Opinion

In 1922, a Kansas mayor was brutalized by the Klan. Today’s rhetoric sounds chillingly familiar.

October 17, 2021 3:33 am

A detail from the movie poster promoting D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation.” It was originally titled “The Clansman.” (Wikimedia Commons)

The stranger came knocking at the door of Theodore Schierlmann’s garage at 10:30 on a Saturday night. There was a man in a car parked just outside, the stranger said, who wanted a word. So Schierlmann, who was waiting for one of his mechanics to finish a job and was used to late-night business, rose from his desk and followed the man out the door.

There, on the main street of Liberty, a small town in southeast Kansas, Schierlmann was forced into a car by a gang of men. He was whisked away to a wooded spot about five miles northeast of town. His captors dragged him out of the car, removed his coat, and tied his wrists around a tree, with his face to the bark. There were at least nine of them — some had come in another auto — so Schierlmann had no hope of fighting back. Then they pinned his shirt up, ripped open his underwear to expose his bare skin, and proceeded to flay his back with “blacksnake whips,” according to a contemporary newspaper account.

They administered 30 lashes, according to court documents.

The 42-year-old Schierlmann had been mayor of Liberty only 18 months. The owner of the automobile garage and a meeting hall used for town functions, he was said to be well respected in the community. He had a wife, Mary, and three small children waiting at home.

His crime?

He and his family were Catholics, one of only a handful of such families in Liberty. And he had spoken against the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s, the Klan regarded Catholics in the same “undesirable” category as those who were Black or Jewish.

Say nothing about it, for if you ever say anything against the Ku Klux Klan again, we will get you again and the next time the beating will be more severe, and in addition to that you will get the tar and feathers.

– Ku Klux Klan assailant to Theodore Schierlmann

Schliermann had also refused to rent his hall to some men he suspected of belonging to the secret organization. There had been talk in town that the Klan was planning to “whip a Catholic,” and his children were upset, but Schliermann told them it was nothing to worry about because things like that didn’t happen in Liberty.

“You just as well take this good-naturedly,” one of his assailants told him before freeing him to walk two miles back to his home, according to a detailed account a couple of days later in the Coffeyville Morning News. “Say nothing about it, for if you ever say anything against the Ku Klux Klan again, we will get you again and the next time the beating will be more severe, and in addition to that you will get the tar and feathers.”

Schliermann was abducted and whipped on Saturday, Oct. 14, 1922.

Just a year earlier, the Klan had organized several chapters across the state, including in nearby Coffeyville. There, a procession of robed Klansman had solemnly marched into one of the city’s white, Protestant churches and handed over a donation of $200 in cash, according to the Fort Scott Tribune, citing court records. It was the way in which the resurrected Ku Klux Klan hoped to present itself as a fraternal organization that promoted middle-class American values, and the strategy worked.

(The History Press)

But the Klan was more than a fraternal organization. It was a political organization that used terror to gain political influence. It won more than 136 political races in Kansas City, Kansas, according to historian Tim Rives, and captured City Hall with the 1927 election of Klansman Don C. McCombs as mayor. McCombs and others held municipal power for 30 years, even though the Klan itself had long been outlawed.

Rives is deputy director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene. He got his start researching the Klan in Kansas back in 1992 when, doing a graduate paper for a seminar taught by Emporia State history professor Pat O’Brien, he found congregational records of the Klan regularly renting the Methodist Church hall in Reading during the 1920s. His exhaustive research would result in the definitive work, “The Ku Klux Klan in Kansas City, Kansas,” published in 2019.

“The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s,” Rives writes in his book, “was a massive social movement of otherwise normal, white, native-born, Protestant, middle-class Americans. The Klan lured them into its robes and masks with a promise to put the country right again, with them back on top. A reasonable observer might wonder where Klanfolk got the curious idea they were not ‘on top’ at that point in the nation’s history. But perception is reality, no matter when or where you live — or lived — including Kansas City, Kansas.”

The original Ku Klux Klan had been formed by six Confederate veterans in 1866 at Pulaski, Tennessee. Its first national leader was Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, a former rebel general, who helped organize its thousands of members into a political and military force aimed at resisting the federal government. The masked, white-robed Klansmen used terror and violence, including murder, to prevent Blacks and whites sympathetic to the Republican party from voting in the South during Reconstruction. This first Klan was suppressed by federal intervention in 1871.

The second Klan got its start with a movie.

In 1915, director D.W. Griffith released a three-hour silent epic called “The Clansman,” later retitled “The Birth of a Nation.” It was the first American blockbuster, and it kicked off Hollywood’s fascination for “Lost Cause” mythology, never mind the truth. It also created a poisonous national nostalgia that set the stage for the Klan’s second act, as envisioned by William Joseph Simmons, a failed Methodist Episcopal preacher who liked to drink and join fraternal orders. While lying in a Georgia hospital bed after being struck by a car, Simmons had a vision of the new Klan. On Thanksgiving 1915, Simmons stood before a burning cross on Stone Mountain with fifteen others and resurrected the Klan. The original Klan did not burn crosses; this terrifying feature had come from Griffith’s movie.

The new organization had some regional success, according to Rives, but might not have become a national movement without the help of Edward Y. Clark and Elizabeth Tyler of the Southern Publicity Association, who in 1920 offered their marketing services. So effective were Clark and Tyler that in 1925 some 30,000 white-robed Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan marched on Washington, D.C., in the 1920s as the revived group flexed its political muscle. (Library of Congress)

What was the Klan’s appeal in the 1920s?

God and country, as usual.

On March 8, 1921, the Joplin, Missouri, Globe ran a front-page story about the Klan coming to town.

“It became known yesterday a branch of the Ku Klux Klan is being organized in Joplin and that the organization probably will be perfected this week,” was the lead, which is remarkable for its vagueness. “Every effort is being made to keep the work of the organizers secret until perfected and no public announcement has been made of the movement here.”

The Globe went on to cite Klan literature listing principles that included belief in God and “re-dedication of the real 100 per cent American man, the white Caucasian man of America, in the spirit of real America.” The principles also claimed an “unashamed belief in white supremacy” and “the honor of women.”

Racial violence was often triggered by what was regarded as sexual transgression. In 1921, the Greenwood District of Tulsa was burned to the ground and up to 300 killed by a white mob after a Black man reportedly assaulted a white elevator girl. In 1927, after two white high school girls in Coffeyville claimed they had been raped by a trio of Black men, a lynch mob stormed the jail, and the city was occupied by the National Guard for five days. In the end, a white car salesman was charged (but acquitted) of the rapes.

The Klan’s third act came in the 1950s and 1960s, as part of a Southern backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the Klan exists primarily in pockets across the South, with no effective national leadership.

(Wikimedia Commons)

In Kansas, the Klan was officially barred in 1925, when the state ended its charter and the Legislature outlawed it. That doesn’t mean all Klan activity stopped, because a secret organization is naturally, well, secret. But it did put an end to the Klan being recognized as an organization, fraternal or otherwise.

Mayor Schierlmann, who endured the beating in 1922, took his family to Nowata, Oklahoma, and filed suit in federal court against the city of Liberty and others, seeking $30,000 for his suffering. In 1923 a Fort Scott jury awarded him $1 in damages, according to the Kansas City Sun, an influential African-American newspaper.

Schierlmann returned to Liberty shortly after. He died in 1953, age 73.

It is difficult for most of us now to imagine a time when Catholics were targeted by an organized, militant political group. The Klan’s campaign against Catholics — and Black people and Jewish people — was a hundred years ago. It seems an impossibly remote age, one in which there were no talking motion pictures, television, or antibiotics. There was only one world war, and nobody had yet heard of the Nazis. But the kind of rhetoric the Klan used sounds chillingly familiar today. Its success in placing candidates in local office should scare the daylights out of us.

From our school boards to city governments and county commissions, those whose beliefs the Klan would embrace are running for office.

Here’s Haven school board candidate Josh Wells on his beliefs: “We are advocates of white nationalism and (of) a pro-western Christian theocracy with a protected white majority status.” Wells, who was lured into sharing his beliefs via private messaging with some high school students, also has ties to the Proud Boys, a violent right-wing extremist group.

In Kansas and other states, the 1776 Project PAC is pouring money into nonpartisan school board races to elect candidates to reform public education “by promoting patriotism and pride in American history.” The PAC says it is committed to abolishing “critical race theory” and “The 1619 Project” from the public school curriculum.

Working to bar an academic theory that examines race and culture from public classrooms is to urge censorship. Trying to ban a New York Times project that documents how slavery has shaped 400 years of American history is to deny reality. This is the kind of nonsense that belongs in the past, is the stuff of “Lost Cause” mythology, and is straight up enabling racism.

Does the truth of our country's shameful history of racism make you uncomfortable? Good. The discomfort you feel is your conscience.

– Max McCoy

Does the truth of our country’s shameful history of racism make you uncomfortable? Good. The discomfort you feel is your conscience. None of us were around in centuries past, but the responsibility for addressing racial inequality has been handed down, a moral debt that will not be marked “paid” until every American is truly equal.

1920s, the Klan used wedge issues to gain influence. Anti-Catholic sentiment was high because of conspiracy theories that the Pope didn’t respect American laws, a fear that Catholics would choose loyalty to papacy over country, and just plain bigotry because a large number of immigrants were Catholics.

Today, the wedge issues are critical race theory, COVID-19 mandates, immigration, and the lie of a stolen presidential election. We now have lifesaving vaccines and social media and the hindsight of having defeated the Nazis, but we are paralyzed by conspiracy theories, fear, and bigotry. We know better, but we indulge our populist paranoia, feed our appetite for secret societies, and fantasize about a false and guilt-free revision of American history.

Can the abductions and whippings be far behind?

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.

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