- Associated Press - Sunday, June 21, 2015

TRINITY, N.C. (AP) - Major Bruce Craven wore a lot of hats during the first half of the 20th century, when he was widely regarded as Trinity’s most revered citizen and community leader.

But was one of those hats a white, pointed hood?

Craven - whose many titles included mayor, school board member, educator, lawyer, author, public speaker and U.S. Army judge advocate - once carried another title which has largely slipped through the cracks of Trinity’s storied history: Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan for all of North Carolina.

The revelation seems out of place for Craven, whose grandfather, Braxton Craven, founded Trinity College (now Duke University) and who made a name for himself as a respected school superintendent elsewhere in the state. He made such an impact in his hometown that Trinity High School’s first yearbook was dedicated to him in 1939, and the award that’s annually presented to the school’s outstanding graduating senior is named for him.

How could such an esteemed man of letters have been associated with those three scarlet letters - KKK, historically symbolic of hatred and racial violence - and yet still have his reputation unscathed today?

Dan Warren, a Trinity historian who’s very familiar with Craven’s legacy - and who even owns a portrait of Craven and a scrapbook put together by Craven’s mother - had never heard about his connection to the Klan until contacted for this story. There was no mention of the Klan in that Trinity High School yearbook, nor does it ever come up when the prestigious Bruce Craven Cup is presented at graduation.

And no, Craven’s mother didn’t put any KKK newspaper clippings in her son’s scrapbook.

Nonetheless, that Craven joined the Klan cannot be disputed - newspaper articles from 1921 make that abundantly clear - but it’s equally clear that time has somehow erased that chapter of his life from the vaunted Craven mystique.

And that’s too bad, really, because as it turns out, one of Craven’s finest moments was when he burned his white hood and robe - figuratively, if not literally - and stood up to the mighty Ku Klux Klan.

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Ironically, it was during Craven’s eight-year term as mayor of Trinity (1914-1922) that he joined the KKK.

In today’s society, of course, a town mayor joining the Klan while in office would certainly spell his political death. A century ago, however, the organization did not yet have the overwhelmingly negative reputation it has today, one of racial hatred and violence.

“I think it’s difficult for us to understand now the mindset that still existed in the early 1920s about how laudable the Reconstruction-Era Klan was,” says Felix Harcourt, a historian and faculty member at Columbus State University whose primary area of expertise is the Klan.

“This is a time when people really thought the Reconstruction-Era Klan had saved the South, that it had been a crucial part in the redemption of the South from the misrule of carpetbaggers, scalawags and African-Americans. Most historians in the 1920s would’ve taken that view.”

According to Harcourt, it’s that view that led another North Carolinian, Thomas Dixon, to write his controversial novel, “The Clansman,” which served as the basis for the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation.” That film, in turn, helped fuel the regrowth of the Klan, which the film portrayed as a heroic organization.

By 1921, the Klan had seen a significant uptick in its membership, and it was against that backdrop that Bruce Craven - Trinity’s mayor and a well-known North Carolinian, as well - was invited to join the KKK in April 1921. Furthermore, Craven asserted, the organization’s national leader - Imperial Wizard William J. Simmons, of Georgia - appointed him to be North Carolina’s Grand Dragon, the top Klansman in the state.

The Klan’s purported fraternal nature also might’ve appealed to Craven, a proud Mason.

“Fraternal organizations were huge back then,” Harcourt says. “Everybody was an Elk or a Mason or a Shriner, and the Klan was presenting itself as another one of these fraternal organizations, taking on the mantle of this laudable organization. I would think that would play a big part in Craven’s willingness to join.”

Furthermore, Craven claimed he’d been told several prominent North Carolina lawmakers had joined the Klan.

Regardless, the organization began to thrive in North Carolina. By August 1921, the state had local Klans in 26 cities and towns, including High Point, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Lexington. It’s not clear how much Craven had to do with the Klan’s growth in the state, but he was certainly influential enough that he likely played a fairly significant role.

Another factor, though, was the Klan’s “kleagle system” of recruitment, devised by Imperial Wizard Simmons and a couple of public-relations professionals he hired to help him boost membership.

“The three of them working together institute this new means of gaining members, which to some extent turns the Klan into a pyramid scheme of sorts,” Harcourt says, explaining that paid recruiters - or “kleagles” - got half of every new member’s $10 membership fee.

“So it’s an incentivized system - the more people you convince to join, the more each kleagle is going to make, and this works at each level of the hierarchy. Above the kleagle is the King Kleagle, and he’ll take $3 out of that $10, and the last $2 gets sent back up to the imperial leadership.”

Craven quickly became disillusioned as he discovered the Klan’s agenda appeared to be more of a money grab than anything noble. By early August 1921 - less than four months after joining the Klan with such high hopes - he would publicly denounce the organization as “a failure and a fraud.”

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Craven formally severed ties with the Klan on Aug. 5, 1921 - effective at high noon - in a lengthy front-page article in the Greensboro Daily News.

Under the bold headline “Grand Dragon Craven Disbands Ku Klux In This State,” he declared the KKK “is an organization engaged exclusively in collecting initiation fees under false pretenses, without any legal standing in the state, and is in my opinion a failure and a fraud.”

Then, utilizing his authority as Grand Dragon for the final time, Craven stated, “I now declare the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina disbanded and abandoned.”

The rest of his statement was a lengthy, pull-no-punches discourse on what a sham the Klan had turned out to be: A “mess of lies.” An “empty promise.” A pretentious “flubdub.” A “joke” and “an evil thing.” He suggested the Klan freely and knowingly admitted “thieves and bootleggers.” He called the Klan’s ritual “the worst jumble of bad English and asininity that I have ever met,” and declared its newspaper, The Searchlight, to be “an insult to any intelligent man.” He even poked fun at the misspelled words that appeared in an anonymous, pro-Klan letter published in the Daily News.

Craven admitted to feeling foolish for being taken in by the Klan’s lies.

“They caught me and used me, and probably laughed at it,” he said, “but they made the mistake of thinking I would quietly lie down and take it.”

By denouncing the organization so publicly and so harshly, Craven clearly did not “lie down and take it.”

He also took the opportunity to praise the High Point chapter of the Klan, which he described as “an organization of good citizens” that he had largely recruited himself.

“We refused admission to the wrong element, and as a result the organizer (Simmons) started a war on me in which he lost, but which nevertheless put me in bad with the whole force of money changers, to the end that one or the other of us had to quit.”

That’s exactly what Craven did - he quit - but the battle was not yet over.

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Predictably, Craven’s diatribe against the KKK wrinkled the robe of the Imperial Wizard, who - just like Craven - did not lie down and take it.

Simmons fired back immediately, labeling Craven a traitor and a disgruntled Klansman who was mad that he hadn’t actually been appointed North Carolina’s Grand Dragon.

“Bruce Craven is not an officer of the Ku Klux Klan and never has been,” Simmons said, adding that the Klan was still alive and well in North Carolina, despite Craven’s declaration to the contrary.

“He seems to have a peculiar sense of humor, for he has just as much authority to declare the Ku Klux Klan of North Carolina disbanded as I have to declare the Knights of Columbus of America disbanded,” Simmons continued.

That led to a fierce back-and-forth between the two men - via the press - with Craven claiming he possessed paraphernalia, oaths, records and other documents that could prove his case. He also threatened to expose Klan secrets.

“I have not told a hundredth part of what I can tell,” he warned.

As the war of words escalated, Craven came under fire from other Klansmen across the state. One labeled his attempt to disband the order “another wild fulmination of Craven.” North Carolina’s King Kleagle called him a liar. The state’s 26 local Klans planned a parade in Durham to rebuke Craven and demonstrate the absurdity of his words.

Simmons, the Imperial Wizard, felt the heat, too. Craven was one of three former Klansmen across the country to denounce the Klan in prominently placed newspaper articles, and all three stories were picked up by other papers, making it a hot national story.

Those stories ultimately prompted a congressional hearing to investigate the Klan and its allegedly shady actions. The hearing, held that October, also became a national story, and although newspapers reported Craven was expected to testify, a transcript of the hearing indicates he did not.

Craven’s name did come up, however, during the Imperial Wizard’s lengthy and sometimes melodramatic testimony, in which he reiterated his strong feelings about Craven.

“Julius Caesar had his Brutus, Jesus Christ had his Judas, and our great and illustrious Washington had his Benedict Arnold,” Simmons testified. “Sir, I can state to you that I can enter the fellowship of all three of those, because I have suffered in my soul as a result of the treasonous and treacherous conduct of traitors.”

One of those traitors, he said, was Bruce Craven.

In hindsight, the hearing did little to damage the KKK’s reputation, and the publicity actually boosted the Klan’s recruiting efforts.

Several weeks later, the Klan would take one final shot at Craven, when an effigy of Craven was found hanging from a tree near Columbia, S.C., where a KKK rally had been held. Beside the wax effigy, a sign read, “Bruce Craven, N.C.: We would hang you, Bruce, but you are not worth the rope it would take to do it.”

Back home in Trinity, though, Craven resumed his post-Klan life as a revered citizen until his death in 1941. Nearly 75 years later, that’s the image that remains - the good guy wearing the white hat, rather than the bad guy wearing the white hood.

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Information from: High Point Enterprise, http://www.hpe.com

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