Letter Regarding Ku Klux Klan Activity in Arkansas Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In this letter, attorney Isaac McClellan describes the control of the Arkansas legal system by the Ku Klux Klan. By 1923, the newly invigorated Klan was experiencing record growth and gained control of state and local government and courts in some states. Though still rooted in the South, the Klan in the 1920s appealed not only to Southern whites opposed to civil rights for African Americans but also to Midwestern and even Northern urban whites who supported the organization’s anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic positions. The Klan had a modern organizational structure and effective recruiting techniques, and the control of the legal system described in this letter was not uncommon, as Klan chapters worked together to protect their members.

Summary Overview

In this letter, attorney Isaac McClellan describes the control of the Arkansas legal system by the Ku Klux Klan. By 1923, the newly invigorated Klan was experiencing record growth and gained control of state and local government and courts in some states. Though still rooted in the South, the Klan in the 1920s appealed not only to Southern whites opposed to civil rights for African Americans but also to Midwestern and even Northern urban whites who supported the organization’s anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic positions. The Klan had a modern organizational structure and effective recruiting techniques, and the control of the legal system described in this letter was not uncommon, as Klan chapters worked together to protect their members.

Defining Moment

The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by Confederate Civil War veterans who opposed Reconstruction and resented the new role of African Americans in state and local politics. The federal government moved to end Klan activity in 1870 and 1871, and when white segregationists regained control of state and local government in the south, the Klan effectively disappeared after seeing its primary goal fulfilled.

In 1915, near Atlanta, Georgia, the Ku Klux Klan was reestablished by William Joseph Simmons, who was inspired by the D. W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the post–Civil War Klan as Southern heroes, saving their families from violent black men. Atlanta was particularly ripe for a white separatist organization, as it had recently been the site of the lynching of a Jewish man accused of rape. The “new Klan” was organized along a modern business model, with bonuses paid to organizers and a sophisticated recruitment program. They held nighttime rallies around their signature burning cross, attracting large crowds and reinforcing their role as both a beacon of law and order and an instrument of repression and violence. The Klan grew widely in the years after World War I, particularly in urban areas, which were experiencing both labor unrest and racial violence as veterans returned home to both unemployment and a slumping economy. African American veterans were likely to defend themselves if attacked, and riots broke out across the country. In this highly charged environment, the Klan expanded its membership across the country, modifying its message to meet the perceived threats of Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. The Klan promoted “clean living,” and the return to a white, Protestant national identity. They saw themselves as defenders of morality, attacking risqué films, bootleggers, and brothels, as well as secularism and intellectuals.

Though the Klan certainly appealed to an uneducated, Southern, rural population, the group’s largest growth occurred in the Midwestern states and urban areas. Ohio had 300,000 Klan members in the mid-1920s, while Pennsylvania had 200,000. Membership in the Klan ballooned to between three and eight million members nationwide, and the Klan controlled many aspects of state and local governments. The Klan engineered elections through a system called “the decade,” which required every Klan member to ensure that ten people voted for Klan-affiliated candidates for office. The Klan controlled police departments and judges, intimidated political opponents, and protected Klan members accused of criminal violence.

The federal government did investigate Klan activity, but the suppression of the organization that brought an end to the first incarnation of the group did not materialize the second time, perhaps because the Klan was so powerful and exerted considerable political control. At its peak, the organization claimed that fifteen percent of eligible white men were members, and it had become an international movement, with strong growth in Canada.

Author Biography

Isaac S. McClellan was born on October 23, 1871, in Dorsey (now Cleveland) County, Arkansas. McClellan taught at the Lost Creek School after completing high school, then worked as a clerk while studying law. McClellan opened a law practice in Sheridan, Arkansas, with his son, John Little McClellan, who, at age seventeen, was the youngest person ever admitted to the Arkansas bar and was a senator from Arkansas for more than thirty years. The senior McClellan was a circuit court judge for Grant, Hot Springs, and Saline Counties in Arkansas. He married seven times, had six children, and died on November 19, 1958. He is buried in the Lost Creek Cemetery in Sheridan, Arkansas.

Document Analysis

McClellan begins his letter to the US Department of Justice by noting that, through the press, he has found out that the department is aware of the rise in activity of the Klan and plans to send “detectives etc and see if the mobs and other intimidations are being directed by the K.K.K.” McClellan believes that the Department of Justice is perhaps not aware of how widespread the influence of the Klan is in places such as Arkansas.

In McClellan’s role as circuit court judge and attorney, he is perfectly positioned to comment on the Klan’s control of the court system, and this is where he focuses his attention. The Klan is “so thoroughly organized here, that the courts, and principal official [sic] are members, and when they want a jury, they summons no one but their own.” The justice system fails entirely if a Klan member is being prosecuted. “It makes no difference what the evidence is or what the law is, the [Klan] member wins.” The influence of the Klan is not limited to the justice system, however. It is “getting into churches and in all walks of society, and in our public schools as to directors and teachers.”

McClellan describes the threats and intimidation employed by the Klan toward people who oppose it. It is startlingly effective, causing “some of the best citizens of our community” to leave town, and therefore enhancing the position of the Klan. “Some of them are now gone, as they felt like they had no protection. Many others are talking of selling out and leaving if only they knew where to go.” This intimidation is not limited to the “low down or criminal class” that the Klan claimed to be targeting. Anyone who opposes them is subject to threats of violence, McClellan explains.

McClellan urges federal intervention, as he believes that state governments are under the control of the Klan. The Klan’s strategy of recruiting “all the officials and preachers in to start the organization” means that community leaders are not only influenced by the Klan, but are also often founding members of the local chapter. The matter is one of national importance, and McClellan believes that without intervention, “the election of 1924 will witness the downfall of our Republic.” He closes with a reference to the “Invisible Empire,” a nickname for the Klan, and a reference to its power, even as it remained a secret organization.

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this letter was the danger that the Ku Klux Klan represented to justice and democracy. McClellan earnestly believed that the Klan successfully controlled the entire justice system in Arkansas, and its top-down form of recruitment had resulted in other civic and community leaders joining the Klan. Citizens who dared speak out were threatened, and many left the area, leaving their communities exposed and the Klan unopposed. The only remedy, in McClellan’s opinion, was federal investigation and intervention because state government was also under the control of the Klan.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • MacLean, Nancy. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. Print.
  • Pegram, Thomas R. One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Chicago: Dee, 2011. Print.
  • “The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.” PBS American Experience. WGBH Educational Foundation, n.d. Web. 2 June 2014.
  • Williams, Nancy A. Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives. Little Rock: U of Arkansas P, 2000. Print.
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