A history of hate: the Ku Klux Klan in South Dakota

Published: Aug. 28, 2017 at 9:40 PM CDT
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Most people are caught flat footed the first time they find out that South Dakota has a history with the Ku Klux Klan.

For the better part of a decade, the Klan held a strong hold on the state....with KKK chapters located statewide.

And this isn't anicent history we are talking about. There are signs even now that the Ku Klux Klan hasn't taken its eyes off of our state.

They're the kinds of pictures that stop you in your tracks.

The white robes. The white hoods. And the message they send.

At first glance you may think these pictures were taken in the south.

But each of these pictures were taken in South Dakota.

"It was statewide. Virtually every community had their Klavern." Charles Rambow is a retired history teacher from Sturgis and one of them foremost experts on the Ku Klux Klan in South Dakota.

His research began in 1970 when his mother gave him what he thought was an old choir robe to use as rags. "Well its a Ku Klux Klan initiation robe."

He still has the robe to this day. The story of how his mother came by a Ku Klux Klan initiation robe made Rambow question what he really knew about his family history. His mother told him; "Your grandmother and grandfather were both members of the Ku Klux Klan."

Rambow needed a topic for his masters thesis and the Klan's history in South Dakota was going to be it. "The Klan was here from 1921 to about 1929."

The original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan began in the 1860's in Tennessee following the civil war but fizzled out in the 1870's.

But in 1915, spurred on by the movie "Birth of a Nation" and its pro Klan message, the KKK reformed in the south and formed chapters in the north, including South Dakota. "The Klan suggested they could resolve any problem that your community might happen to have."

The Klan first infiltrated the communities of Deadwood and Lead, based off a hatred and mistrust of Chinese laborers who worked in the mines.

But when the Klan set its sights on Sturgis that the group's foothold in South Dakota.....took hold.

It's in Sturgis that Rambow's grandfather and grandmother joined the group.

This 1924 picture taken in Sturgis sends a powerful message. "So for there to be 183 Klansman in Sturgis....that was a bit of a shock."

Rambow says the South Dakota Ku Klux Klan hated not only Chinese but African Americans and Jews and especially Catholics. "It was centered on the fact that there was a Pope and the Pope held all the power."

In 1921 a Catholic priest was murdered in Lead.

The Klan marched past Catholic schools in the Black Hills, throwing rocks and scaring students.

A Catholic teacher's classroom was broken into and a message written on her chalk board. "We do not want Catholics in our community."

And as the Klan's intimidating tactics increased so did the Klan's membership in South Dakota. "Sturgis was the Key City Klan. Rapid City was the Gate City Klan. Spearfish was the Queen City Klan. Belle Fourche was the Tri State Klan."

The Klan had power in western South Dakota. "Students at the School of Mines had organized a Klan fraternity."

And that Klan influence spread west to east.

These 1924 pictures are from a Klan gathering in Sioux Falls. "The Klan was very literally moved from community to community."

The Ku Klux Klan in South Dakota faded away by 1930; a combination of the great depression and public opposition.

But Charles Rambow warns, the Ku Klux Klan has not forgotten about South Dakota. "The Klan has attempted to take over the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on at least three different occasions that I know of."

In 1987, former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke attended the rally promoting the Klan cause.

Rambow says Klan supporters also attempted to infiltrate the rally and recruit new South Dakota members in 1990 and 1992.

In 2000, Rambow's wife Susan ran into a group bikers at Sturgis wearing lapel pins with the letters "A-K-I-A". She asked one what it meant. "He said A-K-I-A stands for A Klansman I Am. There was Klansmen in front of me, there were Klansmen behind me."

Bikers wearing those pins are seen at the Sturgis rally every year.

And just three years ago, on Easter morning in 2014, homes and businesses in Hill City, South Dakota....known as the home of the 1880's Train... were blanketed with flyers entitled "What is a Klansman"....urging people to join an order called the "Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan".

"It was an organization of hate." Charles Rambow is concerned about the rise of white nationalism he is seeing and is worried history is now repeating itself in the worst possible way.

He is two generations removed from active Ku Klux Klan members in his own family and says decades later their legacy is still tough for him to reconcile. "Yes my grandmother and grandfather were good people but they should have never been involved in the Ku Klux Klan."

Charles Rambow tells me he doesn't believe the Ku Klux Klan has any active chapters in South Dakota right now.

But he does say there are white supremacists in the state who hope to re-establish the Klan here; so far they have been unsuccessful.