James Esdale

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James W. Esdale (born January 15, 1888 in Knoxville, Tennessee; died November 1, 1976 in Birmingham) was an attorney and Grand Dragon of the Realm of Alabama in the Ku Klux Klan.

Esdale was the youngest of five children born to James and Rebecca Defield Esdale of Knoxville. He earned a bachelor's degree in engineering at Alabama Polytechnic Institute in 1907 and enrolled at law school at Columbia University in New York before completing his degree at the University of Alabama School of Law in 1913. He practiced in Birmingham and was an active recruiter and later president of the Birmingham Lodge No. 79 of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks.

From that group he was recruited in 1920 into the Robert E. Lee Klan No. 1, a "klavern" of the "second" Ku Klux Klan, which had been established in 1916 by William Simmons, who had founded the revived organization at Stone Mountain, Georgia a year earlier. Esdale rose to the head of the klavern, which had between 600 and 1,000 members, as "Exalted Cyclops" in 1921. When Simmons appointed him Grand Dragon over all the Alabama klaverns in 1923 he relinquished his law practice.

Esdale was listed as an agent in the Alabama incorporation of the Georgia-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc. in September 1924. By 1926 Esdale had authority over 148 Alabama klaverns with a total membership of 94,301 people.

In the 1926 Democratic primary, the de facto election for statewide office, Esdale opposed Woodlawn Klavern leader M. E. Reaves over how actively to support fellow member Bibb Graves for Governor of Alabama. Esdale vetoed Reaves' call to mobilize the group's electoral power and instead limited the publicity to acknowledging Graves' status as a member.

Later that year 1926 Attorney General of Alabama Charlie McCall proposed making Esdale his assistant, but Graves, amidst growing outcry in the press, did not support the idea. As Grand Dragon, Esdale suspended Reaves for misuse of funds and revoked the Woodlawn chapter's charter. Horace Wilkinson was installed in Reaves' place and oversaw the payment of the chapter's debts with a personal loan.

In early 1927 Esdale sued the Birmingham Age-Herald and publisher Frederick Thompson for libel after the paper, which had infiltrated Klan gatherings, reported that Esdale had personally called for violence against enemies of the organization. The paper's attorneys planned to call every member of the Robert E. Lee Klavern to testify at trial, leading Esdale to agree to an out-of-court settlement. Esdale and Wilkinson followed up by backing a bill that would have established a fine for newspapers that criticized public officials or injured the reputation of the state, to be applied retroactively for a year. Klan pressure moved the bills through the Alabama legislature, forcing the "Big Mules" to hastily adjourn to prevent its passage in the Senate.

With membership in Klan groups dwindling, Esdale eventually resigned his position as Grand Dragon in 1931. He later opened a bail bonding business on 21st Street North.

In 1937 Esdale detailed the involvement of then-Supreme Court nominee Hugo Black in the Ku Klux Klan for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette correspondent Ray Sprigle who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. It is from Esdale's account that the extent of Klan involvement in "rigging" the trial of Edwin Stephenson for the murder of Father James Coyle is described, though some question whether he was exaggerating his group's influence. In June 1967 Esdale was interviewed by William Snell for his master's thesis on the second Klan's activities in Jefferson County.

Esdale died in 1976 and is buried at Elmwood Cemetery. His son, Robert was an attorney and served as Clerk of the Alabama Supreme Court until retiring in 2013.

References

  • "Klan Appointment Arouses Alabama; Reputed Leader of the Ku Klux in the State to Be Assistant Attorney General." (November 26, 1926) The New York Times
  • Snell, William Robert (1967) "The Ku Klux Klan in Jefferson County, Alabama, 1916-1930." Unpublished master's thesis. Samford University
  • Feldman, Glenn (1999) Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama, 1915-1949. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press ISBN 0817309845