The Klan in Florida
Although the state of Florida has promoted its image as a tourist paradise for more than a hundred years, the truth is that the state has also been a Ku Klux Klan stronghold throughout much of the 20th century.
The Klan was first organized in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee, by ex-Confederate soldiers. The first Imperial Wizard was former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forest, who disbanded the Klan in 1869 to avoid government sanctions.
The Modern Klan
The modern Klan was reborn in 1915, when William J. Simmons, an Alabama physician, led a cross-burning ceremony on Stone Mountain, Georgia. An effective promoter, Simmons played on anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Jewish sentiment to build the Klan into a formidable power. Simmons was dethroned as imperial wizard in 1922 by Hiram Wesley Evans, and by 1925, the Klan had an estimated three million members nationwide. By 1928, however, membership had shrunk to no more than several hundred thousand.
During the Depression, the Klan continued to wither away -- except in Florida, which had an estimated 30,000 members. Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, and Tampa were the most powerful klaverns.
Although Florida Klansmen continued to terrorize African Americans, they expanded their targets to include union organizers, particularly in the citrus belt from Orlando to Tampa. One of the most notorious Klan incidents in Florida history occurred in Tampa in 1937, when labor organizer Joseph Shoemaker was flogged, castrated, and tarred and feathered. Shoemaker eventually died from his injuries. Ironically, one of nine Klansmen indicted for the murder (although they were all freed) was Edward Spivey, from Orange County, who would later play a role in the 1978 re-investigation of Harry Moore's murder.
In 1939, Hiram Evans retired as imperial wizard and was replaced by James A. Colescott, who testified before Congress that Florida was the strongest realm in the nation. The national Klan was effectively put out of business in 1944, however, when the Internal Revenue Service filed a $685,000 lien against the Klan for back taxes from the 1920's. Colescott sold the Imperial Palace in Atlanta and retired to Miami.
The Post-War Revival
But in the post-war period, a Klan revival was initiated by Dr. Samuel Green, an Atlanta doctor, who formed the Association of Georgia Klan, which spread to Florida and at least six other states. On election night of 1948, the Florida Klan paraded from Lake County to Wildwood, marching through several African American neighborhoods, to show support for Dixiecrat presidential candidate Strom Thurmond and attempt to intimidate black voters.
In January 1949, Klansmen held a motorcade through Tallahassee, where newly- inaugurated governor Fuller Warren, a former Klansmen himself, denounced them as "hooded hoodlums and sheeted jerks."
After "Doc" Green died in August 1949, the national Klan splintered badly, with new, and extremely violent, organizations springing up across the South. In Florida, a plumbing contractor named Bill Hendrix chartered the Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and named himself as its head. The Klan's power grew quickly, particularly in Orange County, where its ranks included prominent lawmen, businessmen, and elected officials: Sheriff Dave Starr was a known Klansmen, as were a county commissioner and the city manager of Winter Park. Apopka and Winter Garden were particularly infested: Apopka's police chief, constable and night patrolman all belonged, as did one constable and the justice of the peace in Winter Garden. One businessman estimated that 75 percent of Apopka's male population belonged.
The "Florida Terror"
By 1951, however, the Florida Klan was at a crossroads. Harry T. Moore's Progressive Voters' League had registered 100,000 new black voters in the Democratic Party; NAACP branches were challenging Jim Crow ordinances over the use of public golf courses, swimming pools, and libraries; and the 1951 Florida Legislature passed an anti-mask ordinance by an overwhelming margin. The Klan responded with a rash of cross burnings and floggings from the Florida Panhandle to Miami; Hendrix declared war on "hate groups," including the NAACP, B'nai B'rith, the Catholic church, and the Federal Council of Churches of Christ; and then declared himself a candidate for governor. By the summer, the Klan began trying to roll back progress with sticks of 60 percent dynamite, with so many bombings, or attempted bombings, that the northern press dubbed it "The Florida Terror." The Moore bombing turned out to be the twelfth bombing of the year.
The biggest impetus to the growth of the Klan in the South was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. As the civil rights movement begin to grow in the 1960s, the Klan responded violently to the freedom rides, sit-ins and mass demonstrations. Florida remained a Klan stronghold, particularly in the Jacksonville area.
Florida Klan Today
During the 1970s and 80s, the Klan splintered into competing factions and its membership declined. That trend continued in the 1990s. Today, although its numbers are relatively small, Florida has one of the more active Klans, and its commitment to racial hatred and prejudice have not gone away.