by Tim Gilmore, 5/27/2017
(The Klan in Jax, part 6 of 7)
When Jim Bouman left his pastorate at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Jacksonville due to Klan threats against his family and his congregation, he probably never knew that Isaiah David Hart, the founder of Jacksonville, made his first wealth, according to Canter Brown Jr’s biography of Hart’s son Ossian, the 10th governor of Florida, by stealing slaves and reselling them in Georgia.
Did Reverend Bouman guess to what fever pitch Jacksonville Klan activity and violence might reach? Did he know how deeply the Klan was rooted in this soil?
He may not have known of Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, and his “Cornerstone Speech” given in Savannah, Georgia in 1861, in which he called slavery the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, saying, “Our new government is founded upon […] the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
He may or may not have known that Confederate generals like Nathan Bedford Forrest formed the KKK in Tennessee in the wake of the Civil War in 1866. He may not have known the Civil Rights Act of 1871 was also called the Ku Klux Klan Act, or that the Klan Act followed a Congressional investigation that filled 12 volumes of documented Klan crimes and ended the KKK until its second iteration in 1915.
He certainly didn’t know that I would graduate from Jacksonville’s Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in 1992, or that a prominent Jacksonville attorney and Klansman had dubbed himself Nathan II in 1950.
He may or may not have known the Klan was born again in Stone Mountain, Georgia in 1915, that the KKK and the United Daughters of the Confederacy financed the Confederate memorial on the mountainside, that Gutzon Borglum, who later carved Mount Rushmore into the sacred Black Hills of the Lakota Indians, began the giant bas-relief sculpture of Confederate generals Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee, but abandoned it in 1925 when funds ran dry.
He certainly didn’t know that in 1951, on Christmas day, the Klan would bomb the home of NAACP leader Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriette, just outside Orlando, after Moore opposed Jacksonville’s State Senator John Mathews’s “White Primary Bill,” which if passed would have prevented black citizens from voting in primary elections.
The Moores died together on their 25th wedding anniversary. Jacksonville named its Mathews Bridge after the senator.
Jacksonville would name another prominent bridge after Governor Fuller Warren, former Jacksonville City Councilman and Klansman. In 1949, Warren called the Klan “covered cowards and sheeted jerks,” but only after Jax Klansman and Baptist preacher A.C. Shuler outed Warren in a sermon as a Kluxer.
The Warren administration refused to investigate a rash of Klan violence in Miami, including three bombings of newly integrated Carver Village public housing and bombings of a synagogue, a Catholic church, and several homes in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. When the Klan’s rage led to the deaths of Harry T. Moore and his wife, Warren’s appointed special investigator Jefferson Elliott, another former Klansman, told the press, “The State of Florida is making every effort to find the guilty parties.”
Even as the Klan ratcheted up its violence in response to Civil Rights legislation, especially school desegregation, it splintered into numerous smaller groups. The Klan began to “divide and conquer” itself, but grew more desperate in its anger. Though the Klan still had members in powerful places, it increasingly exaggerated its numbers and relevance.
As Stetson Kennedy writes in The Klan Unmasked of a new Klan “klonvention” held in the woods outside Jacksonville, “It was claimed, extravagantly as usual, that 150 klepeers (delegates) representing 650,000 Klansmen in 302 Klaverns in twelve states were present. Jacksonville was named as the new Imperial City [in place of Atlanta, the Klan’s traditional capitol city of its ‘Invisible Empire’], and a mysterious Wizard who signed his edicts merely ‘Nathan II’ […] was elected.” The Associated Press reported the new affiliation as the Southern and Northern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, though based entirely in the South, with its “‘emperor’ known only as Nathan II.”
Several writers, including Kennedy and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s gutsy pre-multiculturalist reporter Spencer McCullough, outed Nathan II as Jacksonville attorney and Duval County Democratic Party Chairman Edgar Waybright, Sr.
When in April 1952, Klansman Bill Hendrix dropped out of the race for governor of Florida, the United Press reported he’d “resumed his old job as grand dragon” of the Florida Klan. The UP report continued, “The only reason he entered the governor’s race in the first place, Hendrix said, was because he was persuaded to do so by Edgar Waybright, Sr., chairman of the Duval County Democratic Executive Committee. He said he has now broken with Waybright.”
Governor Fuller Warren first helped Bill Hendrix to prominence in 1949. Hendrix chartered the Southern Knights of the KKK in March. Warren authorized Georgia’s Original Southern Klans to establish Florida klaverns in July. Hendrix quickly up-ante’d his organization’s name to the Southern and Northern Knights of the KKK. Then Hendrix named his knights again only “Southern,” in renouncing Tom Hamilton, grand dragon of the Association of Carolina Klans, “because Hamilton’s group has made anti-religious speeches.”
The Klan had always been self-righteous, but now became increasingly passive-aggressive. The new Southern Knights declared their purpose as fighting “hate groups,” among whom they counted the NAACP, as though no one had ever called the Klan such a name. In 1951, when the Florida legislature took up bills against burning crosses on public property and wearing masks in public, the Klan claimed to support the measures while demonstrating against them.
In February 1951, as though to appropriate likely Florida legislation, Bill Hendrix traveled from Tallahassee to ask the Jacksonville City Council to impose an “anti-mask” ordinance on the city. The Southern KKKK (four kays, including “knights”) requested anti-masking, not (so it said) because such state legislation was sure to pass, but in order “to keep our enemies from committing acts of violence and laying it on the Klan.”
In early August, the Associated Press reported that in the final weeks before the laws took effect, Floridians witnessed “a rash of demonstrations in which crosses or ‘K’s’ [sic] were burned along the highways.”
Increasingly, Klan activity was blamed on “enemies of the Klan,” including Communists and the NAACP. The Klan would threaten, follow through, then blame its targets. The Klan even claimed to suspect the NAACP for bombing the home of Harry T. Moore for purposes of propaganda and raising funds.
In a May 1958 nationally syndicated op-ed, conservative columnist David Lawrence asked, “Is Communist money back of the bombing of a Negro school and a Jewish church building in Jacksonville, Florida?” Lawrence suggested Communists were impersonating white supremacist groups to threaten and then carry out attacks on Klan targets.
1960—Whites with baseball bats and axe handles, some dressed in Confederate uniforms, attacked black Civil Rights protesters at Hemming Park and in nearby streets downtown in an assault that would come to be known as Axe Handle Saturday. The sheriff’s office had ignored reports from an undercover FBI agent about coming Klan violence.
In its 1965 Report on the Ku Klux Klan, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith stated, “Tactics for combatting the sit-ins were discussed at a meeting on August 23rd of the Jacksonville klavern of the Florida Knights of the KKK.”
Klan Imperial Wizard Robert Lee “Wild Bill” Davidson declared publicly in Atlanta, not three months after Axe Handle Saturday, “If it takes buckshot to keep the black race down, Klansmen will use it,” and on the night of March 26, 1961, Klan groups coordinated the burning of more than 1,000 crosses throughout the South.
1964—the KKK bombed six year old Donal Godfrey’s house and rallied against Civil Rights activists in St. Augustine. 1964, Jacksonville Mayor Haydon Burns, who promised to crush attempts to desegregate downtown hotels, deputized 500 white firefighters as additional police officers to stamp out Civil Rights protests downtown, creating instant cops who truncheon’d black student protesters numbering perhaps as many as 2,000 in the city’s central streets.
1969—Race riots on Jacksonville’s Eastside capped a decade of Jacksonville race war when a white man named William Simmons, age 23, shot an unarmed black man named John Riley, age 20, for standing too close to his pickup truck outside the Pix Theatre on Florida Avenue.
The Klan and neo-[kl]onfederacy de[k]lined toward infighting and generally perceived backwardness in the 1970s and ’80s. Former Klansmen and Klan affiliates increasingly walked the line Confederate apologists found necessary. They argued the South had always wanted the best for black people, that slaves were treated like family. The Klan, they claimed, had protected Southern culture from those who hated and sought to destroy it. The Confederacy, meanwhile, never was anything but pro-American. Irresponsible and denialist slogans in defense of the Confederate flag like “Heritage Not Hate” proliferated.
At a neo-Confederate rally in August 2015 at Stone Mountain, Georgia, the centennial of the Ku Klux Klan’s launch of its second iteration in the very same place, angry men held assault rifles in the air and wore “Heritage Not Hate” t- shirts.
In 2016, scattered Klan groups announced their support for Donald Trump for president. His supporters held Confederate flags emblazoned with “Trump 2016” at Jacksonville rallies. White supremacist and Trump supporter Richard Spencer held events in Washington, D.C. where participants raised their hands in Nazi salutes.
But governmental institutions kept taking down Confederate flags and Confederate monuments across the South, even as Spencer held candlelight vigils around them. Miniscule pseudo-Klan groups like the Jacksonville chapter of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan tossed offensive promotional leaflets out of car windows.
Ku Klux Klan Trump victory parades devolved quickly into, what? “Klaos”? Reports from the Southern Poverty Law Center bore the headlines “Ku Klux Kan’t” and “Ku Klux Klowns.”
The Loyal White Knights failed to deliver on a grand Trump victory parade in North Carolina. Authorities stood on guard in separate North Carolina towns, because the White Knights could not accurately [kl]ommuni[kl]ate the lo[kl]ation of their [kl]oming klavalcade. Finally, a few pickups flying Confederate flags zipped through itty-bitty downtown Roxboro and were gone. The grand spectacle had sputtered. The night before, three Loyal White Knight leaders, one from White Lives Matter in California, one from Indiana, and one at home in North Carolina’s East Yanceyville, beat and stabbed each other senseless in preparation for the next day’s Trump celebration.
Claire Goforth’s masterful interviews with Jacksonville’s Loyal White Knights for Folio Weekly read the same way. Today’s Klan groups pop up here and there, with no organization, elect themselves to self-aggrandized positions, then operate as angry and self-important losers who may or may not become what law enforcement, surely too romantically, calls “lone wolves.”
Still, there’s one more Jax Klan story I must tell. Let everything have come to this. The [kl]apstone should make you laugh. If Martin Luther King was right that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” perhaps it also has a sense of humor.