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San Luis Obispo is not immune to hate. Robed KKK members once burned a cross here

In April 2016, Donna and Greg France’s farmworker housing project was the victim of a hate crime when someone burned one of the homes and damaged another.
In April 2016, Donna and Greg France’s farmworker housing project was the victim of a hate crime when someone burned one of the homes and damaged another. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Three gunshots rang out to signal the start of the Ku Klux Klan parade in San Luis Obispo. Robed members paraded to the mountain and set fire to a cross.

After the event, a Klan representative sent a letter to the San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram soliciting new members.

The date was June 30, 1927.

“In the county of San Luis Obispo a general appeal from law-abiding ctizens (sic) is to see our county rise to a higher standard. We stand ready to aid and forward that cause.”

While San Luis Obispo often shows up in lists of the happiest communities in the United States, there are those Americans who remain persistently unhappy.

An unhealthy stew of entitlement and victimhood seethes, with extremists looking to blame some “other” for their lack of progress in life.

Often there are several “others,” with lists updated as years go by, African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, Muslims.

Our region has not been immune to the human frailty of bigotry.

And sadly, some stories repeat.

The Tribune was founded in 1869 as an upstart alternative newspaper, to give voice to Republican political candidates and support efforts to extend civil rights reforms to freed slaves via the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and the policy of Reconstruction.

The other newspapers at the time — the San Luis Obispo Pioneer and then the Democratic Standard, which later replaced the Pioneer — were voices of racism, frequently used the N-word and other ridicule when printing stories about African-Americans. The Tribune of that era did not.

From its first issue on Aug. 7, 1869, The Tribune advocated moderation.

“Our politics will be in accord with the party of the Union; that party to which, under Providence, we owe the preservation of the Republic through five years of war, succeeded by three more of political chaos.”

All three papers carried stories about the Ku Klux Klan, the terror organization founded in the South by ex-Confederates who never let go of the war they waged and lost to preserve slavery.

Five decades later in the early 1920s, the Klan was again active nationally in a public way.

On July 30, 1921, the editor of the Spokane Press was threatened by the Klan with tar and feathers after an editorial denouncing the organization.

On Aug. 4, 1921, the Los Angeles Express was a defendant in an alleged libel suit brought by the Ku Klux Klan.

That same day, the Telegram carried a United Press story from Texas headlined: “Ku Klux warn undesirables.” The story carried the quote “we want no mulatto children.”

On Sept. 1, 1921, a federal district attorney in Chicago was threatened with murder for investigating the Klan.

Closer to home, on March 8, 1922, a Bakersfield merchant was threatened with death by the Klan.

In another incident, hooded and robed Klan members dragged Taft doctor Dwight R. Mason to a ballpark in town and beat him with heavy ropes.

The doctor, who had moved away, returned under police protection. The physician identified Taft building contractor John “Jack” Vitelle, according to a May 12, 1922, Telegram story.

Vitelle was named as a former exalted cyclops of the Taft Klan in a July 27, 1922, article.

Five men faced criminal charges in connection with a grand jury investigation of the Ku Klux Klan activities.

On July 19, 1922, the San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram reported that Jack Vitelle broke down “and wept bitterly” as he was sentenced to 1 to 10 years at San Quentin.

He had boasted to fellow Klan members in Bakersfield about his exploits. The Bakersfield members took the information to the grand goblin in Los Angeles, and the correspondence between members was revealed at the trial.

William Coburn, grand goblin, visited Maricopa before the trial and in a March 20, 1922, article, “He denied emphatically that the Ku Klux Klan had anything to do with the terrorism in the oilfields.”

The largely unattributed article said that Maricopa citizens were organizing a shotgun squad to counter the night rides of the Klan.

The oil district dispensed rough justice, and some suspected Klan members were tarred and feathered by irate citizens.

An Aug. 9, 1922, article quoted a Klan newspaper in Los Angeles, The Interpreter of Americanism, as bragging that the Bakersfield and Taft Klan No. 3 of the Ku Klux Klan had not disbanded and were growing.

Hatred is not restricted to history, and strains live on today.

Four people were convicted of burning a cross outside the home of an African-American Arroyo Grande resident in July 2011.

Racist, anti-Islamic, transphobic and sexist scrawlings have appeared in 2015 and 2016 on the annual plywood anonymous speech wall sponsored by Cal Poly College Republicans, sparking protests.

A Nipomo house intended for farmworkers was destroyed and another damaged by an arson fire in April 2016.

And just this week, someone burned a Pride flag in San Luis Obispo.

Though hatred is a common theme through history, there are local signs that tolerance is making gains.

Arroyo Grande High School is unveiling a sculpture celebrating diversity, equality and peace.

Mission San Luis Obispo hosts a Menorah lighting during Hanukkah in an expression of interfaith solidarity.

A “get to know your Muslim neighbors” event was so popular it had to be moved from Mosque of Nasreen to the larger hall at Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.

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