When the Ku Klux Klan gripped Austin and the nation

Author Patricia Bernstein revives story of Dan Moody, who won the first big cases against the Klan.


The Ku Klux Klan recruited as many as 3 million Americans during the early 1920s.

Dan Moody won the first major case with teeth against the Ku Klux Klan in Georgetown.

Hate groups, historians remind us, have always been with us.

The recent deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., might have been the largest and most brazen of such American gatherings in a decade or so. However, one of the constituent groups, the Ku Klux Klan, has emblazoned a long historical scar on Texas.

At one point during the 1920s, the group was politically and socially pervasive nationwide, almost a daily fact of life. Its Austin chapter had swelled to 1,500 members by 1922. It took a determined effort by crusaders such as future Texas Gov. Dan Moody to quell the tide.

“In my lifetime, the Klan has always been dangerous,” says Patricia Bernstein, Houston-based author of the recently published “Ten Dollars to Hate: The Texas Man Who Fought the Klan” (Texas A&M Press). “And occasionally a Klansman kills someone. But the Klan as an organization has recently consisted of small groups of discredited, extremist fanatics.”

Bernstein, who majored in American studies at Smith College, once thought the old Klan could never have been an organization that millions would join.

Research proved her wrong. And a few offhand references in her work led Bernstein to the story of Moody, a Taylor native who served as district attorney for the combined Williamson and Travis counties during the 1920s. Later, he was twice elected governor of Texas, the first time at age 33, and was considered a possible vice presidential running mate for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“I was surprised that Moody seemed to have been almost completely forgotten, despite his remarkable achievement in becoming the first prosecutor in the U.S. to succeed in convicting Klansmen for a brutal assault and getting them serious prison time,” she says. “I wanted to reclaim the story of this unsung Texas hero, whose deeds, to me, are far more important and relevant to today’s world than those of the poor fellows who died at the Alamo. All Texas public school students learn about the Alamo in required Texas history courses. They should also learn about Dan Moody.”

Three stages of the Klan

During Reconstruction in the 1860s, the secretive Ku Klux Klan employed lynchings, beatings, tribunals, cross burnings and other acts of violence to terrorize and intimidate recently freed slaves and drive them from the public sphere. Eventually, unapologetic Jim Crow laws did the job of separating the races.

Inspired by racial tensions during World War I and an incendiary movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” originally titled “The Clansman,” the Klan in its second phase enlisted millions of members. They controlled whole sectors of the American business and social communities, as well as law enforcement departments and local and state government officials. They were active all over the country, not just in the Deep South, and achieved widespread power by expanding their scope to target immigrants, Catholics, Jews, Asians, Latinos, bootleggers and the morally suspect.

By the end of the 1920s, however, that Klan’s power had dissipated.

RELATED: Crews removed Jefferson Davis, Woodrow Wilson statues from UT Main Mall

In its third phase, the Klan stayed mostly underground after World War II, except for a bloody revival during the civil rights battles of the 1960s. There were the occasional appearances of a self-publicizing leader such as David Duke, but the group has only recently emerged in a more explicit form on the national scene.

Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there are between 5,000 and 8,000 Klan members split among dozens of groups that use the Klan name in some form. A recent report from the veteran civil rights watchdog group lists 130 different Klan groups. Nine of these are identified as being in Texas, which is characterized as hosting 55 active hate groups all together.

“But we have to remember that these days groups that use the Klan name are competing with, and often inspiring, other similar groups that don’t use the Klan name,” Bernstein says, citing the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, racist skinheads, Christian identity groups, neo-Confederate groups, anti-LGBT groups, anti-Muslim groups and ‘general hate’ groups. Black-separatist hate groups are yet another category identified by the SPLC, but, of course, they aren’t in competition with the white-supremacist Klan.”

The 1920s Klan

“I think some of the people who were drawn into the Klan’s orbit in the 1920s were sincere prohibitionists who believed the Klan could help in enforcing Prohibition,” Bernstein says. “They believed the Klan’s bogus promise to clean up cities and towns by intimidating, threatening and even punishing bootleggers, moonshiners, vagrants, gamblers, prostitutes and the like.”

Conservatives of the day who were scandalized by rapidly changing social and sexual mores thought the Klan would help restore traditional morality.

Only native-born, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants were eligible to join the Klan at this time, for a $10 membership fee. They called themselves “100 percent Americans,” in contrast with “hyphenated Americans.” This expansion of targets for bigotry helped the new KKK reach far beyond the former Confederacy. Historians estimate that the Klan recruited between 1 million and 3 million people at its height in the early 1920s.

In 1925 and 1926, the Klan marched en masse on Washington. In 1927, members headed to New York City for a big showdown, far away from the supposed home bases in the South.

The Klan’s grip on Austin, however, during this era was not as firm as it was in, say, Dallas, Houston, Waco or East Texas. Yet a Klan meeting hall operated on East Fifth Street, and a multi-city Klan assembly, cloaked in robes meant to provoke terror, surged up Congress Avenue to the Capitol in 1921.

David Humphrey’s “Austin: An Illustrated History” reports that Capital City Klan No. 81 claimed 1,500 members in 1922 and included among its members the sheriff of Travis County. Bernstein’s book describes Klan attacks on three men and at least one murder here. Anti-Klan lawmen were never able to identify and bring to justice whoever killed Peeler Clayton, who just happened to be driving by Klan headquarters downtown at the wrong time on the night of Dec. 15, 1921.

“In many locations the new Klan was extremely violent, attacking many whites as well as blacks,” Bernstein says. “In Dallas, for instance, a drunken Klansman bragged to a victim that he was the 67th person to be flogged at the Klan whipping post in the Trinity River bottoms.”

RELATED: A closer look at 1919 Austin racial incident turns up the unexpected

It took some time before the public began to see that the Klan was committing crime, not cleaning it up. For all the Klan propaganda about enforcing laws and protecting “pure womanhood,” many of the top Klan leaders were exposed — even arrested — for violating liquor laws. Some were also shown to be compulsive womanizers, Bernstein says, and worse.

Americans today continue to misunderstand the second coming of the Klan of the 1920s, which often acted on motivations such as petty grudges and offended honor.

“They think that, like all forms of the Klan, it was primarily racist,” Bernstein says. “When they hear the story of the attack that frames my book, people immediately assume that the Klan attacked Ralph Burleson, accusing him of conducting an illicit affair with a widow, because one member of the couple was white and one was black. In fact, both Burleson and the widow, Fannie Campbell, were white.”

Who was Dan Moody?

“Dan Moody was the polar opposite of the rogues who founded the second KKK,” Bernstein says. “He was a super-straight arrow who had worked hard from a very tender age and did not touch alcohol. But there was nothing stuffy or priggish about him.”

Bernstein describes him as both extremely bright and extremely likable with an open, optimistic outlook on life.

Moody went off to the University of Texas with one suit of clothes, one pair of shoes and $65 in his pocket. After spending two years in Austin as an undergraduate and two years studying law, he sold his gold watch to pay for the bar exam.

Once he became a lawyer, the 27-year-old was quickly elected county attorney, the youngest ever to serve in Williamson County. In 1922, he was first appointed and then elected district attorney of both Williamson and Travis counties.

At the age of 29, in 1923, he was an experienced and skilled prosecutor ready to take on the Klan in the Burleson case. Before him, other prosecutors in California and Louisiana had come close to exacting appropriate punishment, but Klansmen were no-billed by Klan-dominated grand juries, or they received probation or a fine, or their sentences were overturned on appeal.

Moody had the advantages of an anti-Klan judge, James Hamilton, and an equally anti-Klan sheriff, Lee Allen, and constable, Louis Lowe. Citizens took up a collection to make sure Moody had the resources to fight the top defense attorneys backed by the Klan.

“I suspect that Moody may have had an advantage in the Georgetown trials, since Williamson County had a relatively small population compared with some of the urban counties where Klan prosecutions were attempted,” Bernstein says. “For example, efforts to indict Klansmen in Austin had been unsuccessful. Williamson County locals probably had a pretty good idea who was in the Klan, even though membership was supposed to be secret.”

Judge Hamilton allowed Moody to question prospective jurors fairly ferociously about whether they were members of the Klan, Bernstein says, and Moody was determined to keep Klansmen off his juries.

“During the trial, Moody was on his toes and highly effective,” she says. “One observer, Jessie Daniel Ames, described him as being ‘drunk with fight.’ He had a skillful way of turning defense questioning against the defense and making them look ridiculous.”

As posed in Bernstein’s book, the story of the first of several trials related to the case, which transfixed Williamson County, was as dramatic as any Hollywood courtroom drama, with a last-minute surprise witness for the defense who could have sunk the prosecution’s case. Moody persevered and succeeded.

After his celebrated win, Moody was the man to beat for statewide office.

MORE: 24 years ago, Austinites mooned Ku Klux Klan at Texas Capitol

In 1924, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson defeated the Klan candidate for governor, running as a surrogate for her husband, Jim “Pa” Ferguson, who had been impeached and removed from office in 1917 and therefore wasn’t allowed to run for office again in Texas. At the same time, Moody was elected Texas attorney general.

The Fergusons, however, were extraordinarily corrupt, using the Texas Highway Commission and other methods to rake in cash.

Moody decided to run for governor against Ma in 1926.

“She swore that if he beat her by one vote in the primary, she would immediately resign,” Bernstein says. “He beat her by over 125,000 votes, almost avoiding a runoff, but, of course, she didn’t resign. When he whipped her thoroughly in the runoff, she, out of sheer spite, pardoned his first Klan defendant, who had not yet served even a year in prison.”

Remembering Moody

Not everyone has forgotten Moody. Nor do they agree on the impact of his heroism.

History-minded folks in Williamson County recently erected a statue of Moody in Georgetown’s courthouse square, not far from a 100-year-old image of a Confederate soldier, installed during the Jim Crow era, when many such public symbols of ongoing white supremacy appeared across the South.

Despite the bid for balance, not everyone is impressed by the Moody monument.

“Well, it came about without our input,” Jaquita Wilson, a leader in Georgetown’s African-American community, told a public radio reporter in June regarding the Moody statue. “No one asked us. When you walk around this courthouse, there’s no mention that there were Latinos, that there were Native Americans, that there were African-Americans here. Just white Georgetown.”

RELATED: Williamson museum plans statue of Klan-fighting prosecutor

When Moody was elected governor, the youngest that Texas ever had, journalists all over the country celebrated his courage and success in fighting demagoguery as well as his victory over the Klan. But that was not the end of the story.

“In my book, I have tried to be entirely honest about Moody’s later life,” Bernstein says. “He, like many people, became more conservative — even reactionary — as he got older. He eventually turned against Roosevelt and the New Deal, perhaps partly because he often represented the oil and gas industry in court, and Texas oilmen bitterly resented increased regulation of business, the growth of the labor movement and fixed wartime prices for oil and gas. Moody came to be one of the leaders of a movement known as the Texas Regulars, which opposed Roosevelt.”

Bernstein says Moody, like many other white politicians in Texas, was particularly appalled by the 1944 Supreme Court ruling in Smith v. Allwright, which ended the whites-only Democratic primary in Texas. Moody proposed, in response, that the party revert to using a convention system, instead of a primary, to nominate candidates, the implication being — though not stated explicitly by him — that it would be easier to keep blacks out of a convention than out of a primary.

He led the fight at the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago for a plank in the national platform that would allow states to keep blacks from voting and to maintain poll taxes and segregated schools, hospitals and public transportation.

Although he fought against anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments, partly because of his lifelong friendships with those in the affected communities, his record was far from pure.

“In other words, like most white men of his time in the South — even bright, educated, ethical white men — Dan Moody was a racist,” Bernstein says. “But he was never one of the many rabid racists of his time. As a politician, he never indulged in the crude race-baiting rhetoric common to Southern politicians in those days. Like all our other heroes, Dan Moody had feet of clay.”

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