Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sign of the times

The old Third Presbyterian Church, 3027 Walnut.

A slightly different version of this post appeared in September 2010, weeks before the first midterm election of President Obama’s administration. Because it describes feelings that have resurfaced during this 2016 presidential election campaign, it’s time to revisit and remember …

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The other day I let the rhetoric of fear and ignorance get under my skin. Demagogues appear to be making a comeback lately, this being an election year, and their prominence in the news irritated and depressed me.
I needed reassurance – some reminder that, no matter how loud the fearful and ignorant yell, some people refuse to hear them.

I found it on Walnut Street, just off 31st street, in September 1924.

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Billboards were controversial in 1924, many having sprouted around Kansas City without permits, some uncomfortably close to residential neighborhoods. But instead of gasoline or cigarettes or candy bars, the new billboard near 31st and Walnut advertised the Third Presbyterian Church next door.

Third Presbyterian had been around since 1870, first in the West Bottoms, since 1898 in this building at 3027 Walnut. Reverend J. Raymond Sorenson didn't necessarily use his pulpit for political causes – his sermon for Sunday, September 21, 1924 was titled "Be Still, and Know That I Am God" – but the billboard was a new way to speak beyond the church walls.

It had been erected that week, coinciding with the arrival in town of thousands of conventioneers.

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The conventioneers left Union Station for the lobbies of downtown hotels, greeting one another in low voices. At Convention Hall they approached burly sentries, whispered passwords and flashed membership cards. Some wore buttons picturing a burning cross.

Publicity men fed sanctioned "news" of the four-day convention to reporters. There would be "devotional exercises" – including prayer and the singing of "Onward, Christian Soldiers"– committee reports, and speakers identified only as a "National Statesman" or a "Prominent Citizen." There would be thousands of delegates, said the publicity men, but no parade.

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Over in Kansas that week the editor of the Emporia Gazette, William Allen White, announced his independent candidacy for governor. His primary motivation was the political involvement of a particular organization, the same one holding its convention in Kansas City.

"It represents a small minority of the citizenship and it is organized for purposes of terror," White said. "Its terror is directed at honest, law-abiding citizens, negroes, Jews and Catholics."

At his first rally, outside a small-town courthouse, White declared that Kansas – that is, the Kansas he knew  – "did not examine a man's skin under a microscope, his birth certificate or his religious beliefs before calling him an American."

In the darkness beyond the fringes of the crowd, someone put a torch to a 7-foot cross and ran into the night.

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At Convention Hall an official photographer sold official photographs: Many smaller American flags hanging near one huge one, flanked by banners depicting fire-breathing dragons, portraits of Washington, Jefferson and Coolidge; delegates on the floor holding placards from their states; a row of figures on stage, dressed in hooded white robes.

Publicity men distributed the text of a speech given by a former dentist from Texas. Delegates knew him as their Imperial Wizard. The Wizard addressed his delegates as "the salt of the earth" and said the future of civilization depended on them.

"History has proved and is proving daily that a high level of average intelligence never has been reached except by Nordic and Anglo-Saxon peoples," he told them. "The blood which produces human leadership must be protected from inferior blood."

He described the enemy as "systems and instincts and principles which run counter to Anglo-Saxon instinct, Americanism and Protestant Christianity.”

"Our watch-cry,” he said, “is 'Back to the Constitution.'"

Then the Wizard offered his assurance: "The Lord has guided us and shaped the events in which we rejoice. He has held us under His protection."

"Millions of Americans are in arduous quest of leadership toward better government, adequate law enforcement, the elevation of society and a more perfect national patriotism," said the Wizard.

"The Klan alone supplies that."

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In the 1924 election William Allen White finished third in a three-man governor's race. The Republican winner had been backed by the Ku Klux Klan.

And although the Klan's membership and influence faded in the Depression-era 1930s, its ideas and emotions have never completely disappeared.

Today the old Third Presbyterian Church building on Walnut is home to Chapter 317 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. But this year – and approaching this 2016 election – it's worth remembering the church of 1924, and its billboard message to the visiting coventioneers:

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