Colorado voters swept Clarence Morley into the governor’s office in a historic landslide in 1924. Today, you won’t find a statue honoring him. Instead, Morley is a fading embarrassment. His First Lady, Maud Thompson Morley, is a mere footnote on a shameful page of Colorado history. Why remember him at all? Because the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) handpicked Clarence Morley as Colorado’s governor.
In the 1920s, the Invisible Empire of the KKK loomed large in Colorado. Hooded men conducted rallies in such revered venues as the Brown Palace Hotel and at Lakeside Amusement Park. Lawmakers even toted their hoods and robes to the State Capitol. The eerie glow of burning crosses on Golden’s South Table Mountain illuminated Denver’s sky.
Sheeted minions marched against the backdrop of astonishing change sweeping the nation in the wake of World War I. The 1920s ushered in a period of moral laxity in the eyes of millions of Americans. Evolution reared its head in schools. Cultural alarm grew over titillating moving pictures, scandalous dancing, revealing fashions, and women bobbing their hair, smoking and quaffing bathtub gin—for libations flowed freely despite Prohibition.
The wave of immigration from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean crested, adding to the Irish and Italian Catholic populations already in Colorado. Catholics were the subject of fear and scorn in Colorado. They sent their children to parochial schools, seen by many as a resistance to assimilation into American society. Catholics made and drank wine, a practice that flew in the face of temperance. Add to that the crime wave of bootlegging and violence associated with Prohibition. Crime families with foreign-sounding names in Pueblo and Denver controlled booze, loan-sharking and gambling. They meted out punishment with an iron and bloody fist. Rampant police corruption diminished public trust in institutions to maintain order.
Many fearful Coloradans were desperate to reign in their society. Cloaking itself in populism, the Klan rode in as a patriotic crusade, promoting law and order, pushing to stamp out bootlegging and police corruption, stuffing donations into church poor boxes, and offering visions of paved streets and new schools to an embattled population.
Membership in the KKK exploded as many respectable Coloradans—including ministers, doctors and community leaders—joined. The Klan in Colorado also boasted a women’s auxiliary that performed acts of charity. One might imagine Maud Morley, Colorado’s future First Lady, bestowing KKK kindness—to the right kind of people.
The organization remained secret. Members paraded with hoods shielding their identities. Local merchants employed a code for making known their support of the Klan. Businesses like the Klean Kountry Kottages and Kool Kozy Kafe, “serving fish every day—except Friday,” sold CYANA cigars, an acronym for “Catholics, You Are Not Americans.” Citizens knew which businesses to patronize, and which to avoid. No strangers to marketing, the Klan charged a ten-dollar initiation fee or “klectoken” and sold robes, regalia, and its handbook, the “Kloran.” Today, Klan paraphernalia is collectible, mostly absent the names of the original owners.
Sticking to local issues, the KKK quickly made strides in Colorado politics. Colorado Grand Dragon John Galen Locke exploited an inept and corrupt city government to push Klan-picked candidates. In Denver, Klan support propelled Benjamin F. Stapleton into the mayor’s office in 1923. The Klan ushered Rice Means into the U.S. Senate, joining rumored KKK moneyman Lawrence Phipps. In the 1924 election, the KKK stacked the statehouse, winning majorities in the House and Senate. The Klan elected the secretary of state and secured a Supreme Court judgeship and seven benches on the Denver District Court. Governor William E. Sweet, who denounced the Klan, went down in defeat to Clarence F. Morley, the “klokan” or chief investigator of the Denver “klavern” or KKK chapter.
Born in Iowa, Morley moved to Trinidad, Colorado, in 1890. He attended law school at the University of Denver, practiced law and served on the Denver School Board before his election as district judge of Denver in 1918. By 1925, he sat in the governor’s chair, parroting Klan rhetoric condemning the takeover of Colorado by foreigners. His vitriol toward all things un-American was thinly veiled as an attack on Catholics, and further, on immigration. His goal wasn’t simply to eliminate the use of demon alcohol by banning the use of sacramental wine; it was to stop key elements of Catholic practice, thus the religion itself. Morley espoused the view that if public schools weren’t good enough for Catholic children, then Catholics should not teach in public schools. He agitated for the University of Colorado to fire all non-Protestant (that is, Catholic and Jewish) professors.
Morley was a catalyst for change, although not the change the KKK envisioned. His strident “anti” stance awakened anti-Klan sentiment among politicians and citizens. Despite legislative majorities, he was unable to advance the Klan’s agenda. Alarmed politicians on both sides of the aisle derailed almost all Klan-sponsored legislation in committee. Of over 1,000 Klan-supported bills introduced in the heady days after the Klan sweep of the statehouse, only around 150 made it to Morley’s desk. His legislative victories included enabling the state to self-insure public buildings, developing a successful inmate labor program, and requiring display of the American flag in front of public schools. He also signed the Colorado River Compact, allocating water among states through which the mighty river flowed.
Morley failed to win popularity amongst Colorado’s citizenry. His legislation strengthening Prohibition led to public perception of heavy-handedness by police in overzealous enforcement of the alcohol ban. Ironically, the public also decried his numerous acts of clemency. In 1927, he decided not to run for reelection, perhaps his most popular decision. The Klan stain on the Republican Party lasted until Ralph Carr won the governorship in 1938. Governor Carr’s staunch support of the rights of Japanese-Americans no doubt would have been anathema to the Klan-dominated Republican Party of the 1920s.
The Klan’s brief reign in Colorado politics ended in 1926. Mayor Stapleton denounced the Klan, and Denver subsequently named its airport in his honor.
Morley slunk out of town and started a stock brokerage firm in Indianapolis. By the early 1930s, he was back in Denver practicing law. In 1935, he was arrested for mail fraud and using his prestige as a past governor to defraud. He served five years in Leavenworth and died in Oklahoma in 1948. Morley’s greatest point of distinction is as the only Colorado governor to serve time in federal prison. Thus far, that is.
Kimberly Field holds a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and a master’s in journalism. Kimberly writes for national and local publications on topics ranging from politics to western lifestyle to the influence of volcanoes in impressionist art. She is the co-author of The Denver Mint: 100 Years of Gangsters, Gold and Ghosts (a finalist for the 2008 Colorado Book Award), and is at work on her third book, A Centennial History of Westminster, Colorado, which will be published in January 2011. Kimberly worked as an archeologist, participating in excavations in St. Augustine, Florida, the southeast United States and the Caribbean. She is the author of regional histories and cultural resource assessments for the U.S. Government and independent archeological firms. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Littleton Museum and is active in the non-profit community.
Goldberg, Robert Allen. Hooded Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Noel, Thomas J. Colorado Catholicism: The Archdiocese of Denver, 1857–1989. Tihen: Time of Trial (1917–1931), Denver: Archdiocese of Denver, 1989.
Lamm, Richard D., and Duane A. Smith. Pioneers and Politicians: Ten Colorado Governors in Profile. Boulder: Pruett Publishing Co., 1984.
Quillen, Ed, “Welcome to Kolorado, Klan Kountry,” Colorado Springs Independent, May 22, 2003.
“The Rise and Fall of the K.K.K.,” Denver Post Empire, September 21, 1969.