Showing Animals Respect & Kindness aims to see the sun set on one of the Ku Klux Klan’s biggest fundraising rackets in one of the most notorious of “Sundown” counties
CULLMAN, Alabama––Cockfighting, the Ku Klux Klan, and corruption of law enforcement came together from Georgia to Cullman County, Alabama, home of the Bug Tussle cockpit, even before Cullman County was hacked off from neighboring Blount County in 1877.
All three––cockfighting, the Klan, and corruption of law enforcement––appear to have become locally established by 1870, five years after the end of the U.S. Civil War.
Cockfighting remains evident in Cullman County nearly 150 years later, and lingering remnants of the Ku Klux Klan and corruption of law enforcement remain shadows in the background, as Showing Animals Respect & Kindness [SHARK] discovered on the morning April 20, 2023.
First a SHARK drone discovered a cockfight in progress at a cockpit near Bug Tussle, a Cullman County hamlet notorious for hosting cockfights for at least half a century.
Alerted by SHARK, the Cullman County sheriff’s office responded, more or less, but not before nearly 100 carloads of cockfighters, acting as if tipped off, had adequate opportunity to suspend their activity and abscond, with their gamefowl, leaving only feathers, tire tracks, and of course the cockpit itself to show they ever were there.
John G. Cullmann
Cullman County and Cullman, the county seat, officially celebrate descent from German-speaking immigrant settlers lured south from Cincinnati by land speculator and promoter John G. Cullmann.
Cullmann as early as 1873 advertised the community as free of African-Americans and Native Americans.
But as historian Robert S. Davis documented in Different Children of The New South: The Communities Created in Cullman County, 1872-1895 (2005), the region was scarcely uninhabited when the German-speakers came. Established residents included both African-Americans and Native Americans.
Emigrants from Georgia had already been arriving for decades, bringing with them the cotton-planting plantation culture, cockfighting, and slavery.
“Major supplier of livestock & slaves”
“Almost all of the original black residents, born after 1830, had Alabama for their place of birth,” according to Davis, “while older relatives and neighbors usually had Virginia nativity. A few senior members claimed the Carolinas, Georgia, and Kentucky as place of birth, but Jack Graham, born circa 1790, claimed Africa.”
In the early settlement years, wrote Davis, Blount County was “a major supplier of livestock and slaves, products who could walk to market, to Decatur, Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, and even Mobile,” before the South & North Alabama Railroad reached the area in stages between 1859 and 1870.
Post-Civil War, cotton became the dominant local crop. Though freed from slavery, African-Americans remained the main part of the cotton industry labor force.
John G. Cullman kept his word to the German immigrants only by wangling secession of the sparsely populated but heavily wooded western part of Blount County from the more developed eastern part.
That Cullmann “promoted his colony as free of African-Americans and Indians at first seems strange,” suggested Davis. “He and most of his Germans came from the great abolitionist center of Cincinnati. Charles A. Beckert, his close associate and the first mayor of Cullman, had been a captain in the 110th United States Colored Troops Regiment, a unit raised in North Alabama which fought [Ku Klux Klan founder] Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederates during the Civil War.”
But prejudice prevailed, including through German-speaking immigrant fear of African-American economic competition. African-Americans in Cullman County were confined almost entirely to a neighborhood called The Colony, incorporated into the county at some point between 1900 and 1910 only because it lay between Cullman and valuable coal deposits.
The Klan was & is a racist racket
As elsewhere in the South after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan formed in Cullman County to maintain white supremacy, purporting to be an unofficial branch of law enforcement.
Also as elsewhere in the South, and everywhere else that the Klan managed to establish itself, Klan membership included many actual members of law enforcement: sheriffs, deputies, constables, and sometimes even prosecutors and judges.
What they could not do within the law to enforce white dominance, they did outside the law, under hoods.
As the Ku Klux Klan could not levy taxes to fund their activities, they charged “protection” money from promoters of anything nominally illegal but easily overlooked by corrupt law enforcement.
The rural Mafia
This included cockfighting, dogfighting, other forms of gambling, prostitution, and especially after Prohibition came into effect in 1919, moonshining and rum-running, already well-established in the rural South to evade taxes on alcohol.
Much as Prohibition helped to establish the Sicilian Mafia as the dominant force in organized crime in big northern cities, Prohibition helped the Ku Klux Klan to become the dominant force in organized crime throughout most of the rural United States.
This was nowhere more evident than in Cullman, a Klan stronghold since the Klan began, where local media rarely mentioned any of the Klan-protected vices, even though Cullman was widely known as a place Alabamans went to indulge.
“The greatest example of the violent values that the Georgia society brought to the area,” wrote Davis, was the lynching of two local white men who defied the Ku Klux Klan.
“Monroe Evans, a native Alabamian [and self-styled Mormon polygamist],” Davis explained, “had been part of a company of local pro-Union guerillas during the Civil War who formed a settlement on what would become the Cullman-Marshall county line.
“On August 16, 1891, two hundred ‘white caps,’ white disguised vigilantes almost unique to Georgians,” according to Davis, lynched Monroe Evans and his adult son John.
“White caps,” wrote Davis, never actually identifying the Ku Klux Klan by name, “dealt with perceived community threats outside of the reach of local law enforcement. They most often terrorized and destroyed the property of neighbors who reported moonshining to the federal government for bounties. The Evanses, at that time, were under suspicion of acting themselves as vigilantes by shooting at several of their neighbors. They were under arrest specifically for firing at [a man named] Pierce Mooney the previous June. A mob hanged father and son with opposite ends of the same rope, across a tree branch, as the weight of each strangled the other.
“Their lynching received national publicity,” Davis noted. “Under pressure from the state government and from local people who feared the whitecaps, county officials indicted a dozen men for the murders in November 1895, including county commissioner L. M. Kellar. A jury, for want of evidence, acquitted them in early 1896.”
The Vernon Courier of February 7, 1895, however, indicated that there was no “want of evidence.”
Witness A. J. Cash “confessed to being a member of the Whitecap League and implicated the accused,” the Vernon Courier reported. “He named the parties who tied the rope about the Evanses necks, as well as those who pulled them down by their legs until they choked to death.
Acquitted against the evidence
“He named Dock Kellar [the county commissioner] as the physician who pronounced them dead. He told of the working of the Whitecap League, its members being highly prominent citizens including county officials.
“Tom Entrican, Robert B. Bradley, and W. P. Turner all confessed to being members of the gang and confirmed Cash’s story, except that the two last named were unable to identify all the accused as participants.”
The lynching of Monroe and John Evans, and the failed attempt to prosecute them, established Ku Klux Klan or “Whitecap League” rule over Cullman County, with two noteworthy exceptions.
The first exception came in 1899, when Alabama governor Joseph Forney Johnston sent the Birmingham Rifles, a National Guard unit, to Cullman to take custody of an African-American man named Henderson Tunstill who was accused of killing Blount Springs justice of the peace James K. Hamilton, and transport him back to Birmingham to stand trial.
The Cullman “whitecaps” failed to lynch Tunstill, who had been arrested in Cullman County after he exchanged fire with a Blount County posse, but whether the trial was ever held and what became of Tunstill has apparently evaded the public record.
Often African-Americans who abruptly vanish from the public record under similar circumstances were in fact lynched somewhere outside the media spotlight.
Shot up African-American church at Christmas
With the possible exception of the Tunstill case, the Cullman “whitecaps” literally got away with murder.
Recounted Davis, “In 1904, white vigilantes fired into a black church during Christmas services near Arkadelphia,” an unincorporated hamlet in northern Cullman County.
“The minister died instantly and two members of the congregation received serious wounds. One vigilante died, apparently accidentally shot by his comrades. The sheriff could find no one to testify against the attackers.”
The Cullman Times Democrat of December 29, 1904 makes clear that there were in fact multiple African-American witnesses, who identified attackers John Jett and Ted Blackwell, adding that “The shooting is supposed to have been the result of a general Christmas spree.”
Alleged arsonists walk
What else might have been part of the “general Christmas spree”? Drinking moonshine to excess, cockfighting, and dogfighting are undocumented likelihoods.
In October 1920 the Cullman “night riders” joined a national Ku Klux Klan campaign of intimidation of cotton gin owners and storekeepers meant to drive up cotton prices. A store burned in Cullman was said to have burnt “by accident,” but Alabama state fire marshal William J. Williams, under federal government pressure, arrested 43 “night riders” in Cullman, the majority of whom were reportedly “well-known planters of Cullman, Blount, and Marshall counties.”
If any were convicted at a well-publicized December 1920 trial, that fact was not reported.
“By the early 1920s,” said David, “visitors to Cullman County saw a sign threatening blacks in the city of Cullman with murder if they remained in the city past sundown. By then, a group of vigilantes had driven the city’s one African-American family out of town for being black.”
Skeptical of stories he had heard about the sign, and noting that sociologist James W. Loewen (1942-2021) did not mention it in his 2006 book Sundown Towns, which otherwise identified Cullman as one of the most notorious “sundown towns,” Tuscaloosa News staff writer Ben Windham in 2006 went looking for the evidence.
“Charles Tisdale, publisher of the Jackson, Mississippi Advocate, wrote in a 2000 column that Cullman posted a sign ‘for many, many years’ on its main street that read ‘Nigger Read & Run. If you can’t read, just run,’” Windham learned.
“Another writer claimed the same message was on a series of signs modeled on the old Burma-Shave advertisements, posted one after the other on a road leading to Cullman,” Windham continued.
Former Cullman County state representative Tom Drake, who served 32 years in the Alabama state legislature including two terms as speaker of the house, told Windham that, “There used to be signs on the railroad track, at the county line and all that,” saying “’Nigger, don’t let the sun set on your head in Cullman County.’”
As Ku Klux Klan influence faded nationally, Cullman Times Democrat staff writer W.R. Morris tried to expose cockfighting on August 27, 1972, with help from International Society for the Protection of Animals representative John Walsh.
“Cockfighting is a growing ‘sport’ in Cullman County,” Morris warned. “Chicken fighters in Cullman County usually hold their bouts on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, in the southeast section of the county,” in other words in the Bug Tussle neighborhood.
If W.R. Morris ever had another byline in the Cullman Times Democrat, NewspaperArchive.com seems to have no record of it.
Jerry Thompson exposed Klan in Cullman
Tyler Roden, whose father and grandfather also served at times as Cullman County sheriff, in 1999, 2002, and 2009 led the only documented cockfighting busts in county history, all at Bug Tussle, seizing $18,000 in cash in the 2009 raid.
Elected sheriff in 1994, Roden was voted out of office in 2010.
The Ku Klux Klan, meanwhile, put in many more Cullman appearances. Knoxville Tennessean investigative reporter Jerry Thompson (1940-2000), author of My Life With The Klan (1980), journeyed to Cullman to expose Bill Wilkinson’s Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, identified by the FBI at the time as the most violent and dangerous of the many Klan factions.
Wilkinson himself, ironically, resigned from the Klan in 1984 and relocated to Belize after turning FBI informant.
The National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in December 2007 asked the Cullman City Council for a parade permit, but then, after the application drew national news coverage, elevating the then faded prominence of the Klan, abruptly withdrew the application, without explanation.
In September 2015, reported Melanie Posey of WBRC in Birmingham, Alabama, Ku Klux Klan recruiting literature was widely distributed in the Crane Hill unincorporated community, the oldest settlement in Cullman County, founded in 1806.
It is difficult to identify anywhere that Showing Animals Respect & Kindness has found a cockpit which does not have some local history of both Ku Klux Klan activity and corrupt law enforcement, often in alleged collusion with the Klan.
In Cullman County, though, that history is especially blatant and recent.