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Irish confetti, knife-wielding Frenchmen and other quaint Maine traditions
Banned Histories of Race in America
Last week I wrote about how my home town of Portland, Maine is dealing with its current Nazi problem. The short version is that it’s not. Since then not only have Nazis continued to protest in town, but they’ve begun learning the identities of local activists, calling them out by name in the street and emailing them death threats.
There is a lot of talk about the “global rise of hate” right now. The problem with this framing is that calling this problem “global” implies an organized effort too overwhelming for any of us to really do anything about. But, I promise you, anyone who says that either doesn’t know better or just walked away with your wallet. It is not a blanket or a pandemic. It is not some kind of inevitable or inescapable storm. It is not an unstoppable dark ethereal wind destined to overtake us.
That’s not how anything works. What we do have is a world containing a whole lot of racial hierarchies. And it turns out that if these hierarchies stick around long enough, a lot of people will eventually understand their value only according to the status they were born into. But because hierarchies are largely fraudulent, they’re unsustainable. And soon people who believe they belong at the top are looking up and seeing people believed to belong far below. The formerly top tier get angry and violent and the weight of their status allows them to shake the system so severely that either capitulation or an entirely new structure becomes necessary.
This rise in hate doesn’t come from the sky down, it’s built from the ground up. It is the natural outcome of vast amounts of capitulations to white supremacy by national, state and local leaderships. In last week’s post I mentioned Portland’s near century-long history of white supremacist rule (detailed further in my podcast 99 Years), but not every place confronted by hate groups reacted by installing white supremacist governments.
There are many times throughout the history of this country when it seemed as though hate was everywhere, yet there have always been those who’ve successfully resisted. I’ve previously posted about the rebellions by enslaved people happening since before this was a country. There were also free white men like John Brown willing to lay down their lives to destroy institutionalized hate. There was even a group of anti-slavery, abolitionist Confederate Army deserters who fought against the Confederacy at the height of the Civil War.
In the 1920s there were more than two-million members of the KKK swarming the country. They seemed to be everywhere and my home state of Maine was no exception. At its peak, with 150,141 klansmen in the state, the KKK had more than 1/5 of Maine’s population in its membership. Contrary to popular belief, the KKK in Maine was largely a middle-class affair. They were doctors, lawyers, judges, police officers, shop owners, property developers, politicians and on and on.
The Maine KKK stayed busy as hell and not just marching and burning crosses. They constantly threatened violence, they detonated a bomb in the small city of Lewiston and made institutional changes installing governments, writing policy and even managing to put a governor into office. Using the tools of racism, xenophobia, intimidation and the paradox of tolerance the KKK grew to be a seemingly omnipresent and overwhelming force in the state of Maine.
Even so, some Mainers knew better and just weren’t willing to tolerate that shit.
In 1924 forty klansmen showed up hoping to disappear a labor organizer in Greenville Maine. But then 175 lumberjacks arrived on the scene to defend the organizer and those klansmen soiled their robes all the way home.
Then, in July of the same year klansmen decided to burn a cross in Fairfield, Maine. But then some of the fine folks of Fairfield showed up throwing rocks and taking clubs to hooded heads. The cross was torn down and the only things left burning were the bottoms of the klansmen’s feet as they ran the fuck up out of there.
A few months later in September of 1924, the mill town of Biddeford saw three-hundred Klansmen attempt to march into town from neighboring Saco. Once again, the klansmen didn’t get very far, because they were confronted by what the papers at the time called “knife wielding Frenchmen”. Being dumbshits, the klansmen then tried another path into the city but were once more confronted. This time by what was referred to as “Irish confetti” meaning bricks thrown from the windows of homes in the Irish neighborhood. Their soft, baby-like skulls protected only by a ghost costume, the klansmen scurried back to Saco forever.
Just to be clear, I am not bringing up this history to promote violence. My point is that when confronted by hate there were communities that came together and successfully rejected that hate. They did this in the strongest possible terms and they did so at great risk to themselves. It was certainly as illegal then as it is now to stab and/or brick someone and turning away three-hundred one day could’ve easily meant three-thousand return the next, but it was obviously worth the risk.
It wouldn’t be long before the Maine KKK fell into obscurity. Many in the state like to believe that all of Maine came together and beat back the klan with the power of love because love wins and hate has no home here, etc., etc., etc. But the truth is that Maine’s KKK fell apart all on its own. Their leadership got caught stealing money from the organization, its infrastructure essentially being a pyramid scheme. Love had nothing to do with it and those 150,141 mostly middle class members of Maine’s KKK didn’t just disappear. Those doctors, lawyers, judges, police officers, shop owners, property developers and politicians didn’t leave the state or have some Dickensian change of heart. Instead, they continued to influence the state and its culture as did the policies they created and the governments they installed.
Local historians write about this time with a typical northern hubris that the KKK in Maine wasn’t as violent as in the southern states. This means Mainers remain blissfully ignorant of the history they’re currently repeating, believing this local rise in hate too global to do anything about. But two things usually get left out of those historians’ assessments. The first is how frequently and quickly so many Mainers gave in, joined up or were already members. The second is how frequently and quickly other Mainers kicked the KKK the fuck out of town.