In 1922, newspapers reported extensively on the possibility of a Filipino branch of the Ku Klux Klan operating in the Hawaiian islands. There was no such group, but the real story is just as dark.

It was a story so outrageous that it was hard to believe. 

The Ku Klux Klan, a secretive white supremacist society that had been proliferating with alarming speed across the United States, had recruited thousands of Filipinos in Hawaii to join its ranks. 

“An alleged member of the Filipino Branch of the Ku Klux Klan has been buried alive by Hawaiian laborers whom the klan is alleged to have terrorized, according to the county attorney here,” read a 1922 United News wire story that was picked up by papers as far away as Kansas. “The Filipino Ku Klux Klan, according to the county attorney’s office … is terrorizing Hawaiian labor.”

In 1922, Hawaii prosecutors began investigating rumors that a Filipino branch of the Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing local laborers. The incident reveals a lot about anti-Filipino racism in the islands. (Screenshot/

There were reports in newspapers that the group was extorting workers and assaulting anyone who refused to pay or otherwise crossed them.

“The organization was formed more than six months ago by local Filipinos and has gradually increased its membership until more than 2,000 Filipinos in all parts of the territory have become members,” the Honolulu Star-Bulletin wrote in October of 1922, in one of a series of articles about an investigation of the group led by prosecutors on Oahu.

If the idea of a Filipino branch of the KKK operating in Hawaii seems unreal, it’s because it was.

Rumors of a Filipino KKK proved untrue, but after days of front-page coverage about the group, comparatively little was done to set the record straight. (Screenshot/

It took about a week for Hawaii officials to figure out that there was no link between Filipino laborers and the terrorist group burning crosses on lawns across the American South — though perhaps it shouldn’t have even taken that long.

“It’s absurd,” said Jonathan Okamura, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa whose work focuses on race and ethnicity in Hawaii. “It’s absolute nonsense to think that Filipinos had an organization that was affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and you would think members of the press would realize this.”

That reporters and editors at multiple publications gave so much credence to the story — running front page reports about the issue over multiple days — says a lot about media coverage of Hawaii’s Filipino community in the 20th century.

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“Filipinos were a group that was very much targeted,” Okamura said. “So the newspapers would pick up on any issue that would represent Filipinos in this negative light.”

The negative stereotyping of Filipino workers by newspapers in the 1920s — a period when Filipinos were helping lead a burgeoning labor movement on Hawaii’s plantations — had harmful consequences that continue to reverberate today.

Hawaii Has ‘No Room’ For The KKK

In the early 1920s, Hawaii newspapers frequently featured stories about the troubling spread of the Ku Klux Klan in towns across the United States. 

Readers in Honolulu and Hilo were well informed about federal investigations of the group. About violence inflicted by the Klan in Georgia. About failed efforts to ferret them out of Sacramento, California. 

But people in the islands could rest easy, local law enforcement officers said in 1921. Hawaii was too “cosmopolitan” in the character of its population, too desirous of quiet and harmony, for the terrorist group to take root here.

The idea that Hawaii would have a branch of the KKK was mostly treated as a joke in the 1920s.

So ridiculous was the idea that the white supremacist organization would be taken seriously in the Hawaiian Islands, that when the KKK sent a recruitment letter to a prominent Honolulu businessman in 1921, the incident was covered by two local newspapers. 

A year later, when an editor at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin received a threatening letter signed by the “KKK,” the paper asked readers to decide if the letter was “a threat or a joke.” 

For years, newspaper readers in Hawaii had followed stories about the growth of the Ku Klux Klan on the mainland, but the idea of a local klan was mostly the brunt of jokes. (Screenshot/

Then came the fall of 1922.

“An organization, which is known as the Filipino Ku Klux Klan, has been operating in Hawaii during the past few months and has terrorized the Filipinos in outlying districts,” the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported on Oct. 17, 1922.

The information came from a county prosecutor in Honolulu who was launching an investigation into the matter after a “prominent” member of the Filipino community made a complaint. A missing Filipino man had reportedly been a member of the KKK, the paper reported, and the attorney was told that he had been “buried alive as punishment for violating one of the rules of the order.”

In the following days, the Star-Bulletin — along with other papers in Hawaii and wire services as well — reported that the organization appeared to have recruited thousands of members and was spread across the islands. It was unclear if the group was affiliated with the mainland KKK or just modeled after the organization, reports said.

When Honolulu deputy attorney Claus Roberts found a pamphlet written in “the Filipino language” with the letters K.K.K. on the back cover, one Filipino man refused to read the pamphlet and another “started to translate and then attempted to tear the book into pieces,” the Associated Press reported in a story with the headline “Late Discoveries Deepen Mystery of Filipino K.K.K.”

Wire service stories about the so-called “Filipino KKK” appeared in papers as far away as Kansas. (Screenshot/

Within days, the labor commissioner of the Philippines contacted the AP to point out that “KKK” were also the initials of a protective society in the Philippines called Kataastaaasan Kagalangalang Katipunan Dismasalang, which means “the highest and most respected order of Dismasalang.” The labor commissioner also said he had encouraged Filipinos in Hawaii to establish fraternal societies to “improve their standard of living and for mutual protection.”

Roberts eventually came to the conclusion that there was no connection between plantation laborers and the mainland-based Ku Klux Klan. But despite earlier proclamations that he would finalize his investigation within a week, newspapers never published a follow-up on the results or what happened to the missing Filipino worker.

A ‘Demonized’ Group

Filipino laborers started arriving in Hawaii in 1906 to perform backbreaking labor on sugar plantations.

Although Hawaii had already experienced multiple transformative waves of immigration — in 1920, roughly 40% of Hawaii’s population was Japanese — the experience of Filipino immigrants was different than that of the Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Puerto Rican plantation workers who had preceded them.

Most of the Filipino workers were single men, often with little education, Okamura said. They were young. There was a much greater gender imbalance than there had been with previous immigrant groups. And some of them did get into trouble with the law.

When these young men were arrested for gambling or fighting or drinking, the press went wild.

In 1911, the Honolulu Advertiser dramatically declared that half of arriving workers from the Philippines were were “diseased and will have to be deported” and alleged that labor agents working on behalf of plantations were ex-criminals who were targeting recruits from the slums of Manila with “criminal propensities.”

“More Bad Filipinos Come” was the headline of a 1911 Hawaiian Star article about health problems among recent immigrants.

Something must be done about the “Filipino problem” an editorial writer opined in the Maui News in 1915, suggesting that the YMCA or the National Guard do something to “keep these irresponsible men from having too much time on their hands.”

“No question they were the most racially denigrated group in Hawaii,” Okamura said.

Okamura believes the media’s portrayal of Filipinos as somehow criminally-inclined contributed to the disproportionate number of Filipino men who were executed in Hawaii during the plantation era.

Okamura studied Hawaii newspaper coverage of death penalty cases between 1900 and 1944. Stories about Filipino men accused of murder frequently stated their race in the headline — something rarely done in stories about crimes committed by people of other ethnicities. The language used in the newspaper articles about Filipino murder cases also included much more graphic and violent details than other coverage of the day, he said.

More than half of the 42 men executed in that time period were Filipino — and more than two-thirds of men during the period when the most executions happened — although they made up a much smaller portion of the population. Even more striking is the amount of time juries deliberated in some of those cases — a mere three minutes in one instance.

Newspaper reports about death penalty cases in Hawaii more frequently identified the killer as being Filipino and used more graphic language than coverage of other cases, Okamura says. (Screenshot/

At the same time that Filipinos were being ostracized and targeted, they were also starting to take a lead role in labor organizing. Filipino workers led a significant labor strike on the plantations in 1919. Two years after they were accused of starting a local branch of the KKK, they would organize another strike that brought together other plantation groups.

“They were challenging the dominant racial boundary in Hawaii between non-haoles and haoles, who controlled politics and the economy through the plantations,” Okamura said.

Although media coverage of ethnic communities has improved significantly in recent decades — and it is general practice not to identify the ethnicity of suspects unless it pertains directly to the crime — stereotypes of Filipinos as being violent or crass continue to this day, Okamura contends.

Today, Filipinos make up one of the largest ethnic communities in Hawaii. Yet despite their size, the group still has not achieved the same level of economic or political success as earlier waves of immigrants to Hawaii.

And while the days of explicit racism in media coverage are hopefully behind us, some of the stereotypes perpetuated in that coverage remain entrenched in society.

“Stereotypes are hard to get to get rid of,” Okamura said. “Because they get reinforced in so many different ways.”

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