By Alan Bean
Bud Kennedy, a columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, recently submitted a column linking J. Frank Norris, the infamous Fort Worth hell-raiser, to the Ku Klux Klan. It has often been noted that leading fundamentalists of the first half of the 20th century tended to be anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and thoroughly racist, but is there a logical link between fundamentalism, as a religious phenomenon, and racism?
The fighting fundamentalists of the 1920s and 30s (Norris in Fort Worth and Detroit, T.T. Shields in Toronto, W.B. Riley in Minneapolis, John R. Rice in Dallas and Illinois) supported racial segregation and railed against evolution. But as Randy Moore pointed out a decade ago, a dumbed-down version of Darwinism was used by self-conscious racists to support the doctrine of white supremacy long before evolution became the whipping boy of racist fundamentalist preachers.
The link between religious fundamentalism, anti-evolutionary rhetoric and support for segregation was more sociological than logical. The common folk who flocked to the fundamentalist movement were reassured by talk of an inerrant Bible, support for white supremacy and opposition to scientific theories that appeared to undermine biblical authority. Men like Shields lashed out at evolutionists for the same reason they supported racial segregation–it put butts in the seats. For self-promoters like Norris, that was always the bottom line.
Pandering to the fears and enthusiasms of the ignorant is still a smart marketing principle for professional religionists, but appeals to white supremacy are no long in vogue. Fundamentalists like Al Mohler oppose evolution in part, because it has been used to support the doctrine of white supremacy.
Sixty years after his death, we are still learning about America’s first over-the-top radio preacher.
We know the Rev. J. Frank Norris crusaded from Fort Worth against liquor, liberals, commies and, yes, Catholics.
We know he killed a man in his First Baptist Church office and successfully claimed self-defense.
Now, thanks to recent research, we know he was closer than we ever thought to the Ku Klux Klan.
A Virginia pastor’s recent book on Norris, The Shooting Salvationist, tells us more than earlier Norris books about a Norris associate, the Rev. L.P. Bloodworth, a local Methodist minister who became Grand Dragon of the Texas Ku Klux Klan.
Previous Norris biographers have described the Fundamentalist Baptist pastor as “Klan-friendly” but reported no direct connection to the hooded secret society that dominated Tarrant County and Texas politics in the Prohibition-era 1920s.
But according to David R. Stokes’ book, Norris not only ordained Bloodworth as an independent Baptist pastor but also later hired the by-then-former Klan Grand Dragon to teach at First Baptist Church.
The mutual admiration between Norris and Bloodworth was already clear by July 24, 1926, when Norris was facing a murder charge and Texas newspapers bannered headlines such as “Grand Dragon Says Ku Klux Klan Backing J. Frank.”
“I have known him for 17 years,” said Bloodworth, then 30, “and in all that time he has been an outstanding crusader for Protestant Christianity.”
At the time, Norris was claiming that local Catholics aligned with anti-Klan Mayor H.C. Meacham had rigged a grand jury to indict him.
A report in The Associated Press quoted Norris: “Those who think the Klan is dead are badly mistaken. This fight of mine will rally them. The organization is growing by leaps and bounds.”
From his pulpit one Sunday, Norris invited Grand Dragon Bloodworth to lead prayer.
According to one account, Bloodworth gave thanks for Norris’ life and boldness, to choruses of “Amen.”
Bloodworth, the son of a regionally prominent Methodist minister who lived in the Polytechnic neighborhood, became pastor of Methodist churches in San Antonio, Illinois and Alabama, in some cases while serving as the Klan chaplain or Texas Grand Dragon.
He resigned as state Grand Dragon in 1926, according to newspaper archives.
By then, the Klan had dominated Tarrant County for five years under the local “Kleagle,” lawyer and former state Sen. Bill Hanger.
The then-Fat Stock Show even had “Klan Day.”
To Norris, that was every Sunday.