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Racisms

The Klan’s Enemy No. 1 

by | Mar 6, 2022

I’m originally from Biddeford, Maine, so I grew up hearing the story of the Battle of the Bridge. If you’re not familiar, in 1924 the KKK tried marching into Biddeford from neighboring Saco and were greeted by what was reported as “knife wielding Frenchmen.” Not to be deterred, the KKK then attempted a different route. This choice found the Klansmen soon turning tail yet again after being confronted by Irish Catholics throwing bricks from windows — referred to at the time as “Irish confetti,” one of the greatest phrases in the history of language. 

The KKK has a long and storied history in Maine. Much of this history is similar to the Battle of the Bridge: locals rising up to beat back bigots by any means necessary. But the KKK didn’t lose all of its battles. For example, a year earlier the Klan took part in restructuring the government of Portland, shifting power away from “hyphenated Americans” to a wealthy, white and unaccountable elite. Their victory even made national news, The New York Times reporting in September of 1923: KLAN WINS VICTORY AT PORTLAND POLLS; Organization Puts Through New Government Plan for the Maine City.

Last summer Portland created a charter commission to examine the structure of city government and suggest changes that will eventually be the subject of a city-wide vote. The commission is examining many of the facets of Portland’s government, including those influenced by the KKK. And so the history of the KKK in this state is in the zeitgeist again. Whenever this happens, a particular idea floats to the top: in Maine, the KKK was primarily an anti-Catholic organization.

The thing about this idea is that it’s wrong all over the place. Instinctively, we know this. We all have a common understanding of the primary focus of the KKK. For example, the first blockbuster movie was a 1915 film called Birth of a Nation, and in that film the KKK were the heroes. If you don’t know who the white-women-raping villains of the film were, I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t the Catholics. 

But what about Maine, specifically? Well, in Not a Catholic Nation, Mark Paul Richard’s book detailing the history of the KKK in New England, he mentions a Klan official’s letter to the Catholic Bishop of Portland after the 1923 victory. It read, “Hereafter no niggers, Catholics or Jews will ever hold office in Portland.”

I gotta tell you, if a bigot goes to the trouble of seeking you out to tell you you’re on a list of people they hate, and you’re not first on that list, well, you’re just not first on that list. 

Of course, there are bigger problems with the idea that the Klan was primarily anti-Catholic. First off, it implies that in Maine, even the worst racists aren’t actually racists. It also pulls focus from the larger context. We like to think of the KKK as a kind of random aberration. The truth is that white-supremacist groups are inevitable in a racist culture, and the culture here in Maine has frequently been equally or more racist than the KKK itself.

In 1912, when the Black people living on Malaga Island were torn from their homes, thrown into asylums, their buildings torn down and graves dug up, it was not by order of the KKK. It was by order of the governor. In 1976, Maine State Rep. Gerald Talbot won the Place Names Battle, changing the names of Nigger Road, Nigger Hill, Nigger Head Island and various other similarly named places throughout the state. Those places were not named such by the KKK. They were named by local and state governments. 

In other words, a Klansman wouldn’t need to dust off the ol’ hood and fire up the cross to scare Black people out of a neighborhood if that neighborhood already had a street named Nigger Road. And he sure as hell can’t burn Black folks out of a house the governor already had torn down.

As of the most recent census, Maine remains the whitest state. Nationally, Black people are incarcerated in state prisons at almost five times the rate of white people. In Maine, it’s a more than 9:1 Black-to-white ratio. Home ownership in Maine is higher than national averages for every racial and ethnic group except for Black people. Black people in Maine own homes at a rate more than 12 percent lower than the national average. Black poverty rates in Maine are three times white poverty rates, and in Portland, Black poverty rates are four times white poverty rates. 

Perhaps a more accurate statement is that the KKK in Maine has always hated Black people more than anyone else, but they were often able to focus their efforts elsewhere because state institutions were so frequently doing their work for them better than they ever could, and with far longer-lasting effects.

 

Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at racismsportland@gmail.com.

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