Alexander P. Nelson Was the Klanbuster

Ninety years ago, the KKK tried to take over Orange County—only to encounter the district attorney

By spring, this klavern was ready to announce itself. On April 12, it sent an anonymous letter to an Anaheim hotelier that he should leave Orange County immediately—or else. Days later, Klan members attempted to raid a distillery run by Latinos in Inglewood but got in a shootout; when the fracas was over, one person—a Los Angeles sheriff's deputy who was also a Klan member—was dead.

Southern California's district attorneys snapped into action. Los Angeles County DA Thomas Woolwine ordered a raid of the Klan's Southern California offices, in which the area's membership rolls were obtained, including more than 200 names in Orange County—the first version of the List. The following day, while Nelson was in Los Angeles to procure the membership rolls from Woolwine, two Klan members entered his house and warned Nelson's wife to tell him to "lay off this Ku Klux Klan investigation. If he doesn't, something is going to happen."

Nelson was unfazed. "I want to play fair," he told the press. "Some of these members perhaps joined the Klan without realizing what its activities would be. . . . We have had no untoward [KKK] acts committed in this county." He acknowledged that "the principles of the Klan as outlined by that organization [are] truly American," but nevertheless, he was "absolutely opposed" to the group because of its "methods" of taking the law into its own hands. The List wouldn't be made public, but Nelson would keep a copy and use it if necessary.

Alexander Nelson (left) with law enforcement holding a Klan robe captured during a raid on KKK headquarters in 1922
© Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission
Alexander Nelson (left) with law enforcement holding a Klan robe captured during a raid on KKK headquarters in 1922
William Starbuck, Fullerton pioneer, in a rare photo of him not wearing a Klan robe
Courtesy Fullerton Public Library
William Starbuck, Fullerton pioneer, in a rare photo of him not wearing a Klan robe

The ploy worked; within a week, dozens of Klan members went to Nelson's office to claim they had withdrawn from the organization. When that didn't work, Nelson wielded the List; on May 9, Nelson revealed that a private investigator who authored a report stating the KKK was a good organization was, in fact, a Klan member. "I know and feel certain that there are many members of the Klan [who] do not stand for nor would not sanction mob violence," Nelson opined in a statement published by the county's dailies, "but whatever their individual feelings or principals may be in this regard, they are associated with an organization that does sanction mob violence and does put out threatening letters."

Two days later, the Klan sent out death threats to four African-American pastors in Los Angeles, vowing to kill them and their congregations unless they left money at a secret location in Seal Beach. They also planned a lynching (euphemistically referred to in seized correspondence as a "party"), but leaders called it off at the last minute, feeling Nelson's heat. Within a week, Nelson outed Arthur E. Koepsel, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party Central Committee and a prominent Santa Ana attorney who planned to face off against Nelson in the 1922 elections, as a Klan member and went to the Orange County Board of Supervisors to disclose that dozens of county workers were Kluckers. The board acted swiftly, unanimously passing a resolution on May 17 that "membership in such an organization is not compatible with the duty to which county employees owe to the public as servants of the public."

Round One went to Nelson. Soon after, the national Klan leadership ostensibly dissolved all California chapters, and Nelson sailed to an easy electoral victory in the fall. But the Klan wasn't done: It went underground and planned a takeover of county offices via the ballot box. In April 1923, members lit crosses in Fullerton, Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Brea and Yorba Linda. They were watching—and waiting.

* * *

On March 1, 1924, the Reverend Horace Lackey spoke before an audience of hundreds in Santa Ana. The visiting minister extolled the Klan's virtues and issued a warning to law enforcement. "People have feared the Invisible Empire because of its obscurity—but the mask is a terror to lawlessness and corrupt officials," Lackey roared. "We are fighting fire with fire. We are after big game and will use ammunition that will bag that kind."

That same night, the Klan burned a cross in front of the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Orange; soon, members would begin driving around the St. Joseph elementary school in their robes to frighten students and nuns. The Klan was riding again.

Spring elections were on their way, and the Klan was about to make a grasp for political power, publicly preaching it was on the side of white working men and families. Just weeks before Lackey's speech, a letter was sent to Brea oil officials threatening to burn derricks unless they stopped overworking workers. On March 27, just before the election, the Klan burned another cross in the hills of Fullerton where it would be visible around town.

No one knew who was Klan and who wasn't, and after votes were cast, the Klan found itself with majorities on the Brea, Fullerton and Anaheim city councils and with members on the Anaheim, Santa Ana, Fullerton and Brea school boards. Once in power, it moved to solidify dominance. In Anaheim, the Klan-majority council began forcing non-Klansmen to resign from city posts; in Santa Ana, the Klan school board members tried to do the same. When Fullerton councilman W.J. Carmichael publicly criticized the Klan's stranglehold over the city's police department, the group burned a cross on his lawn. KKK rallies were held in Anaheim, Santa Ana, Fullerton and Orange, each increasing in attendance, each lit by a fiery cross.

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