The Invisible Empire in Marietta

It may be surprising to many in Washington County that the cloaked and hooded “Invisible Empire” made quite a presence here in the 1920’s. The Ku Klux Klan was anything but “invisible.” Thousands of white robes and hoods paraded on the downtown streets and stopped at the Armory for a photograph in 1923. The local group was large enough to have a third floor office and Klavern in the Park Block at 254 Front Street.

What brought about this rise in Klan activity in the 1920’s? After the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan of the southern states had lost its strength in terms of membership and activities diminished, but did not disappear in terrorizing African-Americans. During the Progressive Era (1890’s-1920’s), many Americans became fearful of increased immigration from southern Europe, the rise of cities with accompanying poverty and crime, industrialization and labor unions, and increased presence of African-Americans, Catholics, Jews and foreigners. A panic swept through the masses that the good ole America run by white Protestants might be a thing of the past. The fear of losing a lifestyle reignited the idea of masked crusaders coming to the aid of white Protestant America.

The stimulus for the Second Wave of the Ku Klux Klan came from an unsuspecting source. The silent film, The Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith in 1915, ignited a rekindled interest in KKK activities nationwide. It was a patriotic romance of how the KKK saved white Southerners in the Reconstruction Era from the growing civil rights that African Americans were just beginning to enjoy. Griffith based the film on 1905 book, The Clansman, written by Thomas Dixon Jr. Interestingly, in 1908 The Marietta Times had posted a magazine excerpt written by Dixon titled, “ A Terror To The Negroes: the Formation of the Ku Klux Klan Brought Unruly Blacks to Their Senses.” Was there already a presence of Klan in the area or was the editor advocating Klan activity?

The Ku Klux Klan first descended upon Marietta on February 24, 1923 with the burning of a fiery cross near Harmar Hill at the site of an old quarry. The oil soaked cross measuring 14 feet in height was fired at 8:00 followed by a charge of dynamite that alerted all of Marietta of the Klan’s presence. It burned for 40 minutes. Many people witnessed the event, but did not take it seriously until the next event occurred.

The following day, the Ku Klux Klan interrupted the Methodist Church evening service where visiting evangelist, Rev. Pat Withrow was speaking. Six Klansmen appeared and four of them approached the podium, handed an envelope to the minister, and began to walk away. The minister then addressed the Klansmen and congregation that he presumed the visit had good intentions and he had had similar visits in other churches. Withrow continued by speaking on the real meaning of Americanism. The envelope had contained a cash donation with congratulations of his work.

Throughout 1923, the Marietta, Williamstown, Parkersburg, and other Washington County groups of the Klan held ceremonials with speakers and the burning of fiery crosses. Hundreds of Klansmen and thousands of spectators observed a ceremonial held on July 27 in the Norwood area. The Shankland farm with borders on Newport Pike, Acme Street, and Phillips Street filled with the robed and hooded Klansmen as the ceremony began in a meadow. From a platform a band played “The Star Spangled Banner” and visiting men and women speakers lectured to t