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In the beginning of the 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan ruled much of Dallas — one in three men in the city had joined the white supremacist group.
It was a dark period of the KKK dominating civic life — and a chapter that the city of Dallas has never fully examined, says Michael Phillips, a historian at Collin College outside Dallas and author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001."
The KKK gained control of the city in the 1920s after a Dallas dentist, Hiram Wesley Evans, overthrew the founder of what was known as the “Second Klan,” he says.
“The KKK ran Dallas, and it became the epicenter of the movement,” Phillips says.
Dallas rising as the center of the KKK movement was bound to happen, Phillips says.
At the time, Texas was a state beset by an “extraordinary level of racist violence,” he says.
“Between the 1880s and the 1930s, there were at least 349 African Americans lynched in Texas,” he says. “It was the third-highest number in the entire union, and it's only behind Georgia and Mississippi in those years. So there's an atmosphere there anyway.”
On how Dallas newspapers tried to take on the KKK
“Well, we have to be clear on the motives, though, because the Dallas Morning News institutionally is very proud of its opposition to the Klan. And, you know, the press would cover floggings that took place, but what the Morning News was worried about was not racism. The Morning News in one editorial said, 'White supremacy is not imperiled.' They were worried about the lawlessness of the Klan and how that would affect the bottom line for Dallas business-wise. And also, they were worried about what they saw as a potential radicalism. And that's one of the crazy things about the Morning News' view of the Klan.
“What happened was when the Klan started, the first people they would recruit are people in the upper echelon — economic elites, business elites, etc. — and they'd work their way down because it was a pyramid scheme. People would get a percentage of membership fees. As they began to get to the working class, that's when the Morning News was alarmed, and in fact, the Morning News tried to portray the Klan, which is a far-right organization, as potentially a left-wing organization. And they said, 'Word on the streets is the Klan is red. The Klan is communist,' which is an absurdity.”
On the Dallas Morning News being more concerned with social order than racism
“Racism was not a concern. They made it very clear in their editorial pages what they were worried about is social order. And one of the themes in Dallas history is this terror of not just African Americans, but also of the white working class and the ability to control this. And this will come out decades later when Dallas schools are ordered desegregated in 1961. They put together — and the Morning News is involved in this effort and the other major media outlets — this propaganda film. They hire Walter Cronkite from CBS News to narrate it. And the premise of the film is we know we have all these troublemakers out in the working class, and we know who you are and we'll come after you if you cause trouble when the schools are desegregated. Actually, Dallas schools desegregated peacefully in 1961, but there was this panic that this working class can't be controlled.
“And this is a time, the 1920s, 1930s, Dallas is industrializing. It's a banking center. And you actually have union activism at a level most people don't associate with the South. There was a Ford plant. We have a garment workers' strike in the 1930s in Dallas. And so the Dallas Morning News, which was a voice of elites, was more worried about disorder from the people of working class origins. They conditionally accepted the Jewish community in Dallas. They conditionally accepted people who they saw as marginally white. They were not worried about oppression of black people at all because Dallas was a very highly segregated city and its police department was filled with Klansmen. And when Dallas police officers shot African Americans, they were not concerned with that. They were more concerned about social order and how they would affect outside investment.”
On the KKK fighting for anti-immigrant policies in Dallas
“It's a good thing The Dallas Morning News opposed the KKK. I don't think anyone would argue with that at all. But I think the motive may not be as pure, and in fact, it had to do with class politics as well as with racial politics. And the Morning News was definitely the voice of the real estate developers, the bankers, the oil money, etc. Also, the Klan was an anti-immigrant organization. And at that point in Texas — and of course, people in Dallas are heavily invested still in the cotton production industry — Texas had lobbied successfully the U.S. Congress to give an exemption when they passed this really strict anti-immigration bill in 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act. There was an exemption for Mexican immigration because they were using Mexicans and Mexican Americans as cheap sources of labor in the fields. That would be another motive because the Klan just wanted to shut the border completely. That created a threat to the economic interests of the big landowners in Texas. So it's complicated.
“I think the picture you have an obvious set of villains, the Klan, but the heroes are more complicated in their motives than I think the way Dallas remembers it. And that's the thing is Dallas is hostile to remembrance of history. White people in Texas are afraid they are going to pay a price for their oppression. What Sigmund Freud would have called projection. This explains, for instance, why police often respond violently to unarmed African Americans in the state. And I think there's a great deal of denial still. Dallas is a laboratory of forgetfulness. And I think that lack of knowledge of Dallas's very troubled racial past has made it blind to the circumstances, the number of shootings we have in this city still of unarmed black and brown people and the underlying economic injustice that shapes a city that still frames the racial tensions we have here.”
This segment aired on November 6, 2019.
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