Oklahoma Imposes Martial Law in Response to KKK Violence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Oklahoma governor Jack Walton’s declaration of martial law in response to Ku Klux Klan terrorism led to a controversy that resulted in his impeachment and removal from office.

Summary of Event

The original Ku Klux Klan began in Tennessee in late 1865, shortly after the Civil War. A secret organization whose members wore masks, hoods, and robes, it spread throughout the South, using threats, beatings, and murder to prevent recently freed slaves from exercising their newly won political and civil rights. In the early 1870’s the federal government forcibly suppressed the first Klan movement, yet racial violence continued. By the turn of the century, southern blacks had lost virtually all of the rights supposedly guaranteed under the 1868 Fourteenth Amendment (equal citizenship) and the 1870 Fifteenth Amendment (suffrage) to the U.S. Constitution. Ku Klux Klan;Oklahoma Oklahoma;martial law [kw]Oklahoma Imposes Martial Law in Response to KKK Violence (June 26, 1923) [kw]Martial Law in Response to KKK Violence, Oklahoma Imposes (June 26, 1923) [kw]Law in Response to KKK Violence, Oklahoma Imposes Martial (June 26, 1923) [kw]KKK Violence, Oklahoma Imposes Martial Law in Response to (June 26, 1923) [kw]Violence, Oklahoma Imposes Martial Law in Response to KKK (June 26, 1923) Ku Klux Klan;Oklahoma Oklahoma;martial law [g]United States;June 26, 1923: Oklahoma Imposes Martial Law in Response to KKK Violence[05830] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June 26, 1923: Oklahoma Imposes Martial Law in Response to KKK Violence[05830] [c]Terrorism;June 26, 1923: Oklahoma Imposes Martial Law in Response to KKK Violence[05830] [c]Government and politics;June 26, 1923: Oklahoma Imposes Martial Law in Response to KKK Violence[05830] Walton, Jack DeBarr, Edwin Jewett, N. Clay Trapp, Martin E.

In 1915, William Joseph Simmons Simmons, William Joseph organized a second Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta, Georgia. By 1920, this organization had spread beyond the old Confederacy and found varying degrees of support throughout the United States. The Klan’s targets included not only African Americans but also Catholics, Jews, and aliens as well as native-born Americans who violated the moral code of rural, Protestant America. By the mid-1920’s, the Klan had attained a membership of several million and exercised political influence in a number of states and communities.

The Klan became a visible presence in Oklahoma in 1921. This former Indian territory, admitted to statehood in 1907, had a tradition of frontier vigilantism, lynchings, labor tensions, and mistreatment of its large Native American population, which was systematically cheated of its land. Blacks in 1920 formed about 7 percent of Oklahoma’s two million residents and had been subjected to disfranchisement and racial segregation well before the Klan’s arrival. In the spring of 1921, lynching rumors triggered a Tulsa race riot in which nearly eighty people, mostly blacks, perished. Catholics, Jews, and aliens were few in number and were regarded with some suspicion by the white Protestant majority.

Under the leadership of its first Grand Dragon, Edwin DeBarr, a chemistry professor and vice president of the University of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Klan by the spring of 1922 reached a membership of seventy thousand. Unlike many of its sister organizations in other states, it focused little attention on Catholics, Jews, and aliens and generally refrained from initiating economic boycotts against these groups. Although the Klan played no clear role in the Tulsa riot, it occasionally targeted blacks. In El Reno, a black hotel porter was whipped for being insufficiently deferential toward white guests, and in Enid the Klan drove out more than twenty blacks whom its members viewed as posing a criminal threat. In 1922, a prominent Tulsa black was whipped and mutilated for attempting to register blacks to vote.

The primary targets of Klan violence, however, were native-born whites. The oil boom of the early twentieth century had generated rowdy boomtowns accompanied by an upsurge of crime, vice, and labor strife. State “dry laws” and national Prohibition were flagrantly violated. Oklahoma was thus fertile ground for Klan recruiters who pledged to restore order and reaffirm traditional values. Local whipping squads formed, and alleged adulterers, loose women, wife beaters, bootleggers, and criminals were abducted and beaten. The first evidence of the Klan in Oklahoma was the July, 1921, abduction and whipping of a Muskogee dishwasher accused of criminal behavior. Later that year, a shoot-out in Wilson between Klan members and suspected bootleggers left three of the latter dead. Although hundreds of floggings occurred, victims feared reporting the incidents because many officials and police had Klan affiliations. Indeed, by 1922 the Klan had become a significant political force in Oklahoma, locally and on the state level. Klansmen dominated the state legislature.

At first, there was little open opposition to the Klan, but this would change under the administration of Governor Jack Walton. As mayor of Oklahoma City, Walton had earlier expressed opposition to the Klan. He had warned police that he would not tolerate their membership in the order, and he had launched an investigation of Klan use of the local fairgrounds. Following his successful 1922 gubernatorial election campaign, backed by the Democratic party and the new Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League, Walton made an effort to conciliate the diverse elements of his constituency, which included not only the reformist Reconstruction Leaguers who were anti-Klan but also a significant proportion of Klansmen. Walton opportunistically appointed Klansmen to state positions and even secretly joined the order. He used patronage ineptly and caused an outrage when he appointed a poorly qualified Reconstruction League leader as president of the Agricultural and Mining College.

Walton’s efforts to please all sides backfired. Rumors circulated that Walton had taken money from the oil interests and had misappropriated state funds. By the spring of 1923, there was considerable talk of impeachment. At the same time, there was a new outbreak of masked attacks. Walton announced that if local law officers failed to correct the problem, he would employ the National Guard. On June 26, he briefly imposed martial law in Okmulgee County. In August, six unmasked men kidnapped and severely whipped Nate Hantaman, a Jewish boardinghouse operator in Tulsa suspected of dealing in narcotics and liquor. There was evidence of possible police collusion with the kidnapping. After officials failed to apprehend Hantaman’s assailants, Walton on August 13 placed Tulsa under martial law, sending in National Guard troops and then establishing a court of inquiry that indicted several floggers. Such actions won praise from both the Oklahoma press and the national press, but then Walton seemed to abandon all restraint. On August 30, in violation of the state constitution, he announced a suspension of habeas corpus for the entire county and sent in two hundred more troops. When the Tulsa Tribune protested, Walton briefly placed the paper’s editorial page under military censorship. He advised citizens to shoot any masked men who attempted to assault them, promising to grant them pardons.

Open warfare ensued between Walton and the Klan. The Oklahoma City businessman who had recently replaced DeBarr as Grand Dragon, N. Clay Jewett, declared that Walton would never break the Klan’s power in Oklahoma. Walton then ordered a statewide ban on Klan parades and demonstrations, threatening to place the entire state under martial law if his order were disobeyed. Jewett shrewdly complied and exhorted his followers to refrain from vigilante action. On September 15, just as a grand jury was to convene to investigate the governor’s misuse of power, Walton placed all of Oklahoma under martial law. Labeling Klansmen enemies of the state, he called up six thousand additional National Guard troops and forcibly prevented the grand jury from proceeding with its investigation. Testimony given before an Oklahoma City military court revealed that high local officials had joined the Klan. The general sentiment, however, was that the governor had gone too far.

By now, a determined effort to impeach Walton was under way. The governor used threats, military force, and legal action in a desperate attempt to prevent such action, but on October 2 Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative proposal permitting a special legislative session in which the issue of impeachment and removal could be considered. On October 8, the governor terminated military rule in Oklahoma. Three days later, he convened the legislature to consider anti-Klan proposals, but when the lower house met, it made impeachment proceedings its first priority and adopted twenty-two charges against Walton. In November, the state senate upheld eleven of the charges by the two-thirds majority needed for conviction and removal from office. The charges included the suspension of habeas corpus, use of the National Guard to prevent a grand jury from convening, misuse of state funds, excessive use of pardons, and incompetence.

Significance

Governor Walton’s decision to invoke martial law provoked considerable controversy. Oklahomans had been sharply divided on the Klan issue, with the organization receiving its greatest support in the central, northern, and eastern sections of the state. Among followers of the Reconstruction League, with its strongest base in southern Oklahoma, there was deep opposition to the hooded order. The league condemned the Klan as antilabor and denounced its violence and bigotry, and at least initially supported Walton’s war on the Klan. Most Oklahomans, however, recoiled at the governor’s decision to invoke martial law. Tulsans, for example, found it insulting to have troops patrolling their streets and to be subjected to sundown curfews. On the eve of the October 2 initiative election that ultimately paved the way for Walton’s ouster, the governor proclaimed a postponement of the balloting and threatened that National Guard troops and police were prepared to shoot those who went to the polls. Nevertheless, more than half of the eligible voters defied the threat and voted 209,452 to 70,638 in favor of the proposal.

Many Oklahomans, including members of the Reconstruction League, concluded that Walton posed a greater menace than did the Klan, and they rallied around the cry that they wanted “neither Klan nor king.” Historians generally agree that Walton used his war on the Klan to divert attention from his own corruption and incompetence. Tactics nominally directed against the Klan in actuality posed threats to the constitutional rights of all Oklahoma citizens. Moreover, at the time of Walton’s ouster, politically and numerically the Oklahoma Klan was stronger than ever: In 1924 its membership hit a peak of more than 100,000, placing the state near the nation’s top in terms of its percentage of Klansmen. The unpopularity of Walton’s actions may well have bolstered the Oklahoma Klan, which had seemed to be waning prior to his declaration of martial law.

At the same time, however, Klan abuses clearly warranted corrective action. Oklahoma’s Klan reputedly was the most violent in the nation, and local authorities were ineffective in controlling it, sometimes even collaborating with the hooded order. Oklahoma military court hearings admittedly yielded few convictions, but the several floggers who were indicted and convicted were probably the first Klansmen whose guilt was clearly demonstrated by a court of law.

Under Walton’s successor, Martin E. Trapp, the legislature in late 1923 adopted a moderate bill that regulated the wearing of masks and slightly increased the penalties for masked offenses. Furthermore, as most Oklahomans came to reject the excesses of vigilantism, Klan leaders like Jewett attempted to discourage such activities, and the Klan wave of terror ceased. The Klan’s political success also proved fleeting. The majority of Oklahoma Klansmen were Democrats who took offense when Jewett, a Republican, engaged in machinations designed to benefit his own party. Klansmen also tired of the order’s internal bickering, its authoritarian structure, and the continual financial burdens of dues and “taxes.” As in other states, the Klan failed to deliver politically despite its nominal control over the legislature. As the decade ended, the Oklahoma Klan was a virtually powerless force claiming only two thousand members.

Oklahoma’s black population continued to hold a subordinate social and political position until the Civil Rights revolution of the late 1950’s and the 1960’s. A third Klan movement, with a penchant toward violence, developed in reaction to these human rights advances, but it never came close to approaching the Klan of the 1920’s either in scale or in political influence. Ku Klux Klan;Oklahoma Oklahoma;martial law

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Charles C. The Ku Klux Klan in the Southwest. 1965. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Contends that the Klan’s appeal in southwestern states rested primarily on its attempts to enforce crumbling Victorian moral values, and asserts that Walton’s war on the Klan was in reality an attempt to cloak the ineptness and corruption of his own administration. Includes glossary of Klan terminology and annotated bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chalmers, David M. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. 3d ed. New York: F. Watts, 1981. Comprehensive history of the Klan. Chapter titled “Mayhem and Martial Law in Oklahoma” offers a brief introduction to the events but not much in the way of analysis. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, H. Wayne, and Anne Hodges Morgan. Oklahoma: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. Presents a clear, concise consideration of the Klan’s rise in Oklahoma and Walton’s crusade against the organization. Argues that Walton lacked the experience and intelligence necessary to govern the state and that the alliance formed to remove him from office served to fortify the Klan politically, at least temporarily. Includes references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neuringer, Sheldon. “Governor Walton’s War on the Ku Klux Klan: An Episode in Oklahoma History, 1923 to 1924.” Chronicles of Oklahoma 45 (Summer, 1967): 153-179. Provides a detailed and balanced assessment of Walton’s political struggle against the Klan. Suggests that initially there was some justification for establishing military courts, but Walton resorted to measures that were clearly unconstitutional, unwarranted, and counterproductive. Includes references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scales, James R., and Danney Goble. Oklahoma Politics: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. Presents an informative analysis of Oklahoma politics of the 1920’s and portrays Walton’s war on the Klan as a largely ineffective political maneuver. Argues that “the Klan richly deserved punishment, but not subversion of civil liberties with unparalleled ruthlessness.” Includes illustrations, references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schrems, Suzanne H. Who’s Rocking the Cradle? Women Pioneers of Oklahoma Politics from Socialism to the KKK, 1900-1930. Norman, Okla.: Horse Creek, 2004. Surveys the political activities of women in Oklahoma during the period covered. Chapter 6 is devoted to women’s involvement in the Oklahoma Ku Klux Klan. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tucker, Howard A. History of Governor Walton’s War on Ku Klux Klan, the Invisible Empire. Oklahoma City: Southwest, 1923. Brief work written by an Oklahoma journalist shortly before Walton’s impeachment provides a vivid if disjointed depiction of Klan violence, often through the testimony of its victims. Presents Walton’s behavior in a more sympathetic light than most later sources. Marred by some inaccuracies and dubious claims.

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