Kansas was a mining powerhouse in the early years of the 20th century. Companies extracted three million tons of coal near Pittsburg alone in 1910, and nearly five million in 1915. The political implications were far-reaching. (Getty Images)
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. Jim Leiker is professor of history at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park.
One would not guess after a tour of Big Brutus or an accidental discovery of an abandoned mineshaft that within these remnants of Kansas’s mining past lie political lessons for the present.
From the 1890s to the 1920s, thousands of laborers mined the coal, lead and zinc fields of Crawford and Cherokee counties. Companies extracted three million tons of coal near Pittsburg alone in 1910, nearly five million in 1915. Electric trolleys crisscrossed the Tri-State District, bringing workers daily from Joplin and transforming towns such as Galena and Baxter Springs into industrial-transient communities. The high demand for heating coal, and after 1914 for lead on European battlefields, turned the region into an international mosaic. Germany, Russia, France, Italy, Mexico — workers from all these countries crowded into an area that outsiders labeled “the Little Balkans.”
As in mining camps elsewhere, the dangerous work and living conditions encouraged workers to organize. Union membership was high, and socialists controlled the majority of county and city offices. The newspaper “Appeal to Reason,” published in Girard, featured essays from radical figures such as Mother Jones and Eugene Debs. They frequently visited southeast Kansas. Socialist Party members played a role in the state’s legislative accomplishments, which included full female suffrage, employer liability laws, worker’s compensation, and other reforms that made Kansas an admirable model of progressivism.
Yet Kansas socialism had an exclusionary side.
A local polemic published in 1913 attacked the Roman Catholic Church as “the greatest scab-herders and exploiters of labor on this continent.” It directed special scorn at the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternity that supposedly swore allegiance to the Pope over loyalty to class or nation. In the aftermath of World War I, European movements such as Nazism and Fascism gained support from socialists who defied Catholic authorities in Italy. Both asserted a more nationalistic form of reactionary populism than the class-based rhetoric of previous years.
Both union and Socialist Party membership declined during the 1920s, as participation in racist, xenophobic organizations replaced working-class consciousness. By 1923, the Ku Klux Klan had organized nine klaverns (chapters) in the Sunflower State, seven of those in southeast Kansas.
– Jim Leiker
That dynamic appeared in the U.S. as well. Both union and Socialist Party membership declined during the 1920s, as participation in racist, xenophobic organizations replaced working-class consciousness. By 1923, the Ku Klux Klan had organized nine klaverns (chapters) in the Sunflower State, seven of those in southeast Kansas. Pittsburg and Mulberry hosted cross-burning ceremonies that drew enormous crowds from neighboring states. Crawford County’s klavern boasted the largest membership in Klan history, with the fiery cross burning almost nightly at Pittsburg’s baseball field.
“The New Klan” bore some similarities to its Reconstruction predecessor, namely in its hatred of African Americans. But these were outweighed by its differences, among them an emphasis on political action over violence. The 1920s Klan targeted Jewish people, communists, immigrants, and — building on local precedents — Catholics. All represented foreign, “un-American” ideologies. Bankers, capitalists, and idlers living on unearned wealth also came in for criticism as the Klan gained followers in precisely those towns where strikes and resentment of “big business” had been strongest.
William Allen White even speculated that corporate interests secretly financed the KKK in order “to smash the labor movement by diverting and dividing it.”
By mid-decade, the Klan’s presence in Kansas had dissipated almost as quickly as it had begun. Congressional limits on immigration, accompanied by scandals and bickering in the KKK’s national leadership, made payment of annual dues not only seem unnecessary but embarrassing. An aggressive lawsuit by the state attorney general resulted in the Kansas Supreme Court declaring the Klan to be a Georgia-based corporation doing business without a charter. This made Kansas the first and only state to legally evict the hooded empire.
That workers so quickly transferred their allegiances from a “radical left” agenda to a “radical right” one suggests several things. Neither ideology planted its roots very deep. Both took hold in areas undergoing rapid social transformation, not unlike today’s meatpacking towns of western Kansas, or the coal regions carried by Trump in 2016 and 2020.
The good news for progressives and conservatives is that extremist views, while dangerous in their appeal to desperate people, are often casually discarded when the next brand of political snake oil comes along.
Historically, Kansans live with two opposing traditions. The first involves taking their motto “To the stars through hardship” too seriously, seeing in the vast spaces an opportunity to build different versions of utopia. The problem with utopias is they encourage ideological purity, which undermines the necessary prospects for compromise that effective governing requires.
Perhaps the true dichotomy is not “left-right” but “moderate-extremist.” If Kansans embrace their other tradition, that of seeking the pragmatic center, they may find their future political path less treacherous.
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