The Ku Klux Klan in North Dakota: Investigative Report
January 31, 1932
Following the American Civil War an organization called the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) spread like wildfire across the South. Begun as a social club in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1867, the KKK soon became a symbol of hatred and bigotry. Its main objective was to keep black people from voting and taking their constitutionally rightful place in society.
Led by the Grand Cyclops, the Klan, a secret organization, was organized into local Adens. Dressed in bizarre fashion - high-pointed hats, masks, and flowing white robes - KKK members promised to defend the constitution and to protect the weak and oppressed, but in reality they terrorized black Americans and filled their lives with fear and fright.
Having succeeded in reducing the black vote, in 1877 the KKK disbanded as a national organization. This did not mean, however, that local Adens stopped tormenting blacks. Lynchings and cross burnings continued as part of the southern scene into the 1890s. The KKK then pretty much faded from view until 1915.
In that year a new Ku Klux Klan was organized in Georgia as a fraternal organization dedicated to the principles of white supremacy. It sounded and looked like the old KKK, but it was different. The new Klan added Roman Catholics, Jews, and left-wing political radicals to its list of enemies. The new KKK sought to protect the purity and values of native-born, white, Anglo-Saxon Americans and claimed a higher morality and dedication to Christian ideals. Led by the Imperial Wizard, the KKK, like its predecessor, held secret meetings around fiery crosses with members hooded and robed in white. Its tactics for intimidation included whipping, branding, mutilating, and lynching.
In the summer of 1921 Klan organizers moved into South Dakota and gained many followers by attacking the politically radical Nonpartisan League. The national organizers attempted to recruit Protestant ministers who were staunchly anti-Catholic to serve as heads of the local klans/klavens. This has been a successful method in South Dakota.
At that time an Indiana Klansman traveled secretly to Grand Forks where the Presbyterian minister, F. Halsey Ambrose, had gained a reputation as a powerful orator, a staunch foe of the Roman Catholic Church, an arch-opponent of the Nonpartisan League, and a booster of white Protestant Americanism. Soon after arriving in Grand Forks in 1918 Ambrose began attacking the Nonpartisan League as “socialist” and “Bolshevist,” endearing himself to the Grand Forks Herald and its owner, Jerry Bacon. Ambrose’s pamphlet, “A Sermon on Applied Socialism,” a violent assault on the League, was published with the help of the Herald and sold 5,000 copies in two weeks.
Ambrose believed that a Roman Catholic couldn’t be a good American because the Catholic’s first allegiance is to the Pope in Rome. His sermons were full of anti-Catholic statements. Ambrose was a clergyman who fit the KKK’s qualifications for leadership. His popularity tripled church membership and his special Sunday night services usually have attracted 1,200 people. What more could the Klan want? Reverend Ambrose became its chief leader for Grand Forks and for North Dakota. Even though Roman Catholics were outnumbered almost three to one by Protestants in Grand Forks, Ambrose persuaded Protestant civic leaders that the Catholics had a master plan to take over the city’s government. The minister’s charisma convinced business leaders that the town’s Roman Catholics, led by furniture dealer and funeral director Moses Norman, presented a threat to their livelihoods and American values.
A source within the Klan has told the North Star Dakotan that the Grand Forks Klan first met 22 miles west of that city in September 1922, and that its leaders were members of the business community, including three bankers, three insurance men, seven store owners, two hotel proprietors, three lawyers, one doctor, one architect, and one clergyman other than Ambrose. According to our source, about 500 men have joined the Grand Forks klaven.
That North Dakota legislative leaders saw the KKK as a mounting threat became obvious in 1922 when a bill was introduced to outlaw the wearing of a mask or regalia which concealed the identity of the wearer except when such a mask was worn inside a building or by a person less than 15 years old.
Reverend Ambrose, who has never denied his leadership in the KKK, went to Bismarck and testified for an hour against the bill. He argued that no klansman had ever been convicted of a crime committed while wearing hoods. He insisted that hundreds of klansmen around the state were pillars of their communities and concluded that the KKK had to remain secret, in his words, “to do its valuable work.”
Both houses overwhelmingly approved the bill and Governor R.A. Nestos signed it into law, earning him the hatred of klansmen.
That fall of 1923, paying no attention to the new law, Ambrose organized a Klan rally west of Grand Forks. A thousand hooded klansmen from all parts of the state gathered to hear Ambrose preach the virtues of the KKK. Amid burning crosses, he emphasized the Klan’s patriotism and its desire to accomplish its goals in a peaceful manner. A reporter has told the North Star Dakotan that he saw at least 300 carloads of klansmen arrive at the ceremony and that a major reason for the rally was to initiate new members and install a klaven in Larimore.
With a growing membership and increasing strength within the city, the Klan moved into civic politics, endorsing and working for candidates who were in the KKK or sympathetic toward it. In the 1924 Grand Forks city election, one Klan candidate won a seat on the five-person city commission, and a klansman defeated the incumbent city justice, a Roman Catholic.
Flushed with victory, the Klan entered vigorously into the school board election three weeks later. The division was clear: two Klan businessmen versus a physician’s wife and the wife of a retired minister. In a Sunday night sermon Ambrose attacked the women as pawns of the Roman Catholics and charged that the Catholics were attempting to gain control of the public schools. The campaign tore the community apart. Mass rallies on behalf of the Klan and the anti-Klan candidates drew crowds numbering in the hundreds.
The Presbyterian clergyman told the North Star Dakotan that Moses Norman had started the petition drive for the women. “He will give his unqualified support to circulating those petitions,” he stated. “Any woman who will accept his support absolutely deserves the disrespect of every respectable woman in the city. Any two ladies who will permit a dirty thing like this to take his support are unworthy of the name of woman.” He referred to Catholic supporters as “the scum of the earth” and pledged that Catholics were the same the world over, “rotten.” Jerry Bacon and his Grand Forks Herald now began to attack the Klan. The paper backed the women candidates, stating that Ambrose’s reasoning was absurd. Tracy Bangs, a longtime Grand Forks lawyer, told the North Star Dakotan, “Ambrose has disturbed old friendships and has torn families asunder with his gospel of hatred.”
The two klansmen easily won election to the school board. Their objective was to reintroduce Bible reading into school classrooms. This, the Klan believed, would make the schools safe from the Roman Catholic threat. The board passed a Bible-reading motion. The Klan achieved its goal.
After its political victory in 1924, the Klan became much more open. A statewide Fourth of July rally at Hillsboro drew hundreds of klansmen, mostly from Fargo and Grand Forks. The visit of the national head of the KKK, the Imperial Wizard, attracted a crowd of 5,000 to the Grand Forks fairgrounds. In 1926 the Klan won control of four of the five seats on the city commission. The klansmen voted as a block to dismiss many Roman Catholic and anti-Klan city workers. The fire chief, a Catholic with 33 years in the department, and the electrician, a Catholic with 28 years of employment, were fired. In all, ten officials were let go, including the City Hall’s janitor who was a Catholic.
A Klansman told this paper that most members believed that the KKK’s work was finished with the housecleaning at City Hall and that there was no longer a need for the Klan. Ambrose tried to whip up Klan enthusiasm for last year’s city elections and asked, “Will our citizens stand for a silent campaign?”
The answer was “yes”; the Klan began to run out of steam. Reverend Ambrose has departed Grand Forks for a pulpit in St. Paul. He has left behind a bitterly divided town. He convinced many of its people, through the force of his dynamic personality, that Protestant Grand Forks had much to fear from Roman Catholic Grand Forks. This, of course, was an imagined fear - a danger that existed in Ambrose’s head. For all the hatred that he spread, the accomplishments were small: Bible reading in the schools and a dozen fired city employees. There were no whippings, mutilations, or lynching in North Dakota, but the mental scars left by the KKK run deep.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.