The Franco-American immigration to Maine and other parts of the United States—fueled by the job opportunities provided by the industrial revolution—must have been a challenging feat in and of itself. The hardships they faced, establishing themselves in a new place and maintaining their own cultural identities, were made even greater with the revival of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s.
After World War I, the political and social scene of the United States began to trend toward more nativist values and ideologies. Across the country, the Ku Klux Klan pushed their agenda into the political sphere by backing white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant candidates—in step with their cries for the country to be “100 Percent American.” No state was immune from the KKK and Maine represented a fertile ground for their growth. The influx of Franco-Americans providing the majority of the mill workforce did not go unnoticed.
By 1923, the Klan organized its first public parade in Milo, Maine. It was the KKK’s first parade in New England and the first ever in the United States to happen during daylight hours. Among the other groups targeted, they also set their focus against Catholicism, stirring up old rivalries with Irish Catholics as well as the Franco-American community.
The following year, the Klan became a central issue in Maine politics, especially with the gubernatorial election of 1924 between Republican candidate Ralph Brewster and Democrat William Pattangall. Pattangall took a strong anti-Klan stance, even trying to appeal to the Democratic National Convention to oppose the Klan. Brewster’s strategy, however, was to not publicly denounce the Klan and focus the election on other political matters, even after they voiced their support for him.
In cities such as Lewiston-Auburn, Pattangall received a wide array of support from local Franco-Americans. This was a population that previously voted conservatively, but this election saw a rise in Democratic support. The Klan publicly opposed Franco-Americans for their ethnic, religious, and labor associations. Even though Brewster won, the election illuminates the way Franco-Americans sought to combat this racism and nativism with their votes.
Between 1924 and 1925 the Klan reached its peak of political influence and members in Maine and much of the northeast. During this time, Maine had the largest Klan presence in the region with over 150,000 members statewide; it also had the largest percentage by total population in the northeast. Soon after, the decline in membership was dramatic: it fell to 61,000 in 1926 and was down to approximately 3,000 in 1927. By 1930 the number was down to 226 people.
A similar type of politics would emerge again in 1926 during a special election for Maine’s U.S. Senate seat. This time the Klan placed its support behind Democratic candidate Fulton Redman. Franco-Americans would again cross party lines and vote for the Republican Party in order to vote against the Klan.
By the late 1920s, the power and influence held by the Klan had dramatically declined. This was due in part to a growing public understanding and disapproval of hate campaign tactics, as well as internal Klan financial struggles and subfactions. By the 1930s, the once large group had almost disappeared, if not completely vanished.
Despite the back and forth between political parties, it was through these trials that Franco-Americans discovered they could manifest their values through the ballot box.
Thanks for Reading!
This post was written by Erin Best. It was produced by Rhumb Line Maps and the University of Maine’s Franco-American Program in March 2021. We would like to give a special thanks to the Bicentennial Grant that made this possible.
Title Image Citation:
Photo courtesy of University of Maine Orono.
Writer — Erin Best
Editors — Ben Meader and Emily Meader
Media Sources — Library of Congress, Maine Historical Society, Milo Historical Society, University of Maine Orono
— on the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Maine
Chase, Chris. “A Brief History of the Ku Klux Klan in Bath.” Coastal Journal, 25 Aug. 2016, pg. 5, digital.olivesoftware.com/olive/ODN/CoastalJournal/shared/ShowArticle.aspx?doc=MTCJ/2016/08/25&entity=Ar00502&sk=97865732.
Best, Erin. (2018). “Only a Passing Idiocy”: The Ku Klux Klan in Maine State Politics. In BSU Honors Program Theses and Projects. Item 411. Available at: https://vc.bridgew.edu/honors_proj/411 Copyright © 2018 Erin Best
Bouchard, Kelley. “Not Long Ago, the KKK Was a Driving Force in Maine Culture and Politics.” Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, 10 Feb. 2017, www.centralmaine.com/2017/02/05/ku-klux-klan-emergence-in-1920s-maine-offers-lessons-for-today/.