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Alexander P. Nelson Was the Klanbuster

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

Meanwhile, DA Nelson waited for an opportunity to strike. He found it in a planned June 14 rally on the athletic field of Orange High School, one the Klan had been bold enough to advertise with announcements in the Orange Daily News. Nelson issued an injunction at the request of the school district that barred the Klan from using Orange High, declaring that school grounds couldn't be used by any "sectarian, denominational or partisan meeting or movement" per the Constitution.

The Klan fumed. It still held a rally, 1,000 strong, across the street from Orange High, the speaking platform a truck illuminated by an electric cross using red bulbs, its hellish tint illuminating the crowd. From this stand, lecturer J. Rush Bronson stated Nelson's political career was "through," that he was "headed up [the] creek, and he had better get a life preserver."

Klan leaders doubled down on public rallies, openly goading Nelson to stop them. At a June 28 rally at Amerige Park in Fullerton attended by more than 1,500 people, a guest speaker spewed anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic canards before Dan O'Hanlon disrupted the meeting by screaming, "Liar!" An angry crowd, according to the Fullerton News Tribune, planned to tar and feather him (and "some even went so far as to suggest killing him," reported the paper) before the Klan-friendly police arrested him for disturbing the peace. Nelson declined to file charges, but the Klan burned a cross on O'Hanlon's lawn anyway.

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

Two days later, the Klan held another large rally near La Habra's Mexican citrus camp. It was all a buildup to July 29, when the Klan organized an initiation ceremony attended by more than 30,000 at what's now Pearson Park in Anaheim—to this day, it remains one of the largest KKK rallies in American history. A 30-foot cross was lit, and biplanes flew above, lighted from underneath so that they appeared as crosses floating in the sky. The 1924 presidential elections were approaching, and the Klan was planning again to run candidates, both openly and in secret. The rally shocked county citizens into action—but already, Nelson was planning.

On Aug. 20, he reneged on his 1922 promise of discretion with the List and issued a statement to the Santa Ana Register that revealed the names of 20 OC Klan members who were running for political office. The Santa Ana faction of the Klan challenged Nelson the following day in an unsigned letter to the Register to "prove why [Klan members] are unworthy and unfit to offer themselves as candidates for public service" or "retract his statement."

The following day, Nelson sardonically replied that he usually didn't pay "attention to anonymous communications, of which, in my official capacity, I receive a great number," but that he'd make an exception for the Klan.

Two years earlier, Nelson had appeared sympathetic to the ostensible Klan mission of creating upstanding communities; now, he dropped all pleasantries. "In my opinion, the KU KLUX KLAN as an organization is absolutely un-American, and its slogan of 'One Hundred Per Cent American' is absolutely misleading, for the reason that the fundamental principles upon which the KLAN is founded are RACIAL HATRED AND RELIGIOUS BIGOTRY," Nelson wrote in the Register. He added that "there is no room under the American Flag for any organization which seeks to stir up racial prejudice or foster religious intolerance, and any organization founded upon such principles cannot long endure in any free country.

"The principles underlying the activities of the Klan are as old as religion itself," Nelson continued. "Such organizations were responsible for the religious persecutions and wars of the Middle Ages, and such organizations have always paved the way for bloodshed, riot and anarchy."

Nelson pushed further. Before the statewide primary election, he placed front-page blocks in daily newspapers asking, "Do You Wish This County Governed by Candidates Put Forward by the Ku Klux Klan?" and listed the names of candidates who belonged to the Invisible Empire. County voters responded; almost all the Klan-supported candidates lost, in races ranging from the Board of Supervisors to state assembly to Republican Central Committee seats.

But the DA wasn't finished. On Sept. 3, his office informed the Board of Supervisors and city councils that they could begin to erase signs proclaiming "KKK" or "KIGY" (shorthand for "Klan I Greet You") that had littered county highways and city streets for years. And on Sept. 28, he gave a lecture at the White Temple Methodist Church in Anaheim, home of the Reverend James Geissinger, who had long attacked the Klan despite threats on his life.

The List had magically appeared in Anaheim during August, galvanizing anti-Klan forces. The roll now numbered well more than the 1,000-member mark; a total takeover of Orange County politics seemed imminent. Before an audience of more than 1,600, Nelson flayed the Invisible Empire, painting it as little better than a Ponzi scheme dressed in a "clown's suit" and "based on principles which will result in its death."

"Barnum once said that there was a 'sucker born every minute,'" he cracked, "but when we look at the Klan, we are constrained to think that Barnum's estimate was extremely conservative."

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