Opinion ~ Letter to the Editor

July 4, 2020

The “cancel culture” is a prominent fixture of contemporary society. We are currently in a frenzy to tear down Confederate monuments, rename southern Army posts, rename streets or otherwise “cancel” portions of our history. What’s missing in this rush to condemn, is any semblance of critical thinking—the objective evaluation of the issues to form a judgment. The flawed movement to rename Todd George Parkway, in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, is the latest salvo in this conflict. It reads “Change Todd George (KKK) Parkway to Lucile Bluford (civil rights activist) Parkway.”

According to PBS Kansas City affiliate KCPT, Todd George was a prominent businessman and politician in Lee’s Summit in the early part of the 20th century. George opposed Harry S. Truman and the Pendergast political machine in post-World War I Jackson County. Todd George died in 1969 and left a legacy of civic accomplishments. A parkway on the eastern side of the city is named for him.

In order to understand the Ku Klux Klan and the role it played in American society, we should examine the years immediately following the Civil War. According to the PBS series, “American Experience,” the KKK was founded in 1866 by former Confederate soldiers and other Southerners opposed to Reconstruction (1863 – 1877). The watchdog group Southern Poverty Law Center writes, “The Ku Klux Klan, with its long history of violence, is the oldest and most infamous of American hate groups.” For a while, near the end of Reconstruction, the Klan nearly died. In 1915, it saw a surge in membership, and in the 1920s, its membership swelled to an estimated eight million. It was not un-common for middle-class white Americans, even in northern states, to join. Unlike the KKK’s current image of poor, ignorant, disaffected white trash, the Klan of the 1920s included professionals such as doctors, businessmen, lawyers and the clergy. Regardless of any circumstances, the KKK was despicable and a blight on society. Nevertheless, it held an influential position in America. Today, the KKK continues to increase in membership and spread its hateful agenda.

According to David McCullough’s seminal work on Harry S. Truman, Todd George was a Klan leader; but this is hotly disputed by his descendants, namely the Dicus family. In 1994, Steve Dicus, Todd George’s grandson, challenged allegations his grandfather was a Klansman. In a letter to McCullough, Dicus states “If he had been a member of the Klan, particularly if he were the ‘head Klansman,’ undoubtedly his family members of some of the local residents would have been aware of this.”

Much of the controversy hinges on a 1950 book by Jonathan Daniels “Man of Independence,” which McCullough cites as a primary source for his 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning biography, “Truman.” Daniels refers to Todd George as a “reputed leader of the Jackson County Klansmen.” From this passage in Daniels’ book, McCullough made a conclusion when he described George as the “local head Klansman.” An important distinction between the two books is: Daniels used the word “reputed,” which is less subjective than language used by McCullough. With the benefit of hindsight, there is some confusion among Daniels and McCullough how local Jackson County Democratic Party politics worked in the 1920s. There was a faction of the Democratic Party opposed to Thomas Pendergast. This faction was known as anti-Pendergast Independent Democrats. This group claimed not to be a Klan organization, although the Pendergast organization (pro-Truman) alleged they were. It seems political mudslinging was as common in the 1920s as it is, today. Daniels took these allegations, which were first reported in the Kansas City Star, in 1926, and stated them as fact. According to Dicus, Todd George was President of the Independent Rural Democrats. This organization included some Klansmen, but also included many citizens who were not. According to the University of Washington, the KKK infiltrated political organizations, at its zenith in the 1920s; and wielded great influence in American politics. Regardless of the political climate or era, there is no evidence Todd George was a KKK leader or even a member. Consider Todd George’s own words in his 1959 memoir: “I have never denied the fact that I, like thousands of others of every religion and creed had, through curiosity, attended the meetings and like thousands of others, discovered that I never wanted to support any part of their policies.”

As further evidence Todd George was not a Klansman, Harry S. Truman Library archivist, James R. Fuchs interviewed James P. Aylward in 1968. Aylward was chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Committee from 1918 to 1936. In response to a question about 1920s Jackson County politics, Aylward stated, “So [Harry S.] Truman, Roger Sermon and Vivian Truman contacted [Todd] George, who was not a member of the Klan…” (emphasis added). Moreover, Aylward asserted Truman wanted George to contact a local Klan leader (whom George allegedly knew) to ask him to support Truman for county judge.

In 2001, the Dicus family hired respected Kansas City historian and author, Dory DeAngelo, to research the allegations against Todd George. DeAngelo was unable to substantiate any ties with George to the KKK. DeAngelo used resources of the Kansas City Public Library, the newspapers archives of the Kansas City Star, The Kansas City Times; and the defunct Kansas City Post and Kansas City Journal. While it is evident Truman and George were political rivals, there is no factual evidence Todd George was involved with the KKK.

In correspondence with the Dicus family David McCullough stands by his book and the use of the Daniels biography as the primary source of the allegations against Todd George. To date, McCullough refuses to acknowledge any errors.

Does renaming Todd George Parkway change anything in regard to race relations? It is concerning that society is so quick to judge based on faulty research, rumor and guilt by association. Maybe, rather than cancelling history, we use it as an opportunity to discuss the KKK, the injustices suffered by minority groups and educate Americans about hate groups. In the U.S., the “rule of law” makes us a unique society that will, hopefully, be remembered for its sense of justice and fairness, as envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution. The “cancel” logic is dangerously close to mob rule and has no regard for due process—a major tenet of a free society. We miss the opportunity to have a civil and productive discussion about the issues and explore solutions when the mobs take over. Perhaps, it is better for society to discuss people, places, events and context; in order to understand what happened and to learn lessons for the future.

Lee Lacy is a retired U.S. Army officer and a resident of Lee’s Summit.