They marched and rode in open flat-bed trucks in full Ku Klux Klan regalia.
They were greeted with a mix of awe and admiration by many spectators. Meanwhile, police kept a respectful distance from the Klan paraders.
The march and parade was not staged in a rural Alabama or Mississippi city or town. It was staged right down the middle of Market Street in downtown Inglewood. The year was 1923.
The Klan was a powerhouse in Inglewood, Los Angeles and other neighboring cities. The Klan membership rolls read like a who’s who of local elected officials, law enforcement, newspapermen and business leaders.
At one point, the Los Angeles Klan membership rolls also included the Los Angeles County sheriff and Los Angeles Police Department chief. They turned a blind eye to the Klan’s reign of terror that included extortion, threats, intimidation and even murder.
Their targets were black ministers, Hispanics and Japanese-Americans. Things came to a head in 1922 with the shooting death by Klan members of an Inglewood constable. Thirty-five Klan members were subsequently indicted in the killing. They were all speedily acquitted.
Nine decades later, many Klan and former Klan members are buried at Inglewood Cemetery and other cemeteries in L.A. County. One of the Klansmen buried at Inglewood cemetery even has this written on his tombstone “a Klansman true a Shakespeare might portray.”
In the next decade, the Klan’s open and secret membership plunged. Yet its influence didn’t.
Segregation in schools, housing and some public accommodations remained ironclad throughout Los Angeles, Inglewood and other L.A. County cities. Black motorists had to tread carefully driving through white neighborhoods, while many restaurants closed their doors tightly to black patrons.
The heavy-handed Klan influence was deep and dangerous within the LAPD through the 1940s and ’50s when the mostly lily white department recruited heavily in the South and from returning southern bred World War II veterans.
Though LAPD Chief William Parker, who ran the LAPD as a dictatorial fiefdom during those years, is credited with taking the first steps toward diversifying the LAPD ranks, his shoot-from-the-lip borderline racist jibes at black leaders also inflamed tensions. That long simmering tension and violence between blacks and the LAPD came to a head with the explosion in Watts in 1965.
But one doesn’t have to hark back to Los Angeles’s Klan-scarred past to find hideous reminders of the scar of racial victimization and violence. There’s hardly a year that hasn’t gone by in which some wall, building or public facade hasn’t been splattered with racist graffiti and epithets in some L.A. County neighborhood.
That was the case again in the days after the massacre of nine blacks at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by alleged white supremacist and Klan sympathizer Dylann Roof.
Residents in Fullerton and Whittier found Klan hate literature on their doorsteps and cars. The fliers were emblazoned with the emblem “Loyal White Knights” and spewed venom and hate against minorities and President Barack Obama.
The shock of the Charleston massacre has stirred a mild soul search among some southern officials about the South’s ugly history of Klan terror. More of them have called for hauling down the Confederate flag at statehouses, debate whether to remove monuments to Confederate war heroes and have initiated public dialogues on Klan violence and the civil rights movement.
That soul search has also touched California. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that banned the sale of Confederate flags or other Confederate-related items by California state agencies. That came after one California assemblyman found that the Capitol Building store was selling Confederacy-related items.
This writer along with several other civil rights groups has launched a campaign demanding that Long Beach school officials dump the name of top Confederate general Robert E. Lee from one of that city’s elementary schools. It includes a national petition that has garnered dozens of signatures locally and nationally.
However, the debate over the Klan’s hideous history of terror and the lingering monuments that bear the names of suspect public figures with racial hate ties so far hasn’t touched Los Angeles. City officials would do well to note what prominent civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson has done to call national attention to Klan terror.
He has launched a crusade to place a marker at the site of the nearly 4,000 documented lynchings of African-Americans between 1880 and 1950. The markers will serve as both a reminder of the nation’s hideous racial violence stain and spur greater dialogue on racial violence and hatred today.
History, if anything, has shown one thing. A nation that refuses to honestly face up to and condemn the horrors of its past will continue to stumble on that past and ensure that it becomes very much the present as well.
Los Angeles’s history of Klan domination and terror is no exception. Every Klan flier or racist defacement of a public building these days is enduring proof of that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM Radio 1460 AM, Fridays at 9 a.m. and on KPFK Radio 90.7 FM, Saturdays at 9 a.m.