It is important as we continue to reflect on and investigate a People’s History of Grand Rapids, that we not ignore the systems of oppression and power that have historically sought to impose their will on various sectors of civil society.
One organization, which has a long history of activity in West Michigan, is the Ku Klux Klan. There has not been any definitive work done on the KKK in West Michigan and new research continues to take place, but there are numerous sources on the Klan operating in this area to allow us to draw some conclusions.
There is some evidenced, based upon the research of Hope College professors, that there was some Klan presence in West Michigan in the later part of the 19th century. However, it wasn’t until WWI where we see evidence of a significant Klan presence in Michigan, even in West Michigan. This is important, since the post-WWI Klan had just as much of distain for Catholics, Jews and “immigrant hordes,” as they did African Americans.
One of the best works on the KKK in Michigan, is Craig Fox’s book, Everyday Klansfolk: White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan. According to the author’s research, there were an estimate 80,000 Klan members in Michigan in the 1920s, with 5,000 being in greater Grand Rapids.
Todd Robinson, in his ground breaking book, A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, MI, states that there was a KKK “club” based at South High, “which was considered one of the most prestigious secondary schools in Grand Rapids.” More importantly, Robinson notes that there was a 1924 Klan parade planned in Grand Rapids, but because of bad weather, the parade was postponed until the following year.
Most likely the largest Klan gathering in Grand Rapids took place on the 4th of July in 1925. The KKK had an estimated 3,000 people marching on the westside of Grand Rapids. Interestingly enough, this area of Grand Rapids, was dominated by Catholic immigrants from Poland, Germany and Lithuania. These were populations that would not have been terribly receptive to the Klan’s message, but the KKK’s decision to hold the parade on the westside may have been due to their decision to hold a rally after the parade at John Ball Park.
According to a retrospective piece by GR Press writer Garrett Ellison, where he relies on GVSU history professor Matthew Daley, Ellison writes, “Members began arriving in Grand Rapids in the weeks ahead of July 4 and set up a tent city on the municipal outskirts near the Bridge Street hillside. Daley said mentions of “a symbol” seen atop the hill the night of July 3 suggest Klansmen fired off a cross, possibly with a matching one over Belknap, to announce their presence the next day.” Such a display certainly sent a message to the residents of Grand Rapids.
However, the Klan’s presence on Independence Day of 1925 would have a significant impact on the African American community in Grand Rapids. The Klan’s July 4 parade certainly sent a message to the Black community, which in the early 1920s numbered less than 3,000. First, it sent a message of intimidation, since Blacks were well aware of the terror tactics the Klan engaged in since their founding shortly after the Civil War.
A second, and equally important consequence of the 1925 Klan parade, is that it compliments, even solidifies the larger White Supremacist practices that made up the dominant culture in Grand Rapids. In his book on racism in Grand Rapids, Robinson states:
“Discriminatory signs located in the windows of restaurants and businesses up and down Division Street declared, ‘Prices subject to change without notice.’ Even a basic commodity, such as coffee, routinely cost black customers five times as much. They paid fifty cents, while whites paid only ten cents.” Robinson goes on to say, “Few social, cultural and economic options were available for blacks in the city. The City’s social clubs, theaters, restaurants and hospitals banned or restricted blacks.” In other words, Jim Crow policies and practices were deeply entrenched in Grand Rapids, thus the Klan parade also played a larger roll in sending a message to the black community about their place in the furniture city in the 1920s.
Grand Rapids, nor West Michigan, has seen anything that comes close to the 1925 parade held by the Klan, but the KKK continued to have a presence in West Michigan in a variety of ways. The last rally the Klan held in Grand Rapids, was in 1995, in front of the old Court House/police station on Monroe Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids. The rally featured a handful of Klan members playing bad music and making brief speeches to a mostly hostile crowd of counter-protestors. Some protestors threw eggs at the Klan, while a few people were arrested for entering the area closed off by police, to supposedly prevent violence from taking place. One of those arrested was Rob LaDew, former publisher of Equality Magazine. For an independent account of the 1996 Klan rally in Grand Rapids, go to this archived article.
Media Mouse also has some well-documented information on Klan activity in Michigan, including West Michigan in recent decades.
“The Ku Klux Klan has a long history of activity in the Midwest and in Michigan (in the 1970s Klansmen in Michigan used bombs to destroy school buses in order to prevent desegregation) and is probably the most well-known racist organization in the United States. However, since the 1980s the Klan’s influence has declined as it has split into different factions while failing to attract the interest of younger racists. Still, the Ku Klux Klan’s various splinter groups have remained active in varying capacities, with Michigan being home to chapters of The Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Imperial Klans of America, United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Of these groups, Michigan is the national headquarters for the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which is based in Fraser, Michigan.”
Media Mouse also lists Klan activity since the 1980s, most notably their role in the 2004 anti-affirmative action Ballot Proposal, known as Prop 2. The KKK was not only distributing pro-Prop 2 literature, they were a financial donor to the Ward Connerly led campaign to undo affirmative action in Michigan. Here is a short clip from the documentary, Arise: The Battle over Affirmative Action.
While Klan presence in West Michigan has diminished in recent decades, it is important to understand what role it has played historically in the Grand Rapids area and how it connects to the larger climate of White Supremacy and institutionalized racism that is deeply entrenched in Michigan’s second largest city.
One last resource that is worth looking at, is a 2008 lecture at GRCC by GVSU Professor Matthew Daley during Black History month. Daley’s lecture focuses on the history of the Klan in Michigan.