Klan Rags: A True Story of Jewish Defiance in 1920s Alabama – Lawrence D. Weiss

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When Louis Miller, owner of the Tennessee Poultry and Hide Company, arrived at work one morning sometime in the 1920s his attention was riveted by a crude handwritten notice nailed to the front door. “GET OUT OF TOWN. [signed] KU KLUX.”

Miller had immigrated to the United States in 1913. In the Czar’s Russia, Jews were periodically attacked by anti-Semitic thugs who stole property, burned homes and businesses, and vented their hate by murdering Jews. Louis only had a seventh grade education by the time he arrived in New York because anti-Jewish quotas in Minsk schools prevented him during some years from attending class.

Louis thrived in the freedom of the new land. By day he worked for his brother who owned a small candy store, and by night he went to school to learn English and take citizenship classes. Patiently he studied, worked, and saved his money. He was determined to become an American citizen. He had already fulfilled the dream for which generations of his family had prayed — he was in a country where a person was judged by his own merit and free to practice his own religious beliefs.

After a few years in New York Louis ventured out to Paris, Tennessee, to visit a sister who lived there. His first exposure to Southern culture came as somewhat of a shock. He later told the story of how people he passed in the railroad station would smile and say, “Good morning. How are you?” As he walked down the street complete strangers greeted him in a friendly manner. This was quite unusual, but certainly pleasant for the young emigrant.

After Miller realized it had not been a case of mistaken identity, but rather that the South was simply a friendlier place than New York, he decided to settle there. Traveling down to Decatur, Alabama, he quickly found a job and sent his brother a telegram asking him to pack up his stuff and send it south.

Louis Miller was an asset to his adopted hometown. He joined the local Temple, became active in community affairs, and was an outspoken advocate of the individual right to freedom.

He was so outspoken he soon came to the attention of the local Ku Klux Klan.

Huntsville’s original Klan had been founded in 1867 as a means to combat the consequences of Reconstruction. In 1872, after a Congressional hearing held in Huntsville exposed many of its brutalities, the Klan disbanded — only to rear its ugly head again in the early 1900s in response to the release of the popular racist film, “Birth of a Nation.”

By 1920 the Klan had become a powerful organization in Huntsville. They had their own laws and even conducted their own trials. They had become, as one historian put it so aptly, “the invisible government.“

Businessmen felt they had to belong in order to do business, and politicians felt they had to belong in order to do politics. Even if you did not agree with them, the local wisdom was that it was better to keep your mouth shut. In a perverse sense of fairness it needs to be said that the local Klan did not discriminate. They hated equally — Blacks, Jews, foreigners, and Northerners.

Miller fit most of the criteria, a fact that the Klan quickly realized.

Louis Miller hated the Klan, and he publicly took issue with them. He simply could not understand how, in the land of the free, a group of bigoted night-riders could intimidate a whole community. In his anger at the Klan he said in public more than a few times that, one day he was “going to buy those Klan robes and tear them up into wiping rags.”

Miller‘s threats infuriated the Klan who soon put out word that he was a marked man.

After finding the Klan eviction notice on his door, Miller sent word to the Klan leaders that if they came after him, he would be ready for them. At five-foot-four-inches he was not physically a very imposing man, and he wasn’t really a very good shot, either. However, at that time there was a shooting gallery next door to the Tennesee Poultry and Hide Company. Every day Louis visited the gallery, plunked down his money, and practiced shooting with rifles and pistols. After a while he became a superb marksman, a fact he made sure that everyone knew. He also made sure that the Klan realized If that if they came after him they might get him, but they were likely to lose some of their own in the process.

Still, despite his bravado, he realized the danger. He constantly kept a gun close by at work and at home. His orders to his wife were, “If anybody knocks at night when I am not at home, don‘t open the door.” Not knowing when the Klan might come after him, Miller would answer the door with a rifle or pistol in hand.

The citizens of Huntsville surely expected a bloody confrontation, most likely ending with someone lying dead in the streets. But suddenly, for no apparent reason, the Klan stopped harassing Miller. It would be years before he discovered the reason why.

Miller had a few friends and business acquaintances who were also members of the Klan, and it was one of them who eventually told him the whole story. The Huntsville Klan had put Louis Miller on trial in absentia at a special Klan meeting called for that purpose. Louis was charged with speaking in public against the Klan. Among other specific examples, he was charged with insulting the Klan by threatening repeatedly in public to tear their robes into wiping rags.

The trial was a major event in the local Klan community. Both a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney were designated. The man who eventually told Louis the story offered to serve as defense attorney. Klan members in the hall were the jury.

When it came time during the trial for the defense attorney to say his piece, he argued, “I‘ve known Louis Miller for a number of years. In fact I’ve known him ever since he came to Huntsville. He left Russia to find a place of freedom. I know that because he told me. Yes, he is in disagreement with the Klan. Louis Miller has a right to speak against us just as any other American does. He even has the right to speak against his government, but he is speaking against the Klan. I don‘t find that to be anything he should be put on trial for. I don’t think it is wrong.”

During his summation the defense attorney made his point as strongly as he could. “I joined the Klan because I thought it was a worthwhile organization, but I’m submitting my resignation from the Klan tonight because I don‘t feel like it is the kind of organization I need to belong to.”

He did resign, and after some time he told Louis about the trial. In part because one solitary person had dared to oppose the Klan, it quickly began losing public support. Members drifted away and in a few years the Huntsville Klan had almost disappeared.

The story might have ended there if it had not been for a phone call Miller received in the early 1930s. “Louie, are you still dealing in wiping rags?“ Miller, thinking it was just another business call in an already hectic day replied, “Yes, if the price is right.”

The caller went on to explain the purpose of his call. “I‘ve been renting a meeting hall to the Ku Klux Klan, but they haven‘t been active for a couple of years and they haven’t been paying any rent. I‘m going to have to rent it to somebody else but I got a bunch of their old robes on the floor in a pile in the meeting hall, and I was just wondering if you would be interested in buying them.”

Remembering his threats years earlier to sell the Klan’s robes as wiping rags, he tried to control his excitement. “Where are you now?” asked Miller. The caller replied, “I‘m at the meeting hall,” and gave Louis the address. The rag buyer was already grabbing for his hat and coat as he yelled into the phone, “Don’t you leave! I’ll be there in ten minutes. I’ll buy them from you. I’ll buy them all from you!”

On the short trip to the now defunct Klan meeting hall he began worrying about what price the seller might demand. “I want to buy them, but there‘s only so much I can pay for them to make them into wiping rags.” But then he thought about what was really important to him. “It doesn’t make any difference,” he thought to himself. “No matter what he wants for them, I’m going to pay it. I’m going to get them. I‘m going to do what I said I was going to do.“

So Louis Miller, Jewish dealer in rags, soon showed up at the former Klan meeting hall to buy a pile of Klan robes. With little dickering the deal was struck. They shook hands with Louis telling the seller, “I’ll send two or three men to the hall in about an hour to pick up the robes and I’ll send you a check today.”

Actually, if it had not been for the hate and violence the robes represented they would have been quite attractive. Made out of fine white linen, the robes were decorated with large colorful embroidered dragons and Celtic crosses.

If locals were wondering what a Jewish dealer wanted with old Klan robes they soon found the answer. Every morning Miller would have an employee push a pallet loaded with Klan robes out to the space between the sidewalk and the street. They would remain there all day, every day.

Miller often sat in his office watching the reactions of people as they walked by. The robes were in a pile, but you could tell what they were because of all of the embroidered Klan emblems. Some people hung their heads and pretended not to see the pile. Some would do a double-take, and others would stop and stare at the pile of Klan robes.

After a couple months of displaying the robes, a friend of Miller’s called. “Louie,” the friend said, “I know that you said you were going to buy these robes and make them into wiping rags, and I know you’ve had a lot of fun displaying them. But, you know, I was a member of the Klan. Don’t you think you’ve had enough fun with those robes now?”

Miller responded to his friend’s question with a question of his own.“Let me ask you this… are you asking me, or are you telling me?“ His friend gently and perhaps sheepishly replied, “I’m asking you.” Louis said. “Well, OK. But if you were ‘telling’ me, those damn things would stay on display for years! But we‘ll take them in and I’ll do what I said I’d do with them.”

One day, shortly after he agreed to stop displaying the robes, Louis received a call from a widow woman who was a friend of his and who had heard about the robes. “Louie,” she asked. “what are you going to do with the embroidered emblems?” “Well, I guess I‘ll have to take those off before we make them into wiping rags.“ The robes were made out of first class white cotton, and they would make a premium grade of wiping rag.

The widow woman then explained her proposition. “If you send those uniforms out to my house, I’ll take the emblems off of them and all you’ll have to do is wash the robes and tear them up into wiping rags. I won’t charge you anything, but I want the emblems.” Miller quickly agreed to the deal and had an employee take the robes out to her house.

One day, long after Louis got the robes back without the emblems, and long after all the Klan robes had been torn into wiping rags, Louis got a call from his friend, the widow woman. “Come by the house sometime and I‘ll show you what I did with the emblems.”

A few hours later Miller was standing in the lady’s house, in awe of her creation. Transforming the symbols of hate into a thing of beauty, she had sewn a gorgeous patchwork quilt out of the emblems. The biggest emblem was in the middle, surrounded by the next biggest emblems, and those surrounded by the next biggest in a profusion of swirling colors to the very edges of the quilt.

As he stared at the women’s extraordinary creation he said, half to himself, “You know. I would have never thought that something so bad could be turned into something so beautiful.”

Epilogue

This is a true story based on an interview with Louis Miller’s son Buddy in 1999. Louis Miller, the young man who emigrated from Russia in search of freedom, died in 1966. At the time of the interview the daughter of the woman who made the quilt had inherited it and still lived in Huntsville. The former Tennessee Poultry and Hide Company was known as L. Miller & Son, Inc., and was operated by Louis’ son, Buddy, and Buddy’s son, Sol.

 

Lawrence D. Weiss, PhD, has lived in Anchorage, Alaska, since 1982, punctuated by a sabatical in Huntsville, Alabama, 1999-2000, to research and write a book. He formerly taught public health at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and has been the executive director of two nonprofit organizations engaged in public health and social policy matters. He is the author of several books and numerous papers on topics such as the economic history of the Navajo people; public health issues, policy, and systems; Alaska gold rush era history, and personal memoirs.

1 thought on “Klan Rags: A True Story of Jewish Defiance in 1920s Alabama – Lawrence D. Weiss

  1. Betty Schwartz

    I really enjoyed this story. History written with the dialogue and drama of real time fiction is very compelling.

    Reply

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