Robert E. Lee Klan No. 1

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November 20, 1923 Klan induction ceremony at East Lake Park

The Robert E. Lee Klan No. 1 was the first Alabama-based chapter of the "second" Ku Klux Klan. It was created by William Simmons in 1916, less than a year after he founded the revived Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia. The group was named in honor of the Confederate commander, General Robert E. Lee.

During World War I the Klan was involved mainly in the suppression of labor strikes, helping to expel organizers and promoting a distinction between "loyal union laborers" and "those infected with the I.W.W. spirit," which was identified with more revolutionary socialist or anarchist movements in Europe.

In January 1921 the Lee Klan held a large public initiation ceremony for 500 new members at the Alabama State Fairgrounds. The robed members formed a "living cross" at the center of the race track, illuminated by two large searchlights for the benefit of the press and the public, which watched from nearby hills. On June 14 the Klan marched through downtown Birmingham as a show of force lest any group try to demonstrate against the recent racial violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That evening the Trianon Theater offered cold water to the marchers.

Later that year, former Elks Lodge president James Esdale was tapped as "Exalted Cyclops" of the Robert E. Lee Klan No. 1, which then had between 600 and 1,000 members. He was serving in that capacity when fellow Klansman Edwin Stephenson was put on trial in August for the murder of Father James Coyle, who had presided over the marriage of Stephenson's daughter to a Puerto Rican tradesman, Pedro Gussman. Esdale later described how prosecutor Hugo Black traded signals with a jury packed with Klan members to win Stephenson's acquittal.

Simmons, now holding the title of "Emperor", returned to Birmingham in autumn 1921 to lead a recruitment drive, which was helped by publicity surrounding the Stephenson trial. In November 1922 an unannounced "parade" of 400 vehicles, their license plates covered with cloth, assembled at Avondale Park and proceeded into downtown Birmingham via the "subway" tunnel below the Birmingham Terminal Station.

Through the early 1920s, the Klan still denied any involvement in vigilante violence and claimed to support public law enforcement, although it repeatedly offered to "assist" in keeping order. Nevertheless many reporting cases of "floggings" or "whippings" were blamed on the Klan, causing some leaders to publicly blame the group's enemies for carrying out violence to malign the organization. The Klan polished their public profile by appearing at Sunday church services to deliver cash donations to friendly pastors.

Esdale was promoted to "Grand Dragon" over the Klan's "Realm of Alabama" in 1923. In May the Robert E. Lee Klan clashed with the Birmingham News over an editorial that supported the Jefferson County Board of Education's decision to maintain funding for a proposed Negro Industrial High School despite lower-than-expected returns from a bond issue. The group set up a huge burning cross on Red Mountain above 20th Street and circulated handbills questioning the fairness of the News.

That July the Robert E. Lee Klan began issuing its own magazine, the T.W.K. Monthly, published by L. E. Lance. On September 11 of that year the group hosted one of the largest public Klan rallies in the nation at Edgewood Park. On December 23 members celebrated a return engagement of "Birth of a Nation" at Temple Theater.

In February 1924 the klavern, then claiming more than 10,000 members, announced plans to construct a new 3-story building on the northeast corner of 21st Street and 6th Avenue North for $250,000. A June 10 parade kicked off a fundraising campaign for the building, which culminated with a rally at Rickwood Field in October. At that rally an effigy of Senator Oscar Underwood was buried under the platform in center field of the stadium.

Despite the apparent success of those rallies, the proposed building was never constructed. Instead the group purchased the former Birmingham Athletic Club building at 505 20th Street North for $190,000. Again, the group failed to carry out its renovation plans, and managed to sell the building to the Birmingham YMCA for a $10,000 profit in 1926.

By 1927 the Klan, beset by national criticism and internal political battles, was experiencing steep declines in membership. Another parade, planned for December 15 of that year, was delayed by rain, as well as the mild disapproval of Mayor Jimmy Jones, who told Esdale that any cars that obscured their license plates would be found in violation of city traffic laws. What had been promoted as a "monster parade" with 5,000 or more marchers turned out to be far less impressive. A Birmingham News reporter counted 828 men, 103 women and 4 children in the parade, who were beset by impatient motorists and a number of hecklers. The marchers gathered afterward at Municipal Auditorium for a late banquet supper.

References

  • 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