by Tim Gilmore, 9/12/2020
1. When the Klan Claimed “Law and Order”
It’s been 100 years since the the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed women the right to vote. It’s been 100 years since Eartha White worked vigorously to register black women to vote in the 1920 election. It’s been 100 years since the Ku Klux Klan marched in Jacksonville ahead of the U.S. presidential election in order, they said, “to prevent racial conflicts.” The KKK claimed they were guarding the polls against “election lawlessness.”
Hundreds of Klan members paraded through Jacksonville in white hoods and full regalia, carrying burning crosses, doing their best to terrify black voters and keep them from voting. They issued a list of their “principles,” which included “white supremacy” and “the purity of the ballot.”
It was 100 years ago, on Election Day 1920, downstate in Ocoee, Florida, that white supremacists murdered 50 to 60 black residents in response to black voter registration drives.
Eartha Mary Magdalene White, little more than five feet tall, knew what she and the community were up against. Black businesswoman, humanitarian and activist, founder of the Clara White Mission, Eartha White had worked hard to register black women voters in Jacksonville and Duval County. Black men had been able to vote for 50 years, though Southern “Jim Crow” laws increasingly blocked them. But this year, 1920, 100 years ago, American women, for the first time, would vote too.
Eartha walked door to door, met with church groups, suggested to women in social clubs and black businesses that if they voted, their men might vote also. Suddenly white racists were more afraid of black women than black men. As newspapers as far away as The [Des Moines, Iowa] Bystander, reported, “More colored women than white registered in Jacksonville.”
And as The Bystander explained after Election Day, “‘White Supremacy’ was the real reason of the Ku Klux parade in Jacksonville, Florida last Saturday afternoon when an attempt was made to frighten the Negro voters who, certain white factions felt, are growing to be too much of a political power in the state.”
2. Women: A Constitutional Blind Spot
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race, saying, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” obviously meaning slavery.
The 13th Amendment, passed near the end of the Civil War in 1865, had abolished slavery except in the form of “punishment for crime,” and the 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, had made former slaves American citizens for the first time.
But the 15th Amendment overlooked one enormous portion of the population: women. When it said black people could vote, it didn’t need to say “citizens” meant “men,” because so few people had seriously considered the radical possibility of women, of whatever race or ethnicity, voting at all.
That’s why, in 1872, the first time a woman ran for president, though it would be another 50 years before women could vote, Victoria Woodhull argued that Congress didn’t need to pass an amendment granting women suffrage, because they’d already done so. Two years before. The 15th Amendment, she noted, referred to “the right of citizens.” Were women, or were they not, citizens of the United States?
3. The Race to Register Race
When Eartha White went door to door registering black women to vote in LaVilla and Sugar Hill and Hansontown and Campbell’s Addition and Oakland and other segregated black neighborhoods, she counteracted a Dixiecratic effort to register every last white woman to vote Democratic. These were the days, prior to the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, when “Jim Crow” racists still voted Democratic and black voters still identified Republican.
In early October, Jacksonville’s afternoon newspaper, The Florida Metropolis, noted more white women registered than black. But it didn’t last. In Jacksonville, white women proved more resistant to voting than “colored” women did. Even Anna Fletcher, president of the Congressional Club [for Congressmen’s wives] in Washington, D.C., one of the founders of the Jacksonville Woman’s Club, wife of former Jacksonville mayor and 27 year U.S. Senator Duncan Fletcher, would not say whether she supported women’s right to vote.
On November 9, 1913, Fletcher told a reporter for The [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star that if women got the right to vote, it might endanger all the social good they’d achieved through women’s clubs. “Let her do club work,” she said, then made strange racist comments about her dog being Filipino.
1920 newspaper editorials demanded white voters pay their poll taxes if they didn’t want to live in a city run by blacks. Poll taxes were created, in the first place, as an impediment to black voting, just as Jim Crow legislation and the Southern Lost Cause Movement came about as Southern backlash to Reconstruction.
The majority of Jacksonville residents who were registered to vote, in fact, were black, but most black residents hadn’t, and many couldn’t, pay their poll taxes. The city’s whites, meanwhile, couldn’t afford to lose one vote.For Eartha White and other black activists, registering black women to vote was part of a larger calculated political strategy to get black men to vote too. Surely white citizens and city officials would be less likely to threaten and harass black women who showed up to vote than they had black men. Right? And more black men would vote, because men would accompany women voters to the polls to keep them safe.
When black women came to registration offices and officials responded by peremptorily closing up shop, taking hours-long lunch breaks that began early in the morning, or being inexplicably busy behind shut blinds, the lines of women standing in the late August heat grew longer and longer. Eartha White went up and down those lines with buckets of lemonade and led impromptu choirs of determined black women in hymns and songs like the Johnson brothers’ “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
4. The Context: The Terror
The 1920s was the decade of the KKK’s largest membership in America, claiming 15 percent of white men. In 1920s Florida, white supremacists did everything they could to terrorize the black vote and the few whites who supported it. They paraded in the streets, brandished arms in public, publicized blatant disinformation, and both threatened and wrought violence when politics didn’t go their way.
Klan members hid behind slogans of patriotism and respect for law, executing countless acts of racial terror in private while publicly claiming duty to “law and order” and to country. “One God, one country, one flag!” they pronounced, and “America first!” They called themselves “the invisible empire,” usually hiding their faces in hoods, emphasizing the possibility that any white man might be Klan. They were everywhere. That was the message. Who knew how many there really were?
In 1923, W.A. Hobson of Jacksonville’s First Baptist Church preached to 200 Klansmen wearing full regalia. That same year, Jacksonville Baptist pastor A.C. Shuler predicted the Klan would decide the next American president. He wasn’t delusional. Klan membership had risen to around five million. In 1920, Warren G. Harding won the presidency by just more than seven million votes. Soon the KKK held its own march on Washington.
In the Ocoee Massacre, on Election Day, 1920, following Klan intimidation parades in Jacksonville, Daytona, Orlando, Tampa and other Florida cities, a lynch mob coalesced in response to black voter registration drives, murdering between 50 and 60 black residents and destroying the black portion of the Central Florida town of Ocoee. Historian Paul Ortiz calls it “the single bloodiest day in modern U.S. political history.” What happened in Jacksonville was bad enough; clearly, it could have been worse.
In the Perry Race Riots of 1922, thousands of whites formed a lynch mob that tortured and incinerated a black man named Charles Wright, collected souvenirs of his burnt corpse, murdered two more black men, then burnt the black community of Perry, Florida—the black church, school, homes, the Masonic lodge.In Grand Park, now Northwest Jacksonville, in 1922, the Associated Press reported the formation of a white lynch mob that Sheriff R.E. Merritt estimated at “between 400 and 500” people.
After “seven negroes [were] held on suspicion in connection with an attack on a white woman in the Grand Park section of the city Wednesday morning,” Merritt called in the Florida National Guard. Merritt said the victim had not been shown a lineup to identify her attacker and The Florida Times-Union specifically stated, “Authorities have no evidence to connect any of the suspects with the crime.” Troops would protect the county jail through Saturday night.
The sheriff wished to avoid a repetition of the 1919 storming of the jail that resulted in two unconvicted black murder suspects, Bowman Cook and John Morine, being kidnapped and lynched. The mob had hung Cook, filled his dead body with bullets, then dragged his bullet-filled corpse through the streets, dumping it before the Windsor Hotel in the shadow of the Confederate monument in the middle of Hemming Park.
In the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, when the black Gulf Coast town rallied together after a Rosewood resident was lynched, hundreds of whites ransacked and burnt the entire town—its mills, its stores, its three churches, its school, its wooden houses and its Masonic hall.
5. The Threat
1920. In Jacksonville, Daytona Beach, Orlando and Tampa, in the days leading up to Election Day, the Ku Klux Klan marched, they said, to protect the upcoming presidential election from lawlessness. On November 1st, Daytona Daily News headlines screamed, “Rumored Flaming Cross of Ku Klux Klan to Lead Parade Here Tonight,” followed by the subheadline, “From Whence They’ll Come, Where They’ll Go, Nobody Will Know.”
What happened in Jacksonville the night before could not have occurred without the assistance of the city’s police force, business community and municipal government. The Florida Times-Union wrote of the Klan with reverence and awe, saying, “A silent host, cowled and gowned in flowing white, treading with dignity single-file the downtown streets of Jacksonville, marched last night to remind people here that the South is not dead.”
Notices of the Klan parade had appeared days before in Jacksonville’s afternoon newspaper, The Florida Metropolis. One local notice promised a coming together of Klan forces from outlying areas including St. Augustine, Hastings and Palatka. White supremacist forces would coalesce in those areas for the next century.
On October 30th, the day before the Klan march, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People telegram sent to the Duval County sheriff, the mayor of Jacksonville, and Florida’s governor warned, “Advertised 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.” The sheriff didn’t respond. The mayor didn’t respond. The governor didn’t respond.
Klansmen began their performance at eight in the morning that Sunday, when hooded men on horseback showed up in downtown streets. Newspapers as far away as The Dallas Express, The Baltimore Sun and The New York Tribune reported on the events.To read the Times-Union’s coverage of the Klan march takes an iron stomach. In its sycophantic praise of the Klan, it reads like the dedicatory plaques on Confederate monuments erected at the time. Indeed, those Confederate memorials and the second iteration of the KKK occurred together, two sides of the same attempt to disguise brutal racism as gallantry, respect for tradition and resistance to tyranny. The T-U described the Klan in terms of “mystery” and “majesty.”
6. Intimidation Parade
Two masked men arrived on horseback and sounded a clarion to gain the attention of spectators. “A two-note blast on a cowhorn trumpet was the signal,” the T-U wrote. “The eerie tone reminded patriarchs of the days that were, when the South struggled against the forces of intrigue and oppression, when white-clad figures fared abroad by night to right wrongs, to preserve traditions.” In its sanctimonious and hypocritical language, the T-U sounds hardly less propagandistic than Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will.
“Thousands congregated. Whispers ran through the crowds of Saturday night shoppers: ‘The Ku Klux are coming!’” Excited crowds jammed the streets and streetcar lines, “until on Main and Forsyth Streets,” traffic drew to a halt.
The anonymous T-U writer sounded breathless with excitement. “Then—from nowhere, it seemed—came a blaze of light, a file of white-clad figures. The flaming cross approached. Born [sic] by a stalwart figure, whose robe of white whipped and billowed in the wind, the Klan emblem advanced. Behind it came a file of white figures, each stately, each masked, each in no white [sic] different from the other.”
The Klansmen marched “at military pace,” silently, and held banners saying, “We were here yesterday. We are here today. We are here forever.” Other banners claimed, “Duty, fearless and without reproach.” The Times-Union quoted a letter stating the Klan’s “principles,” including “the sanctity of womanhood,” “cooperation with constituted legal authority,” “the purity of the ballot” and “the defense of white supremacy.”The Klan marched east on Duval Street to Main Street, south on Main to Forsyth, one block east to Laura Street, and north on Laura to Hemming Park. What happened next, the Klan’s disappearing act, required the collaboration of surrounding businesses and municipal authorities. The Klansmen walked into the city’s central park, just as darkness fell, and came to a silent standstill.
“Then suddenly,” as The Austin [Texas] American reported, “every light in the business section snapped out and the city was dark for four or five minutes.” Then “the lights were turned on as mysteriously as they were turned off and it was seen that all the Klansmen had disappeared.” The T-U reported, “Some said a fleet of automobiles, each with a hooded driver, with license plates removed, awaited the arrival of the marchers” on Hogan Street, the other side of the park. “Some said the host disappeared as if by magic.”
Black newspapers across the country were less enamored of the Klan than the T-U was. They quoted James Weldon Johnson as field secretary of the NAACP. Oh how Jacksonville had broken Johnson’s heart! As a child growing up in the city, he’d walked across that central park to see his father, headwaiter at the St. James Hotel, where City Hall in the St. James Building stands today. The park was still called St. James Park, not yet renamed for a Confederate veteran who donated a Confederate memorial. This summer, 149 year after Johnson’s birth, Jacksonville renamed Hemming Park for James Weldon Johnson.
In 1920, Johnson had already written the first version of his great novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. He’d already co-written, with his brother James Rosamond, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” later called the “Negro National Anthem.” He’d not yet written his Harlem Renaissance masterpiece, the collection of poems in the oratorical style of a black preacher, God’s Trombones.After the Klan march in Jacksonville, black newspapers quoted Johnson saying, “The Ku Klux Klan is the most dangerous tendency in American life today and ought to be stamped out by local, state and federal authority.” Black papers noted “national Negro organizations who pled” with local and state authorities “not to permit the parade.” Still, “No motion was made in any quarter to comply with Negro requests.” Said Johnson, “The avowed purpose of the ‘Invisible Empire’ is to keep the Negro from the rights of common citizenship,” even by “threat of bloodshed.”
7. The Vote
Despite the Ku Klux Klan’s spectacle of terror, thousands of new black voters showed up at Jacksonville polls on Election Day. Official campaign results erased all but a few of their votes. Meanwhile, many black people had simply been turned away from polling places.Eartha White and other activists made Election Day counts and estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 black voters were turned away from their chance to vote. She collected the names and addresses of “qualified electors who stood in line from 8 a.m. to 5:40 p.m.”
Walter White, NAACP assistant secretary, later presented 941 “affidavits of Negroes” to a U.S. House of Representatives committee, statements of black Jacksonville voters who said they stood in line all day before being denied the right to vote. “He said affidavits were being gathered from 4,000 other Negroes of that city.” White also cited the Jacksonville Ku Klux Klan parade and the refusal of city and state authorities to stop it as attempts to suppress the black vote.
Congressman Carlos Bee of Texas said he was “tired of states being insulted” by “Negroes.” Congressman William Washington Larsen of Georgia asked White dismissively, “Why didn’t you investigate and see if any white people were not allowed to vote?”
Meanwhile, Eartha White told NAACP officials that many of her claimants were afraid for their safety and refused to speak publicly. Community activism had worked to turn out the vote, but the political machine refused to reflect it. The Ku Klux Klan had their parade, but failed to hold back the black vote and failed to incite violence they hoped to blame on black Jacksonville. Black political activism in the city would require a longterm resolve to bear and buck the racial terrorism of the KKK and the accommodating white supremacist power structure.The Seattle Union Record, 3,000 miles away, published a 137 word piece, 20 words of which were the repetition of a single line, about the Klan in Jacksonville. It was called “A Lesson in ‘Law and Order,’” mocking the Klan’s claim to those three words. It’s worth reprinting a century later:
“‘There was no disorder.’
“This line closes the Associated Press report of a parade of several hundred of the Ku Klux Klan through the streets of Jacksonville, Fla., to intimidate Negro voters at today’s election.
“‘There was no disorder’ because the Negroes were law-abiding citizens.
“‘There was no disorder’ because when the white voters in gowns and masks that hide their identity went through the streets openly advocating violence, the Negroes refused to be forced into similar declarations of violence.“‘There was no disorder’ because the Negro voters proved themselves superior in the fundamentals of democracy than did their challengers. [sic]
“‘There was no disorder’ because white scoundrels were unable to so anger Negroes that bloodshed and riot would follow and an excuse offered for preventing Negroes from exercising on Tuesday the rights guaranteed them under the constitution.”
This story marks a centennial. 2020 has been a terrible year: the worst public health crisis since the 1918 influenza pandemic, the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, the worst civil unrest since 1968. All at once.
But if you get scared, if you’re afraid, if the vicious and divisive politics in the air depresses you, fills you with anxious dread, if always you’ve loved your country but now barely recognize it in its low mendacity, if you’re aghast at the sneering hatred and perverse defiance of basic civility, picture to yourself this tiny black woman, this Biblical David, Eartha White, barely five feet tall, who worked unceasingly against the terrorist Goliath of her time. Let Eartha White grant you courage now, as she did for her community a century ago.
A century since the events of this story, let nobody deny your vote. Remind yourself of all the history that leads us to this point, but don’t let it hinder you. Instead let it fuel you. Act; vote. Don’t let yourself falter. Vote; act. Don’t let the oppressive forces of 1920 prevail against you, even as they threaten to do, in 2020.