farnsworth was the main speaker at a big KKK rally at Mechanics Hall. Worcester remembered the occasion for a long time.

For weeks beforehand, efforts were made to stop the meeting. Mayor "Fish'' Sullivan asked the trustees of Mechanics Hall to cancel it. To their credit, they refused to buckle. The hall had been built, they said, to promote freedom of speech.

And so the dreaded event, with 100 police on hand, took place. The old hall was packed and an estimated 5,000 milled about outside on Main Street. Kleagle Farnsworth was in top form, excoriating "foreigners'' Jews and Italians. He was roundly applauded, according to reports.

The Mechanics Hall rally led to an "avalanche'' of new members, according to one report. Maybe 1,500 or 2,000, many of Swedish descent.

Worcester County was buzzing with Ku Klux Klan activity in 1924. There were cross-burnings and riots in several county towns. Events on the national stage, where New York Gov. Al Smith was campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president, kept things boiling.

In October the Klan organized a huge "Klonvocation'' at the old fairgrounds south of Norton Company. A mob of an estimated 15,000 milled about. Cars were stoned. Soon a full-scale riot was in progress, with fights all the way from Main Street to the fairgrounds.

Klan members were beaten up. The King Kleagle appealed to the Worcester police -- a largely Irish force -- for protection. A biplane with "KKK'' on its fuselage landed near Indian Lake -- sparking a rumor that it had been shot down by someone. But it later took off and flew away unscathed.

That was the high point for Klan activity in Worcester and New England. Sexual and financial scandals in the national Klan leadership and in local lodges led to a decline in membership and influence. Boycotts began to cut into some businesses. Town Talk Bakery here in Worcester felt impelled to declare that it had nothing to do with the Klan, which gradually died out.

Why did this organization of raw bigotry and greed have such appeal for a city like Worcester? That is a question worthy of study. But KKK is not a symbol we want to commemorate at high school dances or anywhere else.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 6, 2014
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