MAYOR JIM PETERSON
Exposing the Ku Klux Klan
Mayor Jim Peterson of Soperton, Georgia may have lost some old friends, but he gained some new ones when he ripped off the hoods of three members of the Ku Klux Klan and exposed them to the world. His actions, which would later turn out to be futile at best, signaled a new movement around the South and the nation to rid the country of the white robed villains.
It was a relatively calm Saturday night in Soperton, Georgia on the evening of May 21, 1949. A frantic phone call came in reporting that there were women who were being frightened by hooded and masked men roaming the streets of the turpentine town. Klan activity in the Treutlen County seat had been relatively quiet, according to the mayor, who said, "A few crosses have been burned in Soperton, the latest one a month ago, but we haven't had any serious trouble from the Klan."
When the mayor arrived on the scene near his own home, he noticed two hooded men skulking around in the uniformed regalia of the Ku Klux Klan. Peterson, a popular mayor in his ninth term and brother of Congressman Hugh Peterson, approached and challenged the duo to identify themselves. When they refused, Peterson snatched off the hoods of Malcom Braddy and Joe Greene, a woolen mill worker. Peterson reported that during the scuffle, Braddy, an automobile mechanic for Henry Motor Co., struck him and knocked off his glasses.
Mayor Peterson enlisted the aid of Chief of Police M.D. Ware to investigate the commotion. The mayor and chief took Braddy and Greene back to the city jail and then drove around the neighborhood looking for more hooded suspects. They saw three more Klansmen and proceeded to arrest them as well. Peterson approached John Edge, a night watchman for the Georgia Highway department, and ripped off his hood. The other two partners fled as Chief Ware sent a fusillade of bullets into their flight into the darkness.
Braddy, Greene and Edge were placed in jail but quickly freed on a hundred-dollar bond each on the charges of disorderly conduct. The men were summoned to appear in City Court on Monday morning to answer the charges against them. According to law, it was the duty of the Mayor of Soperton to act as the judge in the absence of the recently deceased recorder. The hearing was rescheduled for June 13.
In the meanwhile, Peterson and his family traveled to Annapolis, Maryland to attend the graduation of his son, Ensign William C. Peterson, from the United States Naval Academy. While he was there, the mayor received a call from a government official in the area, who once challenged the Klan himself. Peterson couldn't turn down the man's offer to discuss the situation. That man was none other than Harry S. Truman, President of the United States. The men met in the White House for about an hour, but neither of them disclosed the points they discussed. Truman congratulated Peterson on his stand, and encouraged others to fight the Klan wherever and whenever possible.
Another recent and prominent Soperton graduate came to the defense of Mayor Peterson. He was Bill Bates, editor of the University of Georgia newspaper, The Red and Black, and the valedictorian of the Class of 1949. Bates, who would serve a short term as editor of the Soperton News before entering a successful journalistic career, called the mayor's actions "a smashing blow for decency," as he proclaimed his pride for his hometown mayor.
Dr. Samuel Green, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, took offense to the mayor's actions against three of his flock. Rumors circulated throughout newspapers around the country that the Klan was going to sue the mayor for what they believed were illegal actions. Green told a writer of the Augusta Chronicle that he would prefer assault and battery charges against Peterson if they warranted. The Grand Dragon personally went to Soperton to investigate the matter. "If I find that these men were Klansmen and were conducting their business peacefully, I shall prefer charges against the mayor for jerking off their masks," promised Green, who told the reporter that under Soperton's ordinances, "The mayor had no more right to jerk of the masks than any stranger would have jerking off your hat while in your office." Peterson hoped that the Klan would not go to court, but was ready to vigorously take them on. The mayor held no grudge against the men who were charged, by citing, "The fellows involved in this incident and their associates for the most part are my friends and neighbors who have been led astray." He called them "well-meaning citizens, whose indiscretions, have been brought about by the strong and selfish leadership of the KKK."
Peterson decided that it was in his best interest and in fairness to the defendants to recuse himself and appoint James Waller, the city's mayor pro tem, in his place. With Mayor Pro-Tem Waller, a turpentine and cotton warehouse operator, presiding, a trial was held in a hot and packed court room in the back of the Bank of Soperton on the morning of June 13. Waller heard evidence from the police chief and Mrs. I. H. Hall, who testified that she was frightened by the three defendants as they lingered in the dark outside her home. Prosecutor N. G. Reeves introduced evidence to show that the defendants were carrying weapons concealed under their robes, but it was stricken from the record since the court had no jurisdiction to hear such charges. Ironically, Mayor Peterson was not called to testify.
Joe Greene was tried first and called to testify in his own defense. Greene alleged that he and the others were directing traffic to their meeting place when Peterson ran up and screamed, "What in the H are you doing here?"
Defense attorney Ross T. Sharpe shouted, "Everybody knows the only reason in the world we are trying this case is because these men were wearing hoods and robes. Are you going to say that of the 391 Klansmen in this county that everyone else, including Henry Wallace and the Communists, are welcome here, but the Klan is not?"
Sharpe continued his rant by asking the court to equate the Klansmen to Shriners and even Christians, who wore white clothing as a symbol of the purity of Christ. He loudly proclaimed that there was no law on the books which prevented the wearing of a hood or being a Klansman as he added, "You can put on your white night gown and walk down the street if you want to."
After the evidence was closed, Waller dismissed the charge for disturbing the peace against Greene by stating, "These men on both sides are all friends of mine. Joe Greene farmed for me for two or three years." His ruling applied to all of the defendants, but he reserved a ruling on the charges of loitering as he explained to the parties that he needed time to deliberate the fate of the defendants, this being his first trial he had ever handled.
On July 8th, James Waller dismissed the remaining charge of loitering and the case was legally over. In the end, Mayor Peterson's unmasking of three Soperton Klansmen was another small step in the eventual end of Klan activity in East Central Georgia just like back in the great state of Missouri, when ol' "Give 'Em Hell Harry" brought about the end to the local Klan.