When ‘real American’ William Allen White ran for office to save Kansas from the KKK

October 31, 2020 3:56 am

Members of the Ku Klux Klan carry a flag at a gathering in the 1920s. (KansasMemory.org/Kansas State Historical Society)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Beverley Olson Buller is a retired teacher and librarian and the author of four books, including “From Emporia: The Story of William Allen White.”

Ninety-six years ago this fall, Kansas newspaper owner and editor William Allen White, normally happy to be at home in Emporia, began traveling around the state, in his words, “fighting the Ku Klux Klan.”

White promised in his first editorial as owner of the Emporia Gazette that he would seek no political office. Yet, in September 1924, he announced his gubernatorial candidacy.

“I want to be governor to free Kansas from the disgrace of the Ku Klux Klan,” he wrote. “I was born in Kansas and have lived my life in Kansas. I am proud of my state. And the thought that Kansas should have a government beholden to this hooded gang of masked fanatics, ignorant and tyrannical in their ruthless oppression, is what calls me out of the pleasant ways of life into this distasteful but necessary task.”

He had already joined other editors in condemning the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, proudly noting in a July 28, 1921, editorial that when Klan organizers approached citizens in his town, “It is to the everlasting credit of Emporia that the organizers found no suckers with $10 each to squander here.” (The $10 registration fee included a robe and hood.)

Just four days later, however, he admitted, “The Ku Klux Klan is said to be reorganizing in Emporia” and called the Klan “a menace to peace and decent neighborly living” in the community.

A 1920 photo of the Ku Klux Klan float for the Kaffir Corn Carnival Parade in El Dorado, pulled by two horses in white hoods and shrouds. (kansasmemory.org/Kansas State Historical Society)

The platform of the Klan of the 1920s included not only white supremacy but anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and anti-immigrant claims. The organization desired to be seen as benevolent and filled newspapers around the state with stories of robed members walking up to church altars or local hospitals to deliver cash gifts.

The Winfield Courier carried a Dec. 23, 1924, story headlined “KKK Santa” inviting all to their annual Christmas party. White’s own Gazette published thank-you notes to the Klan in its editorial section from people down on their luck.

White’s friend Gov. Henry Allen battled the Klan with speeches and proclamations, including one that masks not be worn in public. Allen searched for ways to stop the Klan from operating in Kansas and began proceedings against them in the Kansas Supreme Court.

William Allen White and Kansas Gov. Henry Justin Allen on July 19, 1922, at Emporia Normal School in Emporia. (kansasmemory.org/Kansas State Historical Society)

When it came time to elect a new governor in 1924, proceedings against the Klan were still moving through the state Supreme Court, and voters had no choice but to select one of two candidates with Klan ties.

In his Sept. 20, 1924, editorial announcing his decision to run, White explained the quandary.

Allen’s successor, Jonathan M. Davis, “had the Klan endorsement in the primary. His party threw it over, but Davis has not disclaimed it.” Of the Republican candidate, “Ben Paulen … accepted the Ku Klux Klan endorsement in the primary and owes his small plurality entirely to Ku Klux Klan votes.” White noted when asked about Klan involvement, Paulen would use the phrase, “Not at this time.”

Before he decided to enter the race, White tested the sentiment with petitions sent to counties around Lyon and received three times the number of signatures required to file. He did not ask for input from Emporia and Lyon County. In his announcement, White claimed, “It is the largest independent petition ever filed for an office in Kansas.”

The world watched as the 56-year-old newspaper editor kicked off his campaign on Sept. 22 on the steps of the Chase County courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, traveled 2,783 miles around his home state and made 104 speeches, concluding with two in Emporia on Nov. 3.

White began to say, “I’m not running for an office; I’m running for a principle.”

A cartoon titled “A Real American Goes Hunting,” drawn by Rollin Kirby and published in the New York World. (kansasmemory.org/Kansas State Historical Society)

His campaign was often billed as “anti-Klan,” but on Oct. 14 in an El Dorado speech, he unveiled a platform that included revising banking laws, taking state schools of higher education out of politics, passing a federal child labor amendment and aiding hospital maternity wards. He also began to ask voters to support candidates for secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction and the attorney general, Charles Griffith, who had been working on legal ways to run the Klan out of Kansas.

White spent Election Day working at the Gazette, and the night before had published his only request for support in his paper, headlined “Entirely Personal.” In it, he asked “the home folks” to come to one of his two speeches that evening at the high school and to give him their vote, saying, “I have asked much for others. This, for the first time now I ask for myself.”

In the end, the election did not go White’s way. He received 149,811 votes to Paulen’s 323,403.

However, the other candidates White endorsed did win, and attorney general Griffith was able to continue his case against the Klan. When the state Supreme Court ruled in 1927 that the Ku Klux Klan could not legally operate in Kansas, it was the first such ruling in the nation, supporting White’s 1922 supposition, “When anything is going to happen in this country, it happens first in Kansas.”

White still had 20 years to serve his state and country. History shows he used that time to battle a questionable gubernatorial candidate, John Brinkley, and in 1940 he headed what came to be known as the White Committee as the U.S. struggled with how to address the growing Nazi threat in Europe.

Following his death in 1944, his state found various ways to keep his name alive, a tradition that continues. Kansas children know White through the book award named after him, which is approaching its 70th year of operation. The University of Kansas named its journalism school after him in 1950 and annually gives a White Award to a deserving journalist on the national stage. His beloved home, Red Rocks, operates now as a state historic site. In observance of the 150th anniversary of White’s birth, the William Allen White Foundation tasked Kevin Willmott with making a documentary about White that is now making the rounds on Kansas PBS stations.

Kansas may well have taken a different turn in 1924 if not for the willingness of a small-town editor to publicly take on the “hooded gang of masked fanatics” threatening the well-being of his state.

It is people like White who remind us of the importance of letting our voice be heard, even when we are not sure anyone is listening.

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Beverley Olson Buller
Beverley Olson Buller

Born and raised in Winfield, Kansas, Beverley Olson Buller is a teacher and librarian who recently retired after 40 years on the job. She is the author of four books. "From Emporia: The Story of William Allen White" and "A Prairie Peter Pan: The Story of Mary White" were both named Kansas Notable Books and chosen for the Kansas Reading Circle catalog and the William Allen White Award master lists. She remains chairman of the selection committee for the William Allen White Children’s Book Awards, serves on the William Allen White Community Partnership Board and talks about William Allen White for the Humanities Kansas Speakers Bureau.