Hiram Wesley Evans was born in Ashland, Alabama, on September 26, 1881, and moved to Hubbard, Texas, with his family as a child. The son of Hiram Martin Evans, a judge, and his wife, Georgia Evans, the younger Evans graduated from Vanderbilt University. Shortly after, he became a dentist, receiving his license in 1900. He married Bam Hill in 1923; they had three children together.
Evans established a small, moderately successful dentistry practice in downtown Dallas that provided inexpensive services. Rumors later arose that his dental qualifications were "a bit shady". A Protestant, Evans attended a church belonging to the Disciples of Christ denomination. He was also a Freemason. Evans described himself as "the most average man in America". Of average height and somewhat overweight, Evans was well dressed, a skilled speaker, and very ambitious.
Conceived by its founders as a continuation of Nathan Bedford Forrest's Klan of the late 19th century, the revived Ku Klux Klan had been established in Atlanta in 1915. Evans joined in 1920, leaving his dental practice so that he could dedicate all his time to the group. In 1921, Evans was elected as "exalted cyclops", a recruiting position sometimes referred to as kleagle, in the Dallas Klan No. 66. When he was elected, the Dallas Klan had recently received a "self-ruling charter" from the Atlanta-based leadership and was the group's largest chapter. That same year, Evans was appointed to the position of "great titan" (executive) of the "Realm of Texas" and proceeded to lead a successful membership drive for the state's Klan.
Evans initially supported violence against minorities, remembering a lynching he witnessed as a child. With the Texas Klan, he sought to create "black squads" to attack minorities. He joined several Klan members in kidnapping and torturing a black bellhop, ostensibly because they suspected he was involved in pandering prostitutes. Atlanta-based leaders pressured Evans to curb racial violence in Dallas; around that time, the Texas Klan had received significant negative publicity after castrating an African-American doctor. Although Evans was not morally opposed to violence against minorities, he publicly condemned vigilante activity because he feared that it would attract government scrutiny and hinder potential Klan-backed political campaigning. This change of stance led the leader of the Houston Klan to accuse him of hypocrisy. Although Evans later took credit for a decrease in lynchings in the Southern United States during the 1920s, several Klan members claimed that he surreptitiously encouraged—and presided over—acts of violence against minorities.
In 1921, Evans was assigned to oversee the Klan's national membership drive at the behest of their publicists, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke. In 1922, the group's leadership made Evans the "Imperial kligrapp", a role similar to national secretary, in which capacity he oversaw operations in 13 states. He received a base salary of $7,500 and traveled throughout the country, regularly meeting with local Klan leaders.
In 1922, Evans joined a group of Klan activists, including Tyler, Clarke, and D. C. Stephenson, in a "coup" against William Joseph Simmons, the group's leader. They deceived Simmons into agreeing to a reorganization of the Klan that removed his practical control; Simmons said that they had claimed that if he remained the Imperial Wizard of the Klan, discord would hamper the organization. Evans gained power and was formally ensconced as Imperial Wizard of the Klan at a November 1922 "Klovokation" in Atlanta, Georgia. Although a legal battle between Evans and Simmons ensued, during which time Simmons was titular "emperor", Evans retained control. He initially said that he had been unaware of a pending coup until after his selection. However, by the end of their feud, he described Simmons as the "leader of Bolshevik Klansmen betraying the movement" and later expelled the former leader.
As leader of the Klan, Evans advanced a form of nativist, white supremacy that cast Protestantism as a fundamental part of American patriotism. To Evans, whiteness and Protestantism were equally valued, and sometimes conflated: he said the Klan supported the "uncontaminated growth of Anglo-Saxon civilization". He maintained that white Protestants had the exclusive right to govern the U.S. because of their descent from early colonists, whom he described as fleeing Europe for the U.S. to escape its societal bounds. He admitted that many Klan members were of rural, uneducated backgrounds but argued that power should be given to "the common people of America". In a pamphlet entitled Ideals of the Ku Klux Klan, Evans described the Klan as follows:
- This is a white man's organization.
- This is a gentile organization.
- It is an American organization.
- It is a Protestant organization.
Under Evans, the Klan supported a mix of right- and left-wing political positions, which were described by Thomas Pegram of Loyola University Maryland as "too much of a patchwork to be considered an ideological system". Klan literature spoke highly of politicians such as Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, and Grover Cleveland. Evans borrowed numerous concepts from the writings of Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, American writers of the period who promoted eugenics and scientific racism, and attempted to cast his platforms as based in science. Evans attacked immigrants by arguing that they would promote ideologies such as anarchism and communism, were threats to national unity, and were involved with bootlegging during Prohibition. He considered immigrants "ignorant, superstitious, religious devotees" intent on earning money in the U.S. before retiring to their homelands. However, he supported immigration of those he deemed "Nordic".
Evans also argued against miscegenation and Catholic and Jewish immigration, on the grounds that they were threats to genetic "good stock", a racial division which was then widely supported among white Americans. Evans opposed Catholicism because he believed that the Catholic Church sought to take control of the U.S. government; he also questioned American Catholics' loyalty to their country, writing that they were subject to their priests, and, as such, to the entire Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Pope. In other writings he expressed fears that the Catholic Church, in alliance with Jews and non-white Protestant groups, was becoming increasingly active in politics and thus blurring the separation of church and state.
Under Evans' leadership, the Klan became active in Indiana and Illinois, rather than focusing on the Southeastern U.S. as it had done in the past. It also grew in Michigan, where 40,000 members, more than half its total, lived in Detroit. It became characterized as an organization prominent in urban areas of the Midwest, where it attracted native-born Americans competing for industrial jobs with recent immigrants. It also attracted members in Nebraska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.
Evans appointed Stephenson, his early collaborator, as kleagle and Grand Dragon of Indiana. The relationship between the two leaders quickly became acrimonious; Stephenson clashed with Evans over the distribution of membership fees and became embittered after Evans refused to help fund the purchase of a school in Indiana. Although Stephenson believed that Evans deliberately thwarted his attempt to purchase the school to limit his power, Evans unexpectedly promoted Stephenson to Grand Dragon of the "northern realm" in July 1923. The historian Leonard Joseph Moore of McGill University contends that Evans paid particular attention to the Indiana Klan out of financial self-interest: it was then the largest state branch.
The political scientist Arnold S. Rice writes that Evans also worked on a series of changes, advertised as reforms, to the Klan structure and sought to promote a positive public opinion of the Klan; Evans felt that his organization should be able to reach out to those who were "struggling with the moral decay and economic distress of the 20th century". He increased the Klan's surveillance of members before and after initiation, expelling those considered to be of "questionable morals". He also worked to increase Klan involvement in local policing and denounced acts of violence committed by Klan members, promoting the Klan as a symbol of lawfulness. These efforts, although successful in reducing the number of attacks, were ultimately unable to sway public opinion in the Klan's favor.
Evans became embroiled in several internal Klan conflicts that gained media exposure. In January 1921, he and a group of grand dragons expelled the publicist Clarke, who had been critical of Evans' efforts to involve the Klan in electoral politics. Evans also clashed with Henry Grady, a judge from North Carolina who served in the Klan from 1922 to 1927, reaching the rank of Grand Dragon. Before Evans gained control of the Klan, Grady had been considered a potential successor to Simmons. After Grady dismissed a Klan-backed law that would have banned the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization, Evans revoked his membership. Grady subsequently leaked his correspondence with Evans to the media.
In August 1923, Evans participated in a Klan parade in the heavily Catholic borough of Carnegie, Pennsylvania, which was attacked by local residents. One member of the Klan was killed; Evans declared him a martyr and hoped that the death would inspire new recruits. The incident gave a fillip to the Klan's recruitment efforts, but increased Stephenson's animosity toward Evans, on whom he blamed the incident. Stephenson's proclivity for ostentation irritated Evans. Although Stephenson left his official Klan position after a short tenure, under his leadership the Klan's northern supporters had begun to rival those in the South. He had been a skilled campaigner and demagogue, and he remained a well-known advocate of the Klan's platforms after resigning. Evans avoided publicly clashing with him, fearing that it would hurt the candidacies of Klan-backed politicians: Stephenson was closely involved in the successful gubernatorial candidacy of Indiana Klan-member Edward L. Jackson, and the Klan members had significant electoral gains in that state in 1924, including the election of several candidates to the state legislature. After these victories, Stephenson showed further disdain for Evans.
Although membership in the Klan was limited to men, Simmons—after losing control of the national organization—attempted to create a parallel white supremacist organization for women. Evans established a women's group and sued him. Evans won the lawsuit, leading to a public war of words with Simmons, whose lawyer was soon murdered by Evans' press agent, an event in which Evans denied complicity. In 1924, Evans paid Simmons $145,000 for a promise to abandon the latter's claim to Klan leadership.
Afterward, Evans moved the Klan's national headquarters to Washington, D.C., where the murder of Simmon's lawyer had received less publicity. To Evans' consternation, Stephenson also formed a women's auxiliary group. Evans and Stephenson subsequently exchanged allegations of sexual impropriety. Police charged Stephenson with the kidnapping, rape and murder of a young woman; he maintained that the charges were orchestrated by Evans. After a sensational trial, Stephenson was convicted of second degree murder and given a life sentence; the publicity about the leader's behavior caused thousands of members to abandon the Klan.
In the early years of Evans' tenure, the Klan reached record enrollment; estimates of its peak range from 2.5 to 6 million members, although records are poor and the figure cannot be accurately determined. He also dramatically increased the organization's total assets, more than doubling them from July 1922 to July 1923. Evans changed the way that chapter leaders were paid: he insisted that they receive a fixed salary rather than commissions based on membership fees in a move that lowered their income. Although previous Imperial Wizards had lived in lavish properties, Evans initially settled in an apartment after his promotion. The sociologist Rory McVeigh of the University of Notre Dame argues that this increase in membership was owing to the Klan's exploitation of a "favorable political context", particularly one in which native-born white-settler Americans were fearful after increased immigration caused them to compete for jobs and housing in many cities. Evans had high hopes for the Klan, saying in 1923 that he aimed to reach ten million members. That year, he spoke at the largest Klan gathering in history, a Fourth of July meeting in rural Indiana that was attended by over 200,000.
Evans sought to include more members from the Southwestern U.S. in leadership; previously the Klan had been led by people from the Southeast. In 1922, Evans supported the successful U.S. Senate candidacy of the Texas politician Earle Bradford Mayfield, an event that demonstrated that Klan-supported candidates could win prominent offices. The next year, Evans returned to Texas for the state fair, where 75,000 people gathered for a "Klan day" celebration. He devoted funds to fighting Jack C. Walton, the anti-Klan governor of Oklahoma; to the group's joy, Walton was impeached and removed from office in 1923. However, the Oklahoma legislature soon passed several anti-Klan bills.
Evans published instructions for local Klan leaders that detailed how to run meetings, recruit new members, and speak to local gatherings. He advised leaders to avoid "raving hysterically" in favor of "[a] scientific ... presentation of facts". In addition, he urged them to forbid members from bringing their Klan regalia home from meetings and to perform background checks on applicants. He instructed Klan members to shun vigilantism but to assist police and attempted, with some success, to recruit police officers into the Klan. Emphasizing the difference between his organization and the more violent 19th-century Ku Klux Klan, Evans formed Klan-themed groups for children. As the Klan attempted to portray itself as a movement led by cultured, well-educated people, its leaders spoke about education in the U.S. Evans believed that public schools could create a homogeneous society and saw education advocacy as an effective form of public relations.
In his writings on the subject, he cited the nation's illiteracy rate as evidence that American public schools were failing; he considered low teacher salaries and child labor key obstacles to reform. He supported the idea of a federal Department of Education, hoping that it would lead to improvements in public schools that would help "Americanize the foreigners" and thwart recruitment efforts of Catholic schools. Evans wrote four books in the mid to late 1920s, The Menace of Modern Immigration (1923), The Klan of Tomorrow (1924), Alienism in the Democracy (1927), and The Rising Storm (1929).
After the Klan gained respect and political influence in parts of the U.S., Evans hoped to replicate this on a national scale. Political involvement was controversial among the organization's members, and Evans issued contradictory statements on the issue, publicly disavowing it but surreptitiously attempting to sway politicians. Apart from fundamental Klan issues, different local groups often held varying political ideologies; as such, by insisting on specific political stances, Evans would have risked alienating members. Although many of his hopes were never realized, Evans saw several Klansmen elected to high offices and, in the mid-1920s, the group was frequently discussed by political commentators. In 1924, the group convinced Republican Party leaders to avoid criticizing them, prompting Time to put Evans on its cover. That year, the Klan supported Calvin Coolidge in his successful candidacy for president of the U.S. Although Coolidge opposed many key Klan platforms, with the exception of immigration restrictions and prohibition, he was the only major-party candidate who did not condemn them. Nonetheless, Evans declared Coolidge's victory a great success for the Klan. Although Republican leaders refrained from attacking the Klan, they were hesitant to support candidates promoted by the group. Significant discussion of the Klan also took place at the Democratic Party's convention; senator and Democratic presidential primary nominee Oscar Underwood decried them as "a national menace". Evans' attempts to elect Klansmen to public offices in 1924 saw limited success, although they achieved their goals in Indiana.
Although the Klan had four million members in 1924, the group's membership quickly shrank after Stephenson's widely publicized trial. The Indiana Klan lost more than 90% of its members by the end of the proceedings, and there were mass resignations in other states as well. Other scandals emerged, further damaging Klan enrollment. Although the Colorado Klan had seen strong growth, Evans asked the Grand Dragon, John Galen Locke, to resign after local corruption scandals in 1925 involving Klan members who served as police. Evans' request was poorly received by Colorado Klan members; local enrollment subsequently plummeted. He encountered difficulties with Klan leaders in Pennsylvania in 1926, after many of them concluded that he was too autocratic. In response, he revoked the charters of several local Klan groups and removed John Strayer, a state legislator, from his position of authority in the Klan. When the Pennsylvania groups continued to refer to themselves as the Ku Klux Klan, Evans sued them in federal court. Pennsylvania Klan members launched a detailed legal offensive against Evans and other Klan leaders, alleging misdeeds, including participation in kidnappings and lynchings. Evans' suit was unsuccessful and, as many newspapers reported the scandalous allegations aired in court, the Pennsylvania Klan suffered a serious decline in membership and support.
In response to the decline in Klan membership, in 1926, Evans organized a Klan parade in Washington, D.C., hoping that a large turnout would demonstrate the Klan's power. About 30,000 members attended, making it the largest parade in the group's history. Evans was disappointed, however, as he had expected double the attendance and the march did not staunch the drop in membership. That year, Evans attempted to rally U.S. senators to vote against a bill supporting a proposed world court. He was unsuccessful, however, and several Klan-backed senators followed Calvin Coolidge and supported the bill. In 1928, Evans opposed the candidacy of the New York Democratic governor Al Smith for president, emphasizing the threat of Smith's Catholic faith. After the Republican Herbert Hoover won the election, Evans boldly claimed responsibility for Smith's loss; but most of the solidly Democratic South had rejected Hoover and voted for Smith against the Klan's advice.
In 1929, Evans acknowledged that membership levels had declined but predicted a dramatic turnaround would soon occur. His prediction was inaccurate. This loss of members resulted in a Klan that was a skeleton of its former self. Historians have attributed this loss of membership to ineptness and hypocrisy on the part of Klan leadership. McVeigh argues that the Klan's inability to form alliances with other political groups led to the sharp loss of political power and solidarity within the group.
Although many Democratic Klan members initially supported the 1932 presidential campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Klan later officially turned against him because of his acceptance of endorsements from minorities and labor unions. After Roosevelt's election, Evans fiercely opposed the New Deal, describing it as a "great danger" to the nation; he argued that it was a "Jewish" policy that endangered American freedom, reserving particular scorn for Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who was Jewish. Evans' statements about Jews were sometimes contradictory: he argued that he was not an anti-Semite but maintained that Jews were materialistic and resisted assimilation. The Klan subsequently launched an offensive against organized labor. In the 1930s, Evans fiercely condemned communism and unionism. Around that time, Evans began to suspect that government agencies had been infiltrated by communists. He focused his attacks on the Congress of Industrial Organizations, claiming that they sought to "flout law and promote social disorder".
Although Evans bemoaned commercialism and attributed it to the effects of liberalism, he supported capitalism and sought to form ties between business leaders and the Klan. He condemned corporate greed, alleging that wealthy elites' desire for cheap labor led to increased immigration. In his view, corporations had changed the Eastern U.S. so that it no longer reflected "true Americanism", a concept he believed could only be understood by "legitimate Americans" such as himself. He blamed an influx of unskilled laborers for lowering wages in the U.S. Evans believed that U.S. immigration policy should restrict the immigration of unskilled workers, except for those needed on farms.
In 1934, Evans encountered public controversy after it was revealed that he intended to travel to Louisiana to campaign against the Democratic governor Huey Long, who planned to run in the 1936 presidential election. Long learned of Evans' plans and condemned him in a speech at the Louisiana State Legislature, deriding him as a "tooth-puller" and an "Imperial bastard" and warning of grave consequences should he follow through with his plans. After learning of the potential opposition, Evans cancelled his plans, although he retorted that Long – who based his campaign on Americanist themes – was "un-American".
In the 1930s, the Klan's public support nearly vanished and their membership dropped to about 100,000 people, primarily concentrated in the South, having lost most of their members in the Midwest and West. At that time, James A. Colescott, Evans' handpicked chief of staff, increasingly shouldered Evans' responsibilities. After the Great Depression further damaged the Klan's finances, the group's leadership sold their Atlanta headquarters in 1936. Around that time, Evans announced his intention to retire.
Although anti-Catholicism had been a consistent platform of the Klan, before leaving the organization, Evans renounced his anti-Catholicism and pronounced a "new era of religious tolerance". In 1939, he said that "in no other time in history has there been more need for all people who believe in the same Father and same Son to stand together." That year, Evans also publicly expressed an interest in learning aspects of Judaism to better understand the Old Testament. Chester L. Quarles, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Mississippi, argues that Evans repudiated anti-Catholicism owing to his desire to fight unions and communism and his fear of having too many enemies at one time.
After Evans sold the Klan's former headquarters, it was purchased by the Catholic Church. The Cathedral of Christ the King was later built on the site. Evans attended the building's dedication and spoke highly of the service, surprising many observers. His attendance at the service was his last significant public appearance as Imperial Wizard: he stepped down soon afterwards, having become deeply unpopular with members of the Klan, who felt that he had embraced their enemies. He resigned on June 10, 1939, and was replaced as Imperial Wizard by Colescott.
Evans' service as Imperial Wizard proved to be a lucrative position, allowing him to maintain a large residence in a prestigious Atlanta neighborhood. In the mid-1930s, however, Klan funds dwindled, and he worked for a Georgia-based construction company selling products to the Georgia Highway Board. At the same time, he was a staunch supporter of Georgia governor Eurith D. Rivers, whom he had previously employed as a lecturer. Owing to the political support that he provided the administration, Evans was allowed to sell to the highway board without bidding against other contractors. In 1940, the state of Georgia charged Evans and a member of the state highway board with price fixing. The Attorney General of Georgia, Ellis Arnall, directed legal proceedings against Evans that resulted in a $15,000 fine.
Meanwhile, Colescott attempted to resuscitate the waning second Klan through an "administration of action" and stricter enforcement of the Klan's stated policies; he also led extensive recruitment campaigns. Despite concerns by opponents that the Klan would regain full force after the conclusion of World War II, it was unable to improve its membership and was under pressure from the Internal Revenue Service for failure to pay taxes. Through a decree on April 23, 1944, Colescott formally disbanded the Klan. Locally sponsored groups continued to use the name, but lacked the united leadership of the earlier Klan.
As late as 1949, Evans served as a commentator on Klan activities, speaking as the former Imperial Wizard. He died on September 14, 1966, in Atlanta, Georgia.
David A. Horowitz, a historian at Portland State University, credits Evans with changing the Klan "from a confederation of local vigilantes into a centralized and powerful political movement". Fellow historian William D. Jenkins of Youngstown State University maintains that Evans was "personally corrupt and more interested in money or power than a cause". During Evans' tenure as Imperial Wizard, the New York Times characterized the Klan's leadership as "shrewd schemers". However, Rice suggests that Evans' reforms would never have been successful, as the Klan remained a white supremacist organization that "automatically made enemies of ... anyone who happened to be foreign-born, Negro, Catholic, Jewish, or opposed to bigotry and chauvinism."
An editorial in The New York Times during Evans' tenure as Klan leader described him as "severe and logical" in his writing, while the historian Richard Hofstadter described Evans' writings as not immoderate in tone. The communications specialist Nicolas Rangel Jr. of the University of Houston–Downtown suggests that this vernacular prevented some Americans from recognizing the extremist nature of Evans' views.
Evans' ideology was attacked by numerous contemporaries; these criticisms began early in his Klan career. David Lefkowitz, rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, assailed Evans' assertion that Jews did not assimilate, emphasizing American experiences shared by Jews and Christians, such as military service in World War I. James Weldon Johnson, leader of the NAACP, responded to Evans' promotion of white supremacy by contending that "all races are mixed". Other well-known adversaries of Evans included the minister and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who opposed the Klan in Detroit in 1925, describing them as "one of the worst specific social phenomena which the religious pride of a people has ever developed." The Dallas Morning News publisher George Dealey and Atlanta journalist Ralph McGill opposed him, the latter deriding him for his hypocrisy and false claims about minorities.
Several publications, however, gave positive coverage to Evans, although not necessarily his work with the Klan. In 1927, the New York Times congratulated Evans on his "modest and engaging exposition of 'Americanism'". Although the Klan disowned Evans for reaching out to the Catholic Church, popular opinion was more positive. In 1939, the Palm Beach Daily News described the meeting between Evans and Cardinal Dennis Joseph Dougherty as stirring both religious and secular circles; favorable coverage of the meeting was found in several other publications. Dougherty said that he had found Evans "intensely interested in religious subjects" outside Protestantism.