Modern history

CHAPTER ELEVEN

IN GREENVILLE the tone of race relations was shifting. Before World War I, when a court outside Washington County ordered Nathan Taylor, a black Greenville attorney, to stand in the gallery with black defendants, white Greenville attorneys objected and protected him from a sheriff who tried to beat him. In 1920, Taylor was elected president of the National Equal Rights League. One night four white men tied his hands behind him, rowed him out to vicious whirlpools in the middle of the Mississippi River, and told him he was leaving Greenville one way or another. Taylor moved to Chicago and became the first black there to run, though unsuccessfully, for Congress.

A year after the Taylor incident, a Klan klavern was organized in Washington County. Its leaders were ambitious men, men who intended to use the Klan to become bigger men.

Percy had run the county for as long as anyone could remember. Deep into the night the lights often stayed on in his law office in the Weinberg Building, where he sat down with a few men to decide who would serve as county supervisor, or city councilman, or mayor, or state senator. Notably absent from those meetings was LeRoy’s son and law partner Will, a war hero and a poet. Usually present were Joe Weinberg, a wealthy Jewish banker, planter Alfred Stone, and Billy Wynn, younger than Will and also a war hero, a comer with his own law firm who also owned a Mississippi River ferry on which passengers could play slot machines. Their support nearly always meant victory; their opposition meant defeat. “Percy would almost draft people he wanted to run for office,” recalled one man. “I’d walk by and look up and see the lighted window and think, ‘They’re running the city up there.’”

The men organizing the klavern believed it was time for that to change. By early 1922 the Klan had already taken over the Mississippi hill country, the central part of the state, and penetrated even the Delta counties of Bolivar and Coahoma north of Greenville, Sunflower to the east, Issaquena to the south.

The klavern met for weeks without Percy’s knowledge, itself a sign of weakness and change. Years before, nothing of consequence could have been kept secret from him. Then the klavern arranged for Colonel Joseph Camp, one of the most successful of the Klan’s organizers, to hold a recruiting rally at the county courthouse.

IN FEBRUARY 1922, Percy could look out his office window across the levee and see the Mississippi River rising. It had been several years since the last flood, and the river worried him. It took priority over everything—except, just for the moment, the Klan.

The Klan was personal. His wife, Camille, was Catholic; her parents had emigrated from France to New Orleans, then come upriver to Greenville after the Civil War. And the kind of men who joined the Klan, men whom his son Will described as “the inflammable, uneducated whites whom the best part of our lives is spent in controlling,” had humiliated him once already, during his Senate campaign.

After that Senate campaign, LeRoy had retreated to Washington County. Now the Klan was challenging him in his home. His father had kept the Klan out of the county even during Reconstruction. Now, no matter what happened in the rest of Mississippi, even in the rest of the Delta, LeRoy Percy would tolerate no rebellion in Washington County. If the Klan spread there, it would shatter the society he had struggled to build.

Immediately upon learning of the planned Klan rally, he called to his office influential men who opposed the organization. They decided that when the recruiter spoke, Percy would answer him, and they would try to pack the rally with Klan opponents. Typically, to a planter scheduled to be out of town on business, Percy sent a special delivery note explaining the plan: “A Ku Klux orator is booked to speak at the courthouse Wednesday evening at seven o’clock…. We concluded to pass resolutions condemning the Ku Klux Klan…. It would be advisable for you to attend…. It is very essential that we put through the resolution by a large majority.”

The Klan had reserved the courthouse for March 1, 1922. That evening the crowd, not knowing who was friend or enemy, seethed inside the massive Victorian building. The black neighborhood, the black brothels for the white men, the juke joints, the pool halls, were within a few blocks, but no blacks were in view. Percy called for the county sheriff to chair the meeting. The sheriff said simply, “Colonel Camp will now address you.”

Tall and angular, with square sharp shoulders, Camp had a riveting energy. He pumped his arms, pounded fist against lectern, strode the length of the platform and back, preaching pride: Pride in America! Pride in Mississippi! Pride in the white race! Then he began to preach hate. Who killed Garfield and McKinley? A Catholic. Who had bought land opposite West Point as well as in Washington? The Pope. Jews were organized! Catholics were organized! Niggers were organized! The only people in America who weren’t organized were the Anglo-Saxons! Debauchery, lechery, drinking, horrors that he hardly dare speak of were going on right here in Washington County. God wanted it to stop. The Klan would stop it. They were a million strong, and growing stronger every day.

Camp finished in an uproar. Many clapped and shouted for him. Others broke into a loud chant: “Percy!” “Percy!” “Percy!”

Camp had given hundreds of speeches, recruited thousands of men. Never before had any man answered him.

Percy did. He spoke for an hour, mixing logic and sarcasm. His message was simple. They were a community whose members loved one another. He smiled with sarcasm and held out his hands to “this eminent orator, this colonel, under what flag he won his title or what battlefield he trod we know not.” He spoke of his Jewish partner and snorted that Camp was right, “There are times I think he needs straightening out.” Listeners laughed. This Jew had loaned Gentiles in the county $150,000 at less than half the market interest rates. “Don’t you know that Jew ought to be regulated.” He was “alarmed” about “this Catholic encroachment on our Government…. Do you know that after ten years of domination by that grand hierarchy of the Church…they have managed to get hold of our city government?…They have got Boots, as constable…. Took them ten years to get this far. Where will a hundred years take them?”

Still, his concern was not “this war on Catholics and Jews…. They can take care of themselves. But I know the terror this organization embodies for our negro population and I am here to plead against it…. The shifting of the population from the South to the North—you cannot stop that trend. It is going on as the result of industrial call to better opportunity. You cannot stop it, but you can expedite it. Instead of making it a matter of 35 years or 50 years, during which the South can readjust itself, you can make it an exodus within a year…. You can make three parades in the county of Washington of your Ku Klux Klan and never say another word and you can start the grass growing in the streets of Greenville.”

He concluded angrily, denouncing this “gang of spies and inquisitors,” then pleading: “Friends, let this Klan go somewhere else where it will not do the harm that it will in this community. Let them sow dissension in some community less united than is ours. Let this order go somewhere else if there is any place it can do any good. It can do no good here.”

Dr. J. D. Smythe, officer of a bank on whose board Percy served, seized the moment. He rose and offered a resolution that he and Percy had drafted: “Be it resolved by the citizens of Washington County, Mississippi, in mass meeting assembled, that we do hereby condemn that organization called by itself the Ku Klux Klan, but having no connection with the real Ku Klux Klan, which, having served its usefulness, was dissolved many years ago…. Its impertinent assumption of the right to judge the private life of American citizens…is against the spirit of free institutions and the traditions and laws of our country, and is unAmerican.”

With a loud roar, by voice vote the resolution passed. Camp was shaken and asked for protection. With elaborate courtesy an Irish Catholic policeman escorted him back to the Cowan Hotel.

PERCY’S SPEECH was reprinted in newspapers from New York to Houston. Leading Greenville blacks signed a letter to him reading: “If we had Mr. Percy in every county of the state there would be no Klan and the less fortune [sic] people would not be terrorized…. The colored people will feel much safer and more willing to live here and go on in trying to develop this our state of Mississippi.” The Knights of Columbus distributed thousands of copies of the speech. Ellery Sedgwick, the Atlantic Monthly editor who had visited Greenville as a guest of LeRoy and Will, ran it as an article. Letters of praise and requests to speak poured in from around the country. Percy always declined, telling those who invited him that it would have “much stronger effect” for a “local man to reply.”

But Percy knew his fight had not ended. Preparing for an extended struggle, he contacted three newspaper clipping services for information on the Klan. And he seemed to consider the fight a last stand of his class. To a friend he confided, “The eagerness with which…this Ku Klux Klan folly is received in the South…is a reflection of the fading away of the old aristocracy of the South, which with its many faults and weaknesses is yet far and away the best thing the South has yet produced. In the olden days as gentlemen we were something of a success. In the latter days as money seekers we are sorrowful figures in the competition with the more highly trained brains of the East and the more virile and unscrupulous products of the West…. [H]e is an optimist indeed who today can name the day or point the way” to the disappearance of the Klan.

Indeed, the night after being humiliated by Percy, Camp had spoken in Bolivar County, just upriver from Greenville, and announced that the Knights of Columbus had paid Percy, whose wife was a Catholic, $1,000 to confront him. Two weeks later the Leland Enterprise, located in the Klan’s Washington County stronghold, published a letter from the Klan: “To all Flag and Liberty Loving, Law Abiding Citizens: In the name of our venerated dead,…We are going to make this a place in which you will be glad to rear your children…. To bootleggers, gamblers, and all other law-breakers, We are making an appeal at this time to clean up…. There are married men in this town who are not treating their wives right, we know who you are,…change your way…. To the boys who take girls out automobile riding, and park their cars by the roadside: Had you ever thought that what you do, some other boy is entitled to do with your sister?…To the Negroes: We are your best friend, but we wish you to do right…We have our eyes on you, and we are many; we are everywhere…. Dated this the Deadly Day, of the Wailing Week, of the Sorrowful Month…. Yours for a better country, Knights of the K.K.K.”

THE TOWN OF MER ROUGE lay a little more than 60 miles south of Greenville, across the Mississippi River in northeastern Louisiana. Less than 10 miles from it was the town of Bastrop. Both towns were in Morehouse Parish (in Louisiana, counties are called parishes), but the hostility between them was palpable. Mer Rouge had the same alluvial soil as Greenville, and it was home to planters who traveled, gambled, whored with black women, mocked Prohibition, mocked the Baptists, and mocked the Klan. But political power in the parish had already shifted from the planters to populists; the parish was in the part of Louisiana that served as the base for Huey Long, then a rising politician.

Bastrop sat beyond a ridge that was just high enough—about 15 feet—to contain the river’s floods and thus prevent the deposit of lush soil. The town epitomized the industrial New South, with gritty mills, poor whites who had been forced off the land, and a narrow-minded middle class. The Klan did not so much take over Bastrop as embody it, and J. K. Skipwith, the local Exalted Cyclops, was a former Bastrop mayor. Since 1889, on a per capita basis, more lynchings had occurred in Morehouse Parish than in any other county in the United States. One mob had bound a black man’s hands and legs and placed him inside the body of a dead cow with only his head sticking out, so he would die slowly while insects and birds were attracted to the moisture of his eyes, mouth, and nostrils, and crawled in his ears.

The Bastrop Klan specifically warned the sons of two Mer Rouge planters, Watt Daniel and Thomas Richards, to stop drinking and whoring, especially with black women. Daniel and Richards replied by publicly mocking the Klan.

On August 24, 1922, a baseball game and barbecue in Bastrop drew 4,000 celebrants. The Klan set up a roadblock and backed cars up for one and a half miles looking for the two men. They were found in a car with three others. All five were flogged. Three were released. Daniel and Richards never returned. John Parker was governor.

Their wives begged Governor Parker to investigate. He tried, but the parish sheriff insisted the men were alive. Parker asked for federal assistance from U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty, a political hack. (He was Harding’s campaign manager and in February 1920 had predicted that the Republican National Convention would deadlock, and that party leaders would meet in a “smoke-filled room” in the middle of the night to choose Harding; his prediction came true and his phrase entered the language.) Daugherty would resign amid scandal a year later and had no interest in involving the White House in the Klan issue. He refused aid unless Parker formally declared that he had lost control of the state.

Parker was prideful. A few months earlier the Mississippi River had flooded a million acres of Louisiana and left 40,000 people homeless. The entire Louisiana congressional delegation had pleaded with him to ask for federal aid, or at least help from the national Red Cross. He had refused to do either, stating, “Louisiana has issued no call for help and will not.”

Yet now Parker humbled himself and did as Daugherty required. He also vowed “a fight to the finish [against the Klan]…. It is now my solemn duty to whip them…. When we have in Louisiana an outside organization seeking to control this state politically, seeking to be prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner in one, seeking to take the place of constituted law, then I tell you that it’s incumbent on your executive, if he is a man, to stamp that organization out.”

Justice Department investigators found evidence of murder, along with proof that parish law enforcement and court officers belonged to the Klan. Yet Daugherty refused to pursue the matter unless the Louisiana legislature passed a resolution requesting it to do so, an impossibility. In November 1922, Parker went to Washington to plead personally for more help. He received none.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana Klan invited the press to a mass Klan initiation, erected wooden headstones on the lawn of the governor’s mansion, and tied up Parker’s dog. Their message: they could do anything.

Then two bodies were found in Lake Lafourche in Morehouse Parish. Each man had broken arm and leg bones; their hands and feet had been cut off or mashed off; each had had his penis and testicles cut off.

No convictions were ever obtained. And Skipwith, Bastrop’s Exalted Cyclops, began campaigning across the river in Percy’s Delta.

IN FEBRUARY 1923, organizers of a massive anti-Klan rally in Chicago invited Governor Parker and Percy to speak. Percy declined, but Parker, making it plain that a refusal would personally embarrass him, wired Percy, “You have been extensively billed for a speech with me…. Will meet you at Blackstone Hotel. Don’t fail.” Percy could not refuse his old friend. But his speech fell flat and he never again spoke outside Washington County.

Inside it he fought. The Klan’s presence was threatening everything he had built in the Delta and every hope he had for it. He told his old colleague Jacob Dickinson: “I am intensely uneasy about the labor, uneasy for fear the negroes may not stay with us even to make this crop…. I regard the menace from the weevil, great as it once seemed, slight compared to the migration of the negroes from the South.”

When a friend argued that confrontation strengthened the Klan and that, if unopposed, it would collapse of its own absurdity, Percy replied: “Nothing that is founded on pure absurdity can long survive, but…[i]t was unopposed in Indiana. It is said that it has 360,000 members there. It named the last United States Senator and all the state offices. It was unopposed in Oregon and swept the state. It has been unopposed, to come nearer home, in Bolivar, Coahoma, and Hinds counties. It has charge of all three counties…. It has been openly opposed in only two places in the United States: in Greenville and by John Parker in Louisiana.”

And despite opposition, it had already infested Washington County. Ray Toombs, the county prosecutor, was the local Exalted Cyclops, and Klansmen occupied such county offices as superintendent of schools, circuit court clerk, chancery court clerk, supervisor of roads, tax assessor, two of the five-member Board of Supervisors, even county health officer. None had been elected as Klan candidates, but they now intended to sweep the county openly. Here, as across the country, the Klan was using techniques like the “decade,” which required every Klansman to urge ten people to vote for the Klan candidate.

In March 1923 the Klan began holding election rallies around the county. Its target was Percy himself. “No man in the county ought to have a boss,” one minister who supported the Klan told his congregation, “especially one who hasn’t opened the Bible in ten years.”

Percy, the banker and physician J. D. Smythe, and others organized the Washington County Protestant Committee of Fifty Opposed to the Ku Klux Klan. The committee excluded Catholics and claimed independence from Percy, declaring that he was not an officer of it, and stating that “Senator Percy has never written even one word of any article published by this committee.”

The claims fooled no one. The power behind the group was Percy’s. The force that drove the group was Percy’s. The room it met in was in the same building as his law office, a few doors away. At an early meeting of the committee, Percy had listed five points all had to affirm. The final one: “All agree to stay and fight to the finish.”

The Klan rallies continued. “The Big Cheese,” Toombs called Percy at one in Leland, proclaiming, “The day of Kings has passed.”

TO REPLY, Percy announced a public meeting on April 23, 1923. It was hot the way only the Delta gets hot, but all day men and women poured into town in anticipation, coming in cars, in wagons, on horses, on mules. They found business to do with cotton brokers and farm suppliers, or lined up at one of the soda fountains, or sinned in moderation by climbing the stairs of the Elks Hall to gamble on cards, or sinned greatly by visiting women.

Then they trooped to the People’s Theater and stood impassively waiting, the crowd thickening past 2,000. The moment the doors opened, they filled the benches, crowded the aisles, pressed against the back railings. Some had come to see a show, some to listen and decide; some knew what they thought one way or the other and had brought guns. The conjoined elbows and knees and smoke and spit and sweat put the crowd in a foul mood. So did the alcohol: the sinners who drank it became more insolent; the prohibitionists who reviled it grew enraged at its proximity. By the time the meeting began, the crowd was surly, tense, explosive.

Percy took it over. He gave a speech full of love, and a warrior’s speech. He stood dressed formally as always, stiff, solid, barrel-chested, implacable, the ferocity of his eyes his only sign of passion. He declared, “The day of kings may have passed, but the day when wizards will rule Washington County will never come!”

He spoke of unity, of decency, of fairness, of humanity. He reminded his listeners that a few years earlier when the blacks went to war, “We prayed to the same God that they might come back to us…. And then only one year ago when we fought the Mississippi River flood, we fought it united together. Now, can’t you let us say to those negroes who want to stay with us that we never meant to hurt you, that we have taken this thing out of our midst and, standing here united, we pledge this as a safe place to live out your lives?”

In the heat, sweat shone on his face, making him seem brilliant and glistening as it reflected the electric lights. To those who wanted to allow the Klan to run its course, he warned: “When the mighty Mississippi River charges against these levees, if you don’t fight it it will run its course, but behind that course it will leave devastated fields.” From the stage, as if from a pulpit, he pointed out the Klan leaders, Toombs and others, and the crowd stared at them. But Percy did not damn the Klansmen. He pleaded with them: “People know you, have honored you, you have lived with us, we have known you as friends. Is not there one among you who can say, ‘I have made a mistake in going into it?’…Can’t you come back and take part with us in the life of this community? I say to you, come back, come back and place us back where we were, come back to your father’s house.”

Then suddenly he turned hard, warning, “But if you won’t, if ‘Ephraim is joined to his idols,’ I tell you we are going to clean you up from top to bottom.”

He lashed the Klan as evil and absurd, sneering at the Klan’s claim that the Mer Rouge murders were committed by Irish Catholics on the pope’s order. Then he switched to mockery: “[Klansmen] are guilty of one grave defect. They are lacking in a sense of humor.” The audience began to laugh and he had them. “You know humor is the saving grace of human life. It enables you to get a proper perspective, size things up in their true proportion.” He mocked the Klan’s leadership: two men were claiming to be Imperial Wizard and fighting over hundreds of thousands of dollars. He read a letter that the Klan claimed the pope had sent to the Knights of Columbus, challenging any Klansman present to say he believed the letter was real, scoffing, “They dare not do it because they know they will write themselves down as blithering idiots.” He compared the Klan’s titles to “some colored society…Genii, Grand Dragons, Hydras of Realms, Grand Goblins, Grand Titans and Furies of Provinces, Giants, Exalted Cyclops and Terrors of Klantons…. And yet keeping a brother in black out of the order, the only person who can really enjoy it. Don’t you know that no full grown white man ought to be allowed to indulge in that stuff?”

His audience was laughing, laughing. Then, finally, he denounced the Klan as spies, liars, cowards. And he announced, “If I’ve said anything untrue about the Klan, and there’s a Klansman here with the courage of a red worm, he’ll stand up and deny it.”

Eyes flaming, Percy stared out at the crowd. It was silent. He was finished. The theater emptied.

PERCY CONTINUED to campaign relentlessly, gathering one vote at a time, leaning on people, leaning hard. He wrote Alfred Stone: “[A] letter from you to the Klan bunch might be of service…. No one could write such a letter with any hope of doing any good except yourself.” Stone promptly published a pamphlet that began: “Senator Percy has no knowledge whatever of my purpose to make the following statement…. In fact, I am taking this step at the risk of offending him.”

And over and over Percy condemned the Mer Rouge murder and Skipwith, who also continued to campaign in the Delta. One night in a rainstorm a man came to his door, claimed his car had broken down, and asked Percy to come help him. Despite having never seen him before, Percy was about to do so when several men, including the sheriff, arrived for a poker game. The visitor ran off.

Privately, Will Percy gave Toombs a message. Will had little in common with his father, though, even at thirty-seven years old, he still lived at home. Despite being his father’s law partner, he had not yet made a mark in Greenville, and his father likely suspected he was homosexual. Yet they did share a ferocity, and now Will told Toombs: “If anything happens to my father or any of our friends, you will be killed. We won’t hunt for the guilty party. So far as we will be concerned the guilty party will be you.”

Meanwhile, LeRoy exploited the incident. In a letter to Toombs published in the Greenville paper and the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, he accused the Klan of plotting “my personal injury or death…. You claim the Klan has eyes everywhere and knows everything and that its object is to cooperate with officers of the law. Will you cooperate with Sheriff Nicholson in the location of this man?”

Percy was wearing down the Klan. In Toombs’ final pre-election statement even he, the Exalted Cyclops, implicitly repudiated the Klan himself by appealing for votes from his “friends among the Jews [and] Catholics” in the county.

Voter turnout was the largest in the county’s history. Anti-Klan candidates won control of the Board of Supervisors, county offices, and the courts. But the margins were narrow—a single vote in one race—and Toombs was reelected. For county superintendent of education, a Klansman defeated E. E. Bass, who had made Greenville’s schools the best in the state. Five candidates had run for sheriff; a runoff pitted Percy’s candidate against a Klansman.

For three weeks the campaign, more intense than ever, continued. As the ballots were counted, a crowd gathered outside the courthouse, the same building where the confrontation had begun. People milled about, quiet and apprehensive. Percy sat in an office inside for a while, then chatted with supporters, then went home to play cards. At 9 P.M. a man rushed down the courthouse steps, bellowing, “We’ve won! We’ve won! God damn the Klan!”

As Will recalled, “A tremendous uproar came to us from the street. We rushed out on the gallery. From curb to curb the street was filled with a mad marching crowd carrying torches and singing. They swarmed down the street and into our yard…. Father, nonplused…laughed, ‘They don’t seem to have any idea of going home and I haven’t a drop of whiskey in the house—at least I’m not going to waste my good liquor on them.’”

Despite Prohibition, “Adah and Charlie dashed off in their car and returned with four kegs. Father called to the crowd: ‘Come on in, boys,’ and into the house they poured. That was a party never to be forgotten…. Our Ku Klux neighbors stood on their porch watching—justified and prophesying Judgment Day.”

FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY congratulations poured in upon Percy. One letter came from former President and then-Chief Justice William Howard Taft. He and Percy knew each other well, and with former Secretary of State Elihu Root were working together on a project for the American Bar Association. Taft told him, “I mourn the fact that you are not in Washington continuing to represent your state, but the work you are doing at the place where it is to be done is perhaps more important.”

Percy replied: “You can scarcely understand the sense of relief experienced by the people of this community as a result of the Klan defeat…. The amazing spread of it seems to be an indictment of democracy, but at best the maintenance of any form of government worthwhile means a constant struggle…. No class of American citizenship can escape responsibility for the rise of the Klan, but no class seems to have been more recreant to its duty as the protestant [sic] ministry. The repudiation of this sulking, cowardly, unAmerican, unChristian, organization as the champion [of] protestantism should have been instantaneous and wide spread and such a repudiation would have sounded its death knell…[but] the rank and file of the Baptist and Methodist ministry has either acquiesced in it or actively espoused it.”

The Klan of the 1920s represented something frightening in America, frightening because it ran so close to the mainstream. Across the country, lawyers, doctors, and ministers—successful men, ambitious men, middle-class men—supported the Klan.

The Klan’s target was not really blacks. No politician was proclaiming racial equality. Even Calvin Coolidge, raised in Vermont, stated, “Biological laws shows us that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.” The Klan’s target was change. Out of fear, the Klan enforced a populist conformity. In addition, as in Greenville, Klansmen generally tried to pry power out of the hands of the strongest and wealthiest men in a community, the men who had always run things. Percy was tired of fighting this battle. He even blocked plans to locate the new Delta State College, a normal school, in Greenville because he expected it to attract poor whites who would strengthen his enemies. Instead, in 1925 the school went to Cleveland, in neighboring Bolivar County.

In the larger sense, Percy sarcastically compared “the Klan virus” to “the good old days when [William Jennings] Bryan was the demagogue” and the Klan of the 1920s does fit uncomfortably close to America’s populist tradition.

American populism has always been a complex phenomenon containing an ugly element, an element of exclusivity and divisiveness. It has always had an “us” against a “them.” The “them” has often included not only an enemy above but also an enemy below. The enemy above was whoever was viewed as the boss, whether a man like Percy, or Wall Street, or Jews, or Washington; in the 1920s the enemy below was Catholics, immigrants, blacks, and political radicals.

The Klan continued to run strong nationally after Percy’s rare victory over it. It was in 1924 that it elected the mayors of Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine. That same year Percy tried to address the 1924 state Democratic convention; after complex parliamentary maneuvers finally gained him recognition, the convention erupted in tumult and he was shouted down.

He turned his attention to “mak[ing] it more difficult for the Democrats to evade the Klan proposition” at their national convention. The Democrats had hoped to avoid the issue, as the Republicans had. But William Pattangall, attorney general of Maine, proposed a platform plank condemning the Klan. His proposal lost by a vote of 5423/20; to 5413/20. The fight split the party and made the Democratic presidential nomination worthless. It took 103 ballots to nominate John Davis, who was crushed by Coolidge. Pattangall himself lost reelection.

A year later the Klan remained strong. In 1925, Colorado Judge Ben Lindsay wrote Percy, who was advising him on anti-Klan tactics: “I really believe there is nothing in the entire history of the South that shows such sudden and devastating sweep as [the Klan] has achieved in Colorado. This secret order has functioned as almost the entire state government from state militia to the last constable.”

Yet the 1920s Klan did collapse. It did so because it was not conceived as a political movement but as a scheme to make money selling memberships and regalia. It brought terrible forces together, like a magnifying glass concentrating the sun’s rays, but no leader with a political vision emerged to focus that power and make it explode into flame. Instead, its leaders wrestled scandalously over profits, embarrassing its members. Then David Stephenson, Indiana’s Klan leader who had amassed $3 million, was convicted of rape and murder; expecting a pardon and not receiving it, he revenged himself by revealing the corruption of dozens of Klan-backed politicians, including the governor and the mayor of Indianapolis, several of whom were also jailed. The Klan faded away.

Percy belonged to the large world. By 1925 he was a governor of the Federal Reserve Bank at St. Louis, a trustee of the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace, on the board of directors of the Rockefeller Foundation, companion of presidents of great northern universities. Though a Democrat, he often dined with the chairman of the Republican National Committee and was routinely consulted by black Mississippi Republicans about appointments Republican presidents made in the state.

Yet what he cared about most remained the Delta. He had shown absolute focus, and a certain ruthlessness, in his fight against the Klan. It had made him a hero to many across the country. He had built a society and he would protect it against any enemy—even if it made him reviled. The great invincible enemy was of course the river.

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