Birthday of the Klan: The Tulsa Outrage of 1917

By Randy Hopkins–



The front page of the Tulsa Daily World from Saturday, November 10, 1917, (The Gateway to Oklahoma History, www.gateway.okhistory.org)

 

Originally published in Chronicles of Oklahoma, Volume 4, Winter 2019-20


On November 10, 1917, a birth announcement for the “Modern Ku Klux Klan” appeared in a front-page headline of the Tulsa Daily World. The Klan’s birth pains were colorfully described by the newspaper’s managing editor, who had just witnessed the “Tulsa Outrage”—the kidnapping and torture of seventeen union organizers. The day would cast a long shadow, darker for the likelihood that the midwives of the birth included some of the then most powerful Oklahomans.

The imprimatur of atrocity began with Governor Robert Lee Williams. Few men’s talents have better matched their opportunities. Born and raised in Alabama, Williams migrated to Oklahoma in 1896. Beginning as a railroad lawyer, his interests soon ran to banks, mining, insurance, cottonseed oil, and land, which he operated as a post-Civil War plantation owner.[1] Brilliant and driven, Williams’s attention to detail was such that the Daily Oklahoman’s managing editor defied anyone to find one instance “wherein a single department head ever slipped anything through and over ‘Our Bob.’”[2] His skills came with a blistering tongue, bad temper, and an aggressive manner. He was intolerant of those who disagreed with him and little short of abusive with his family. These negative descriptions are given by his admiring biographers.[3]


A dominating presence at Oklahoma’s Constitutional Convention, Williams became the state’s first supreme court chief justice. From these positions, he campaigned to curtail black suffrage and promote the interests of his second love, the state’s Democratic Party.[4] When he finally captured the governorship, however, he was pained to be a “minority” winner in both primary and general elections. In the latter, the Socialist Party that Williams despised took 20 percent of the vote.[5] By the end of Williams’s term, the Oklahoma Socialist Party would cease to exist.[6]