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In “To Walk Humbly,” a historical novel, the Ku Klux Klan’s influence is on display

Author Laurie Marr Wasmund invokes 1920s Denver landmarks in an excerpt where the Klan appeals to the business interests of prospective members

Laurie Marr Wasmund grew up on a cattle ranch in Colorado. She holds an M.A. in literature from the University of Denver. She has worked as an editor, community college instructor, and national writing workshop presenter. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines such as Cimarron Review and Weber Studies. She is the author of “My Heart Lies Here,” a novel of the Ludlow Massacre; “Clean Cut, A Romance of the Western Heart”; and the White Winter Trilogy, which is set in Colorado during the Great War and the 1920s. 

The third book of the trilogy, “To Walk Humbly,” was a 2020 finalist for the Mainstream/Literary book award from the Colorado Authors League. It also received a 2020 EVVY third place award in Historical Fiction from the Colorado Independent Publishers Association.

The following is an excerpt from “To Walk Humbly.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


2020 Colorado Authors League finalist for Mainstream/Literary

When Mary Jane arrived home from Graves Industries, she heard Avery and Ross arguing. She set down her bag and kicked off her shoes before she went into the living room. Her mother sat on the couch, her Bible next to her and a number of religious magazines piled before her. Nearly every wall was decorated with a picture of Jesus or a cross. The heated voices came from the kitchen.

“What’s going on?” Mary Jane asked.

“I don’t know,” her mother said. “But it’s giving me a headache.”

“Why don’t you lie down? I’ll start dinner.”

The moment Mary Jane walked through the kitchen door, Avery roared, “This is secret. Go away.”

“If it’s about the quarry, part of it is mine, too—”

“It isn’t about the quarry,” Ross said calmly. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Well, you’re giving Mom a headache, and I need to start dinner.”

“In a few minutes.”

Laurie Marr Wasmund

She left the room, but once she was upstairs, she sulked. If they wouldn’t let her into the kitchen, then she would do her other chores. Changing into an old skirt, she went to the garden to water the tomatoes. The garden was just beyond the kitchen window, a perfect place to hear what went on in the kitchen. If she stood in the middle of the row of pumpkins, she could see Ross and Avery as well.

“Please, Ross,” Avery said. “You have to listen to me.”

“I have been listening to you, and not a word of it makes sense.”

“It would be so good for the quarry. Everybody’s doing it, and it’s helping them with their businesses, because people know it’s okay. And the Klan uses a secret code, so that you can tell whether you can trust someone or not.”

“A secret code?”

“You know, special words and stuff. I can’t tell you more because only members are allowed to know—”

“I don’t want to know more. I don’t need a secret code to know who to trust.”

“Look, you’re supposed to follow something called Klannishness—it’s in this pamphlet.” Avery read from a small book: “‘Trading, dealing with and patronizing Klansmen in preference to all others. Employing Klansmen in preference to others whenever possible. Boosting each other’s business interests or professional ability; honorably doing any and all things that will assist a Klansman to earn an honest dollar’—”

“Or a dishonest dollar. Where did the ten dollars that you paid go?”

“Oh, they’re completely straight about that. Four dollars goes to Mr. Burns, who is the Kleagle who sponsored me. That’s what I want to be—the more people you recruit, the more money you make. One dollar goes to the King Kleagle, whoever recruited Mr. Burns. Then five dollars to the Imperial Fund, which pays the Grand Dragon two dollars—”

“That’s Dr. Locke, right?” 

“Right.”

“So, the entire ten dollars goes to men who are getting rich off other men. Where does the money for your charity work come from?”

“I don’t know. Maybe from the robes, they’re six-fifty each.”

“That’s quite a price for a bed sheet.”

“You wouldn’t be so hard on it if you knew more! It’s almost like church. The meeting always opens with a prayer and a Bible verse from  the twelfth chapter in Romans—”

“Which says what, exactly?”

“A whole bunch of stuff about loving your neighbor and all that.”

“Well, let’s just find out.”

Ross rose, and Mary Jane stepped out of his line of vision. 

“Here’s Romans 12:3.” Ross read from the Bible.For by the grace given to me, I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.’” He paused. “Isn’t calling yourself better than a Catholic ‘thinking more highly’ than you ought?”

“No, because Catholics aren’t Christians—”

Ross read from the Bible again. “‘Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor’—none of this sounds like what you’re describing.”

“To Walk Humbly” by Laurie Marr Wasmund

“Come with me to the Ice Cream Social tonight,” Avery pleaded. “It’s not fair for you to judge it before you’ve seen it.”

“Can Mary Jane come, too?” Ross asked. “She’s been out in the North Forty listening to us all this time.”

Mary Jane started. She might have known that Ross would see her. With a chuckle, she went inside.

Avery gave her a scathing look. “Sure, it’s for families,” he said. “And you’ll both see that the Klan is about honor and loyalty, about keeping this country in the hands of the white men who started it and run it now. And protecting things like free speech, and keeping the public schools free from religion, and bringing the Bible back into the schools to teach morals—”

“Isn’t having the Bible in school the same as having religion in the school?” Ross asked.

“What?” Avery asked. “No, it’s the Bible, not some Catholic or Jew book—”

Afraid Avery might rescind the invitation if Ross kept on, Mary Jane said, “We’ll keep an open mind tonight, just as we did at the Pillar of Fire. Right, Ross?”

He grimaced in response. 

The ice cream social was held at Cotton Mills, a long-abandoned textile factory along the Platte River near Santa Fe Drive. The brick building, which had once housed the mill’s executives, served as offices for the Klan, while the empty warehouse had been transformed into a meeting area with grandstands.

As Avery entered the building, he was greeted by two men, who wore neither hoods nor robes. “AYAK?”

“AKIA,” Avery replied proudly. “And these are my guests.”

“Welcome,” one of the men said. “Enjoy your evening.”

“See,” Avery said as they had passed out of earshot. “That’s the secret code I told you about. You have to join to find out what it means.”

Ross rolled his eyes at Mary Jane.

Inside, carnival games had been set up on what was once the factory floor. A kiddie-sized train creaked away on an oval track at the far end of the building. The place bustled with energy and laughter, as mothers and children played the games and helped themselves to free ice cream served by men in white shirts and black trousers.

Ross bought tickets for himself and Mary Jane to play the games. Moving around the floor, they tested themselves at throwing a baseball into a milk can; tossing a ring over a set of Coke bottles; and knocking down targets that were stuffed with beans and slyly weighted at the bottom. Ross won a teddy bear at cornhole and handed it to Mary Jane.

Taking a break from the noise and the children who crowded around the games, they sat at an ornate wrought-iron table in soda fountain chairs to eat free ice cream. As Mary Jane’s cone dripped in the overheated shell of the factory, she asked Ross, “What do you think?”

“It could be a church fair, for all the evidence I see of the Klan here.”

A gray-haired woman approached them, a bundle of pamphlets in her hands. “Here’s a list of KIGY businesses where you should shop. Look for the sign in the window—”

“K-I-G-Y?” Ross asked. “What’s that?”

“You aren’t a Klansman?”

“No, I’m a guest of one.”

“You’ll be one soon enough,” she said confidently. “It’s hard to resist such a welcoming organization. K-I-G-Y means ‘Klansman I Greet You.’ It tells you that the store you’re shopping at is owned by a 100% American. Any other stores, you’re sending your money to the Pope or the Jews.” She addressed Mary Jane. “So no more Sears or Montgomery Ward, young lady.”

“I don’t—”

The woman moved on, and Ross pushed the list toward Mary Jane.

“Here,” he said. “Buy your K-L-O-T-H-E-S here.”

Mary Jane laughed.

As if on cue, two men in white shirts and black trousers appeared at the table and sat down without asking for permission. Mary Jane glanced over their heads to where the woman who had just visited the table was watching. Obviously, she had sent them over.

“We hear you’re considering joining the Ku Klux Klan,” one of the men said.

“No,” Ross denied. “I’m not—”

“You’re Avery Grayson’s brother, aren’t you?” The other man said. “I’m Mr. Smith and this is Mr. Herrington.” He eyed Mary Jane. “And you are, Miss?”

“This is my sister, Miss Grayson,” Ross said.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The men greeted her. “Since you own your own business,” Mr. Smith said, “you must be looking for ways to improve your business.”

“I am,” Ross acknowledged.

“With all the immigrants and others who came in after the war taking what they can, it’s hard for the true American to compete.” Mr. Herrington continued in the style of a preacher. “But America is for Americans. We need to be on our guard against the alien and the anarchist, who would destroy American principles. Our enemies are many, and it’s the place of the Ku Klux Klan to rouse the spirit of the real American to stand guard against these foes, whether they be white, black, or yellow.”

Mr. Smith said, “Our hope is to become not just an organization that helps the average businessman along, but one that takes part in the political process so that we elect those who will make strong laws that protect our interests. I’m sure you want to protect your business.”

“I do, but—”

“Mrs. Smith, who you just met, says that she’s already told you about the KIGY signs that hang in stores. Those signs bring in the kind of customers that you’d want to deal with—people who pay their bills, who aren’t bad outside influences, who think and worship as you do. What serious businessman wouldn’t want that sort of customer?”

“I own a laundry,” Mr. Herrington said. “Since I put that sign in my window, we have been receiving orders from the best families in town. Their clothes are of good quality and still so clean that we almost don’t need to do our job.” He laughed. “Although we do, mind you. But my workers know that the clothes they are touching haven’t been worn by anyone with a lung disease or of a certain skin color or—well, you understand.”

Ross looked toward Mary Jane, but at that moment, a loud speaker blared to life. “Please, assemble outside for the night’s Grand March. Please, outside, now, for the—”

“Oh, you have to see this,” Mr. Smith said. “This will make you join tonight.”

They shook hands with Ross and disappeared, as the crowd began to wind down their game-playing and ice cream eating. A few who complained about still having unused tickets were given consolation prizes at the door.

Outside, Klansmen in full regalia directed the spectators to the foot of Ruby Hill, which rose one hundred feet above the Platte River. After the crowd had assembled, a phalanx of silent Klansmen marched from the illuminated stadium to the hill. In three perfectly straight lines, they stood in complete silence, staring out at the crowd.

“Which one’s Avery?” Mary Jane whispered to Ross.

“Thirteenth from the left, second row.”

Mary Jane stood on tiptoe, straining to count, until she realized that Ross was teasing. “Ha ha,” she whispered in his ear.

Atop Ruby Hill, a towering cross burst into flame, the whoosh echoing through the river valley below. The Klansmen covered their hearts with their left hands and placed their right hands on the left shoulders of the Klansmen next to them. To the tune of “Blest Be the Ties that Bind,” they sang: “Blest be the Klansman’s tie, Of real fraternal love, That binds us in a fellowship, Akin to that above.

A Klansman stepped forward. “United in the sacred bond of klannish fidelity we stand,” he intoned. “But divided by selfishness and strife we fall; shall we stand, or shall we fall?”

In one voice, the others answered: “We will stand, for our blood is not pledged in vain.”

Ross shifted from one foot to another.

“Now we will sing the Kloxology,” the Klansman announced.

They joined in the tune to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”: “God of Eternity, Guard, guide our great country, Our homes and store. Keep our great state to Thee, Its people right and free. In us thy glory be, Forevermore.

“Those aren’t the words I learned in school,” Mary Jane whispered.

“Or the words we sing at church for the Doxology.”

“Anyone who wants to join, please see me now,” the leader announced.

The Klansmen marched in silence back toward the mill, leaving the crowd on its own.

“Are you going to join?” Mary Jane asked Ross.

“Good God, no. Let’s go home.”

“Don’t we need to wait for Avery?”

“No, he told me that he has a ride home. I’m suspecting it’s our dear, departed brother, Matt.”

Mary Jane laughed, but didn’t scold.

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