Today, most people regard the remnant Ku Klux Klan as an artifact of the Jim Crow South. But in the 1920s and 1930s, the so-called Invisible Empire’s bigoted tentacles spread throughout Southern California.
Throughout those years, the klan used its hatred of blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, bootleggers and union workers to place its adherents in city council seats, on court benches and in police departments throughout the region.
Inglewood--then the county’s agricultural hub--was the nation’s fastest-growing city. And to keep it a white Protestant town, klansmen posted signs that read “Caucasian-only.”
On a cold spring night--April 22, 1922--more than 100 armed and hooded klansmen broke into the Inglewood home of alleged bootleggers--Fidel and Angela Elduayer, Basque immigrants from Spain. The intruders forced the couple’s two teenage daughters to disrobe--contemporary accounts are silent on what may have followed--then ransacked the house and brutally beat Fidel and his brother, Mathias. When the Inglewood police arrived, shots were exchanged, leaving one klansman dead and two wounded.
Two days later, klan-sympathizing Inglewood residents--hostile and armed with pistols--jammed the tiny county coroner’s hearing room, where the victim’s body lay on a table in the corner. Maintaining the “night riders’ ” innocence, Grand Goblin William S. Coburn, head of the klan in California and five other states, declared that his men had only tried to “clean up the town’s bootleggers.”
But an Inglewood traffic cop, Frank Woerner, and a 19-year-old eyewitness, Clyde Vannatta, told another story: Woerner testified that on the night of the raid he had received a call from the Elduayers’ terrorized Japanese neighbor, who later hid with six small children in a nearby field. The officer hitched a ride outside Inglewood City Hall from Vannatta, who happened to be riding by on his motorcycle. Skidding to a stop at Pine Street, they were met by an armed group of hooded klansmen.
When the klan leader called out for the two to throw up their hands, Woerner replied, “Throw up your hands yourself. I’m an officer,” as he shined his flashlight on his badge.
But when the leader--who later was identified as Inglewood Constable Medford Mosher--made a threatening motion with his gun, Woerner drew his pistol and shot him dead as he and Vannatta quickly headed for cover.
An exchange of gunfire ensued; Woerner wounded Mosher’s son, Walter, in the arm and another klansman, Leonard Ruegg, in the groin.
While the gunfight continued, other klansmen ransacked the house, slashing the furniture and breaking everything in sight. They dragged the Elduayer brothers--bound, gagged and badly beaten--to a car and dumped them six miles away.
On the basis of testimony by Woerner and Vannatta, a grand jury was convened. Meanwhile, another foe of the klan, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Thomas Woolwine, launched an investigation along with state and federal agents. Ultimately, 150 reluctant klansmen were called to testify. Investigators from Woolwine’s office searched the klan’s headquarters in the Haas building at 7th Street and Broadway in Los Angeles. There, they found robes and hoods, crosses, membership cards and dues receipts of several hundred Los Angeles, Kern and Orange County men who had paid $10 to join.
Other documents linked the Los Angeles klan to beatings, hangings and tar and feathering in the Kern County oil fields.
On the klan’s 3-by-5 index cards were signatures of 150 Angelenos, 19 of whom were pillars of the community, including Sheriff William Taeger and newly appointed Police Chief Louis D. Oaks, who both declared that they had resigned shortly after the raid on the Elduayer house.
As newspapers throughout the state listed the names and addresses of hundreds of klan members, Oaks, along with government officials, released an order saying that any officer who did not resign from the klan would be fired.
Black Ministers Threatened
While the grand jury was still in session, several black ministers received packages disguised to look like bombs and threatening letters demanding money from their congregations to pay for the klan defense fund. The Los Angeles City Council passed a law prohibiting the wearing of masks and disguises on city streets, except on Halloween.
After a monthlong grand jury investigation, 35 klansmen were indicted on charges of assaults with deadly weapons with intent to commit murder. Among the defendants were a reporter and photographer for the Los Angeles Examiner. None of the 35 klansmen was convicted.
By 1923, more than 700 new members allegedly had been initiated into the secret fraternity throughout the state, and klansman Ralph L. Criswell was elected to the Los Angeles City Council.
Quietly, the white knights paraded down Market Street in Inglewood, garbed in KKK regalia, proudly standing in truck beds.
That same year, politically savvy klansmen retaliated against Woolwine after he announced his democratic campaign for governor. Planting klansmen in the audiences wherever he gave speeches, they booed and jeered, calling him a “defender of bootleggers.” After losing the election, the city released an unfavorable report on Woolwine and his department, alleging misappropriation of funds and charging that he had carried on an affair with an employee. Woolwine retired and died a short time later.
As strong as ever, the klan organized a 24-hour phone committee, continuing to intimidate and terrorize blacks, Jews, Catholics and immigrants who moved into “white American” areas. Restrictive housing covenants were enacted with the help of the klan to “keep the neighborhoods white.” Bottles of booze were planted in cars during Prohibition, and when a black-owned newspaper exposed the klan’s plans to influence the government of Watts, the Invisible Empire sued for libel, but lost.
The klansmen’s implacable hatred of union workers became more visible during a dockworker’s strike in San Pedro. On June 14, 1924, klan raiders broke into the International Workers of the World hall and attacked men, women and children.
After World War II, the Ku Klux Klan faded along with its influence and restrictive covenants, which were deemed unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, and completely outlawed five years later.