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The KKK and Colorado: Stapleton’s origins

Photo // Clinton Rolfe

DENVER’S ROOT INTERTWINED WITH KU KLUX KLAN

Colorado has an ostensibly docile history; usually just thought of as part of the “wild west,” there has not been extensive discussion on the darker background of the state. Over the past few years, as more history and evidence of the city of Stapleton’s relation to the Ku Klux Klan has come to light, the residents of the Stapleton area have lobbied to change their region’s name, and for good reason.

In 2015 a strange photo surfaced online—originally printed in the Canon City Daily Record in 1926—with the headline “Klansmen pose for picture on merry-go-round.” Atlas Obscura, the first website to investigate this strange occurrence, stated, “The story of how this photo got to the internet touches on topics as diverse as Colorado demographics and the history of the Ferris wheel, but it also reveals the blind spots in our historical memory. As grotesque as the image of the hooded men enjoying an amusement park ride is, the spectacle was not nearly as unusual as many Westerners might hope.”

During the 1920s, Colorado was administered by a sizeable number of KKK members. One of them held an influential position in the government: former Denver Mayor Benjamin Stapleton.

Kayla Gabehart, a graduate student at CU Denver, did her undergraduate thesis on the KKK’s influence on Colorado history. “To discuss the KKK’s presence in Denver, it’s necessary to give a little background on the KKK as a movement,” Gabehart said. “The Klan was founded in 1865 as a backlash against the outcomes of the Civil War, but the movement essentially occurred in three waves. The first wave wrought outright violence primarily targeted at the African-American population of the Reconstructed South. At its height in the mid-1920s, the second wave of the Klan had 6 million members in political roles around the country. This wave of the Klan, though often violent, focused its energy on infiltrating political seats from local to federal government. Their bigotry extended to Catholics, Jews, scientists, non-traditional women, and other immigrant groups and sought to reclaim traditional family roles and masculinity. The third wave of the Klan coincided with the Civil Rights Movement and challenges to Jim Crow.”

It is difficult to accept and acknowledge the dominance that the KKK had in Colorado in the 1920s; Governor Clarence Morley was a Klansmen, the Senator Rice Means was endorsed quite candidly by the KKK, and Mayor Stapleton had ties to the KKK.

“When Stapleton ran for mayor in 1923, he actually refused to be associated with the Klan, though they bankrolled his campaign,” Gabehart said. “He also had a personal friendship with John Locke, the ‘Grand Dragon’ of the Colorado Klan. Once in office, Stapleton proceeded to appoint Klansmen to major governmental positions. He also appointed a number of police sergeants and justices of the peace, who joined District Judge Clarence Morley. Morley was a Klansman who became governor in 1925, and eventually served time in federal prison for mail fraud. However, when the police chief William Candlish—along with Locke and Morley—became increasingly violent against minority communities in Denver, Stapleton attempted to distance himself from the Klan again.”

According to Robert Goldberg’s nonfiction piece Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado, the Klan as a group were concentrated on maintaining and enforcing “Old Time Religion” in the 1920s, focusing much of their fury on Catholic and Jewish people. Colorado was predominantly a Protestant state in the 1920s, and the Klan’s message of securing the nation’s “Protestant ideals” struck a chord with residents.

“Stapleton is complicated and his legacy is widely debated; some refer to him by the moniker he received as mayor, ‘Ben the Builder,’ and others see him as nothing more than a degenerate racist,” Gabehart said. “I think the more important point is to acknowledge that periods of intense change spur uncertainty, unrest, and often lead to the marginalization of and violence against this nation’s vulnerable minority populations. It’s a pattern that we see in history repeatedly because social and cultural revolution leaves behind those unwilling to accept it, and it’s easy to blame minorities for the unintended consequences of progress. I think history also demonstrates that social accountability can defeat these movements that grow out of fear and uncertainty if they can establish a coherent message and goal.”

In 1925, the insidious nature of the KKK resurfaced; outwardly discriminating against Italian and Mexican immigrants and driving African Americans from white neighborhoods caused the Klan’s influence to steadily decrease in Colorado. Ironically, despite all of the dreadful things that the Klan had been part of, its demise was due to tax evasion and corruption. “The Colorado Grand Dragon” was investigated for tax evasion and evidence of corruption in office holders related to the Klan were found, which delegitimized the Klan in Colorado.

Sarai Nissan
Sarai Nissan

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