The film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” now showing at the State Theatre in downtown Hutchinson, provides a front-row seat to the tumultuous birth of America’s civil rights movement.
I never really thought about how brave those early civil rights activists were until I saw this movie.
I was ashamed to see the hate on the faces of Southern whites as they physically assaulted those who dared to challenge segregation. The black and white students were beaten, spit upon, pushed around, hit with fire hoses, baseball bats and chains, attacked by dogs and jailed. There is a particularly frightening scene where a motorcoach is diverted by a violent crowd, attacked and fire bombed by Ku Klux Klan members and angry whites.
I must admit to a certain relief that the scenes in the movie happened in the South and not in our home state. This feeling evaporated when the new book, “The Ku Klux Klan in Minnesota,” by Elizabeth Dorsey Hatle, crossed my desk.
The Ku Klux Klan is known for its beliefs in white supremacy, white nationalism and anti-immigration. The members have historically used terrorism to convey their message.
Three waves of Ku Klux Klan activity have taken place in the United States. The “Hooded Order” originally reared its ugly head in the South after the Civil War. This is where the group’s tradition of white robes, masks and conical hats originated. The second wave took place after World War I and introduced the burning cross. That’s when the Klan came to Minnesota. And the third wave was during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“They were successful because they preyed on people’s fears,” Hatle said. “In Minnesota, the Ku Klux Klan was anti-Catholic, anti-union and anti-German.”
The Land of 10,000 Lakes was once home to 51 chapters of the KKK during the 1920s. McLeod County did not have a chapter. The closest chapters were the Montevideo Klan, Paynesville Ku Klux Klan and Stearns County Klan No. 7.
“I think there could be more,” Hatle said. “I found two women’s chapters I could verify, but where there is a men’s chapter, there usually is a women’s chapter.”
Who joined the Ku Klux Klan? “Based on my research, it was largely Scandinavians,” Hatle said. “They were the children of immigrants. You would think it would be the opposite, but it wasn’t.”
The author’s research identified the first possible indication of Klan activity took place in July 1917 in Lester Prairie.
A group of local men wearing white cloth masks attacked the German-born owners of the Klatts Hotel, where it was rumored vice-related events were said to be taking place.
The attack was described in the Hutchinson Leader as “... brutal in the extreme.”
“That the Klatt family kept the best country hotel at Lester Prairie to be found in any town of this size in the state is a fact known to the traveling public,” reported the Leader on Nov. 2, 1917. “That fact alone, it would seem, should have spared them the mob violence visited upon them by the citizens of Lester Prairie one night last July.”
Rather than be cowed into silence by the attack, the Klatts fought back by employing a detective and rounding up the toughs in the gang that assaulted them.
Known as the Lester Prairie 12, the men appeared in District Court in Glencoe later in November, when the Leader reported, “The question of loyalty or disloyalty, which gossip had forecast would be injected into the case, was not raised in the remotest manner.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum was the Glencoe Enterprise. According to Hatle, the newspaper did raise the question of loyalty and took a negative stance toward the Klatts, almost as if they deserved the attack because they were German immigrants.
Another local connection was Peter Sletterdahl. He was the Grand Dragon of North Dakota and South Dakota. His Klan name was Twilight Orn. Before joining the KKK, he once taught in Hutchinson and was an assistant superintendent for the district.
Sletterdahl was also the editor of the Ku Klux Klan Minnesota newspaper “Call of the North.” Sletterdahl eventually had a falling out over money with Hiram Wesley Evans, the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan from 1922 to 1939.
Sletterdahl became an “enemy” of the Klan after he published the book “The Nightshirt in Politics.” According to Hatle, enemies were those who destroyed the Klan movement, as well as those who broke their allegiance to the KKK.
During her research, Hatle also found interesting connections between the Klan and Minnesota politics. Theodore Christianson, a future Republican governor, was editor and owner of the Dawson Sentinel newspaper, where he wrote and published anti-German, anti-Bolshevik editorials. During his governorship, Hatle found correspondence and meetings between Christianson and Minnesota Grand Dragon H.E. Kettering.
Hatle became interested in the Ku Klux Klan’s connection to Minnesota while working on an editorial about the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth. (The memorial was dedicated in memory of the three young black men who were accused of raping a white woman and lynched by a mob in downtown Duluth on June 15, 1920.)
She was doing research at the Minnesota History Center when she came across a photo album of Klan parades in Minnesota. “I got distracted from the editorial and started doing research,” she said.
Hatle’s research was transformed into an article about Minnesota KKK activities titled “One Flag, One School, One Language.” It appeared in Minnesota History magazine in March 2010. The article generated interest. A rabbi from Canada remembered seeing crosses burning in Elk River.
“I like that people are talking about it,” she said. “Minnesota has a tendency to bury things and not talk about them.” The book grew out of the article.
“Everyone was doing it,” she said. “Fairmont still has its Klan building today. The ironic part is it’s now a Mexican-American grocery store.”
Hatle’s next project — the state’s “poor farms.”