posted October 7, 2004

Film Examines Ku Klux Klan in Michigan

Two Hope College professors are ready to show the first part of their research into the Ku Klux Klan in Michigan.

Drs. Fred Johnson of the history faculty (pictured left) and David Schock of the communication faculty have spent the last three years interviewing people, researching materials, and acquiring images.

On Friday, Oct. 15, they're showing the first segment: "The Klan in Michigan, Part I: Reconstruction" which will be presented at 7 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. in Cook Auditorium of the De Pree Art Center in conjunction with the national 24th Biennial Conference of the Conference on Faith and History. On Wednesday, Nov. 10, the segment will be shown at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. in the Knickerbocker Theatre. The public is invited to all of the presentations, and admission is free.

"This has been a long time coming," said Schock, an associate professor of communication. "But this is only Part I...there are six more segments in the works."

This first part of this documentary deals with the formation of the Klan following the Civil War."In the aftermath of the Civil War, southerners quickly began devising methods to reclaim the power they'd lost," observed Johnson, an assistant professor of history. "The Klan was one means by which disgruntled southerners, intent upon making sure that newly freed slaves would not enjoy or exercise their freedom, sought to reassert themselves and re-establish the old order in a new way."

The Klan had a presence in Michigan as early as 1868, but it didn't attract a large following. The three phases of the Klan's greatest activity in Michigan intersect with the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, in the 1910s and 1920s, and again after the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. The latter two claimed far more adherents. One source estimated that membership in the Klan of the 1920s was "at more than a quarter million," Schock said.

"The Klan certainly was an exclusionary group," Schock noted. "Its members have had as targets for their hate at--varying times--Black Americans, eastern Europeans, Roman Catholics, Jews...just about anybody they defined as not like them. They targeted what they called 'hyphenated Americans.'

"The consistent centerpiece keeping them united and giving them focus is, and has been, hate, prejudice, and bigotry," Johnson stressed.

According to the two professors, the mechanics of the Klan members' displeasure could be recognized in their marches, their cross burnings, and occasional violence. Most Klan members were just content to be joiners, but there were those who took part in assaults, bombings, murder, destruction of property, and intimidation.

Schock added that in "the Klan of the '20s members joined and formed Klaverns throughout the state. Places like Negaunee, Mt. Pleasant and Grand Rapids. There was a cross burning in Kollen Park in either 1920 or 1921."Johnson and Schock - with videographer Phil Blauw and then-students Dan Morrison and Jason Kehrer - traveled the state speaking with historians and others who had researched the Klan. They even tried to attend a rally in Indiana. "We had earlier explained what we were doing and the organizers wouldn't let us in...but we rolled tape driving - very slowly - past," Schock said. "That's the one area where we're still weak: speaking with current or former Klan members. They're out there, but they have not been willing to talk with us so far. We really DO want to hear from them. We'll see what time brings.

"Our goal throughout has been to tell a story that hasn't appeared in many of the histories. People are surprised when they find that at one point perhaps as many as one of every 10 white men in the state [of Michigan] were members," Schock said. "That's when it becomes real...maybe dad or grandpa or great grandpa was a member. Very often families are ashamed. The worst thing that could happen would be for families to destroy the accouterments of that history...the masks and robes, the photos. I know a lot of them have gone up in flames. While it's purging...it is still a part of this state's history. The Joint Archives here at Hope would be a good destination for such items. Fred and I would gladly take them, although many people are finding that there are collectors who will pay a long dollar on e-bay. Go figure."The next part in the series is the importance of D.W.Griffith's movie "The Birth of A Nation." That 1915 film, based on books by Thomas Dixon, took the country by storm. It was the first feature-length film and was accompanied - in large venues - by a full orchestra."That movie gave rise to the second Klan," Schock said. "Even Woodrow Wilson declared 'It's like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true.'"

Further segments will deal with the Klan in the '20s, the Ossian Sweet case, a bombing in the Muskegon area, the Black Legion, and the latter-day Klan, especially the organization in Michigan under Robert Miles.The research was made possible in part by a grant from the McGregor Foundation.

The De Pree Art Center is located on Columbia Avenue at 12th Street. The Knickerbocker Theatre is located in downtown Holland at 86 E. 8th St.