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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Ku Klux Klan rally at the Clark County Fairgrounds breaks records

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: June 15, 2024, 6:10am

Thousands attended the Ku Klux Klan rally at the Clark County Fairgrounds on Saturday, Aug. 23, 1924, according to The Columbian, making it the most attended event ever held in Southwest Washington, outstripping the total of every revival and Chautauqua held locally. Vancouver’s Kolumbia Klavern No. 1 had planned to capture locals’ attention by dangling the KKK icon, a flaming cross, below a biplane.

Fortunately, they recognized a flaming cross under a biplane filled with fuel was a volatile idea. Reconsidering, they decided on electric illumination. So, the biplane dangled a lighted cross when it circled above the fairgrounds at Bagley Downs. Area newspapers tell the “why” of the flight, but that’s all. Regrettably, they failed to explain several other questions: Who was the pilot? What model was the plane? Where did it take off and land? How was the cross made and rigged to the plane?

Those reporting the flight failed to answer these questions. Even decades later, the lack of information turns the flight into a historical mystery. Given the few options in those days, the most likely airstrip is Pearson Field. It was the only landing strip in Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon in 1924.

The Army controlled Pearson Field and documented every flight. Each month, the commander issued a report to the War Department identifying the use of planes, usually training or repair runs. If the Klan flight was in a military aircraft, it should have appeared in a report dated Aug. 31, 1924, several days after the fairgrounds event. Lt. Oakley Kelley signed the report, but it does not mention a “lone” flight. Hiding the flight would warrant a court martial — if discovered. But civilian pilots also used the field and might have made the flight, or perhaps came from another location. As yet, no evidence of that kind has turned up,

The entire effort would be quite a stunt, maybe a conspiracy. A biplane lifting off—or landing—with a weighty cross would be risky. It would require a very skilled pilot. In the air, it would create more drag and possibly shift the aircraft’s center of gravity. But the region had several professional fliers who might have accomplished the hazardous flight.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Ku Klux Klan, which had formed after the Civil War and later disbanded, was revived by white Protestants near Atlanta in 1915. In addition to the group’s anti-Black ideological core, this iteration of the Klan also opposed Catholic and Jewish immigrants. A growing fear of communism and immigration broadened the Klan’s base beyond the South. By 1925, when its followers staged a march in Washington, D.C., the Klan had as many as 4 million members and, in some states, considerable political power.

With 38 chapters, Washington was the Pacific Northwest’s largest Klan state. Klan officials from the area and as far away as Georgia appeared at the Clark County rally. The Women’s KKK and another Klan auxiliary, the Royal Riders of the Red Robe, also showed up. Hundreds of Oregon Klansmen crossed the Interstate Bridge with their families to participate and see the “flaming cross.” The Klan claimed a crowd of 40,000. The Columbian estimated attendance of 10,000 to 15,000. By either count, this rally would be the largest held in the Northwest.

Who might the pilot have been? There are a handful of “pilots of interest” who might have been involved with the Klan flight. Whomever it was, the pilot needed to be skilled and possess an intimate knowledge of airplane mechanics. However, naming them would be merely guessing and would darken their legacies. These details remain elusive, leaving local historians to ponder about the “who, what, how and where.”

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Columbian freelance contributor