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The Legacy of the 1925 Klan Gathering in Grand Rapids

June 30, 2021

In early July of 1925, KKK delegates from 50 counties throughout Michigan came to Grand Rapids for three days of meetings. This was the largest Klan gathering ever in Grand Rapids, with thousands in attendance.

There was coverage of the Klan gathering in both the Grand Rapids Herald and the Grand Rapids Press. Let’s take a look at what was reported and what was excluded from the local newspaper coverage.

The Grand Rapids Herald published three articles. The headline of the first article read, Klan, Looking for 16,000 here today, erects tent city. The article talks about delegated from 50 counties, “numbering 6,000” on July 3rd, but they were expecting as many as 16,000 by July 4. The first article includes a large list of food and beverages needed for the gathering, along with a brief description of the program that was held, then ending with information about the July 4th parade.

The headline for the second article from the Herald reads, 3,000 Klansmen Parade in Robes Through Streets. The article included the parade route, the order they marched in, floats represented in the parade and a brief description about all the cars that covered nearby hillsides. 

There was a short 3rd article that states, “The Herald was also requested to announce that a large quantity of foodstuffs remained unused, and would gladly be given to anyone who could use it……..Neither race nor religious convictions will be considered in distributing this material.”

The two articles from the Grand Rapids Press are shorter, with most of the same information that appeared in the Grand Rapids Herald. The only new information, was the names of the KKK field delegate for Kent County, Maj. Wilbur Ryman and the women’s representative, Mrs. Maggie Elliot. 

There were a few instructive comments in the Grand Rapids Herald article, stating that there were “throngs” of people who greeted the Klan parade and that at the parade was led by a “squad of motorcycle police.” 

Now the parade began on the westside, at Lincoln Park and moved east on Bridge St. The westside at that time had a very large Catholic population and the parade would have marched past both St. James Church and St. Mary’s. The platform of the KKK was staunchly anti-Catholic, yet there was no evidence that there were detractors who showed up to protest the parade.

The Significance of the Klan Gathering in Grand Rapids

Based on the newspaper coverage, to seems clear that at least 6,000 Klan members gathered for three days in Grand Rapids in 1925. This gathering is significant and says something about the political climate in Grand Rapids at that time. Here are some reasons why we think the Klan gathering in 1925 was significant.

  1. The Kent County chapter of the KKK was the host of this Klan gathering, signifying that they must have had a large and active membership, which means that there were KKK members in Grand Rapids.
  2. The City of Grand Rapids not only provided a permit for the parade, they provide a police escort.
  3. The newspaper coverage completed omits the messages from speakers during the three days. What we do know about the 2nd wave of the KKK, is that they were anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant and anti-Black, yet there was no reporting on the Klan platform and no one from the Catholic, Jewish, recent immigrant or Black community was asked to comment on the large gathering of a White Nationalist and White Supremacist organization. (See Craig Fox’s book, Everyday Klansfolk: White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan, for additional background on the Klan.)
  4. Todd Robinson, in his ground breaking book, A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, MI, states that there was a KKK “club” based at South High, “which was considered one of the most prestigious secondary schools in Grand Rapids.” More importantly, Robinson notes that there was a 1924 Klan parade planned in Grand Rapids, but because of bad weather, the parade was postponed until the following year.
  5. According to a retrospective piece by GR Press writer Garrett Ellison, where he relies on GVSU history professor Matthew Daley, Ellison writes, “Members began arriving in Grand Rapids in the weeks ahead of July 4 and set up a tent city on the municipal outskirts near the Bridge Street hillside. Daley said mentions of “a symbol” seen atop the hill the night of July 3 suggest Klansmen fired off a cross, possibly with a matching one over Belknap, to announce their presence the next day.” Such a display certainly sent a message to the residents of Grand Rapids. 

It is important that we come to terms with this history in Grand Rapids, not only in some intellectual sense, but to grapple with the significance of the large display of White Supremacy. There was no documented opposition, which in many ways is understandable, since there were thousands of KKK members present and likely thousands more who would identify as supporters. Therefore, it could be said that Grand Rapids was the perfect place to hold a Klan gathering/parade, since White Supremacy was normalized in this community.

Lastly, we also need to come to terms with what this legacy means for what is happening right now in Grand Rapids. While there may not be many white rob-wearing KKK members in the area, the White Supremacist values are very much alive in this city. We have government officials in the city and the county that have opposed any reduction of funding for the GRPD, we have GRPD cooperation with ICE, we had a county that until recently had a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Sheriff’s Department that still cooperates with ICE, and an ongoing strategy of divestment of funding and gentrification in the Black community. Just because people aren’t wearing white robes doesn’t mean the same White Supremacist values aren’t being practiced in this city.  

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