The Ku Klux Klan announced its arrival in San Luis Obispo on the eve of May 9, 1924, with a literal bang: As a flaming cross burned from the slopes of one of the iconic Nine Sisters mountains overlooking the town, “deafening bombs were exploded from the hilltop,” according to the Daily Telegram. A thousand or so locals—representative of “every walk of life,” as the paper put it—thronged to the civic center. The evening’s main event was yet to come.

As attendees took their seats beneath a blizzard of American flags, a 12-piece orchestra played. Draped in a white robe and a billowing red cape, the Reverend Holman B. Turner, a pastor of the First Baptist Church, convened the proceedings with a reading of “The Klansman’s prayer.” Soon, a bugle sounded, and one by one, four Klansmen materialized onstage. Next, a child done up as George Washington marched out. The crowd stood as the orchestra began the national anthem while little George hoisted Old Glory. Eventually, the evening’s keynote speaker—the “official lecturer for the Ku Klux Klan”—took center stage.

For many, some kind of white supremacist or Christian nationalist California was always an aspiration.

A quintessential joiner, he thrilled to fraternal groups and rallying others to their ranks. He knew what made a show entertaining and how to stage it. He’d been presiding over pageants like this for 40 years. Spectacle was his métier.

For J. Rush Bronson—one of the first stage managers of the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles; former editor of the Grizzly Bear, the Native Sons of the Golden West’s white nationalist–inflected magazine; first supervisor of the Junior Order of the Moose; and the author of 1921’s The Flag of Our Country, a book widely read by schoolchildren across the nation at the time—fronting for the Klan was more than just another show. It was an earnest expression of belief in a kind of white California, one where Prohibition and its enforcers would be respected, classrooms would be unabashedly Protestant, and few immigrants, foreigners, Catholics, Jews, and people of color would be welcome.

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J. Rush Bronson, photographed in 1914; top: a scene from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” 1915.

The Golden State of today is, of course, virtually synonymous with all things progressive. But it’s worth remembering that the state’s chauvinistic roots run deep and wide as well as historically across the political spectrum. For many, some kind of white supremacist or Christian nationalist California was always an aspiration. It’s comforting to consider California as secure in its trajectory away from many rightist “isms,” of course. But in a state whose historic contributions to the far right aren’t trivial (see Katherine Olmstead’s Right Out of California) or exhausted (the Central Valley is still Trump Country, and Congressman Kevin McCarthy holds Bakersfield), Bronson merits a backward glance at the arc of a life that led him to the Klan. Especially since Bronson’s life and times don’t seem all that distant from our own.

James Rush Bronson was born in the Placerville of 1864, when that frontier burg on the American River was still popularly known as Hangtown. The son of a Hoosier pioneer who’d come west for gold, Bronson grew up in hard times. He also grew up in a time when California’s promoters were marketing the state in unique ways.

California boosterism, as unpacked by historian Richard J. Orsi 50 years ago, was all about enticing new settlers and businesses to the West Coast through community-funded advertising. Orsi found that California’s booster roots reached back to the 1860s. He also found that after the gold rush, tough times made the state a hard sell.

How to coax settlers out west after the gold was gone? “In the turmoil of the 1860s and 1870s,” Orsi noted in his 1973 PhD dissertation, “Selling the Golden State,” “early boosterism in California quickly became an instrument of white supremacy.”

Boosters of that time wanted new Californians drawn from the existing American white middle class of other states, not from the recent, mostly Catholic, non–Western European immigrants who were coming to the United States. Boosters even played up the absence of these new immigrants where they could. By 1900, California policy was, if ineffectually, to actively discourage any new blood other than white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

“We are receiving millions of European immigrants that we do not want,” a state official said in 1911. “This undesirable immigration,” he continued, using language that sadly still echoes from the mouths of modern-day nativists, “is assimilating us, and the American is disappearing in a baser blood and a lower type.”

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A 1903 “Seattle Sunday Times” ad for Bronson’s play “California,” an advertisement-in-melodrama.

Bronson did not consider himself a lower type. He took great pride in a lineage that ran from Revolutionary War patriots through Midwest pioneers to his miner ’49er father. In Bronson’s Horatio Alger–like recounting of his life, he left his father as a boy to hawk newspapers along the Pacific Northwest coast. In San Francisco in 1875, at age 11, he found one of his true callings: vaudeville.

Until radio and film crept in decades later, vaudeville was America’s mass-entertainment medium, with national circuits bringing theaters a daily loop of live variety shows from coast to coast. Bronson’s name would appear in vaudeville trades and mainstream papers for the next 30 years. He drew plaudits as an ace stage and theater manager as well as a popular supporting actor and serviceable playwright.

Bronson worked on clean, family-friendly variety shows—vaudeville’s rebuke to adults-only burlesque revues. This wholesome entertainment meshed with California boosters’ idealized views of the state and its citizens, who had in fact come to Southern California and begun campaigns against liquor and saloons, dancing and sex outside of marriage, and any form of gambling. (“The penchant for probity,” the historian Spencer Olin noted of then–Los Angeles, “was part and parcel of the progressive mind.”) Indeed, when Bronson was wrapping up a wildly successful stint as the Orpheum’s manager in 1900, his encomium in the Western Graphic read like a parody of propriety. “Many are the double entendres and suggestive bon mots eliminated from new acts at the first rehearsal by Mr. Bronson,” the magazine wrote, having enthused a month earlier over his devotion to a physical fitness regime reflecting eugenic prescriptions of the day. “‘Cleanliness’ is his watchword.”

While in Los Angeles, Bronson was elected an officer of the Native Sons of the Golden West, a club devoted at the time to fanning the flames of the gold rush mythos that pioneer members and descendants had kindled. A few years later, Bronson combined his many passions into California, a show he wrote and produced that toured the Midwest from 1902 to 1903.

An advertisement-in-melodrama aimed at the audiences California boosters sought, the show was for many who saw it their first visual exposure to the Golden State’s natural beauty, courtesy of the ornate mural backdrops of Mount Shasta, Yosemite, and Santa Barbara. It was but one of several platforms Bronson had, including the Grizzly Bear, a new magazine launched in 1907 by the Native Sons, which had tapped him to serve as editor.

Straight out of the gate, the publication’s lineup included “The Asiatic Peril,” an unsparing piece of anti-Asian invective by Argonaut editor-publisher Jerome A. Hart. Reflecting the Native Sons’ vitriolic nativist stance, such fare would be a recurring feature of the magazine for decades to come.

Bronson became nationally known as the Flag Man. Lecture tours followed.

Bronson garnered nationwide publicity just before America’s entry into World War I as one of the founders of Mooseheart, the Loyal Order of the Moose’s “city of orphans” in the Illinois countryside. During the war, he drew yet more publicity for starting a raft of militantly patriotic boys’ groups.

In 1921, he published The Flag of Our Country. Written in the imagined voice of the American flag, it quickly became a staple of U.S. citizenship education. Bronson became nationally known as the Flag Man. Lecture tours followed. American life should be so centered on the Star-Spangled Banner, he held, that kids should be conditioned to consider its absence a punishment. “When the child is disobedient, the flag may be taken from his sight as signifying to the child that he is not a true potential citizen of our country,” he advised parents in Petaluma in 1923. “When he is good, the flag may remain in his possession.”

Bronson also had remedies for grown-ups who disrespected Old Glory. While running the Empress theater in Cincinnati in 1918, he led a mob in hauling a patron from his seat for failing to stand for the national anthem. He was sick, the man protested, not unpatriotic.

Bronson and the crowd made him prove it, forcing him to kiss a flag. Bronson told the audience afterward that other such incidents would be handled similarly.

Around the same time that Bronson was hitting his World War I civic super-patriot stride, a man named William Simmons, in Atlanta, was contemplating a grander, if more baleful, approach to enforcing notions of patriotism. Inspired in 1915 after seeing the film The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s love letter to the Klan, Simmons—a sometime Methodist preacher and, like Bronson, a multiple-lodge enthusiast—envisioned something more than an edgier version of the Elks or night-riding Lost Causers terrorizing Black Southerners.

A keen student of his times, Simmons grasped the potential in tapping into the patriotism—xenophobia, really—of white, mostly Protestant fraternal groups nationwide, like the ones with which he, Bronson, and millions of American men had long been affiliated. Seeing the explosion of anti-immigrant, hypernationalist jingoism that came with America’s inevitable entry into World War I and its Progressive championing of Prohibition, Simmons realized the time was right to breathe new life into the Ku Klux Klan. (Through membership fees and robe sales, he could make some money, too.)

“I was a Klansman then and I am a Klansman now. What’s the difference?”

Seeing his Klan as a literal, centralized Invisible Empire—a secret fellowship of self-appointed yet, he hoped, quasi-officially sanctioned government adjuncts—Simmons sought to enforce a vision of 100 percent Americanism, minus the pluralism that defines America for so many. But by 1922, it was becoming clear that this was, at best, a flawed conceit. Many state and local Klans treated themselves as autonomous franchises, with different priorities and tactics. (In California, for example, while the Bakersfield Klan was preoccupied with adulterers and bootleggers, the Oakland Klan was agitating for better roads and lower taxes.) Many were also playing booze-and-morality police (indeed, many were actual police) with such impunity that it was hard to tell, in net-effect violence, who was worse: the Klan or the bootleggers.

By 1924, the Klan was flexing its muscles in both major national political parties and seemed poised for, if not victory, at least permanency in American politics. Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans, having deposed Simmons in an effort to give the Klan a less overtly violent and more political image, mounted a public diplomacy campaign to promote a kinder, gentler Klan. He had just the right apostle in mind for California.

As fortune would have it, that perfect emisary of the Klan’s message of 100 percent Americanism in California was ready to go. Thus did Bronson become a whistle-stopping Klan lecturer across California in 1924. Sixty at the time, he was an accomplished orator with an avuncular bearing and intergenerational appeal. He knew how to tweak a script for specific audiences in places like Oakland, Napa, San Bernardino, and Bakersfield. And in many respects, his Klan tour was merely a continuation of the patriotic lodge tour he’d undertaken before.

Not everyone saw it that way, as he was reminded at his March 24, 1924, stop in Madera. “I delivered an address in the same auditorium which I was denied the right to use tonight to hundreds of school children under the auspices of the Knights of Pythias several months ago,” he fumed when the locals barred him from kluxing at a school. “I was a Klansman then and I am a Klansman now. What’s the difference?” Along for the ride with Bronson that night was Merced Klan chief M.B. Haver, who amplified Bronson’s umbrage with a line that would not be out of place in either Bronson’s frontier past or our own hyperpolarized present: “What we need in America is not so much the Americanization of the foreigner as the Americanization of Americans.”

After the Napa chapter of his own Native Sons of the Golden West denied him use of its hall, Bronson hinted at a Klan-driven reckoning come election time. Not unlike figures today who threaten (or even employ) street fighting in place of protest, he went menacingly off script in his condemnation. “Bronson,” the Healdsburg Tribune reported, “said there was not enough Americanism in Napa to permit a peaceful gathering here.”

He was much gentler in San Luis Obispo, though. Perhaps because, after applauding little George Washington, the crowd received him graciously. Before he began his act there, Bronson even thanked the local Boy Scouts of America for its letter of welcome, returning the favor with a $150 donation.

The stump speech that followed provided, in what was and wasn’t said, a good example of the Klan’s would-be charm offensive. As in vaudeville, Bronson kept it, in context, clean—no explicit race- or religion-baiting—with Roman Catholicism name-checked only passingly and benignly. The country had drifted too far from God, he said. Strictness was required to instill obedience and discipline in kids. Only the Klan, through its cult of secrecy, could reliably enforce Prohibition, and only the Invisible Empire could ensure that the right kind of honest men were elected to public offices. Any reports of violence involving the Klan in its war on illicit liquor and drugs were wrong; if they weren’t, all violence was certainly not instigated by the Klan.

Bronson, of course, had to take a swipe at the nascent movie industry, casting Hollywood, despite the outsize role the D.W. Griffith blockbuster had served in resurrecting the Klan, as appalling in its immorality and assuring the crowd of a reckoning. He closed with a yarn comparing foreign travelers in the story to “the immigrant who comes here and tears down the country from within.”

And with that, he was on to Ontario and Orange.

Whether Bronson knew it or not, the Klan was on the decline.

Bronson’s San Luis Obispo stop primed the pump for an even bigger rally in the city a year later, when the chief white hood from Kern County, next door, came over and inducted hundreds of Obispans. Not everyone was swayed, but they were chagrined. Indeed, SLO’s longtime Fiesta de las Flores was the result of a countermove by the local interfaith community to deny the Klan access to the mission plaza for its next rally.

As Bronson continued across California into 1925, whether he knew it or not, the Klan was on the decline. In fact, it was krumbling. Lacking any actual national command structure—and with its constituent parts generally resisting such authority and embracing schismatic identities—it looked more like the Keystone Klan than an Invisible Empire.

Cascading revelations of flagrant hypocrisy in the Klan’s flouting of law and order, including booze swilling, rape, tax evasion, and misdemeanors large and small, undermined what thin veneer of respectability the group imagined for itself. Klan candidates who got elected at any level found that while they might triumph at the ballot box, they were out of their depth when it came to governance. And then there was the reality that Klan secrecy, sanctimony, and violence had begun to wear on citizens and politicians across the spectrum, turning the group into an unsavory joke. Besides, immigrants, along with their religions, customs, and contributions to the United States, and as constituencies, were clearly here to stay.

Like a cancer, the Klan would fade into remission but periodically recur, sometimes ferociously so. Bronson was a stalwart until 1932, when he keynoted the California Klan’s annual convention in Long Beach. After that, his name and the Klan’s never publicly appeared in the same sentence again. No one was fazed when he stumped for Herbert Hoover in 1928. Clubs and churches across California continued to invite him to lecture on patriotism and youth.

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The Ku Klux Klan in Los Angeles, March 31, 1940.
Getty Images

Having lived variously in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Monrovia, Bronson and his wife, Rae, ultimately retired to Van Nuys as they both began to lose their sight. In 1949, the Moose lodge there named its September membership drive Rush Bronson Month in honor of the old booster. He made the local papers in 1950 for his and Rae’s 60th wedding anniversary. There was no mention of his unsavory past affiliations.

When he died a year later, Bronson merited a single notice, in the Van Nuys News. For a younger generation of readers, it was a short acknowledgment of an aged patriotic vaudevillian’s passing. While he was vocal in life, his raison d’être went unremarked upon in death.•

Jason Vest is a recovering journalist/private investigator who occasionally backslides.