In which union comrades defy the Klu Klux Klan.
Sven Johansson was so busy examining the imposing white-washed building across Tenth Street that he didn’t hear the black car pull up alongside the curb behind him. All at once his arms were seized on either side, and he was hustled toward the open car door. Before he could mount any serious resistance, he was thrust into the back-seat alongside a man in a zippered jacket. One of his captors slid in beside him, the other taking his place up front with the driver.
Sven sat quietly, waiting for an explanation. He had been strolling along Gaffey Street, minding his own business and enjoying the quiet of the afternoon when on a whim he had decided to walk a couple of blocks up Tenth Street to check out the imposing white-washed brick building that was the San Pedro headquarters of the much-feared Klu Klux Klan.
Sven was a longshoreman and a member of the IWW, a radical union spearheading a strike on the San Pedro docks. He and his companions had called a stoppage to demand a pay raise and safer, more dependable working conditions. The strike had brought the port to a standstill with dozens of vessels sitting in the water, still laden with their cargo, much to the chagrin of local business leaders, who were putting pressure on the mayor and the police to intervene and break the strike. Some of the more unscrupulous tycoons had also enlisted the services of the Klu Klux Klan in an effort to threaten and intimidate the strikers into returning to work.
“Spying on us, eh,” said the man next to him in a brusque tone.
Sven stared into the man’s cold blue eyes. Then he shook his head.
“Just taking a walk,” he replied. “It’s a free country, ain’t it?”
“Oh sure,” said the man with a frosty smile. There was no warmth in his voice. “But we know who you are, Johannsen! You’re a ‘wobbly’! A troublemaker! Scum like you get the dockworkers all riled up, and next thing you know, they’re all out on strike, holding up business and ruining the economy.”
He paused, and fixed Sven with a look of pure malevolence.
“We’re gonna root you vermin out,” he hissed, “and then we’ll crush you just like you squash cockroaches!”
As if to emphasize his point he pressed sharply down on Sven’s toes with the heel of his boot.
The longshoreman clenched his teeth to avoid a grunt of distress. The man had pushed downward with all his strength, but Sven was determined not to give the man the satisfaction of knowing he had inflicted pain.
“Now we’re gonna take a little drive,” grunted the man in the front.
As the Ford motor car slid forward down the slope, Sven had a chance to observe his captors. The man who had done most of the talking was broad-shouldered, and the sleeves of his checked shirt were stretched tight across his biceps. He had a fleshy face, stringy black hair combed over his balding crown, and a pencil-thin moustache above thick downward curling lips.
The man with the zippered jacket was stocky and ruddy-faced with sandy hair. The man in the front passenger seat was a thin sour-faced individual, hunched up in a baggy shapeless suit, and Sven could make out little of the driver who had a flat cap pulled well down over his eyes.
Sven, toughened by long days of labor on the docks was not afraid. He was confident that he could have resisted any one of these men, even two of them together, but four was something of a challenge! Curs hunt in packs, he thought ruefully!
The car crossed Gaffey and Grand before turning left on Pacific. After several blocks the driver pulled up outside a school playground.
The man with the moustache stared again at Sven and growled:
“Barton Hill Elementary School, Johannsen. Your daughter, Inga, is a student here. I’m sure she’s the apple of your eye! We wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to her, now would we?”
Sven stiffened in his seat.
“Leave her out of this, you bastard,” he snarled angrily. “You can do whatever you like to me. I’ve been beaten before! I can take it! But you lay a finger on my little girl, and I’ll…”
“You’ll what?” said the other with a supercilious grin.
“Tear you limb from limb!” exclaimed Sven with a burst of rage.
He tried to move, but the two men on either side held his arms tightly.
“We think it’s high time you and your red friends got back to work,” his tormenter continued. “So pass this message on to your Wobbly comrades: call off the strike or there’s going to be real trouble! That’s a promise from the Klan!”
He nodded to the driver, who took off down the street at some speed, turning back towards the KKK headquarters on Tenth. A block before they arrived, the car turned into an alley behind a corner market and stopped by a row of trash cans.
At a signal from the man in the front, Sven was dragged out of the car, his arms pinioned tightly. The man with the moustache crashed his fist into Sven’s midriff, bending him double. Sven felt himself gasping for air, and then the man’s knee came crashing up towards his nose. He was able to pull his face away just in time, but he felt a hard glancing blow across his cheekbone. He kicked out blindly, and had the satisfaction of hearing a grunt of pain, followed by a curse. Then he sank to the concrete under a rain of blows as the other men released their hold and pitched in.
He rolled over, covering his face and head with his arms, struggling vainly to protect himself. He was kicked several times viciously in the side. He tried to get to his feet, but a fierce blow to the side of his head toppled him again, and he mercifully lost consciousness.
“My God, Sven, what happened?” cried Klara Johansson as her husband staggered through the back door of their house on Mesa Street.
“Inga?” gasped Sven through cracked lips as he sank into a chair.
“She’s in her room, doing her homework,” replied his wife, wrapping some ice in a cloth.
She applied it to the swelling on the side of Sven’s head as he winced in pain.
“Hold that there!” she ordered him, as she gently cleaned away the blood from his face.
His left eye was completely closed, and his other eye surrounded by a purple bruise. His whole body ached with pain from the kicks and blows he had sustained in the alley.
“What happened?” his wife asked again urgently.
“Four thugs from the Klan,” replied Sven hoarsely. “Took me off the street, and gave me a beating.”
“How did they know who you were?” enquired Klara anxiously.
“They know,” grunted Sven. “They know us union men. They find out who we are. Why, there are spies in our own group!”
“They could’ve killed you!” said Klara. “This strike, it’ll bring us nothing but trouble! You should never have gotten mixed up in it!”
“Now, Klara,” replied Sven, laying his hand on her arm. “Don’t start that now. I’m so tired. I need to rest. Let me go lie down. Don’t say anything to Inga. We don’t want to scare her.”
“What happened to you, papa?” said a startled voice.
Sven, who had been dozing on the bed, opened his eyes to see his daughter standing beside him, a wide-eyed expression on her face.
“It’s nothing, sotnos,” he said fondly reaching out a hand to her. “I just fell down. That’s all.”
His daughter gazed at him, a stern expression on her face.
“It’s bad to tell a lie, papa,” she said. “You can’t do that just falling down! Someone hurt you, didn’t they?”
Sven pulled her to him, smiling ruefully.
“You’re a sharp one just like your ma,” he said. “Can’t pull the wool over your eyes!”
“Why’d they hurt you, papa?” she asked earnestly.
“It’s difficult to explain,” said her father awkwardly.
“Please tell me, papa,” said the child. “I’ll try very hard to understand.”
“You know that Papa and his friends have stopped working right how,” began Sven.
“Yes,” said Inga brightly, “you told me that the boss-men make you work too hard, and it’s not safe sometimes and they don’t pay enough money.”
“That’s right, mitt hjarta,” said Sven, marveling at his daughter’s precocious grasp of the situation. “Well, there are some men who think that we should be quiet and go back to work. When we don’t listen to them, they get angry and they try to hurt us.”
“That’s not fair!” said Inga indignantly. “They’re bullies!”
Sven couldn’t help smiling even though it hurt his injured face.
“You have it in a nutshell, alksling,” he said.
“Did some of those men hurt you, papa?” asked Inga.
“That’s not fair!” exclaimed Inga again, stamping her foot. “You just tell me where they live, and I’ll go round and tell them off good!”
“I’ll bet you would too,” murmured Sven with a surge of pride, “but you know, min skalt, I don’t think they’d listen to you! Now why don’t you fetch me my boots from the corner, and I’ll walk you to school.”
“You don’t need to do that, papa,” said Inga. “I’m a big girl now! I’m in third grade. Besides it’s only a few blocks!”
“Just the same, I’m going with you today,” replied her father. “I feel better, and the fresh air will do me good!”
“Okay!” agreed Inga. “Can I put your boots on your feet? I love to do that!”
“Sure,” said Sven, sitting up in bed with a grimace.
Sven and Inga were strolling hand in hand down Pacific towards the school. The little girl trotted along next to her tall strong father, her heart swelling with pride to be escorted to class by such a handsome man.
She had made no comment when she saw her father take a gnarled walking stick from behind the door as they left the house. She had assumed that he was still feeling shaky, and planned to lean on it as they walked, but he didn’t seem to need it as he strode purposefully towards the school.
There were two men standing on the corner leaning on the wall as Inga and her father approached. When Sven saw them, his hand instinctively tightened on the stick, and he said to his daughter in a soft voice:
“Run on ahead, and wait for me by the school door. I need to have a word with these two gentlemen.”
“Are they friends of yours?” asked Inga.
“Just do as I tell you,” replied Sven, a touch of urgency in his voice.
Inga glanced at him curiously for a moment, but then she set off obediently down the sidewalk. Her father watched anxiously as she passed the two loiterers, but they made no attempt to intercept her. She arrived at the school door, and turned to look back down the street. She was alarmed to see that her father looked angry, and was brandishing his stick at the two men.
“Why are you hanging around here?” demanded Sven angrily as soon as his daughter was out of earshot.
“It’s a free country, ain’t it?” said the man in the zippered jacket in a mocking echo of Sven’s earlier remark.
Sven glowered at him.
“Don’t you dare go near my daughter,” he said thickly. “If I find out you’ve been scaring her, I’ll come looking for you…,” he paused, “with this!”
He waved the knobbed stick in the man’s face.
“You should be careful about making threats in the presence of a witness,” declared the other man, he of the pencil-thin moustache. “You could get in trouble with the law!”
“Just stay away from her!” repeated Sven, waving his stick again.
He turned away from their mocking faces, and stalked down the street towards the school.
“What’s the matter, papa?” asked Inga anxiously as he approached her.
Sven squatted down next to his daughter, and put his hands on her shoulders. He composed his features into a calm soothing expression and said carefully:
“Everything’s okay, sotnos. I don’t want you to worry. You just go into school, and have a great day. I’ll be here at three-fifteen to pick you up.”
“Okay, papa,” said Inga, and he watched as she opened the door and stepped inside the school.
“Those men on the street this morning were the men who hurt you, papa, weren’t they?” asked Inga.
They were sitting together at the kitchen table as Inga did her homework.
Sven looked into his daughter’s eyes, but he didn’t answer.
“They were, weren’t they?” persisted his daughter.
Sven nodded slowly.
“But that man with the funny little moustache is a policeman,” said Inga in a puzzled tone. “I know because his daughter’s in my class. Why would a policeman want to hurt you, papa? I thought policeman were supposed to protect people and help them when they’re in trouble!”
Sven felt a wrenching in his heart as he gazed into his daughter’s innocent blue eyes.
“You’re right, alksling,” he said. “Police officers are supposed to help people not hurt them. And some of them are honest and fair and do a good job, but you know there are bad people everywhere, in every place, in every job. There are good policemen and bad policemen, good teachers and bad teachers…”
“Yes, I know,” interrupted his daughter. “Mr. Bowden was hitting the students in our school too much, so they dismissed him.”
“That’s right!” said her father with a smile.
“So why did Mr. Parker, the policeman, want to hurt you, papa?” persisted the little girl.
“He and his friends don’t like our strike,” replied her father. “They told me we had to stop the strike, and go back to work.”
“But you said that you and your friends are just trying to make things more fair,” said Inga. “Make the boss men give you more money, and make the work safer!”
“Yes,” said Sven, “but the rich people don’t want to share their money with others less fortunate, and if a worker gets hurt because it’s dangerous, they don’t care. They can always get someone else to do the job.”
“If I was a boss man, I’d give you more money,” declared Inga earnestly.
“I know you would, min skalt,” said Sven fondly, leaning over to stroke his daughter’s hair.
“Will those men hurt you again, papa?” asked Inga with a worried expression on her face.
“No,” said Sven, leaning over to kiss his daughter. “I’ll be ready for them next time!”
“The Klan will be marching in San Pedro next weekend,” said Joe Wilcox. “I’ve learned that there will be several hundred of them from Inglewood, from Torrance and from here. They’ll be wearing their full regalia. They want it to be a show of force to intimidate us!”
He was talking to a meeting of strike leaders at IWW headquarters at 12th and Center Streets in San Pedro.
“Do they have a permit?” asked Nils Hansen.
“Of course,” replied Joe drily. “City Hall is quite happy to give ‘em all the support they need. The police will be out in force to safeguard the route of the marchers. We know where their sympathies lie! So many of the officers are KKK members when they’re off duty!”
“It’s most important that we avoid confrontations with the Klan,” said Jim Large. “If any fighting starts, we’ll be sure to get the blame. I think that those of us who wish to show solidarity should gather here at union headquarters. When they march past our building, we can chant or sing union songs, maybe hang some banners out the second floor windows, but absolutely no fighting!”
“I’d like to get out among them and break a few heads,” said Sven bitterly.
“Believe me, we know how you feel,” said Joe sympathetically. “We’ve all of us suffered harassment and beatings in our time, but we just can’t afford to jeopardize our position by responding to their provocations or getting involved in a violent confrontation. Public sympathy is just beginning to turn our way.”
Sven nodded reluctantly.
“I guess you’re right,” he admitted.
“So,” said Joe in summary. “Spread the word. Let our members know to be here at headquarters on Saturday afternoon to prepare for our visitors!”
“You can’t take her, Sven,” said Karla angrily. “It’s much too dangerous!”
“But she wants to go with me,” was Sven’s stubborn response.
“She’s a little girl!” exclaimed his wife. “She doesn’t know what she’s saying! Those Klan people are crazy! They’re violent men! Look at how they treated you!”
She was shouting now, unable to control her anger.
“What can you be thinking, taking a defenseless child to face a mob?”
“We’ll be inside the union building, Karla,” protested Sven. “Even the Klan won’t dare burst in on us in broad daylight.”
“You can’t know what those men will do,” insisted Karla. “They’re a mob, and mobs get out of control. I won’t have you taking my daughter into a place of danger!”
As if to emphasize her last remark, she pounded on the kitchen table with her fist.
“Look, Karla, I want my daughter to understand that in this country a person can fight for what is right,” said Sven soberly, “but of course, I understand your feelings. It’s very dangerous, and she is too young. She will stay at home safe with her mother, and when she is old enough, she can decide which battles to fight.”
“Thank you, Sven,” said Karla gratefully. “I know that she looks up to you, and admires you for what you are doing, but I believe we must put her safety first.”
“I’ll tell her,” he said.
He walked out of the kitchen and across the narrow passage to his daughter’s small snug bedroom, and tapped on the door before entering.
Inga was lying on the bed reading a book. She looked up eagerly as her father entered the room.
“Did you ask Mama?” she said. “What did she say?”
“I’m sorry, sotnos,” said Sven, “but your mother thinks it’s too dangerous for you to go with me tomorrow.”
“But I’m a big girl now,” protested Inga. “Besides we’ll be inside, and you can take care of me.”
“Your mother is right,” insisted Sven. “It’s too dangerous for you.”
“But other children will be there,” said Inga. “That girl they call ‘The Wobbly Songbird’, the one who sings all those union songs. She’ll be there!”
“She’s a teenager already,” replied her father. “Look, Inga, I know you want to be with me, and I’m proud of you for wanting that, but it would only worry your mama. She’d be scared that some harm would come to you. You understand, don’t you?”
“Yes, papa,” answered Inga sadly.
“Good,” said Sven leaning down to stroke his daughter’s hair. “Now look, sotnos, we’ve got a few minutes before dinner. Why don’t you read to me out of that book?”
As her father sat down next to her on the bed, Inga snuggled close to him and began to read.
Sven and some twenty of his union comrades were sitting in the upstairs meeting hall in the IWW headquarters on Center Street when the door burst open to admit a breathless Lorenzo Schillaci.
“The Klan!” he exclaimed. “They come!”
The assembled men exchanged serious glances. They urged Lorenzo to sit down and catch his breath, and when he was ready, to tell them all he knew.
“They come on the big red cars. Hun’reds, mebbe thousand. All in white coats! They gonna march down Pacific, turn on Twelfth, come right past here!”
“Any weapons?” asked Sven. “Guns? Clubs?”
Lorenzo shook his head.
“No, no,” he replied. “Bossman of the Klan, he say to them no fight with union men. He say make no trouble. I think they want only scare us!”
The men around the table nodded their agreement.
Joe turned to his comrades and declared:
“Well, lads, let’s prepare out reception! Let’s hang those banners we made out the windows, and let’s get ready to give them a rousing rendition of ‘Solidarity Forever’!”
A murmur of assent ran around the room, and there was a bustle of activity as the banners were unfurled and carefully lowered out of the second floor windows.
“Sven, go downstairs, and lock and bar the door,” instructed Joe. “Just in case!”
Sven walked across the hall to the door that led downstairs to the ground floor. He opened it, and paused in amazement.
His daughter, Inga, was standing at the top of the stairs, a sheepish expression on her face.
“What on earth are you doing here?” exclaimed Sven. “I told you to stay home with your mother!”
“Don’t be angry, Papa,” said Inga. “I crept out when Mama wasn’t looking. I so wanted to be with you.”
“You’re a naughty girl!” snapped Sven. “What’s your mother going to think when she finds you’re not there? She’ll be scared to death! I’m taking you home right now!”
“Too late!” came a voice from the window. “The Klan are almost here! I can see three men on horseback, one with a big flaming cross! They’ve already turned the corner from Pacific, and they’re only a block away. It’s not safe to go out there now.”
Sven looked at his daughter sternly.
“Go and sit down at the table while I go down to lock the door!” he ordered. “Don’t move! Don’t go anywhere near the windows!”
His daughter nodded meekly, and hanging her head, she walked slowly across to the table and sat down.
Sven disappeared downstairs, returning a short while later.
“The door is securely locked!” he said.
“Here they are!” exclaimed the man by the window.
There was a sudden rush as the union men crowded forward to catch a glimpse of the sinister men in white robes who had just arrived at the corner of Center Street.
“So many of them!” murmured a short balding man, a worried expression on his face.
“Let me see, papa,” said Inga.
Before her father could stop her the young girl had pushed through the cluster of legs to the open window.
Inga stared open-mouthed at the stream of white-robed men passing in the street below. They carried their customary white hoods in their hands because the California legislature had recently passed a law forbidding the Klan from wearing them in public. It meant that the young girl could clearly see the hard mean faces upturned to the windows of the union building. She felt an instinctive shudder run through her slender body at the deep hatred she saw expressed in so many faces.
The men standing by the window were hushed as if in awe at the malevolent stream of humanity passing beneath them.
Sven’s voice broke the silence:
“We need a song. A song of defiance. Lena, girl, come sing ‘Solidarity Forever’.”
A young girl stepped forward. Inga recognized her as the one they nicknamed ‘The Wobbly Songbird’.
All at once Lena’s sweet young voice rang out in the silence of the room, soaring clearly above the sound of tramping of feet in the street below:
“When the union’s inspiration through the worker’s blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun,
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?
But the union makes us strong!”
As she reached the end of the verse, a husky powerful barrage of men’s voices joined her to thunder out the familiar words of the chorus:
For the union makes us strong!”
A thrill ran through Inga’s body as she listened to the stirring anthem. In the street below it was as if the river of white-clad Klansmen slowed to crane their collective necks up towards the windows of the IWW building.
Lena’s pure but penetrating voice was already calling out the words of the second verse:
“It is we who plowed the prairies, built the cities where they trade,
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid,
Now we stand outcast and starving mid the wonders we have made,
But the union makes us strong!”
As the second chorus of male voices rang out, Inga found herself stirred to add her piping tones to the mix. She felt an intense feeling of exhilaration and pride as she stood alongside her father, her hand clutching his, facing down the menacing mob in the street below.
As the tail end of the Klan parade passed below the windows, Lena sang out the final verse:
In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of atoms magnified a thousand-fold,
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old,
For the union makes us strong!”
The final chorus of ‘Solidarity Forever’ thundered out from the throats of the union faithful clustered by the windows as the tail end of the parade disappeared down Center street after it had circled the block.
As the voices and the tramp of footsteps faded away, Inga gazed up into her father’s face.
“Oh, papa!” she murmured. “That was wonderful!”
“It was thoughtless of you to run out of the house this evening to join me, Inga,” said Sven sternly to his daughter later that evening. “Your poor mother was terrified that you had gotten lost or hurt. You do understand, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes, papa,” replied Inga meekly. “I have told mama that I am so sorry, and I’ve promised never to do such a thing again. But papa, it was so thrilling when everyone sang the song, and I think I understand why you all did that!”
“You do, do you?” said Sven with an indulgent smile.
“Yes,” said Inga excitedly. “By singing those words you showed those men in the white clothes that you were not afraid of them! That’s right, isn’t it, papa?”
Sven smiled and nodded.
“That’s right, sotnos,” he replied. “Songs can lift the human spirit, and give people courage and determination.”
He smiled at his daughter who was kneeling beside him in their front parlor.
“I’m glad you were with me, Inga,” he continued, “because I want you to know that we must all have courage to fight for our rights. We must never let others scare or bully us. It’s real important!”
“Yes, papa, oh yes,” said his daughter, her eyes shining. “I understand! I really do!”
The San Pedro dockworkers’ strike, spearheaded by the IWW (‘The Wobblies’), took place in 1924.
The incident described in my story, the mass march of the Klu Klux Klan through the streets to the Union building, did indeed happen. The Klan at that time was strong in the South Bay area with chapters in San Pedro, Torrance and Inglewood. Klansmen from as far away as San Diego traveled to take part in the march. The Klan flourished during the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century. Police officers, businessmen and professional men of all kinds became members. Some claim that President Woodrow Wilson, was for a time a member. However, some sensational incidents of corruption among its leadership led to a decline of the KKK during the thirties, and it faded from the mainstream to the margins of society. It has been eclipsed in recent years by numerous more radical right-wing terrorist groups.
Although the strike was ultimately unsuccessful in realizing its goals, it did reveal the growing power of united action by the workers who had brought the busy port to a standstill. Gradually San Pedro transformed from a town deeply hostile to unions into one that currently strongly supports organized labor in the port in the form of the ILWU.
The Klan building on Tenth Street is still standing though it now houses an evangelical church! The former union building on the corner of Center Street is also intact, looking very much as it must have looked on that fateful evening.
Although the plot of my story is drawn from actual events, all characters are imaginary except for the famous ‘Wobbly Songbird’!