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A century ago, the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Southern Oregon

A Ku Klux Klan march in Ashland, Oregon, in 1920.
Oregon Historical Society
A Ku Klux Klan march in Ashland, Oregon, in 1920.

One hundred years ago, members of notorious hate group the Ku Klux Klan staged a series of so-called "night riding" attacks in Southern Oregon.

They are the only known attacks of their kind in the state.

On Friday, March 17, 1922, Medford resident J.F. Hale — a white man — was lured from his home, kidnapped, blindfolded and driven to an isolated area along the Rogue River. He later told police that a mob of between 12 and 18 hooded men tied a noose around his neck and hoisted him into the air. When they let him go, they warned him to drop a pending lawsuit against a Klan member and break off his romantic relationships with young women in the area.

The next day, the Medford Mail Tribune ran the headline “J.F. Hale Given Neck Tie Party.”

The Klan had only arrived in Oregon about a year before as part of a nationwide Klan revival. And in Oregon, many of the organization’s main targets were white.

Professor Darrell Millner of Portland State University’s Black Studies program says Oregon’s Klan didn’t focus on Blacks because there weren’t many Black residents in the state. “You couldn’t build a movement against a population that was so small and non-threatening in Oregon.”

Professor David A. Horowitz of Portland State University wrote a book about Oregon’s Klan in the 1920s. He says the KKK at that time used slogans like “100 percent Americanism” to stir nationalism, bigotry and fear of immigrants.

“They wanted to purify the schools by having the schools teach American patriotism,” Horowitz says. “They supported immigration restriction laws. They wanted to clean up urban corruption that they attributed to Catholics and Jews.”

But that didn’t mean Black people were safe from Klan attacks.

“The Klan represented a frightening threat to people of color, all colors, Blacks especially,” Millner says, noting that in the 1920s Black business owners in Oregon City and Salem received threatening letters telling them to leave town.

In Jacksonville, a Black resident became the second victim of the Klan night riding attacks. Arthur Burr had served a short sentence for prohibition violations. Upon his release in early April, hooded men took him to a secluded area, strung a rope around his neck, and hoisted him into the air three times. Local newspapers reported that when the attackers let Burr go, they fired their guns and threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave town.

The Klan struck again about a week later when they kidnapped Henry (sometimes listed as Harry or Sam) Johnson. Johnson was reported to be of Mexican heritage. Like the other victims, the hooded men briefly hung him before releasing him with the threat to leave town. According to newspaper reports, the Klan targeted him as a local chicken thief.

Newspapers around the country picked up on the story of Klan attacks, calling them the “Oregon Outrage.”

“The peace-loving people of Oregon have suddenly lost their minds... and now believe in mob rule and lawlessness.”
The Outlook, 1922

At the urging of the Portland NAACP and Jewish leaders, Oregon Gov. Ben Olcott issued a proclamation condemning the violence. Within days of the governor’s message, Medford and other cities around the state passed ordinances banning masks in public.

Historian Jeff LaLande estimates there were about 600 Klan members in Medford at the time, including many among the local police ranks. “There were also many, many others who never joined who were strong supporters and believers in its mission,” he says.

Weeks passed, but local authorities didn’t file charges. Eventually, the governor stepped in, assigning the state attorney general to take over the case.

That summer, secret indictments were issued against six men. They included a former police chief, an ex-minister, a former county jailer and business owners.

An additional 16 blanket indictments were issued for John Does. The U.S. Department of Justice even got involved.

A series of trials were set for the following year. In March 1923, the first trial ended with an acquittal. All other charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. No one was ever convicted.

Oregon Experience’s next documentary will examine the history of “Oregon’s Klan in the 1920s: the Rise of Hate.” It premieres on OPB-TV at 9 p.m. March 14, and online at watch.opb.org or on the PBS Video App.

“Oregon’s Klan in the 1920s: the Rise of Hate,” a new Oregon Experience documentary will premiere on OPB-TV at 9 p.m. March 14, and online at watch.opb.org or on the PBS Video App.
“Oregon’s Klan in the 1920s: the Rise of Hate,” a new Oregon Experience documentary will premiere on OPB-TV at 9 p.m. March 14, and online at watch.opb.org or on the PBS Video App.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.