Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Searching for the Truth About the Ku Klux Klan in Fullerton in the 1920s, and The Banality of Evil

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cal State Fullerton conducted an Oral History Project where students interviewed residents of Fullerton who had lived here since the beginning, whose stories might shed light on the history of this place.

Many of these interviews were transcribed and bound into two large hardback collections that anyone can check out from the Fullerton Public Library. But there are a handful of interviews that you have to try a little harder to find. One of these is an interview with Albert Launer, a former city attorney, that was conducted in 1968. The subject of this interview was the Ku Klux Klan.

This interview is NOT in the library’s general collection like the others. Rather, it is behind a locked glass case in the Launer Local History Room in the library, which happens to be named after Albert Launer. You may not check out this interview. Rather, you must first know that it exists, and second ask the employee of the local history room to get it for you. You must read it right there in the local history room. You cannot check it out.

Thankfully, in researching the history of Fullerton, I discovered this interview. I am a little disturbed that it was this difficult to find. To me, this suggests a suppression of information and a fear of the past. I do not fear the past. I fear that, if we don’t understand our past, we are likely to repeat the mistakes of those who came before us. In the interest of truthful history, I will summarize the interview I read, which you can read too, in the local history room.

The picture that Albert Launer paints of the Ku Klux Klan in Fullerton differs from the stereotypes we might have of the Klan in the south. Klansmen in Fullerton were not necessarily uneducated “rednecks.” They were on the City Council, they were judges, police officers, teachers, local business owners. They went to church. For a time, the Klan was a powerful civic and cultural force. And the Klan was not limited to Fullerton. Launer recalls when Fran Richardson ran for California governor in 1924, he was officially endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, and he won. I will quote a somewhat lengthy section from Launer’s interview, because I think it gives insight into the makeup of the Fullerton Klan in the 1920s:

“There were two groups in the Klan as I now recall it. One of them was a church group, a school group. They were tied in with the activities around what now represents Plummer Auditorium [Superintendent Louis Plummer was a member of the Klan] and its directives toward good morals and good culture. This group was represented by the WCTU [Women’s Christian Temperance Union] results [Prohibition]. They felt that you must preserve and protect these youngsters. They opposed dancing, and were against exposure of any kind. The whole school concept was the sort where the parents turn the children over to the teachers and the teachers must be pure as the dickens. If they wanted frolic at all, they had to get out of town to do it. They were a law enforcing group, not realizing that they’d never get anywhere with this type of stuff behind the Klan and its reputation.

We had this other group, mainly oil workers who were seeking an opportunity to be part of the enforcement agency. They were good workers who worked ten hours, prior to that twelve hours a day. My first work in the oil field was hoeing and in a year’s time I was up in the garret for twelve hour shifts. But there was a good industrious class among them. And then there was the riff-raff among them. The Klan picked up, so far as I could see, the better part. Many of these fellows in the Klan I had met when I entered the Masonry in 1918.

And so, the Klan had two different ideologies or objectives. Some of them felt they could use the Klan to improve and protect (not so much improve as protect) youth and the purity of the community. They didn’t use the church as they use it today, either. There was fundamentalism that, so far as our church is concerned, is lost today. The Klan was apparently presented to the prospective members as an agency through which you could keep this community growing safely and morally, in the right direction.”

This mentality reminds me very much of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil. In her 1963 work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she describes the thesis that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal. She writes, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

In light of this, I can’t help but think of current events. Three of our current city council members are facing a recall because evidence suggests that they tried to cover up a murder committed by Fullerton Police officers. If you were to meet these men at a political “meet and greet” you would not think they were evil or sadistic. They are painfully ordinary men. When they tried to cover a crime committed by a city employee, a cop, they were probably doing what they felt was “normal,” protecting their own, protecting the city’s reputation. But as more and more details have come to light, the actions of these “ordinary” men seem, frankly, evil. This explains the protest and the public outrage.

Taking a broader perspective, why aren’t more Americans outraged that out country is currently involved in at least three wars? Probably because most people blindly accept the thesis that, whenever the U.S. goes to war, it is the right thing to do. It is justified. It is normal.

As I look back at Fullerton’s history, which is filled with racism, discrimination, and other injustices, I can’t help but think that the people committing these “crimes” were not sadistic devils. They probably had potlucks and went to church. They worked normal jobs. They had families. When viewed in this light, Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil is both insightful and frightening. The only solution I can see to this is for people to look more carefully at cultural and political values they take for granted, lest we become complicit in things that will make future generations ashamed, like the Ku Klux Klan.

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