One of Grand Junction’s early prominent citizens was Walter Walker. He was the second owner and publisher of The Daily Sentinel who helped establish Mesa Junior College and the local veterans hospital, built The Avalon and brought air service to Grand Junction.
He was also responsible for bringing the Ku Klux Klan to Grand Junction in the 1920s. It’s not a secret anyone’s tried to keep under wraps. But — until now — Walker’s story has been regarded more as a historical curiosity than an indelible stain on his reputation because he also helped drive the Klan out of existence here. More on that momentarily.
There’s a statue of Walker (and his son, Preston, who succeeded him as Sentinel publisher) on Main Street — recognition that he helped shape the city of Grand Junction. But, times being what they are, some people in the community wonder — rightfully, we might add — what kind of message that sends.
It’s a question ripe for debate, especially now in the wake of anti-police-brutality demonstrations that have amplified racial tensions in this country. Across the South, protesters this month have vandalized and removed dozens of monuments to Confederate historical figures. Should the statue of a known KKK member in western Colorado be treated any differently?
Maybe. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Walker is a redemptive figure who saw the light.
Noel Kalenian provides a thoughtful treatment of Walker’s story based, in part, on audio recordings of interviews with Walker’s contemporaries included in the Mesa County Oral History Project housed at the Mesa County Libraries. (https://mesacountylibraries.org/2019/05/local-history-thursday-walter-walkers-involvement-in-grand-junctions-ku-klux-klan/)
The Klan was proving to be a political force in Colorado — and across the country — in the 1920s. Prohibition provided the Klan with a new platform to spread its anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, white Protestant nationalist rhetoric. It promised to clean up communities and rid them of bootleggers and moonshiners.
But that’s not how the Klan operated here. Beer was served at meetings. It was more of a men’s social club. Kalenian’s piece cites the historian Robert Alan Goldberg’ supposition that Walker and other elites may not have wanted the Klan to usurp the existing power structure, and so instead, co-opted the organization and made it a simple social club.
Under Walker’s leadership, the club refused to take an activist position on the Klan’s tenets. But at some point, Walker was stripped of his leadership position and the club took a sinister turn. That’s when Walker started writing editorials warning of an organization “that preyed on prejudice to incite hatred,” Kalenian wrote.
In September 1925, several local Klan leaders including a deputy sheriff and a police officer assaulted Walker as he walked from a barber shop to his newspaper office. But that didn’t stop his anti-Klan campaign and membership dwindled to insignificance by 1926.
Walker’s affiliation with the Klan didn’t do any lasting damage to his reputation or his legacy. He was appointed to fill an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate. The Grand Junction Regional Airport was named for Walker from 1942 until its expansion in 2007. The soccer and lacrosse field at Colorado Mesa University is named after him. So is the Walter Walker State Wildlife Area. The statue at 634 Main St. was installed as part of the Legends of the Grand Valley project. Members of the Legends committee must have concluded that Walker’s advocacy on behalf of the community outweighed his brief Klan association.
There are many ways of looking at this. One is that any association with the KKK disqualifies a person from any sort of public recognition. Another is that Walker fought back against dark forces in the community. A third is that this community is so clueless as to not anticipate how awkward this all looks.
We think it’s a no-brainer for CMU to scrub Walker’s name from the soccer and lacrosse field. It’s an unnecessary distraction at odds with the lofty ideals of higher education. The “woke” generation simply isn’t going to accept any nod to a bygone era where racist ideology prevailed. It makes it too hard for CMU to sell itself as a progressive institution.
The statue is a tougher call. On one hand, keeping it is a measure of authenticity. Walker was a force in this community. The statue lets us fully own his legacy — the good with the bad. But it also allows space for visitors to wonder what kind of community we are.
If Facebook attacks on Walter Walker prevail and we decide as a community that the statue doesn’t belong on Main Street, then we face bigger questions.
Should the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C, and the name of our nation’s capital be changed, too? They honor slave owners, after all.
We have no answers. Only the acknowledgment that it’s a debate worth having.