Fire on the Mountain

 

A century ago, the summit at Mt. Tabor Park periodically lit up with fire—from large crosses set aflame by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

“Mount Tabor, drowsing to sleep in the gloom of early evening, would suddenly blaze up with a single cross of fire,” wrote Oregonian reporter Stewart Holbook in a 1937 article on the “Rise of the Invisible Empire in Oregon.”

 

The original KKK, formed to terrorize Blacks and reverse gains made in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, deployed lynchings and other violent intimidation, but not cross burnings.

 

The association of the Klan with burning crosses stems from the 1915 silent film, Birth of a Nation. The D.W. Griffith film romanticized the Klan and sparked its rapid expansion after the group formed anew that same year. The KKK still promoted white supremacy but claimed it no longer advocated violence.

 

In 1921, the first Klan recruiters from Georgia arrived in Southern Oregon to sign up members and organize chapters. The new Klan quickly grew statewide.

 

By the following year, the KKK claimed thousands of members in Portland and swept into political power. It helped elect a governor and enact an Oregon ballot measure aimed at banning Catholic schools.

 

“In 1922 and 1923,” wrote historian Eckard Toy, “KKK lecturers attracted overflow crowds to the Portland Civic Auditorium….and burning crosses flared in Portland’s evening sky from Mount Tabor and Mount Scott.”

 

Fiery crosses also were seen in Eugene’s Skinner Butte, Medford, Marshfield (later renamed Coos Bay), and other cities. In 1923, an airplane towed a burning cross in the sky above the Oregon State Fair in Salem.

 

Historian David Horowitz estimated Klan membership in Oregon quickly reached 14,000 to 20,000, the bulk of them from Portland. “Portland became the virtual headquarters of the Klan activities west of the Rocky Mountains,” Horowitz wrote.

 

But the KKK became mired in infighting and corruption scandals, and was tainted by a series of violent incidents in the Medford area. By the mid- to late-1920s, the Oregon KKK flamed out as fast as it had grown.

—Steve Law

 

Sources: “The Ku Klux Klan in Oregon,” by Eckard Toy, an essay in Experiences in a Promised Land. “The Klansman as Outsider: Ethnocultural Solidarity and Antielitism in the Oregon Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s,” in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly, by David Horowitz. Forces of Prejudice in Oregon, 1920-25,” masters thesis by the Rev. Lawrence Saalfeld. . The Sunday Oregonian, April 11, 1937