Alex Constantine - April 10, 2011
You might call them hooded skeletons in the closet.
A recently published book puts the spotlight on a piece of history most communities would rather forget: The startlingly widespread popularity, for a few years in the 1920s, of the Ku Klux Klan in the North.
In this case, the closet is Newaygo County.
“Everyday Klansfolk: White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan,” by British historian Craig Fox, was published last month by Michigan State University Press.
It’s an exploration of the Michigan Klan as a mainstream movement in those days — not the secretive, night-riding terrorists of the 1860s or the 1960s, but a sort of crude, quasi-respectable lodge organization that mixed patriotism, Protestant religiosity and defense of traditional morality with an ugly brew of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, racist rhetoric.
The movement flared up nationwide early in the Roaring 20s, with its base in nearby Indiana, and flourished until collapsing in a welter of scandals in 1925-26.
The heart of Fox’s book is a close look at Newaygo County’s experience from 1923 to 1925.
In that period, nearly 20 percent of the county’s native-born white men and 10 percent of its women joined the Klan.
That included: the county sheriff (in fact, all four county sheriffs of the 1920s); the Fremont and Newaygo police chiefs; the county clerk, drain commissioner and register of deeds; a probate judge and local judges in Fremont, Newaygo and White Cloud; Fremont’s mayor, a city council member and superintendent of schools; the Newaygo High School principal and many teachers in all districts; pastors, doctors, business owners and newspaper executives and reporters; the then-current state representative, a future state senator and a future Michigan Secretary of State.
A typical county
The book itself, and Fox in a telephone interview, stresses that Newaygo County wasn’t any more Klannish than other communities at the time: It was absolutely typical.
“One of the points of the book is to make clear the spread across Michigan,” Fox said. “I’m not trying to make a case about Newaygo County being particularly strong as opposed to other areas.”
Neither was the historian arbitrarily picking on the rural West Michigan county. ... CONTINUED