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The Politics of Assimilation

KKK Gathering, Portland OrHi 51017

By 1920, the drive by east side small businessmen for increased political power became encased in a national fear of subversive foreign influence. In 1919, the first year after World War I, many labor unions struck for higher wages to compensate for inflation during the war. Many businessmen claimed that the strikes were inspired by subversives, so the attorney general of the United States, A. Mitchell Palmer, authorized the arrest and deportation of foreign residents suspected of membership in anarchist or Communist cells. To meet the alleged threat more benignly, a new veteran’s organization, the American Legion, in conjunction with settlement houses, the public schools, and other agencies, financed classes in English and American history to prepare immigrants for citizenship.

But in Portland as elsewhere, a fear of foreigners went beyond educational campaigns. Members of local fraternal orders proposed a law similar to those passed a few years before in California and Washington to disallow foreign residents ineligible to become citizens, namely the Japanese, from buying land. At the same time organizers for the new Ku Klux Klan held meetings in east Portland that denounced the Catholic Church. Local Klan leaders practiced “identity politics;” they argued that their own social characteristics as native-born white Protestants identified them as uniquely loyal to the country, and therefore entitled to unique economic opportunities. When an outraged Catholic delegation asked Mayor George Baker to prevent the Klan from using public buildings to defame loyal American Catholics, he claimed the organization was too popular to suppress. In the spring 1922 primary elections, the Klan supported two candidates for the Multnomah County Commission and a slate of delegates to the state legislature. The commission candidates were both elected, and all but one legislative candidate survived the primary.

The Klan also seized on an initiative proposed by the Scottish Rite Masons that would require attendance of all children at public schools. Klansmen argued that private schools undermined democracy by isolating a privileged elite and by promoting the religious distinctions that prevented the public from reaching a moral consensus. In the November election the compulsory public school initiative passed by gaining two-thirds of its state-wide victory margin in east Portland. Klan spokesmen also insisted that candidates endorse the view that foreign residents ineligible to become naturalized citizens should also be ineligible to own land. The 1923 session of the legislature, led by Portland Klan members, passed such a law.

Most of the success the Klan enjoyed in 1922 was reversed by 1925. The alien land law was declared constitutional, and worse, Japanese immigrants were denied access to citizenship by the United States Supreme Court. But in March 1924, the United States District Court declared the compulsory public school attendance law unconstitutional, a decision supported by the Supreme Court in 1925. At the same time, the Klan’s successful candidates for county commissioners were revealed to be dishonest and in 1924 they were recalled. With its most dramatic initiative success overturned by the federal courts, its leadership discredited, and racked by dissension over the endorsement of rival candidates for federal and Klan offices, the group lost membership and visibility. As historians Kenneth Jackson and Robert Johnston agree, “By the end of 1925 nothing was seen in the newspapers and little was heard of the Portland Klan.”

© William Toll, 2003

Era: (1890-1930) Emergence of Modern America / Progressive Era
Themes: Politics and Government,Social Relations,Towns and Cities
Author: Ward Tonsfeldt & Paul G. Claeyssens
Regions: Portland Metropolitan Area
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