GLENDALE, Ariz — Editor's note: The above video aired during a previous broadcast.
A Mesa high school principal named Rolin Jones was lured from his home, beaten in the desert and acid-branded with the letters "KKK" on his forehead and cheeks on the night of March 21, 1922.
His beating led to numerous prominent Arizona politicians, and hundreds of other residents in the Valley, being outed as members of the Ku Klux Klan, according to The Journal of Arizona History.
The presence of the Klan in Arizona continues to this day, with the recent discovery that a neo-Nazi group called the "Aryan Nations Knights of the Ku Klux Klan" made its home in Glendale, according to the Phoenix New Times.
Why 1920s Arizona saw a KKK spike
The Ku Klux Klan was officially founded in Tennessee by a group of Confederate veterans in 1865.
A nationwide crackdown of the KKK called the Ku Klux Act, later declared unconstitutional due to how the act allocated powers, was the main reason membership for the hate group dwindled in the 1880s. It wasn't until a former Methodist minister named William Simmons reestablished the Klan in 1915 that membership saw a massive revival.
Numerous national and international events allowed many people to accept the ideas that the KKK was selling, according to an article titled "The Ku Klux Klan in Arizona, 1921-1925" in The Journal of Arizona History. WWI caused a new wave of Catholic and Jewish immigrants which saw a reactionary increase in anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic attitudes, workers' strikes in the U.S. stoked fears of a communist-inspired revolution at home, and prohibition laws led to a spike in bootlegging and gambling.
The Klan was able to spread quickly throughout all areas in the U.S. by framing trends local communities were facing as problems to be solved, the article said. Klansmen would focus on combating Catholic and Jewish immigration in the East, while focusing on strengthening white supremacy and calling for "law and order" in the South.
The first KKK recruiter came to Phoenix in 1921. The focus of the Klan in Arizona was pushing back against the growth of the Mexican-American population, calling for stricter prohibition laws and calling on the police force to be improved.
The outing of 300 Klansmen in Phoenix
The beating and branding of Rolin Jones in 1922 was when the majority of Arizona residents became aware of the Klan's presence in the state.
The Klansmen who participated in the beating claimed they beat Jones after a female student accused him of "moral misconduct," but the charges against Jones were dropped by a Mesa justice court, the Journal of Arizona History article said.
A few days after the beating, fully hooded and robed Klansmen marched down the aisle of a local church and handed a letter to its reverend containing $100,000 and a message of support.
KKK members would do something similar to churches they disagreed with.
"The Klan used to go into Black churches in the Valley silently and in full regalia and drop money in the collection plate, if for no other reason than to remind everyone that they were there and remind Black people where their place was," Arizona historian Dr. Matthew Whitaker said.
Disapproval of the Klan among Arizona residents and local churches increased after these events, the article said.
The trial of the KKK members who beat Jones put an even larger light on the Klan in Arizona. The trial would result in a hung jury, partially thanks to the prosecution arguing against using a letter from the KKK as evidence. The Klan allegedly claimed responsibility for the beating in the letter.
Then-Governor Thomas Campbell, however, announced during the trial that he had a list of the "Arizona Klan roster," which included~300 names of Klansmen in the Phoenix area. The names weren't released until a Maricopa County Grand Jury probe.
Numerous high ranking politicians and members of state government were on the list, according to McClintock Papers held by the Phoenix Public Library, including:
- Secretary of State Ernest Hall
- State Treasurer R. R. Earhart
- Maricopa County Sheriff J. G. Montgomery, and several of his deputies
- Phoenix Mayor Willis Plunkett
- Tempe Mayor Cecil Woodward
- State Veterinarian R. L. Hight
- City Editor of the Arizona Gazette Tom Akers
- Editor of the Tempe Daily News Court Miller
The list of names also included Maricopa County Attorney R. E. L. Shepherd, the lead prosecutor of the KKK members that beat Jones. Shepherd helped argue against accepting the Klan letter into evidence.
Shepherd admitted his membership during the probe and joined many other confessions and resignations from the Klan after the letter was released.
The KKK's prominent presence in Arizona would continue in the years following the trial, conducting cross burnings and rallies throughout the state.
The hate group's powerful status in the state faded after the election of 1924, where candidates labeled themselves either "pro-Klan" or "anti-Klan," the Journal of Arizona History article said. Because of the controversy associated with the Klan in Arizona and across the nation, both the Republican and Democrat parties largely implemented strong anti-Klan messaging.
Election results from around Arizona saw the defeat of every candidate with alleged Klan ties, except for then-Governor George Hunt, who had been accused of making a deal with the hate group to not press for any anti-Klan legislation in return for their support.
Why is the Klan still in Arizona?
The wide-sweeping failure to secure political wins and the turning of public opinion caused the Arizona-based Klan branches to fade into the background, the article said. After November of 1924, no other Klan activities were reported in state newspapers.
That is, until April 7, 2022, when The Phoenix New Times broke the news that a neo-Nazi group called the "Aryan Nations Knights of the Ku Klux Klan" made its home in Glendale.
Historians in the state weren't surprised to hear this.
"I'm not shocked by it," Whitaker said. "Arizona has long been considered low-hanging fruit for organized racists, neo-Nazis and Klan members. If there are places that Klan members would want to relocate to after being run out of other areas, Arizona has long been the place."
Political rhetoric was mentioned by Whitaker as one of the reasons why Arizona has been the place for fleeing Klansmen. Anti-Semitic dog whistles shared by Arizona State Senator Wendy Rogers, neo-Nazi leaflets put up around ASU and Swastikas painted around the Valley are just some examples of this kind of rhetoric.
The roots of the KKK are also still present throughout the Valley in more subtle ways, like Tempe recently finding out that several of the city's schools, parks and streets were named after Klansmen.
The Glendale KKK headquarters story was published as the country's largest conference on genocide was held in Tempe. Sheryl Bronkesh, President of the Phoenix Holocaust Association and co-leader of the conference, said the story was being passed around at the conference the day it was published.
"People kept handing the story to me asking if I had seen it," Bronkesh said. "No one had any idea their headquarters were in Glendale."
Bronkesh has been an advocate for furthering education in the state on topics like hate groups and genocides in an effort to stop them from happening in the future. Her advocacy helped pass a law in 2021 that mandates education on the Holocaust and other genocides in Arizona schools.
"Today’s generation of students are the last to have the opportunity to meet and hear from a Holocaust survivor, a victim of the genocide that claimed more than six million Jewish lives,” Bronkest said recently in response to the death of Holocaust survivor Gerda Klein.
"Arizona is a place where segregationists and white supremacists feel like they will be left alone, if not welcomed," Whitaker said. "Many Arizonans have to ask themselves, 'why do they feel that way?'."
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