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Patrick Springer, Published March 02 2013

Former ND Gov. Arthur Sorlie had to fight accusations he was KKK supporter in 1920s

GRAND FORKS – Arthur Gustave Sorlie is remembered today as the namesake for the Sorlie Memorial Bridge spanning the Red River here.

He served as North Dakota’s 14th governor from 1925 to 1928, and was a successful Grand Forks businessman as the owner of a bakery that made bread and crackers.

But allegations that Sorlie was a member or sympathizer of the anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s have largely faded from memory, and seldom if ever were noted in standard histories of the state’s politics.

Still, the rumors and accusations of his affiliation with the notorious KKK were so prevalent during the 1924 gubernatorial campaign that candidate Sorlie felt obliged to get a signed, undated letter from a Klan leader attesting that he wasn’t in the organization.

“This is to certify that A.G. Sorlie, candidate for Governor of the State of North Dakota, on the Republican Ticket, is not a member of the Ku Klux Klan,” wrote F. Halsey Ambrose, a Grand Forks minister and top local Klan leader, as well as the chapter’s secretary.

The gesture wasn’t enough, however, to satisfy two historical scholars who have written about the KKK as a social and political force in North Dakota. Both concluded Sorlie was, at least for a time, a probable sympathizer or member.

Sorlie was a member of the Nonpartisan League in the days when the progressive group was aligned with the Republican Party, then as now a political powerhouse.

But during the early 1900s, the North Dakota GOP was bitterly divided by two factions, the NPL on the left and the Independent Voters’ Association on the right. Because the Republicans were so strong, the primary victor between the two factions usually went on to win the general election.

Sorlie’s support among the NPL was incomplete – he was regarded as a conservative businessman – but he had the backing of the Klan, including an endorsement from the pulpit from Ambrose, a minister with the First Presbyterian Church in Grand Forks, according to William Harwood, who wrote about KKK influence in Grand Forks in the journal “South Dakota History” in 1971.

That support, according to an editorial in the Grand Forks Herald on June 28, 1924, allowed Sorlie to carry the city against his rival, incumbent Gov. Ragnvald Nestos, who had the backing of the Independent Voters’ Association, which normally prevailed in Grand Forks.

Nestos had alienated Klansmen by signing a 1923 law outlawing the wearing of masks, intended to weaken the Klan, which was becoming active throughout North Dakota and elsewhere. Sorlie’s endorsement of a progressive presidential candidate, however, later weakened his support among the Klan, costing “thousands of votes,” but he nonetheless won the November election, Harwood wrote.

When challenged about his Klan affiliation, Sorlie gave an evasive answer by responding, “Because there are 500 Klansmen in Grand Forks is no sign I am one,” the Fargo Forum reported in September 1924.

The next month, October, Sorlie produced Ambrose’s letter disavowing Sorlie’s membership in the KKK. Because the disclaimer was undated, however, Harwood and another historical researcher have pointed out that it left open the possibility he previously was a Klan member.

Also, Harwood noted, sworn statements indicated Sorlie was among three men who had demanded the Grand Forks Herald retract an article about a Klan rally in Larimore in September 1923.

“It seems reasonable to conclude that he had been a member of the Klan and that when the pressure had become too intense, he withdrew his membership only temporarily, to prevent losing the support of the Grand Forks Klansmen,” Harwood wrote.

But Sorlie’s gesture apparently displeased the Klan. Although he won the statewide tally by 2,200, he narrowly lost his home city of Grand Forks in the 1924 gubernatorial election, Harwood noted.

Later, a Klan newspaper tried to punish Sorlie for his perceived betrayal, wrote Trevor Magel, who wrote a master’s thesis, “The Political Effect of the Ku Klux Klan in North Dakota.”

Magel also noted Sorlie’s Klan support and apparent sympathies, as well as the Klan’s overt attempts to influence the outcome of the rough-and-tumble 1924 governor’s race.

Sorlie’s election to the governor’s office, along with local office victories in Grand Forks in the mid-1920s, are regarded as the Klan’s most significant political influence in North Dakota.

Sorlie died in office in 1928. The bridge that bears his name, still in use today, was built in 1929 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522