Montana may be nearly 2,000 miles from Charlottesville, Virginia, where a recent white supremacist rally turned deadly as neo-Nazis and KKK members clashed with counter-protesters, but the KKK has a history, including cross burnings, in the Big Sky State.
Reports in The Billings Gazette from the early 1920s indicate there was an organizational meeting in Livingston in September 1923 to establish a Montana affiliate with the national Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s strength in the state at that time was reported to be about 6,000 people.
The national KKK was at its height, and the Klan’s imperial wizard, Hiram Wesley Evans, a dentist from Texas, visited Billings in 1924.
The Klan’s formal presence in Montana began in about 1923 but fizzled by the end of the decade.
Since then, Billings and Montana have experienced periods of racial tension and conflicts with neo-Nazis, white supremacists and far-right anti-government extremists.
Although there were few African Americans in Montana in the 1920s, the Klan targeted Catholics, Jews and immigrants and promoted white supremacy.
A large advertisement for the KKK, by the Billings Klan, No. 6, in the Sept. 30, 1923, Gazette attempted to push back against “vicious and slanderous misrepresentation” that had been published about the Klan so that “all who care to know may learn the true facts.”
The ad proclaimed, “We are not an ANTI-ORGANIZATON in any sense, just PRO-AMERICAN, that is all. We are not Anti-Jew, although we restrict our membership to Gentiles. We are not Anti-Negro, but we do believe in White Supremacy and in keeping the blood of the white race untainted.
“We are not Anti-Catholic, insofar as the Catholic faith is concerned, but we are unalterable opposed to any participation in the affairs of our government by the pope or any other foreign influences.”
In that same Gazette, on the front page, was a story headlined, “Tar and Feather Victim Sues Klan for $150,000.”
The article reported that a Kansas man sued the Klan in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma seeking $150,000 in damages for injuries he suffered after he was tarred and feathered there the previous year. The suit alleged members of the Klan “conspired or participated in violence” against the man.
One of Montana’s early cross burnings occurred north of Roundup on July 4, 1923, and was directed at a large immigrant population attracted to the area by coal mining.
The Roundup Record reported that the local Klan staged an initiation with a fiery cross, big bonfires and fireworks. Several hundred men reportedly participated in the event in which 94 new members were initiated.
And in September 1923 in central Montana, the Gazette also reported that the Klan held a ceremony west of Lewistown in which “one great fiery cross was constructed and there were several smaller ones about the field.” Klan authorities reported attendance at 8,000, with 300 people initiated.
In Billings, toward the end of the month, when the Midland Empire county fair was underway, there were Associated Press reports of a cross burning, apparently on top of the Rimrocks, in which the cross was nearly 50 feet in height.
“As the cross blazed, lighting the entire top of the hills for miles around, hundreds of red glares were touched off, and on the end of the hills 300 feet above the city, marched hundreds of white-robed members of the organization, carrying red and green flaming torches,” the AP reported.
Another local cross burning occurred in September 1925 on Square Butte west of Laurel. The Laurel Outlook reported that an estimated 2,500 people gathered for the initiation of 100 candidates into the KKK.
“It looked like all the dragons, wizards, witches, ghosts, or whatever they are called, from all over the country had gathered there,” the Outlook said.
During Imperial Wizard Evans’ visit to Billings while on a tour of Western states, the Gazette reported, he was the guest of local Klansmen at a luncheon of the Billings Commercial Club, gave a speech at the Coliseum to an audience of sympathizers and addressed a meeting of the Klanswomen that was held at the First Methodist Church.
Women played a supporting role for the KKK, forming auxiliaries called Women of the Ku Klux Klan or WKKK.
The WKKK in Yellowstone County, for instance, organized an annual Klan picnic in the 1920s, said Elizabeth DeGrenier, community historian at the Western Heritage Center in Billings. A photograph in the museum’s archives shows cars on the South Bridge, which is draped with a Klan banner.
In an essay for the Montana Historical Society and published in a book titled, “Beyond Schoolmarms and Madams,” Kayla Blackman wrote that in Montana the KKK and WKKK “emphasized anti-Catholicism in their rhetoric and politics. Central to their mission was a campaign for compulsory public education to stem the influence of parochial schools.”
WKKK members in Billings, Roundup, Harlowton and Livingston attended cross burnings, organized boycotts and “proudly displayed their Klan affiliation — although the acceptability of women wearing men’s regalia came in to question during discussions about organizing a 1927 parade in Whitehall,” Blackman wrote.
Women of the Klan attended rituals, like funerals, and “like their national counterparts, took on the traditionally female role of providing costuming and food for social events and secret gatherings,” Blackman wrote.
WKKK members also “presented themselves as a respectable alternative to other area women’s clubs, and reporters were sympathetic; one Billings Gazette article recorded the WKKK delivering flowers to the hospital,” Blackman wrote.
'The Boys in Butte'
Klan members, however, met resistance from other Montanans.
In Butte, many residents were immigrants and Catholic, Blackman wrote. “Sheriff Jack Duggan reported, ‘Our men have orders to shoot any Ku Kluxer who appears in Butte,’” she said in her essay.
The Klan’s activity in Montana and Butte, in particular, is chronicled in a 1991 thesis by Christine K. Erickson, for a master’s degree at the University of Montana.
Titled “The Boys in Butte, the Ku Klux Klan Confronts the Catholics, 1923-1929,” the thesis said white supremacy and vehement anti-Catholicism were “part and parcel” of the Klan’s secret fraternalism. But at the same time, those attitudes hindered its development.
“For the Klan to exercise influence beyond its own membership, it depended on acceptance by the larger community,” Erickson wrote. “Irish Catholics had dominated Butte’s social structure and economy for years; consequently, flexing the Klan’s muscle in politics and education proved impossible.”
The Klan’s secret fraternal activities, like attending to the sick, wasn’t enough to hold it together and led to its decline in Butte, Erickson said.
“As a consequence of the Klan’s impotence, apathy gelled quite early among Kontinental Klansmen. The downswing of the economy and the effects of modernization also played roles in the Klan’s collapse,” Erickson said.