Snakes in the Garden
The History of Racism and the KKK in Santa Cruz County
In 1922, Ku Klux Klan organizers came into Santa Cruz County and began to tap into the anti-foreign sentiment that was sweeping across the country. Roman Catholics and Jews were the targets of this campaign of fear and intimidation, and burning crosses punctuated the night sky. Local communities struggled to balance free speech guarantees against the obvious hateful and racist message the Klan espoused. What was the Klan doing here in Paradise? And where does all this fit in the history of Santa Cruz County?
The KKK in the Monterey Bay Region in the 1920s
The Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan was re-born on Thanksgiving night, 1915 in Atlanta Georgia. Hoping to catch hold of the popular groundswell that was sure to come with the opening of D.W. Griffith's movie, Birth of a Nation, the new KKK's founder, William J. Simmon's gave birth to an oddly-skewed fraternal organization based loosely on the original Klan. Fueled by anti-immigrant fears following World War I, the KKK membership grew until it reached an estimated 4,000,000 members by 1924.
The primary targets of the 1920s Klan was Jews and Catholics, and the organization eventually reached the region targeting primarily the Catholic church, Catholic hospitals, bootlegging and any other potential threat to the basic, Protestant family and its values.
It is difficult to know just how many Klansmen there were in the region during this period as it was a secret society and did not publicize its membership. However, there was at least one Klavern in Watsonville, one in Santa Cruz, and several in Live Oak. There was an effort made to organize a Klavern in Monterey, but it seems to have been thwarted by the local police chief. And, I've seen evidence of a Klavern in Hollister. Periodic reports of cross burnings appear in the local and regional newspapers during the 1920s, and there were several large public recruiting meetings in the region during this time.
Klan winds down
Nationally, the KKK began to run out of steam in the late 1920s because of several large scandals, and by the 30s, the Klan is no longer active in the region.
However, the themes of racism and prejudice continue to be prevalent in the region, bursting forth against the Filipinos in the early 1930s, the Dust Bown refugees during the mid-1930s, and the Japanese in the early 1940s. Anti-immigrant sentiments are frequently voiced, this time against people coming from Mexico and Latin America. Anti-immigration agitators continue to play on fears that are very similar to those that existed in the region in the 1920s.