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How The KKK Helped Elect A Maine Governor — The State's Long History With Hate Groups

Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of www.MaineMemory.net, item #1265
Ku Klux Klan procession, Portland, ca. 1923

Gov. Paul LePage made headlines earlier this month when he claimed that more than 7,000 Mainers fought for the Confederacy and that 100,000 members of the KKK rallied in Brownville Junction in the 1920s. Maine historians say both numbers are widely exaggerated, but at one time, the Klan was a powerful, public political force in Maine that met resistance from Catholics and others it sought to suppress.

If you think that white supremacy, as a belief and a movement, is a modern concept, Tyler Cline says you’re mistaken.

“White supremacy, sort of religious intolerance and anti-radicalism, has been part and parcel of American history since before the Revolution,” he says.

Cline wrote his master’s thesis at the University of Maine on hate groups in the region, and other historians agree that their presence dates back to the early years of statehood.

Tilly Laskey of the Maine Historical Society says one of the earliest extremist groups in Maine was called the Know Nothing party. It was anti-immigrant, Lasky says, and violently anti-Catholic.

“A church in Bath was burned by the Know Nothing group because it was a Protestant church, but it had been used with the blessing of the Protestants for Catholic services, so it got burned,” she says.

Credit Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of www.MaineMemory.net, item #25109
Ku Klux Klan field day, Portland, 1926

In Ellsworth, in 1854, members of the group tarred and feathered Jesuit priest John Bapst, blew up the small Catholic school he had founded and tried to burn down the church adjoining it. Bapst survived and went on to become the first president of Boston College.

The Ku Klux Klan surged here in the 1920s, after the federal government bolstered nationalism through a propaganda effort to support World War I. Bill Barry of the Maine Historical Society says that in a matter of weeks, Mainers of German origin were seeing their businesses boycotted and even attacked.

“Jordan’s Meats for example, they got their windows broken, that sort of thing, and kids with German names got beat up in school, and the University of Maine abolished the German language,” he says.

German classes at UMaine weren’t restored until the late 1920s. Barry says that intense propaganda effort provided fertile soil for the growth of the KKK, as postwar fears shifted toward communism and immigration.

Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth says the KKK achieved its greatest degree of influence in the 1924 election for governor. The Republican Party primary pitted Frank Farrington of Augusta against Portland State Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster. Shettleworth says Farrington had the support of the state GOP establishment.

Credit Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of www.MaineMemory.net, item #1264
Ku Klux Klan parade, Brownville Junction, 1924

“Brewster, on the other hand, at least tacitly sought and received the support of the Klan in that primary, won the primary and then won the election,” he says.

Shettleworth says the Klan peaked in Maine in the mid-1920’s, and according to some reports claimed some 20,000-40,000 members. But by the end of the decade, Shettleworth says the economy of the Roaring ’20s was booming, and the KKK lost a lot of its supporters, who were no longer worried about their jobs.

After a scandal over Klan finances, the group also lost its charismatic leader in Maine, Eugene Farnsworth, whose fiery rhetoric had drawn large crowds.

The KKK would make a slight resurgence in Maine 60 years later, with small rallies and a cross burning in Rumford in 1987.

Laskey says there is an irony to the cycle of anti-immigrant groups in the U.S., the members of which are people whose families were once the target of hate.

“A lot of the Irish and French people who were discriminated against in the 1850s through the 1930s with the Klan are now establishment people that might be feeling the same anxieties about other people coming into their communities and again, taking their jobs,” she says.

According a report issued in June by the Anti-Defamation League, the Ku Klux Klan is still active in 33 states, including Maine.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.