October 2017

Labor Radicalism and Repression in the Woods of Maine

Few today would be surprised that the harshest repression following the confrontation in Greenville was not against the right-wing paramilitary organization but against members of the IWW.

by Tyler Cline

The recent confrontations between white supremacists and anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia are the latest in a series of clashes in the wake of Donald Trump’s election between the forces of growing right-wing extremism and their left-leaning opponents. Even in a seemingly staid state like Maine, the Ku Klux Klan and other right-wing groups have increasingly made their presence known. In the wake of Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville, we must be especially aware of the dangers, historical and contemporary, posed by the alt-right.

White supremacist groups are not a historical anomaly in Maine, as the state once saw the rise of a large, politically active, and paramilitary-tinged Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. This movement successfully influenced the state’s politics, including the election of a sympathetic governor in 1924, and engaged in campaigns of repression against ethnic minorities and labor radicals. Some of these labor radicals, organized under the umbrella of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), defied the Klan and set an example of resistance for their spiritual successors today.

In September of 1924, the Maine Ku Klux Klan was jubilant. Its favored candidate for governor, Republican state senator Ralph Owen Brewster, had ridden into office on the largest turnout in the history of Maine elections. His opponent had declared “that the Republican victory was a distinct victory for the Ku Klux Klan.”[1]

With estimates of its secretive membership ranging from 40,000 to 150,000, the Klan found a receptive audience in the state willing to hear its anti-Catholic conspiracies and engage in midnight acts of terror against its enemies.

Seven months prior to Brewster’s election, on a cold morning in February, the Klan had shown that its efforts extended well beyond the electoral sphere. It engaged in what the Portland Press Herald called a “drawn battle” with predominantly Franco-American Catholic lumbermen organized with the Industrial Workers of the World in the small town of Greenville.[2] The Klan’s efforts to expel labor organizers through intimidation reflected the confluence of ethnicity, ideology, and material conditions that animated their work in the state.

With estimates of its secretive membership ranging from 40,000 to 150,000, the Klan found a receptive audience in the state willing to hear its anti-Catholic conspiracies and engage in midnight acts of terror against its enemies. Its authority was built upon painting Catholic political involvement and labor unrest as part of the longstanding machinations of the Pope and his “political machine.”

An important mouthpiece for the Klan in the state was its newspaper, the Maine Klansman Weekly. From its pages, Klansmen railed against Catholic efforts to educate their children in parochial schools, promoted causes like temperance and the Protestant doctrine of reading the Bible in public schools, and attacked prominent Catholic political and social figures. Bishop Louis S. Walsh of Portland, a vocal opponent of the rising Klan movement in Maine, was an important target of the Klan’s vitriol. One Klansman called Walsh a “pompous-minded churchman, gander-like, [who] spat and sputtered his diatribe” when he condemned the Klan as a bigoted movement in 1923.[3]

IMG_0575-page-001
“Masthead,” Maine Klansman Weekly, Nov. 8, 1923, 4, Maine Historical Society.

Walsh was the subject of abuse from the Klan upon their declaration of victory in a local Portland election in 1923, as he received a telegram that read:

Dear Bishop: — Perhaps you have noticed that no Catholics got elected in the recent election in Portland. It is the 18th place in New England that the Klan has kept Catholics from holding office. Hereafter no niggers Catholics nor Jews will ever hold office in Portland. We begin a big drive in Saco this week.[4]

The Klan’s aggression towards minority groups and behavior that supposedly threatened the social cohesion of Maine made it a popular force that proved capable of influencing elections.

One of the groups standing in the Klan’s way was the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW in many ways held the polar opposite of the Ku Klux Klan’s conservative worldview. As historian Patrick Renshaw writes in The Wobblies: The Story of Syndicalism in the United States, “the IWW planned to combine the American working class, and eventually wage earners all over the world, into one big trade union with an industrial basis, a syndicalist philosophy and a revolutionary aim.”[5]

The IWW’s syndicalism sought the formation of worker-operated and democratically-organized industrial organizations, a replacement of the capitalist economic order that nevertheless stood apart from, and in competition with, Marxist conceptions of radical change. By 1924, the IWW had passed its peak as a force for radical labor. Internal divisions over Russian Bolshevism and the rising tide of pre-depression capitalism all served to blunt its effectiveness and limited its membership. The same wartime hysteria that empowered the Klan and other nativist movements hampered the IWW’s ability to organize and indeed led to some of its leaders’ imprisonment and deportation.

Labor radicalism like that espoused by the IWW was one of the threats that the Maine Ku Klux Klan saw itself as arrayed against.

At the same time, as the conflict in Greenville proved, it remained an important organizational force for laborers and a thorn in the side of capitalistic society. Indeed, labor radicalism like that espoused by the IWW was one of the threats that the Maine Ku Klux Klan saw itself as arrayed against. In its “Klansman’s Creed,” published in an issue of the Maine Klansman, the Klan condemned “unwarranted strikes by foreign labor agitators” and supported the need for “a closer relationship of capital and labor.”[6] As the confrontation in Greenville would show, the Klan’s attack was not limited to print.

The “Battle of Greenville” was rooted in this ethno-religious and economic conflict in Maine during the early-twentieth century. The standoff began on February 4th after Greenville’s selectmen ordered IWW organizers to leave town, an order the Wobblies refused. Robert Pease, the chief organizer of the IWW in Greenville, when asked why the organizers were being opposed, declared that it was “because we want good wages, 8 hours a day in the lumber camps and clean linen in our bunks. The day of the old logging camp and the lumberjacks is about over with.”[7] Pease’s successes worried the lumber camp’s proprietors, who claimed that he and his fellow organizer “[had] succeeded in instigating some dissatisfaction…it is said that some of the operators are careful not to hire men who have been infected with the I.W.W. virus.”[8]

IMG_0568 2-page-001
“Political Cartoon,” Maine Klansman Weekly, Dec. 6, 1923, 6, Bishop Louis S. Walsh file, Diocesan Archives, Diocese of Portland, Portland, ME.

The Ku Klux Klan built its reputation for vigilantism and intimidation in Maine on threats against minority communities and the maintenance of a conservative order in Maine, and its efforts in Greenville were no different. A local paper reported that “the latest story is that the Ku Klux Klan is backing up the selectmen” who attempted to have the organizers expelled and have “told the organizers that they must leave town or be ejected.”[9]

Pease mocked the Klan and its support for the capitalist order in Greenville, saying “we are going to stick, and if the Klan starts anything, the I.W.W. will finish it. The slave drivers, the Great Northern Paper Company and [the] Hollingsworth and Whitney [paper mill] people do not want us here, but we are too strong for them.”[10] Pease also declared that most of the lumbermen in the IWW camps were French Catholics, a further sting to the Klan’s efforts. Backing up Pease’s claim of strength, the Piscataquis County sheriff reported the arrival of IWW men from local camps and that he expected “several hundred” within the day.

Opposing the IWW, “Klan members are organizing and the K.K.K.’s leaders have not given up the idea of forcing the I.W.W. men to get out of town.”[11] The town supported the Klan, echoing modern connections between right-wing extremists and the police state. The town elite refused to allow Pease and his men to stay in local boardinghouses in an effort to enforce its expulsion order. Pease rebuffed the town again, with the Press Herald stating that he planned to “walk the streets and [his men] would build bonfires to keep from freezing.” The situation died down the next day, as Pease and the rest of the IWW left Greenville and returned to the lumber camps.

Few today would be surprised that the harshest repression following the confrontation in Greenville was not against the right-wing paramilitary organization but against members of the IWW. Pease and three others were put on trial for conspiracy, with Pease and two of the others convicted and sentenced to up to two years of hard labor in state prison on March 22nd, 1924. The trial had been the scene of some farce, as thirty-seven Wobblies marched through Dover-Foxcroft, seat of Piscataquis County in which Greenville was also located, and into the courthouse, only to find that the trial had been delayed a day and that their demonstration had been for naught.

While the Wobblies were sent to prison, the Ku Klux Klan remained a vital force in Maine politics.

The IWW members “appeared to be somewhat disappointed upon learning that their supposed comrades would not be placed on trial today.”[12] It was also reported that the Wobblies “were said to be lingering about the village and officials are keeping close watch of them.” At the trial the next day, “none of the three men appeared much disturbed when sentence was passed and smiled as the deputy sheriffs took them from the court room.”[13] Pease was reported to have encouraged the other Wobblies gathered in the courthouse, telling them, “good luck, boys, keep the ball rolling.” One of the others replied, “You bet we will – they can’t stop us.”[14]

While the Wobblies were sent to prison, the Ku Klux Klan remained a vital force in Maine politics. In 1924, the Klan campaigned hard for Ralph Owen Brewster, a Republican state senator from Portland. Brewster’s attacks on public funding for private religious schools, such as the parochial schools in Franco-American and other Catholic communities, made him a favorite politician of Farnsworth and the rest of the Klan. Brewster’s own ties with the organization are cloudy, as he often denied being a member but never denounced the organization’s support for his gubernatorial bid.

KlanPlotsCartoon-page-001
“Political Cartoon,” Maine Klansman Weekly, Nov. 8, 1923, 4, Maine Historical Society.

Brewster’s opponents in the GOP primary, his Democratic opponent, William Pattangall, and the sitting governor, Percival Baxter, all attempted to attack the Klan’s support for Brewster, yet he was swept to victory in September 1924 by a record-setting margin. Pattangall, speaking after his defeat, claimed that his candidacy was “defeated by a combination of religious intolerance and blind partisanship that Maine will not long endure—the rule of the Klan.”[15] The Klan did not long endure, as infighting hampered its organizing efforts while the anti-Klan wing of the state Republican Party worked to wrest control from Brewster and his allies. But its legacy has lived on in the state.

Despite Maine’s reputation as an idyllic Vacationland, it has been and continues to be the site of fierce ethnic rivalry, political repression, and vigilantism.

The Ku Klux Klan’s rise in Maine and its clash with the forces of labor radicalism are important facets of the state’s history. Despite Maine’s reputation as an idyllic Vacationland, it has been and continues to be the site of fierce ethnic rivalry, political repression, and vigilantism. These were not isolated incidents, or events that can be consigned to the dustbin of history. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was fueled by anti-immigrant and racial rhetoric, which has legitimated the resurgence of hate groups in Maine and across the country.

The Klan’s legacy in the state has far outlasted the movement’s 1920s heyday. From its support for long-lasting electoral reforms in Portland that stripped ethnic minorities of political influence to the racist rhetoric of the current governor, racialized and exclusionary rhetoric has long held sway in Maine. Trump’s right-wing populism earned him one of Maine’s electoral votes and brought him within three percentage points of winning the state outright. His election threatens the social fabric of the state, which still contains vulnerable ethnic minorities. It demands an organized, proud resistance dedicated not just to Trump’s apocalyptic vision, but to the realization of a better world for all.

The mantle of opposition epitomized by the IWW’s resistance in Greenville has been taken up by today’s Left across the country, a necessary antidote to stem the tide of right-wing extremism unleashed by Trump’s election. The radical optimism and resilience of people like Robert Pease and Heather Heyer in the face of state and extralegal oppression should be a source of inspiration in the days to come.

tcclineTyler Cline recently completed his MA in history at the University of Maine. His work focuses on nativism and the intersection of religion, ethnicity, and nationalism in Northeastern North America.

Notes

[1] “Largest Vote in History of Maine Elections,” Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME), Sept. 10, 1924, 1.

[2] “K.K.K. and I.W.W. Wage Drawn Battle in Greenville,” Portland Press-Herald (Portland, ME), Feb. 5, 1924, 1.

[3] L.M., “A Reply to Bishop Walsh’s Attack on the K.K.K.,” Maine Klansman Weekly (Portland, ME), Nov. 8, 1923, 4.

[4] Telegram to Bishop Walsh, Bishop Louis S. Walsh file, Diocesan Archives, Diocese of Portland, Portland, ME.

[5] Patrick Renshaw, The Wobblies: The Story of Syndicalism in the United States (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1967), 21.

[6] “The Klansman’s Creed,” Maine Klansman Weekly (Portland, ME), Nov. 8, 1923, 8.

[7] “K.K.K. and I.W.W. Wage Drawn Battle in Greenville,” Portland Press-Herald (Portland, ME), Feb. 5, 1924, 1.

[8] “I.W.W. Activities Excite Greenville,” Bangor Daily Commercial (Bangor, ME), Feb. 4. 1924, 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “K.K.K. and I.W.W. Wage Drawn Battle in Greenville,” Portland Press-Herald (Portland, ME), Feb. 5, 1924, 1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “I.W.W.’s Invade Town at Trial of Comrades,” Portland Press-Herald (Portland, ME), March 20, 1924, 1.

[13] “Pease Urges Boys to Keep Ball Rolling,” Portland Press-Herald (Portland, ME), March 22, 1924, 3.

[14] Ibid., 1.

[15] “Largest Vote in History of Maine Elections,” Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME), Sept. 10, 1924, 1.

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