On Monday, January 28, 2013, in Topeka, Washburn University’s Center for Kansas Studies asked IREHR president Leonard Zeskind to give a presentation for their main “Kansas Day” commemoration. The following is an excerpt from that speech.
Hidden, Forgotten and Denied: Racism and Anti-Semitism in the State of Kansas
By Leonard Zeskind
There are two sides to Kansas, as there is to most everything else. And I have been asked today to talk about the side we would like to deny and forget. So I am going to focus on organized white supremacy and anti-Semitism; organized as a social movement.
We might usefully begin with the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s the Klan emerged nationally. At that time the Klan was intent on maintaining the absolute power and hegemony of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. As such, it was white supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic; and one of its most publicized goals was restricting immigration, and keeping out people of color, Jews, and Catholics from Italy, Poland and other countries.
The first Klan group in Kansas showed up in 1922 in southeast corner of the state, according to Hooded Americanism, by David Chalmers. This is a piece of Kansas history that has long been forgotten. The Kluxers spread across the entirety of the state, and reached about 100,000 members in 1924. By my calculations using 1920 census data, and subtracting the approximately quarter of the population that was either black, Jewish, Catholic or Native American, that was a ratio of about 1 Klansman for every 7.5 white Protestant adults.
The new groups of Klansmen gave themselves distinctly Kansas names, such as the Sunflower Club of Wyandotte.
Almost immediately, these Klans ran into trouble in Kansas with then Governor Henry Allen. Allen launched an investigation of the white supremacist organization. Among the people he called to testify was the Topeka chief of police. The chief declined the invitation, however. He was a member of the Ku Klux, you see, and it was against his Klan oath to testify against his own brethren.
So along with farmers, miners, and salesman in the bed sheet crowd, there were railroad industrialists, preachers, policemen, and politicians. In the 1923 elections, Klansmen were elected to local office in Pittsburgh, Fort Scott, Wichita, Emporia and Kansas City. And in 1924, they helped Ben Paulen governor.
The racists did get a constant public shellacking from William Allen White, the editor of the Emporia Gazette. And White did rile up enough public sentiment against the Kluxers that in 1925 the state supreme court ruled that it was sales organization, not a benevolent society. Thus they needed a license to do business. That did put a crimp in the Klans’ activities in Kansas.
But I think it needs to be said that the US Congress passed a most restrictive immigration law in 1924. This was the law that Klan groups and the white supremacists had been campaigning for. It maintained white Anglo-Saxon Protest hegemony, at least for the time being. And as I argue in my book, it was the passage of that law, as much as the scandals and acts like the Kansas Supreme Court decision that led to the downfall in Klan membership. The Klan had won it main point. So it went out of business.
It did not put organized white supremacy, anti-Semitism and bigotry out of business in Kansas, however. While the Klan was declining, the Rev. Gerald Winrod and the so-called Defenders of the Christian Faith was rising. This sad story is a hidden piece of Kansas history.
Winrod lived in Wichita and came out of a particular wing of the fundamentalist and evangelical wing of Christianity in the mid-1920s. At the time, this wing was opposed to what was called “modernity.” They were opposed to the more socially-liberal wing of Christianity at that time, and “evolution” was one of their big targets. And in Kansas we have a long history of discussing the pros and cons of modern science and evolution, but that is not what I am going to talk about.
In 1933, Hitler’s seized power in Germany. The political and social environment in Europe and North America was filled with anti-Semitic conspiracies theories. But Winrod was a Kansas phenomenon, not an import. He began publishing articles in his Defenders magazine that claimed that a supposedly hidden Jewish “World Conspiracy” was behind then President Roosevelt and the New Deal. In the next couple of years, Winrod incorporated his increasingly anti-Jewish theories into his theological understanding of the world. At the same time, the circulation of his Defenders magazine continued to grow, according to a good book on the topic, The Old Christian Right, by Leo Ribuffo
After 1935, Winrod became an open defender of Hitler and Hitlerism. His sobriquet was the “Jayhawk Nazi.” In 1938 he ran in the Republican primaries for United States Senator from Kansas. I do not have time to go into all of the back and forth of that campaign. It should be noticed, however, that he took 21.4% of the vote statewide in the primary. In the Mennonite communities he took an average of 60% of the vote, according to a useful book on “The Political Acculturation of Kansas Mennonites” by James Junhke, and published by “Faith and Life Press” in Newton.
In some smaller Mennonite townships, Winrod took 90% of the vote, indicating a problem of some significance. Junhke argued that Winrod’s following here was based on two things: a common fundamentalist, anti-modernist yearning; and a general sympathy for all things German.
In any case, the Jayhawk Nazi was indicted for sedition in 1942 along with more than two dozen others open sympathizers and actors on behalf of the Hitler regime. The trial was never completed, but Winrod and the Defenders and open Nazism in Kansas were broken by the same war that broke Hitler and Hitlerism in Europe.
Before going on to the post-war period, it needs to be noted that the Klan in the 1920s certainly, and the Christian Defenders to a lesser degree, regarded themselves as the defenders of the status quo as they understood it. White supremacy and Jim Crow segregation were the order of the day. They could reasonably assert that theirs was a “white republic,” in which the rights of white people were superior to the citizenship rights of all others.
Now the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War issued in an entirely new era: A period of decolonization by Britain, France and the European powers opened and would continue for the next two decades. The obvious evils of Nazi Germany and the genocide of European Jewry had discredited, but not banished, the ideas of scientific racism and anti-Semitism. The entire American society had been mobilized to fight fascism. And as I wrote in my book, black soldiers having fought racism and fascism in Europe, came home and fought Jim Crow here. Civil rights laws were passed in the 1960s. And the restraints of the old Klan-inspired racist immigration law were loosened. And you all know that Kansas, and the Topeka Board of Education, played a key role in that transformation.
I do not have time to talk much about Brown v Topeka Board of Education, except to say one thing: Thurgood Marshall’s argument and the Supreme Court decision were based on a reading of the Fourteenth Amendment.
After the 1960s, much, but not all, of the organized white supremacist and anti-Semitic activity in the State of Kansas has been aimed at trying to undo the Fourteenth amendment or render it once again mute.
Consider the Posse Comitatus in the early 1980s.
The term Posse Comitatus means literally the “power of the county,” and my colleague Dan Levitas, in his book The Terrorist Next Door, has done a good job tracing the term back to the middle ages in England. Some take it to mean that there is no higher law enforcement officer than the county sheriff. But I think the best way to understand the name is to describe the organization.
Now I first remember the Posse Comitatus in Kansas in 1982. They claimed they were representing family farmers, particularly those hard hit by the economic crisis in Midwestern agriculture at that time. An FM radio station in Dodge City was broadcasting sermons by out of state Posse leaders. And it was vile. Stuff like, “The Jews are like a pen full of pigs,” and “all the disco-bongo-congo from the Congo is gonna be gone,” And “all the n-word jive and the tootsie-wootsie is going to go.” And the so-called sermons went downhill from there.
Also at that time, in 1982, out of state Posse leaders came to Weskan, Kansas and conducted paramilitary training. Fifty-six participants, many of them farmers from Eastern Colorado and Kansas; trained in night fighting, making explosives, booby traps and the like.
The Posse also convened a so-call “Citizens Grand Jury” and indicted 105 county sheriffs, labeled the sheriffs outlaws and said they would be buried in potters field.
I tell some of these stories in my book, Blood and Politics. But the Posse Comitatus event that still stands out in my mind happened near Wichita at Cheney Lake State Park in August 1983. More than any other single event, it explained the ideology of the Posse Comitatus and related groups.
There were a series of speakers and I’ll describe some. The was a farmer from Halstead who had appointed himself head of something he called the Farmers Liberation Army. And he described how the Federal Reserve Banking system was supposedly run by Jews, and as part of a supposed international Jewish banking conspiracy. And he went into great detail about this.
Then there was a sergeant off the base at Fort Riley, and he talked about paramilitary training. This was more than a decade before Timothy McVeigh showed up at that base.
There was a young family man, a computer programmer for the Wichita school district and he talked about his Christian Identity beliefs. The Identity ideology was the central to the Posse, the Freemen that came later in the 1990s, and much of the white supremacist movement in Kansas during those decades. So I am going to explain a bit of it to you today. Again, it’s one of those things I could spend two hours on, but I won’t.
In short, Identity contended that the white people from Northern Europe were in fact the racial and theological descendants of the Biblical Israelites. That black and brown people were created in the Biblical creation story before Adam that they were more akin to beasts of the field than humans, and they had no souls. That Jews were Satanic: either descendants of a mating between Eve and Satan or in some other fashion. And that God’s grace depended upon your race.
Needless to say it was a deeply racist and anti-Semitic set of ideas. At that time, multiple hundreds, if not more, people in Kansas held that belief.
But it was the last speaker at this Cheney Lake Posse event that seems the most relevant today.
He was an engineer, a tax protestor. And he said that in order to carry out this tax protest scheme you had to become a true “organic Sovereign.” You had to take your drivers’ license, your marriage certificate, your social security number—all things issued by the government—and turn them back in. And declare that you were a common law sovereign. Now you became one of those who had been mentioned in the preamble to the Constitution, “We the people.”
Now the real kicker to all this was that sovereigns, the We in We the People, could only be white Christians from northern Europe. The rest of the people in the United States were, “14th amendment citizens.” The sovereign rights came from God. Their rights were superior to the 14th amendment citizens who got their rights from the government.
I think you can figure out who got the superior rights and who got the inferior rights in this scheme. It was the re-introduction of a kind of Dred Scott theory of citizenship. And it was central to the Posse Comitatus and others in Kansas.
Now this iteration of the Posse in the early 1980s began to come to a close in 1985. A particularly heinous set of murders at a Posse encampment in Rulo, Nebraska—just across the state line—caused a number of defections from the organizational name; if not the ideas. And church and farm leaders in Kansas began to speak out against the bigotry, against the racism and anti-Semitism of the Posse. Erecting that simple moral barrier between right and wrong did a world of good in Kansas. As I said, these steps changed the terrain, but it did not convince many of the Posse activists to drop their beliefs.
The Freemen, the militia and the Common Law Grand Juries of the 1990s
Ten years later, it was all back again. This is a big story, more than I can do this afternoon. Most of it is in my book, Blood and Politics. Some of it is in an article I did for Rolling Stone magazine in October 1995. But it was big and dangerous and violent.
Once again these movements did not start in Kansas, but they developed a worry-some traction here.
When the miltias started up after 1993, they were organized on a principle of state citizenship at odds with national citizenship of the Fourteenth Amendment. The sovereigns were back—this time calling themselves Freemen. They assert a white nationalist citizenship. They professed a formed of identity more consonant with the white republic of Dred Scott. And once again claimed their rights were superior to that of 14th amendment citizens: people of color, Jews, non-Christians and all that didn’t fit into their white republic.
Terry Nichols, who lived for a while in Herrington, south of Junction City, claimed he was a “sovereign” non-14th amendment citizen; That is before he got involved with Timothy McVeigh in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
In June 1995, two months after that bombing, 600 common law activists from more than 25 states—led by former members of the racist and anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus—met in a so-called common law Grand Jury. Some of these men had participated in the paramilitary training in Wallace County in 1982.
This 1990s iteration of racist and anti-Semitic movements quieted down in Kansas, just as it did in other parts of the country after a serious crack-down by the FBI and law enforcement generally. The Aryan Republican Army—which had holed itself up in Southeast Kansas for a while—was broken and sent to jail. Ditto many of the militiamen across the country. So-called Phineas Priest went to jail. McVeigh was executed. And so on and so on.
Even the white power skinheads in Wichita quieted down.
In the 21st century, the idea of a society where whites or white Christians dominate and control every social, economic and political lever of society has not gone away. Neither have the attacks on the 14th amendment. Please consider in this regard all your friends, neighbors and relatives that would like to end birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants.
That is right. One of the principal demands of the anti-immigrant movement—and we have plenty of that in Kansas—is to end birthright citizenship.
Today, the anti-immigrant movement cloaks its concerns in terms such as national security and maintaining lawfully regulated borders. And there are those who actually have those concerns.
Differences between legal and illegal immigrants fade into a generalized belief that a brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking tidal wave is about to swamp the white-skinned population of the United States. The attempt to stop undocumented workers at the borders morphs into a campaign to end immigration altogether, to save our supposedly white nation from demographic ruin.
The debate on immigration is about to heat up once again. And all Kansans need to make sure that their communities do not promote racist and anti-Semitic ideas. The people of Kansas can celebrate the anniversary of the state’s founding, and be mindful of these past events, and promise themselves a better, more inclusive future by constructing a moral barrier against racism and bigotry of all kinds.