Hate and power on the Iron Range

This picture of an anti-immigrant KKK float from a July 4, 1920 parade in Gaines, New York, shows that the Klan was active throughout the North in the 1920s. (PHOTO: kcox5432, Flickr CC)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

As the holiday commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. drew to a close last week, we were reminded that the hate he fought remains among us.

In the Mesabi Iron Range city of Virginia, someone distributed flyers touting messages of white supremacy and racial resentment. The leaflets appeared in Britt and Embarrass as well, apparently as part of a loosely coordinated campaign by the Ku Klux Klan.

It might be tempting for younger people to think this is a new outcropping of a more hateful society. But the KKK has operated in Minnesota and on the Iron Range for almost a century. In the 1920s, the KKK was practically a civic organization on the Iron Range, one dedicated to suppressing new immigrants, Catholics, and Jews.

The newspapers didn’t talk about it, but everyone knew it was there.

Historian Richard Hudelson, in his book “By the Ore Docks: A Working People’s History of Duluth,” explains that the KKK held an informal majority on the Hibbing City Council during parts of the 1920s. The organization recruited using white protestant supremacy, but was also successful as a means of powerful mining interests to overtake successful populists and stave off labor unions. This according to Paul Lubotina’s 2015 dissertation for Northern Michigan University, “The Struggle for the Control of Hibbing.”

This scene played out in other Iron Range communities, really, anywhere that Catholic immigrants congregated in large numbers. You don’t have to go far back in local history to find examples of ethnic discrimination against members of families now considered “white” just a few generations later.

The rise of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor movement — a heavily immigrant-backed organization — helped turn the tide. Gov. Floyd B. Olson famously fought the Klan in Minneapolis, a stance that spread across the state. As the oppressed immigrant workers gained new political strength, the KKK was rightfully kicked to the curb. Here in Hibbing, the United Units — lead in part by brothers Art and Ben Timmerman, served as a means to wrest control of the city council from powerful and often hateful interests in the 1930s.

But the Klan, just like hate itself, has never be fully expunged from our society. Even in the 1980s, when my family ran a small junkyard out in Zim, my father told me about a stranger passing through. He sat in the lobby of the shop, pulled out a sword and offered knighthood in the KKK to anyone who wanted it. I am proud that my father declined.

I am also proud that leaders on my beloved Iron Range are taking a stand against this kind of hate. In the days that followed the delivery of the KKK flyers in Virginia, Mayor Larry Cuffe, City Councilor Nevada Littlewolf and the rest of the city council quickly signed a letter condemning the action. They will make a public statement at the next city council meeting.

We live in a free country. People are free to love or hate, and speak their minds. But freedom comes with responsibility. That responsibility includes speaking out when one person’s free speech violates the vital democratic notions of equality and respect among citizens.

Hate is a tool used for division and, most importantly, control. Who benefits from hate? Certainly, not the worker. Not the poor man or woman. Not the child. Hate is a desperate grab for dwindling power. Hate isn’t for winners. Rather, hate will lose. The only question is how much pain we must inflict and endure before we strike it down.

The only honest power is love. It is our best tool and the surest means to unite us. Congratulations to the city of Virginia for taking a stand. So should we all.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


Comments

  1. David Gray says:

    My grandfather told me about how the KKK marched through Aitkin in their white sheets back in the early 1920s. He was a young man working in the butcher shop on main street. I went back to the Aitkin Historical Society and my grandfather’s memory was spot on. The march took them out to the Aitkin County Fairgrounds where they held a rally.

    • This sort of thing was happening all over Minnesota at the time. It was the same time of the lynchings in Duluth and of an anti-immigrant backlash in many rural communities. But what’s remarkable is how mainstream it was for a time, again especially in the ’20s. Al Smith’s candidacy for president was also a major rallying point for the Klan.

  2. Joe musich says:

    Thanks Dr Brown

    Can you tell me more about the evolution of this person and link ….”….This according to Paul Lubotina’s 2015 dissertation for Northern Michigan University, “The Struggle for the Control of Hibbing.”….
    It was a fascinating read.

    • It is a great read. I’ve not yet communicated yet with Lubotina, but I’m working with the same subject matter for my book about Victor Power. I’ll be culling his work for ideas.

  3. Thanks for the article! This article reminded me as well, one of the reasons I left the Iron Range in 2000 only to recently move back. I was raised on the range and there were a small number of folks that thought this way, certainly a small minority. I often thought of it more as just giving people a hard time, as we do up here – making jokes about people’s heritage, but it usually brought people together rather an apart; certain scenes from “Gran Torino” come to mind as a helpful analogue. However there was an instance I remember where I knew it went farther than that and it made me want to leave, so I did – for about 15 years. Recently moved back, some years past I realized moving out for that reason alone would have been the most awful thing I could do, not because staying here would have been a protest or anything like that, but because leaving thins the herd of like-minded folks and its simple math that the percentage of others increases. What I have learned is I should be the person you think I will respect in 20 years.

    One of the things I find charming, is that folks up here used to (and still do, maybe not as much) a thick skin, so much that we test it more as relationships develop – it can be a channel for honesty as well, when needed.

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