Henderson County, Kentucky



Mayor E. L. STARLING and members of the Henderson City Council had backbone. At a time when masked and hooded men throughout the South were wreaking mayhem ranging from mischief to murder, the city fathers had the courage to take a stand against the marauding group that had sprung up in Henderson County.

The year was 1868, two years after a number of Confederate veterans had formed a "social club" called the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee. By the summer, the white-robed and sheeted figures were frequently appearing on the streets of this city after dark and committing illegal acts.

Late local newsman/historian Jack HUDGIONS noted that some citizens initially approved of the Klan but even they concluded that it would be best to "curtail the secret order."

On July 27, three years before the U. S. Congress would crack down on the activities of the KKK, the Henderson officials passed an ordinance levying heavy fines on anyone wearing masks or other disguises in the city and ordering not only the police - but also private citizens to make sure the ordinance was obeyed.

In conjunction with that law, STARLING issued a stinging proclamation against Klan Activities. It's evident the KKK had argued that is intent was only a little harmless fun with its masks and horns and howling.

"I answer," STARLING said, "that such exhibitions and unseemly, annoying, and mischievous for they have been accompanied and mischievous for have been accompanied more than once with the display of weapons and the utterance of threats against those who are entitled to the protection of law …"

In response to those KKK members who evidently had maintained that they were merely enforcing "contracts for labor," Starling said local laws already governed those concerns and Klan interference was far more apt to cause fearful workers to abandon their contracts, "leaving numberless fields untilled and crops unharvested."

STARLING predicted that if the group persisted, some of the "best citizens" would move to other locales and individuals and businesses that wee contemplating moving to Henderson would "be" deterred from doing so."

The mayor said if the organization were permitted to operate here, it would draw highwaymen and other "cowardly villains" who, taking advantage of the right to mask themselves, would commit robberies and murder.

He urged members to "lay aside forever your masks, make no more parades upon the streets and alleys of the city, and show yourselves supporters of the law…

"But if you will not do this, it will be my imperative duty to see the observance strictly enforced…"

Additional police were hired and a former Klan member provided city officials with a list of active Klansmen here.

The organization soon announced one final parade. They marched through town to the area near the old south end fairgrounds, fired their guns and declared the local KKK dead. But the announcement of its death was premature.

HUDGIONS writes that in spite of the law and efforts to enforce it, the group remained active for years and at the pinnacle of its covert powers "almost controlled the election polls."

And there's intriguing speculation that a later mayor, unlike the Klan-shunning STARLING, not only approved of the robed group but was a KKK leader.

Reprinted with permission
Progress Edition, The Gleaner, Saturday, Monday 30, 1996
Written by Judy Jenkins

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS