Notable real and alleged Ku Klux Klan members in national politics

Notable real and alleged Ku Klux Klan members in national politics

This article discusses notable figures in U.S. national politics who were, or have been alleged by some to be, members of the Ku Klux Klan prior to their public careers. No one serving as a federal judge or senior official in the 1920s is known to have belonged to the second Ku Klux Klan in that period.

Individual cases

Hugo Black

A former Klansman to rise to national prominence was the Democratic Senator and later Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black who, early in his political career, defended one of the group's members charged with the assassination of Father James Coyle, an Alabama Catholic priest. Black obtained a “not guilty” verdict from a Klan-controlled jury. Later Black repudiated the Klan and became a champion of civil rights.

Harry Truman

In 1924, Harry S. Truman was a judge in Jackson County, Missouri, which includes Kansas City. Truman was up for reelection, and his friends Edgar Hinde and Spencer Salisbury advised him to join the Klan. The Klan was politically powerful in Jackson County, and two of Truman's opponents in the Democratic primary had Klan support. Truman refused at first, but paid the Klan's $10 membership fee, and a meeting with a Klan officer was arranged. [McCullough 1992, 164.]

According to Salisbury's version of the story, Truman was inducted, but afterward “was never active; he was just a member who wouldn't do anything”. Salisbury, however, became Truman's bitter enemy in later years, so this version is suspect. [Steinberg, 1962. Salisbury was a war buddy and former business partner of Truman's. Salisbury states that Truman attempted "to give Jim Pendergast control of [their] business." Salisbury began attacking Truman's patrons, the Pendergast machine, for corruption, and Truman retaliated by telegramming the Federal Home Loan Bank system about Salisbury, leading to Salisbury's conviction for filing a false affidavit. Salisbury contradicts Hinde's statement that the meeting at the Hotel Baltimore was one-on-one, naming at least six individuals who were present. Salisbury states that at the meeting, Truman had to receive a special dispensation to join, because his grandfather Solomon had been a Jew; however, Solomon was not a Jew, and the rumor of Truman's Jewish ancestry was only spread later, by the Klan, once the political lines had been drawn so that Truman was the Klan's enemy.] According to Hinde and Truman's accounts, the Klan officer demanded that Truman pledge not to hire any Catholics or Jews if he was reelected. Truman refused, and demanded the return of his $10 membership fee; most of the men he had commanded in World War I had been local Irish Catholics. [Wade, 1987, 196, gives essentially this version of the events, but implies that the meeting was a regular Klan meeting, rather than an individual meeting between Truman and a Klan organizer. An interview with Hinde at the Truman Library's web site ( [ “Oral History Interview with Edgar G. Hinde” by James R. Fuchs, 15 March 1962] , retrieved June 26, 2005) portrays it as a one-on-one meeting at the Hotel Baltimore with a Klan organizer named Jones. Truman's biography, written by his daughter (Truman, 1973), agrees with Hinde's version, but does not mention the $10 initiation fee; the same biography reproduces a telegram from O.L. Chrisman stating that reporters from the Hearst papers had questioned him about Truman's past with the Klan, and that he had seen Truman at a Klan meeting, but that "if he ever became a member of the Klan I did not know it."] Truman had at least one other strong reason to object to the anti-Catholic requirement, which was that the Catholic Pendergast family, which operated a political machine in Jackson County, were his patrons; Pendergast family lore has it that Truman was originally accepted for patronage without even meeting him, on the basis of his family background plus the requirement that he was not a member of any anti-Catholic organization such as the Klan. [McCullough 1992.] The Pendergast faction of the Democratic Party was known as the “Goats”, as opposed to the rival Shannon machine's “Rabbits”. The battle lines were drawn when Truman put only Goats on the county payroll, [Truman 1973.] and the Klan began encouraging voters to support Protestant, “100% American” candidates, which was anathema to the Catholic Pendergasts. The Klan allied itself against Truman and with the Rabbits, and Shannon instructed his people to vote Republican in the election, which Truman lost. [Truman 1973; McCullough 1992, 170.] Truman later claimed that the Klan “threatened to kill me, and I went out to one of their meetings and dared them to try”, speculating that if Truman's armed friends had shown up earlier, violence might have resulted. However, biographer Alonzo Hamby believes that this story, which is not supported by any recorded facts, was a confabulation based on a meeting with a hostile and menacing group of Democrats that contained many Klansmen, showing Truman's “Walter Mitty-like tendency […] to rewrite his personal history”. [Hamby 1995.] Sympathetic observers see Truman's flirtation with the Klan as a momentary aberration and point out that his close friend and business partner Eddie Jacobson was Jewish, and assert that in later years, Truman's presidency marked the first significant improvement in the federal government's record on civil rights since the post-Reconstruction nadir marked by the Wilson administration. [McCullough notes this extensively in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Truman. While Truman had been raised in a family with Southern and Confederate leanings, he still said that he believed "in the brotherhood of all men before the law" (McCullough, p. 247). His work on civil rights was politically damaging but extensive nonetheless.] It is also possible to interpret it as a young politician's opportunistic attempt to get ahead. The incident was clearly entwined with the intricacies of machine politics, and may also be seen as an indication of Truman's long evolution in his outlook on race relations.

Robert Byrd

West Virginia's Democratic Senator Robert Byrd was a recruiter for the Klan while in his 20s and 30s, rising to the title of Kleagle and Exalted Cyclops of his local chapter. After leaving the group, Byrd spoke in favor of the Klan during his early political career. Though he claimed to have left the organization in 1943, Byrd wrote a letter in 1946 to the group's Imperial Wizard stating “The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia.” Byrd defended the Klan in his 1958 U.S. Senate campaign when he was 41 years old. [ [ “A Senator's Shame” by Eric Pianin in "the Washington Post", 19 June 2005] ]

Despite being the only Senator to vote against both African American U.S. Supreme Court nominees, liberal Thurgood Marshall and conservative Clarence Thomas, and filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Byrd has since said joining the Klan was his “greatest mistake”. Today the NAACP at one time gave him a 100% rating on their issues. [ [ "NAACP Civil Rights Federal Legislative Report Card: 108th Congress"] ] Yet, Byrd has continued to be involved in racial controversies including a 2001 incident in which he repeatedly used the phrase “white niggers” on a national television broadcast. [ [ CNN: “Top Senate Democrat apologizes for slur”] ]

Warren Harding

It has been alleged that United States President Warren G. Harding was inducted into the Ku Klux Klan during his administration. The evidence is highly disputed.

Evidence for Harding's membership

Wyn Craig Wade states Harding's membership as fact and gives a detailed account of a secret swearing-in ceremony in the White House, but bases this claim on a private communication in 1985 from journalist Stetson Kennedy. Kennedy, in turn had, along with Elizabeth Gardner, tape recorded the “late 1940s” deathbed confession of former Imperial Klokard Alton Young, who claimed to have been a member of the “Presidential Induction Team” as Young was dying in a New Jersey Hospital. Young also claimed to have repudiated racism on his deathbed. [ [ “Woody Guthrie: Natural born anti-fascist” by Kennedy] , retrieved 9 September 2005.] Wade says, [Wade 1987, 165, 477.]

:Simmons' ultimate vindication came when President Warren G. Harding agreed to be sworn in as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. A five-man “Imperial induction team,” headed by Simmons, conducted the ceremony in the Green Room of the White House. Members of the team were so nervous that they forgot their Bible in the car, so Harding had to send for the White House Bible. In consideration of his status, Harding was permitted to rest his elbow on the desk, as he knelt on the floor during the long oath taking. Afterward, the President appreciatively gave members of the team War Department license tags that allowed them to run red lights all across the nation.

Wade also states that “This matter was a major issue in letters sent to Coolidge during the 1924 election”, and gives a reference to “Case File 28, Calvin Coolidge papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.” In this file there is a letter from Wizard Edward Young Clarke to President Calvin Coolidge on 27 December 1923, charging Wizard Hiram W. Evens with trying to turn the Klan into a “cheap political machine”. “It [the Klan] was to be an organization designed to up-build and develop spirituality, morality, and physically the Protestant white man of America.”

Evidence against

In their book "Freakonomics", economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner write of their visit to Stetson Kennedy's Florida home, and Harding's possible affiliation with the Klan. However, in a 8 January 2006 article for the "New York Times Magazine", Dubner and Levitt wrote an expose of Stetson Kennedy, (“Hoodwinked” pp 26-28) claiming that Kennedy had long systematically exaggerated and misrepresented his work and “hoodwinked” his readers for over 50 years. While nothing in the article specifically dealt with the claim that Harding and the Klan were affiliated with one another, the implication was that Kennedy's claims and conclusions should be reviewed for accuracy, rather than being accepted at full face value.

Primary source material on file at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus — which holds more than linear feet of Harding papers from his Presidency does not contain evidence of Harding's alleged membership in the Klan.

Primary source material on file at the Marion County (Ohio) Historical Society (Warren G. Harding Collection) also does not confirm or indicate any involvement in the Klan, nor support the idea of Harding’s alleged Klan membership.

Harding was the first American President to publicly denounce lynching and did so in a landmark 21 October 1921 speech in Birmingham, Alabama, which was covered in the national press. Harding also vigorously supported an anti-lynching bill in Congress during his term in the White House. While the bill was defeated in the Senate, such activities would be in direct conflict with Klan membership.

The Site Administrator of the Harding Home Museum (Ohio Historical Society property) in Marion, Ohio, draws a relationship between Harding's alleged Klan activities directly to the rumor-mill stirred up after the President died in 1923 and Mrs. Harding in 1924. (Such rumors also alluded to the President's knowledge of the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved Albert Fall, but not the President.)

Furthermore, Harding's "ability to join" the Klan is dubious given the numerous rumors that swirled around his supposed mixed race heritage. This theory, promoted by William Estabrook Chancellor, a one-time history professor at the College of Wooster and noted racist, was a direct attempt to keep Harding from securing the Presidency. If true and tested, Chancellor's book, published shortly before the 1920 Presidential election, would have been proof positive that Harding violated the Klan's “one drop rule” which qualified people as being “colored” if they had one drop of Negro blood in their veins.

In his book, "The Strange Deaths of President Harding", historian Robert Ferrell Ph.D. claims to have been unable to find any records of any such “ceremony” in which Harding was brought into the Klan in the White House. Also, John Dean, in his 2004 book "Warren Harding" (edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger), also could find no proof of Klan membership or activity on the part of the 29th President to indicate support of the Klan.

Review of the personal records of Harding's Personal White House Secretary, George Christian Jr., also do not support the contention that Harding received members of the Klan while in office. Appointment books maintained in the White House, detailing President Harding's daily schedules, do not show any such event (but document "the visit by members of the Masonic Rite").

In addition to the above points, the 1920 Republican Party platform, which essentially expressed Harding's political philosophy, outright calls for Congress to pass laws combatting lynching. [Republican Party Platform of 1920 ( [ available from the American Presidency Project of the University of California, Santa Barbara] ).] This most certainly made him an enemy of the Klan.

Carl S. Anthony, biographer of Harding's wife (though not of Warren), found no such proof of Harding's membership in the Klan, he does however discuss the events leading up to the period when the alleged Klan ceremony was held in June 1923::knowing that the some branches of the Shriners were anti-Catholic and in that sense sympathetic to the Ku Klax Klan and that the Klan itself was holding a demonstration less than a half mile from Washington, Harding censured hate groups in his Shriners speech. The press “considered [it] a direct attack” on the Klan, particularly in light of his criticism weeks earlier of “factions of hatred and prejudice and violence [that] challeng [ed] both civil and religious liberty”. [Anthony 1998, 412-413.]

Anthony also details Harding's induction into the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, a Shrine organization, during the convention week (making note of the conical hat used by the Tall Cedars in the ceremony); Anthony writes that he feels that the charges made by Grand Wizard Alton Young (reported by Wyn Craig Wade in 1985) against Harding were in “retaliation for the Shrine speech and another anti-bigotry speech made by Harding at the dedication of the Alexander Hamilton statue at the Treasury Building” in the previous month of May 1923.

In 2005, The Straight Dope presented a summary [] of many of these arguments against Harding's membership and added speculation about Harding's motives as further evidence that he would not have joined (i.e. that it while it might have been politically expedient for him to join the KKK in public to do it in private made no sense).

Edward Douglass White

Wyn Craig Wade has asserted that Edward Douglass White, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1910 to 1921, told Thomas Dixon “I was a member of the Klan” at the 1915 White House screening of "The Birth of a Nation". [Wade 1987.] No evidence has been found that corroborates his alleged admission. White, in any event, never joined the second KKK.


Author Wyn Craig Wade claims in its second incarnation "the Klan helped elect sixteen men to the U.S. Senate (nine Republicans and seven Democrats) eleven Governors (six Republicans, five Democrats) and an unknown number of Congressmen." [Wade 1987. Cited in [ "Bombingham" by Mark Gado, Chapter 2: “The Klan”] ]

Openly white nationalist pundit and ex-Louisiana congressman David Duke is a known Klan member, and was elected Grand Wizard of his local chapter at one point.



* Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. "Florence Harding", New York: W. Morrow & Co. 1998.
* Dean, John; Schlesinger, Arthur M. "Warren Harding" (The American President Series), Times Books, 2004.
* Ferrell, Robert H. "The Strange Deaths of President Harding". University of Missouri Press, 1996.
* Hamby, Alonzo L. "Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman", New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
* McCullough, David. "Truman". New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
* Steinberg. "Man From Missouri". New York: Van Rees Press, 1962.
* Truman, Margaret. "Harry S. Truman". New York: William Morrow and Co. (1973).
* Wade, Wyn Craig. "The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America". New York: Simon and Schuster (1987).

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