The Kaiser Convention Center (formerly known as the Oakland Auditorium) has hosted all kinds of events, from Motown concerts to roller derbies, over the years. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there in 1962. The Black Panthers held a conference there in 1969. The Grateful Dead played the venue dozens of times.
In 1924, a much more sinister gathering took place in the historic structure: more than 8000 Ku Klux Klan members gathered there for a cross burning ceremony (yes, they actually burned huge crosses inside the auditorium). Fortunately, the East Bay’s KKK movement didn’t last long — their rise and fall all happened around the time of the 1920s. But they made an impact that changed Oakland forever.
During this era, Oakland’s city government didn’t have the ability to provide the kinds of public services modern city dwellers expect. So, politicians signed contracts with big corporations to manage things like water and public transportation. Since the contracts gave these companies monopolies and they controlled who got jobs, they were the ones with real power in town.
This system of political patronage ran pretty smoothly for decades — until the ethnic demographics of Oakland shifted rapidly. Thousands of San Francisco refugees flocked here following the 1906 earthquake, and then Oakland annexed a large chunk of territory east of 23rd avenue in 1909, resulting in the city’s population more than doubling that decade.
Before this influx, City Hall was controlled by Catholic politicians who represented constituencies of mostly working class Irish, Italian, Greek and Portuguese immigrants. The newcomers were mainly middle class Protestants of English, German and Scandinavian stock — and they resented the corrupt, inefficient “political machine” that failed to provide adequate, affordable public services to their neighborhoods in the newly incorporated East Oakland.
At this same time, the Ku Klux Klan was surging in popularity across the nation after being essentially defunct for several decades. KKK-affiliated politicians won governorships or U.S. Senate seats in Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, and Oregon, as well as several Southern states during this era. Altogether, it recruited about 4-5 million members nationally, making it what some historians think was the largest right-wing movement organization in American history. According to Chris Rhomberg, author of No There There: Race, Class and Political Community in Oakland, when the KKK launched an Oakland chapter, “the Klan was able to capitalize” on animosity against City Hall “in order to win popular support.”
Where did African-American residents fits into this equation? Since the Oakland Klan was trying to take power from a political machine that was mainly composed of Irish and other Catholic groups, they weren’t focused on the Black community as a political target. Klansmen were certainly racist and opposed African-Americans moving into “their” neighborhoods, but those kinds of attitudes were also shared by many, if not most, white people at the time. The cross burnings were held in public parks, such as Tilden, and were used primarily as publicity stunts to gain media attention as opposed to those in the Deep South, which were more likely to occur in front of black churches and homes.
Although it may seem counter-intuitive for a pseudo-secret society to seek publicity, the coverage worked in the Klan’s favor. For a modern analogy, look no further than Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, which was undoubtedly boosted by the media’s non-stop coverage of his racist antics. And similarly to Trump’s “drain the swamp” message, Klan-affiliated politicians campaigned on an anti-corruption platform coupled with ethnic resentment and a strong dose of victimized entitlement.
This strategy got several Klansmen elected to powerful positions, and they were able to gain the kind of influence in City Hall that they had been fighting for. What happened next may not shock those of you familiar with politics. “The problem was that once in power, the Klan politicians proved to be even more corrupt,” Rhomberg said. “In Alameda County, law enforcement, Sheriff Burton Becker, who was a Klan member, took over and began to extract bribes from bootleggers [after running a campaign that demonized alcohol and taverns].”
Another Klan member, who was elected as city commissioner of streets, basically started selling off street-paving contracts to the highest bidder. Unsurprisingly, the crooked contractors did shoddy work, and the roads started falling apart shortly after being built.
Unlike the previous political machine, which had decades to fine-tune its shady practices, the Klan’s incompetent regime started crumbling right away. Earl Warren, who would go on to become chief justice of the Supreme Court, was the new Alameda County District Attorney. He wanted to make a name for himself by exposing corruption in City Hall — and that’s exactly what he did.
Once the KKK-affiliated politicians went down, the rest of the local organization quickly crumbled.
A coalition of downtown business owners, led by conservative Oakland Tribune publisher William Knowland, used this opportunity to maneuver itself into power, and this elite network of wealthy white men would control Oakland for the next several decades. But that story is another chapter in the city’s government’s long history of dysfunctional democracy.
Learn more and listen to the East Bay Yesterday podcast at EastBayYesterday.com.