Ku Klux Klan Activity in Brunswick, Maine
Most Americans think of the Ku Klux Klan as a Southern institution, mainly targeting African-Americans. However, in the years following the First World War, the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a nationwide revival wielding considerable influence in the North and Midwest, as well as the South. This so-called "Second Klan" aimed its propaganda not only at African-Americans, but also at Catholics, Jews and "foreigners." In 1920s Maine, the African-American and Jewish populations were quite small, where they existed at all. There can be little doubt that the Klan's main focus in Maine was Catholic "foreigners," the vast majority of whom were the relative newcomers from Québec.
The Second Klan was part of a wider Nativist movement representing a backlash against the wave of immigration, much of it from southern and eastern Europe, which was perceived as a threat to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant character of the United States. The Second Klan was also an opportunistic money-making scheme perpetuated by shrewd businesspeople exploiting the mood of a country seeking a return to "normalcy" following an unprecedented World War.
In Brunswick, Ku Klux Klan activity was reported in the society section of the newspaper. The first of our articles is from the Brunswick Record, November 29, 1923, page 7.
I have preserved the item concerning The Wide Awake Club to show the atmosphere surrounding reports of the Klan. Klan activities were recorded along with the other recreational and social clubs of the town. The estimate that 65 percent of adult residents belonged to the Klan applies only to the neighborhood of Orr's Island and not to the area as a whole, indicating that Klan activity was a phenomenon of the largely Protestant, rural districts. The 65 percent figure, and the fact that there were regular weekly Klan meetings, indicates that "the order" was well-established by 1923.
Following the newspaper articles in chronological order, the next item (Brunswick Record, December 20, 1923, page 1) reports on a large meeting held at Brunswick Town Hall featuring the regional Klan leader, F. Eugene Farnsworth.
If the figure of 800 attendees is reasonably accurate then it seems that a significant proportion of the town was at least open to considering Farnsworth's "Americanism," although it is unknown how many of them came from the surrounding areas. Despite the fact that the article notes that "everyone was admitted," I doubt that my bilingual, Franco-American, Catholic grandparents, although born in Brunswick and Topsham, were included in Farnsworth's vision of "Americanism."
The next item from the following year (Brunswick Record, February 14, 1924, page 6) reveals that the classic Klan activity -- cross-burning -- was among the weekend activities on the agenda in Brunswick.
The article reveals a close connection between one local Protestant church and the Klan. The Klan attends the church event "in a body" and after the Church "sociable," supper is followed by a cross-burning to the strains of the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers." Of course, the christian soldiers in question could be none other than the klansmen themselves.
The final item in our series (Brunswick Record, September 24, 1925, page 10) reveals the scope of Klan activities in New England. The field day covered in the news story attracted visitors from various Maine communities as well as from Massachusetts.
Note that a Protestant clergyman, the "former chaplain of the Maine state prison," is the Klan's spokesman at the event. The article makes clear that the New England chapters took their orders from Klan headquarters in Atlanta. Would the fathers of the 1920s New England klansmen, who fought a war to preserve the union and to end a system of race-based slave labor -- a war which, incidentally, destroyed Atlanta -- be surprised to find their sons taking their marching orders from the Georgia capital? The article also informs us that, after the hot dogs, the parade (through the downtown business district), and the speeches, yet another cross met a lingering, fiery demise.
After 1925, as far as the Brunswick Record is concerned, Klan activities in Brunswick came to an end. In the years that followed, the Second Klan's influence waned amid scandal and corruption. By the 1930s, the Depression and the widening war in Europe would bring to an end the era in which the Klan flourished.
How much of a chilling effect the Klan had on Brunswick's Franco-American community is open to question. The Klan does not seem to have had much of an impact on their public activities. For instance, five years after the final article cited above the same newspaper reported a large parade for St. John the Baptist Day (the national festival of Québec as well as the feast day of the local church's patron saint) celebrated with much pomp by the local Catholics. Large and very public Franco-American weddings and other events seem to have continued as they had before the Klan's brief heyday. Whether the Brunswick Klan ever went beyond singing songs and eating doughnuts is unclear. However, there is little doubt that the Klan was formed for the purpose of reinforcing the supposed Anglo-Saxon Protestant character of the region, with the intent of excluding other elements from its vision of "Americanism." Again, the French-speaking Catholics were the largest and most visible minority in Brunswick at that time and there can be little doubt that the manifest popularity of the Klan and its message was a reaction to their presence.
Whether the United States fully abides by its creed that "all men (and women) are created equal," regardless of religion, race, or national origin, or whether the country is fundamentally Anglo-Saxon and Protestant in character, is a continuing debate 80 years after fiery crosses burned over Brunswick, Maine.
Copyright David Gerard Vermette 2006. All Rights Reserved.