Earlier this fall in Portland, an unattributed mural of Gov. Paul LePage draped in Ku Klux Klan regalia appeared on a city-sanctioned street-art wall along the city’s Eastern Promenade Trail. A chain of provocative epithets written in capital letters accompanied his caricature: “RACIST,” “HOMOPHOBE,” “MORON,” “GOVERNOR.” An eye-catching red line traversed his job title.
The mural came on the heels of LePage’s now well-publicized claims that the state’s drug problem is the fault of men of color from out of state. Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling swiftly ordered the mural be removed.
Historically, as the argument goes, Maine has been on the right side of race politics. Maine, of course, entered the Union as a “free” state in 1820. Today, this narrative — marked by an imagined post-racial America in the “Age of Obama” — gets taken up under the “race-isn’t-an-issue-here” mantra. But the truth is that Maine’s history is riddled with the strains white supremacy New Englanders generally reserve for the South.
The Maine chapter of the KKK inducted more than 150,000 mostly male members from 1923 to 1925, a figure that at the time accounted for nearly a fifth of the Maine’s population and dwarfed KKK membership in Louisiana and Alabama, according to a 1930 Washington Post article. By 1930, however, the Maine Klan had all but disappeared.
The history of the Klan in Maine has rarely been told. Perhaps its omission is attributable to the challenge it poses to the way Maine chooses to narrate its historical and contemporary engagement with white supremacy. Against the backdrop of Maine’s dalliance with the KKK, LePage’s racially charged rhetoric helps to explain to a degree how LePage’s politics found legitimation in the electorate.
Rise of the Maine Klan
The Klan emerged in Maine around 1921, and it remained relatively disorganized until early 1923. A number of historians trace the official founding of the Maine chapter of the KKK to February 1923, when it held a meeting at Portland City Hall.
The Portland Press Herald reported that 4,000 women and men gathered to listen to a sermon delivered by King Kleagle F. Eugene Farnsworth. An additional 1,000 people were turned away at the door because of a lack of space. Farnsworth gave a rousing speech to the city’s Anglo community in which he vituperated Catholics, hyphenated Americans and immigrants.
The KKK’s message to its constituency was simple: non-Anglo, non-Protestant “aliens” should be forcibly expunged from the state. To meet its objective, the Klan began sending threatening letters to Jews, Catholics and African-Americans living in and around Portland.
One such letter was obtained by the Press Herald and reproduced in 1923: “N——- you have until Saturday, December 9, 1922, to pack and go … N——- than Klan gives but one warning. This is it … Your DOOM is already sealed … By order of the High Klokard of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Though the Klan’s antipathy for Portland’s black residents was undeniable, the fraternal order generally focused much of its attention on targeting Catholics — especially French-Canadian Catholics, who at the time were not considered fully white.
Between 1840 and 1930 nearly 1 million French-Canadians left Quebec for the United States, with many settling in New England. Most landed in urban centers such as Lewiston and Biddeford with the hope of securing employment in a lumber or textile mill. French-Canadians quickly began to supplant the Irish as the predominant source of cheap, exploitable labor.
In Lewiston, for instance, French-Canadians constituted nearly half of the city’s residents by 1920. In January 1924, the Maine Klansman reported that “if anyone walks down Lisbon Street in Lewiston, he will certainly think that he is in Quebec, or an alien land, instead of the United States. French is spoken nearly everywhere.”
Throughout the mid-1920s the Klan enjoyed deep influence in local and state politics.
In 1923, more than 7,000 Klansmen helped to overhaul Portland’s governance structure by supporting a referendum to replace the elected office of mayor and alderman with an appointed city manager. The Klan put its political weight behind the initiative to dilute what it perceived as the creeping political influence of Catholics, Jews and African-Americans in city politics.
The New York Times described the election as “the first real entrance of the Klan into New England politics and its result shows its hooded knights to be much stronger in Portland, at least, than had been generally expected.”
After a victory at the polls the Maine Klansman noted that “Portland citizens are, for the first time in decades, represented by a Protestant city government.” Shortly after the Klan’s electoral triumph, Portland’s Roman Catholic Bishop, Louis Sebastian Walsh, received a typed letter from Klan headquarters: “Perhaps you noticed that no Cathlics [sic] got elected in the recent election in Portland … Hereafter no n——— [sic] catholics [sic] nor Jews will ever hold office in Portland.”
Brimming with confidence from its victory in Portland, the Klan set its sights on state-level reform. In 1924, the brotherhood backed Republican state Sen. Ralph Brewster for governor. The organization endorsed Brewster after he proposed a bill intended to strip public funding of Catholic schools. Though Brewster never openly acknowledged his membership in the Klan, one of his colleagues in the Republican state committee stated that Brewster “stands by the side of the fiery cross.”
After Brewster won the election, the Klan hosted several celebratory “Klam Bakes” that drew as many as 5,000 people each. One Klam Bake was held in Trenton. The Bar Harbor Times reported that “fiery crosses were kept burning from nightfall until late in the evening. There were addresses by several speakers who pointed with pride to the election of Senator Brewster, the Klan’s candidate for Governor of Maine.”
History can’t be whitewashed
But the Maine Klan disintegrated almost as quickly as it emerged.
By the late 1920s, public support for the Klan waned. Mayors across the state began to prohibit groups looking to stage marches from wearing hoods, a maneuver explicitly aimed at preventing the Klan from organizing parades and rallies. In conjunction, many communities began to deny Klan requests to meet in their city halls, and the Klan also came under several lawsuits during this time for tax evasion. The Washington Post noted a precipitous drop in Klan membership from 61,136 in 1926 to 3,168 in 1927. By 1930, only 226 Mainers were registered with the Klan.
Today, a chapter of the Militant Knights Ku Klux Klan is registered in Maine, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, but how many members it has isn’t known.
Though short-lived, Maine’s intense dalliance with the Klan demonstrates the powerful ways in which race-based nativism can be used to secure political victories that undermine the goals of creating and sustaining a multiracial democracy. Not only does the presence and deep influence of the KKK throughout the 1920s interrupt the state’s self-congratulatory narrative of racial liberalism but it also suggests that LePage’s racial and nativist politics is not anomalous.
Whitewashing a mural of LePage draped in Klan regalia should not permit us similar engagement with Maine’s history. A truthful confrontation with the Klan’s former presence in Maine should bring into relief remnants of a nearly forgotten history and inform the way we choose to construct our future.
Christopher Petrella is a lecturer in American cultural studies at Bates College in Lewiston. His work is curated at christopherfrancispetrella.net. Follow him on Twitter at @CFPetrella. He wishes to thank Dr. Mark Richard for his help in accessing the obscure resources used in the construction of this essay.