kept his secret more than 30 years.
As secrets go, what Fort
Worth businessman Earnest O. (Soapy) Gillam held under his hat
all those years was not that dark. But when he did what he did, it
could have cost him his life.
Despite Prohibition, most of the decade of the 1920s deserved its
Roaring ‘20s label. Bootlegging flourished and crime spiked sharply
in the aftermath of World
War I. The Dow Jones average rose, as did women’s hemlines. The
high crime rate and other social issues led to the rejuvenation of
an old organization called the Ku Klux Klan.
It may have been a secret society, but the KKK quickly achieved mainstream
status in Texas. Many judges, sheriffs
and police chiefs who wore black robes or badges by day donned white
robes and hoods at night.
| Ku Klux Klan
shown standing to the Wharton
1908 photo courtesy Wharton County Historical Museum
officials in Texas needed Klan backing
if they wanted to get re-elected. And first-time candidates sought
the KKK’s endorsement if they were not already members. The Klan grew
so large in Dallas County,
no building in the city could accommodate their meetings.
Though later claiming he did so with reluctance, Gillam joined the
“It [the KKK] had a telling effect on criminals in the state,” he
later recalled, “and I never knew of a single instance where the Klan
was responsible for a criminal getting anything other than his just
C.A. Sellers, who wrote Gillam’s privately published biography, does
not give the date, but sometime in the early ‘20s, the Klan staged
a large conclave near Austin.
Gillam attended, standing with scores of others around a burning cross
as the white-robed men argued over who to endorse for this race or
Disgusted not only by the selections being made, but by the fact that
many non-Klan members had been allowed to attend a supposedly closed
meeting, Gillam got up on a table used as a speaker’s platform and
lambasted the KKK. (It needs to be emphasized that his objections
stemmed mostly from what he viewed as procedural wrongs, not lofty
issues such as freedom of religion or speech.)
Still, his critical remarks sent the crowd into a frenzy that degenerated
into the next closest thing to a riot. When someone pulled the cross
down, Gillam found his way back to his car in the dark and drove to
his hotel in Austin.
Ensconced in his room, he telephoned the Austin Statesman and leaked
all the details of the Klan meeting to the newspaper. After taking
a lot of calls from men who agreed with what he had done at the Klan
gathering, he told the hotel operator not to put through any more
calls and went to bed.
About 2:30 a.m., someone knocked loudly on his door. Pistol in hand,
Gillam moved to the door in the dark, cracking it just enough to see
some men he quickly realized had not come to his hotel room in the
middle of the night to praise his anti-Klan stand.
“The first one of you who tries to force his way in here will be filled
with lead,” Gillam’s biographer reconstructed what he said. The men
did not try to get into the room, but they desperately urged him not
to reveal to the press what had transpired at the KKK meeting earlier
that evening. Then they left.
By 6:30 a.m., the Capital City daily had hit the streets with the
story of the Klan endorsement rally. As Sellers wrote, “Several top
Klansmen resigned, and Gillam, along with many of his friends, believe
the incident was the beginning of the end of the Klan’s reign in Texas.”
But the book revealing the story did not come out until 1958, long
after the Klan was anything but an ugly memory in Texas.
also helped in ridding the state of the Klan. When a Klan organizer
requested an audience with the Texas Grand Master, Andrew L. Randell
listened to his pitch. After hearing the Klan’s case, Randell refused
to join or give the hooded order an endorsement.
Despite Randell’s stand, other
were joining the Klan, falling for an argument that it was a “de facto”
Masonic institution. Finally, Randell sent all the lodges
in the state a letter denying any connection between the KKK and Masonry,
adding, “nor will the tying of the Ku Klux Klan to Masonry
by claims of Masonic membership be permitted or tolerated for one
unsung hero in the Klan’s defeat was A.R. Stout, a young attorney
elected to the Legislature from Waxahachie
“We had many stormy and hectic sessions during the 39th Legislature
in 1925,” he later recalled. “There were 57 Ku Kluxes in the House
and they held together like a vice. They could often pass or defeat
measures through the secret means that they had become masters at.”
But Stout, along with colleague S.B. Farrar, another representative
from Ellis County,
“were instrumental in putting the end to the Ku Klux Klan in Texas
by making it illegal for anyone to appear in public in a hood or mask
or any type of disguise.”
© Mike Cox
March 1, 2005 column
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