When the Ku Klux Klan proclaimed itself the law and marched through downtown Dallas in 1921, the Dallas Morning News editorial staff launched a war against the powerful organization that lasted three years, leading to a boycott that almost destroyed the newspaper.
The evening of Saturday, May 21, 1921, began like any other Saturday night on Main Street in Dallas, TX. People milled through the streets, the men wore suits with sometimes loosened ties or bowties, women strolled in short-sleeved dresses, and children in sailor suits with short pants walked alongside their parents. But at 9 pm on this Saturday night, the streetlights were suddenly extinguished. A man stepped out of the Majestic Theater building carrying an American flag in the flicker of the relit lamps. He also wore the garments of the Ku Klux Klan.
The streetlights signalled hundreds of others in the tell-tale garments to appear. The Klan march began in silence except for the signs they held, which shouted “All Pure White,” “All Native Born,” and “We Stand for White Supremacy.”
For forty-five minutes, the police stood at intersections holding back traffic to ensure that nearly the 800 Klasman could continue their march uninterrupted in front of thousands of onlookers. The message was clear: the Ku Klux Klan ruled Dallas.
The next day, Alonzo Wasson, chief of the Dallas Morning News editorial page, read the reports about the parade and examined photographs from the night before. Then he penned an editorial that denounced the marchers as exemplars of lawlessness. Wasson may have doubted the editor and owners of the News would support excoriating the Klan. Less than a year removed from the Red Summer of 1919, racial terror permeated the country, including approximately 25 riots, 97 lynchings at the hands of the Klan. The News never spoke out despite the violence, lawlessness, and national support for the Klan, whose membership swelled to over 1 million. Without consulting anyone, Wasson’s editorial “Dallas Slandered” appeared in the paper on Tuesday.
“Their sense of superior righteousness…” Wasson wrote, “has a serious significance on the minds of men who cherish the community’s good name and have the intelligence to understand how well-designed that exhibition was to bring it under reproach. It was a slander on Dallas.”
George Dealy, president and general manager of the News had not read “Dallas Slandered” before printing. When Dealy read Wasson’s surprise editorial, he admonished Wasson, telling him to never again start a new editorial stance before conferring with him. However, the Klan’s actions that Saturday night was a step too far for Dealy. Under his leadership, the News had long advocated civic planning in Dallas. The News’ 1899 campaign led to the formation of the Dallas Civic Improvement League. Dealy’s commitment to making Dallas a model city included refusing ads he considered dishonest or immoral, even though the newspaper lost revenue. Despite his admonishment of Wasson’s surprise, Dealy launched an editorial war against the Klan that almost destroyed the paper.
It was not that Dealy or even Wasson voiced objections to the Klan’s belief in white supremacy. Previously, Dealy, Wasson, and the News remained silent as Dallas instituted poll taxes for Black citizens, revised electoral law that paved the way for white-only voting, and amended the city charter to enforce segregation. Even Wasson’s editorial confirmed that white supremacy was not at risk. However, the Klan’s appointment as the law was so egregiously offensive to the Dallas Morning News team that it could not stand. As Wasson wrote, “…the men who marched the streets of Dallas Saturday night made themselves exemplars of lawlessness. They seek to initiate a reign of terror. They will not succeed, except over the minds of the humble and the ignorant.” Dealy agreed: the Klan was terrible for business, and its violent acts would harm Dallas’s growth and reputation.
Despite Wasson’s assertion that only the ignorant would join the Klan, many professionals were Klan members or supporters. Businessmen in prominent Klan leadership roles sat on the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, and membership counted judges, lawyers, ministers, doctors, bankers, journalists, and public utility executives among their ranks. By 1923, Klan members or Klan-supported candidates controlled the courthouse, law enforcement, and City Hall. Dealy’s early fears for Dallas came true: the Klan was the heart of the business community and the law.
Despite the potential consequences, Dealy and staff continued to report local and national Klan violence. The News dug into their stance that the Klan taking the law into their own hands – in Dallas or anywhere – was unacceptable in a modern democracy.
The paper went a step further in March 1922, condemning religious leaders who embraced the Klan’s lawlessness and defended their actions from the pulpit. Protestant ministers reacted angrily, with public letters objecting to the News’ coverage of the Klan, furious that the paper didn’t give them credit for the Klan’s “good” work.
In response, the Klan used its strength against the newspaper. The organization spread rumors that Catholics and Jews controlled the News, groups of people they viewed as degenerate. Dealy defended the paper with a series of advertorials explaining that the News was there to promote the image of Texas, encourage economic growth, and be a prominent voice of journalism in the nation. One advertorial reassured readers that, “The men and women who work on the News are persons of substantial character and ability. . .”
The News refused to accept that the Klan could break the law with impunity. They covered kidnappings, beatings, and other violent acts committed by the Klan that police refused to investigate. An editorial in April 1922 declared, “The News is but stating an indisputable fact in saying that the community has lost faith in the integrity of its police department due to the feeling that many members of the department are under a secret constraint which deprives them of their freedom in developing clews [sic] which may lead to the exposure of members of the Ku Klux Klan.”
In the 1922 Democratic primary, the News opposed every Klan candidate. The day before the election, the News issued editorials attacking candidates who “work in darkness rather than in light because their deeds are evil” and encouraged readers to vote against anyone with “a masked loyalty to a secret aim.” When the Klan candidates won almost across the board, the News was forced to concede that the election was “striking evidence of the political strength of the Ku Klux Klan in Dallas County.”
The campaign against the newspaper intensified. The Klan wanted to bankrupt the News. Newsagents reported threats against them if they carried the paper. Klan supporters cancelled their subscriptions, and Klan sympathizers withdrew their advertising. Those businesses that continued to advertise in the News faced boycotts.
The cumulative effect was devastating: Within two years, circulation declined by 3,000. The News struggled to pay the expected 8 percent dividends to the major shareholders. By the end of 1922, shareholders complained about the loss of more than $200,000 and demanded greater oversight and new editorial leadership. They also insisted that Dealy and the staff end their negative coverage of the Klan.
Dealy ignored the shareholders’ demands and continued to expose the Klan’s activities while bleeding readership and cash. In 1923, the paper was sold, bringing an infusion of money, allowing the News to continue its coverage of the Klan.
The battle between the News and the Klan came to a head in the summer of 1924 during the Democratic primary runoff between the Klan candidate, Felix Roberston, and the former governor’s wife, Miriam Ferguson. Dealy’s son Ted sent a memo to his father urging further courage. “Now is the time for us to REAP THE BENEFITS of the seeds we planted two or three years ago,” he wrote.
Dealy agreed. The News launched a vigorous editorial campaign against Roberston. Ferguson won the statewide race and served as governor (although Dallas voters chose Robertson by a two-to-one ratio). Robertson’s loss was a blow to the power structure of the Klan. Also wounded by the tenacious coverage of the Klan’s extreme violence and lawlessness, support for the Klan declined. Over the next several years, membership dropped so dramatically that only 1,200 of the 13,000 members of Dallas Klan No. 66 remained.
Ultimately, George Dealy, Alonzo Wasson, and Dallas Morning News staff helped create an environment where it was more difficult to commit egregious acts of hate without consequences. As Wasson wrote in 1921, “This is the twentieth century, not the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth century, those who call themselves a Ku Klux Klan [will not be tolerated by] men who understand what is the cornerstone of democracy.”