Ku Klux Klan in Jacksonville

by Tim Gilmore, 5/27/2017

(The Klan in Jax, part 1 of 7)

In the 1920s, when Stetson Kennedy saw his first Klan parade on Jacksonville’s Main Street and Willie Chappell saw the victims of lynchings hanging in the trees off Edgewood Avenue near New Kings Road, the Klan was at its zenith.

Ku Klux Klan parade, downtown Jacksonville, 1964

The second iteration of the KKK lasted from its Stone Mountain reboot in 1915 through the 1940s, while a less-centralized and independently organized Klan ran its neo-Confederate terrorist campaigns against the Civil Rights Movement in the ’50s and ’60s.

Klan rally near Jacksonville’s erstwhile Imeson Airport, 1963, courtesy The Florida Times-Union

Even in the 1990s, however, Duval County School Board Chair Linda Sparks appointed Susan Lamb, co-founder of the Jacksonville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, to a school desegregation task force formed 40 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

NAAWP newsletters sanctioned shooting “hyphenated Americans,” then billing victims’ families for the bullets, promoted a eugenicist basis for “Negro inferiority,” debunked long ago with the rise of Adolf Hitler, and advocated the notion that Jews “divide and conquer thru race war.”

But in the 1920s, yes, even in the age of flappers and The Great Gatsby, Klan membership reached as high as 15 percent of America’s white men.

In The Klan Unmasked, Stetson Kennedy recalls seeing his first Klan parade as a child: “We were standing on the kerb of Jacksonville Florida’s Main Street, when the Klansmen came into view. At the head of the procession were two Klansmen mounted on horseback. The horses were also clad in flowing white, with masks over their faces very much like those I had seen in my history books on the steeds of tilting medieval knights. One of the mounted Knights of the KKK bore a flaming fiery cross, while the other blew long mournful blasts on a bugle. At each intersection they would jerk on their reins, and the horses would rear up and paw the air, neighing shrilly. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle, and I was duly impressed.”

a still from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation

Stetson’s mother shut him up, however, when he recognized the shoes of one Klansman beneath his robe and shouted, “There he is—that’s Uncle Brady!”

Not much later, he accidentally discovered that his family’s black maid Flo, who had nurtured him and loved him as long as he could recall, had been visited by the Klan, removed from her house, tied to a pine tree and flogged, then, after most of the Klansmen had left her tied to the tree, raped—all for allegedly “sassing” a white streetcar conductor whom she questioned for returning the wrong change. Kennedy writes, “[M]ore and more of the Klan’s handiwork came to my attention, and the hatred I had formed for it at Flo’s bedside was confirmed and re-confirmed.”

In 1920, when American women received the right to vote, black activists like Jacksonville’s Eartha White headed voter drives to register black women, who, in turn, would influence more black men to vote.

The Klan organized Jacksonville Election Day parades to frighten black people from voting. Across the post-Confederate South, the Klan lit up night rallies with their towering burning crosses and promised vengeance upon “niggers” who dared cross the “natural supremacy” of the white race.

Writer and Klan-infiltrator Stetson Kennedy visits the House Un-American Activities Committee seeking in vain to get them to investigate the Klan in 1946.

On October 30th, the NAACP telegrammed the sheriff of Duval County, the mayor of Jacksonville, and the governor of Florida: “Advertized purpose of parade is to prevent trouble on election day. Real motive terrorization and intimidation of colored voters. Instead of prevention will likely lead to trouble and perhaps bloodshed, responsibility for which would rest upon city and county.”

It was a bold message, coming from what many whites considered a far more radical organization than the Klan, appealing ostensibly to white supremacist entities of government at three different levels.

Klan march, Washington D.C., 1925, courtesy NPR News

The black citizens of Jacksonville showed up to vote in record numbers, and though they shouted at Klansmen in hoods, they resisted the KKK’s incitements. They protested the Klan’s protests peacefully and voted. Republican votes skyrocketed, since black communities still voted the party of Lincoln. They would continue to do so until Lyndon Baines Johnson shifted the black vote to the Democratic Party with 1960s Civil Rights legislation. Despite heavy black turnout, official vote tallies eliminated all but a very few new Republican votes.

Eartha White led other activists in their own vote counts. Many “qualified electors,” and she recorded the times and their names and addresses, “stood in line from 8 a.m. to 5:40 p.m.” She documented white poll workers who took early breaks that stretched into hours-long lunches. Eartha White, the NAACP, and affiliated activists compared notes and estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 black voters had been terrorized from or outright denied the chance to vote in Duval County’s first post-19th-Amendment election.

July Perry, courtesy The Orlando Sentinel

Election Day 1920 was far bloodier elsewhere in Florida. In Ocoee, outside of Orlando, a white mob murdered around 50 black residents and burnt the town’s black houses, church, and schoolroom to the ground. University of Florida historian Paul Ortiz has called the Ocoee Massacre “the single bloodiest day in modern U.S. political history.” The bullet-filled body of black contractor July Perry was hung from a light pole in Orlando bearing a sign that read, “This is what we do to niggers that vote.”

Reverend A.C. Shuler, pastor of Jacksonville’s former Calvary Baptist Church, predicted the Klan would pick the next American president. In early October, 1923, The Tallahassee Democrat reported that Shuler packed a high school auditorium in the state capitol with an audience of 400. The Klan’s membership at the time had risen to around 5 million. He promised Tallahassee and other towns Klan parades of grand proportions and majesty, like those in which he’d recently participated in Jacksonville.

Fuller Warren, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

A quarter century later, Shuler denounced Florida Governor Fuller Warren, after whom the concrete bridge in downtown Jacksonville is named, calling him a traitor. After Shuler outed the former Jacksonville city councilman as a former Klansman in a sermon, Warren admitted his erstwhile membership publicly. The March 21, 1949 Tallahassee Democrat reported that Warren then called the Klan “covered cowards and sheeted jerks.” A few months later, he authorized a Georgia group called the Original Southern Klans to establish klaverns (local chapters) in Florida.

cont’d Lackawanna Elementary School