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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

That the district attorney's final resting place is seemingly lost forever is a sad, yet fitting tribute to Nelson's legacy. Over time, Nelson's brave battle against the hooded terrorists was forgotten. Time watered down the Klan's crimes so that most chroniclers of its rule in Orange County stressed its members weren't the night riders of the South, but rather misguided citizens who didn't do much more than burn a couple of crosses and organize a few rallies. "These were not violent men," wrote Warren C. Bowen in a 1991 remembrance for a Fullerton publication. "They sought little more than to preserve the life they thought should typify the USA and suburban Southern California; to have a peace and law abiding community."

Even those who fought the Klan didn't think much of Nelson.

"I never did feel that [he] was too solid and steady as to his approach to administration as a district attorney and a law-enforcement agent," said Albert Launer, city attorney for Fullerton during the Klan's reign, in a 1968 interview for Cal State Fullerton's Center for Oral and Public History. Launer and others had stood up against the Klan-majority council in both Fullerton and Brea and helped to get O'Hanlon out of jail without any charges. "I'm possibly talking a little bit too plain, but there wasn't too much depth to the fellow."

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

He proceeded to paint Nelson to his interviewer as a henpecked milquetoast, someone who needed others to show him how to run the office. But, ultimately, Launer acknowledged Nelson—as the most high-profile opponent of the Klan—had to face them largely alone.

Nelson did "meet the issue pretty squarely," he concluded. "It took him courage to take the stand that he did."

This article appeared in print as "Klanbuster: Ninety years ago, the KKK tried to take over Orange County—only to encounter DA Alexander P. Nelson."

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