The man accomplished a lot of things during his life. He was a soldier, pilot, business owner, role model, seaman, and Grand Titan of the Klu Klux Klan for Idaho. That last title did not last very long; when the Imperial Wizard of the KKK found out that Paul Bellesen was a Black man, his membership in that vile organization was quickly revoked. Bellesen knew it would happen that way, but he probably was not expecting the amount of notoriety that came from this event.
Paul was born in Washington state in 1931 to Slyvester and Pearl Bellesen. Paul served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, but he left the military as a Private and the extent of his service is unknown. After leaving the army, Paul moved to Nampa, Idaho. In 1957, a news item mentioned him flying a Piper Cub airplane from Gooding to Malad when he ran out of gas and was forced to land at Strevell, Idaho. Strevell is now a ghost town, but it had a small airstrip and gas station back then. Many travelers by air and by car were saved by this oasis in the desert just north of the Utah state line. In November of 1962, Paul was visiting Vancouver, British Columbia, when the car he was driving struck 48-year-old Margaret Henry, as she attempted to cross the street on foot. Margaret was flipped up on top of Paul’s car, and he could see her legs dangling from the roof out of his rearview mirror. Fearing a hard brake would fling the woman to the pavement, Paul gently slowed his vehicle down until he could safely stop. He rendered aid, but Margaret passed away from her injuries. A coroner’s jury ruled that her death was an accident, and police praised Paul for remaining calm during the tragic incident.
Paul returned to Nampa, and by 1965, owned his own janitorial business which serviced several area businesses. One day he was flipping through an unnamed national magazine when he found a story about the Klu Klux Klan and its recruiting efforts around the nation. Paul decided he would try to join up, so he sent a letter and a $15 membership fee to the National Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, based out of Tucker, Georgia. When Paul received an envelope in the mail from that organization, he was surprised to find, included with a letter, a membership card with his name on it. Not only was he made a member of the KKK, the letter indicated that he was given the title of “Grand Titan '' of Idaho, and was encouraged to set up a “klavern” -or local branch- in Nampa.
Paul Bellesen, 34, holding his Klu Klux Klan membership card-Idaho Statesman, February 25, 1965
Word spread that the newest member of the KKK was a Black man from Nampa, Idaho. Paul went to the newspaper, which snapped a photo of him holding his membership card. That photo along with his story was reprinted in news outlets all over the country, as well as in Canada, the U.K., and Australia. When James R. Venable, Imperial Wizard of the KKK found out that his newest officer was a black man; he quickly revoked Paul’s membership privileges. Venable told the newspaper, “He, Bellesen, has perpetrated a fraud through the mails by sending us this oath”. The oath he was referring to was a promise that the applicant was a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. Not only was he African-American, but he was also a Roman Catholic, another group that the KKK wanted to rid the United States of. Paul had a simple defense to Venable’s mail fraud claim “Being a Negro and supposedly unable to read anyway, I signed it”.
James R. Venable, that old racist a--hole. Venable was mayor of Stone Mountain, Georgia, and was present when the Klan was reformed in 1915 there. He started the National Knights of the KKK in 1963 and served as its Grand Wizard for 25 years. - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Idaho has a complicated history with white supremacy. The state was built upon the backs of an equal number of pro-Union and pro-Confederate miners and merchants during the Civil War. In the 1920s, the Klu Klux Klan attempted to establish a foothold in the Boise Valley, holding several meets and parades on the streets of Boise, Meridian, and Nampa. After recruiting a few members, the KKK’s presence in Southern Idaho seemed to fade out, fortunately with little or no race-based violence. In the 1970s, Richard Butler built a neo-Nazi compound at Hayden Lake in Northern Idaho, operations of which were partially funded by the sale of the popular kid's novelty called Sea Monkeys (more on that in a future post). Several lawsuits and pushback from the local community led to the closing of the compound in the 1990s. The Southern Poverty Law Center currently tracks six distinct hate groups in Idaho.
KKK parade in Nampa, Idaho on August 11, 1924. The iconic Dewey Palace Hotel can be seen in the background. The Elk's Club where Paul was janitor is right across the street. -Nampa Public Library Digital Photo Collection
Paul Bellensen used his experience as the Grand Titan of the KKK to highlight just how ridiculous the Klan was. He pointed out that on his application he mentioned that he was in the Elk’s Club. Of course, he was the club’s janitor, so technically he was often physically in the club. He also told the newspaper he expected some kind of investigation or verification of who he was, and so he was quite surprised when the membership card showed up in his mailbox. The whole event could be laughed off as a big joke, if not a minor black eye to the KKK, an organization that at the time was splintered into several different factions. In fact, when Venable’s rival, Calvin Craig, Grand Dragon of the United Klans of America found out, he thought it was pretty funny. Paul had attempted to join Craig’s club (Kraig’s Klan?) first but was discouraged when he was asked to send a photograph of himself.
After the media coverage of his KKK membership made him famous, Paul received letters and telephone calls from all over the country. Most were supportive, some were just cranks, and some criticized Paul for lying on the application. Many phone calls came from other media outlets, including CBS, asking him to appear on their television show, “I’ve Got a Secret”, but he did not appear on the show. After Paul’s story broke to the media, he wanted to retreat from the limelight but the Boise chapter of the NAACP requested that he keep telling his story when called upon by media outlets. Paul had been a part of the civil rights movement, having been a member of the British Columbia chapter of the NAACP while living in Canada. He made it a point to mention that he was not a member of the Nation of Islam, the group headed by Malcolm X (who had been killed in Manhattan the day after Paul received his KKK credentials), and had the same level of disdain for that group as he did the Klan. Despite all of this attention, Paul did not think his little prank would have a big impact overall, saying, “What I did created awareness of problems that exist. I doubt if I did anything more than cause the United Klan a moment of extreme embarrassment”. Many in the community felt differently; an editorial in the Idaho State Journal called for Paul to be given a medal from the Idaho State Legislature. That, of course, did not happen.
On Tuesday, April 20, 1965, Paul Bellesen went missing. Fearful that the KKK had done something to her husband, Emaline Bellesen called the Nampa Police Department at 1:45 a.m. on Wednesday morning. She told officers that she had not seen her husband since he left for work the day before. The last time she saw him, Paul seemed worried about something, but he never went anywhere without letting her know. He did not show up to work either, and only had a couple of dollars on him when he left. The next day, Paul’s car, a 1960 Thunderbird, was found abandoned at 15th and River Street in Boise, further stoking the fear that he had been killed or kidnapped by the Klan. Nampa police were not as worried though, especially after Grand Dragon Venable was contacted by a Boise radio show, telling the host the KKK had no reason to harm Paul, as Paul had not really hurt the Klan with his membership stunt.
Paul Bellesen as he was returning to normal life after his year of fame. Idaho Statesman, December 20, 1965
Tips poured in that Paul had been spotted by fellow Nampans in Boise, and then in San Francisco. Police had checked with the airlines at Boise and found that Bellesen’s name did not appear on any flight manifest, nor had he rented an airplane to fly himself. Since his car was now impounded in Boise, police could not say how he would have gotten to California. Even so, he did turn up at a San Francisco emergency room the day after he was reported missing. Paul’s physical health was fine; it was his mental health that he needed help with. He spoke to the hospital’s psychiatrist about marital and business matters, but also mentioned that someone might be after him. After speaking with the doctor, he said he was ready to return home and to his wife if she would have him. A few days later, Paul arrived back in Nampa, exhausted from his trip. He refused to speak with reporters about his mysterious journey. The only explanation he ever gave was cryptic, “The Klan has nothing to do with me coming down here, I just caught a plane on Tuesday and came on down here-just say it was a little business trip.”
He settled back into his life, but 1965 was not done with Paul Bellesen yet. In July, he was contacted by attorneys representing a man in Ohio who was accused of participating in Klan activities. The defendant in that case, Clarence Brandenburg, was arrested near a Klan rally and when officers found that he was in possession of a membership card, they charged him with criminal syndicalism. Brandenburg's lawyers hoped that Bellesen’s deposition could prove that just because a person had a Klan membership card, does not mean they are a member of that group. Paul was likely not briefed on the full details of the case, as he was noted as saying that if he found out that Brandenburg was an actual KKK member he would not testify. Brandenburg in fact had been seen in a white robe, carrying a firearm, and shouting typical racist phrases. Brandenburg was found guilty on that charge and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He appealed the case, hiring a Jewish lawyer to represent him for it. The Ohio Supreme Court freed him from prison when they struck down the criminal syndicalism law.
Bellesen during his deposition. Attorneys from Ohio traveled to Caldwell to hear his testimony. The Idaho Statesman, January 19, 1966
Soon after offering his deposition in that case, Paul Bellesen decided it was time to move back to Washington State. On November 17, 1967, Paul formed a non-profit called North By Northwest Adventures. His idea was to provide a way to keep kids off the streets by giving them something to do. He acquired several small boats and taught kids from the inner city how to sail them. One vessel, a 70-foot sailboat, was named after later civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Another, a tugboat, was named after African-American poet Langston Hughes. Although Paul’s purpose was to see more Black kids grow up to be boat captains, membership was not restricted to one race. Paul believed in the American notion of equality, something he showed when he joined the KKK, as well as when he was in the position to allow people into his own organization.
Paul Bellesen and Cado Brown, 11, at the helm of the Langston Hughes. The Bellingham Herald, June 4, 1971
Despite his humble acquiescence during the KKK incident, Paul Bellesen made a difference in the lives of many. Shortly after Paul’s story broke in 1965, the House Un-American Activities Committee began an investigation into the Klan. Paul’s story was one of many which started a conversation about the Klan and brought an awareness of that organization’s illicit activities to the public consciousness. His efforts to help troubled youth in Puget Sound were certainly not in vain. One of those kids, Paul Bellesen Jr., retired in 2021 after spending almost 30 years with the Washington State Ferry System, the last 15 of those years as a Ferry Captain. In 2008, Capt. Andrea McDonald acquired the Langston Hughes and tracked down some of Bellesen’s former students to give them a final ride in the old tug. During that trip, they wrote a sea shanty about the Langston Hughes and Captain Bellesen. Check it out on Youtube or Spotify. Paul died the same year and is buried in the Tahoma National Cemetery, a military cemetery near Seattle.
Paul Bellesen might not be at the top of anyone's list of influential Civil Rights figures, but he was a hero to many. His name has long since been forgotten in Nampa, Idaho, but his actions should never be forgotten. Perhaps, all these years later, it is time for the Idaho Legislature to consider that medal or similar honor for Mr. Bellesen.
Paul Bellesen's marker at Tahoma National Cemetery-Donald Miller via Find a Grave
The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, California, Thu, Feb 25, 1965
The Idaho Statesman, Boise, Idaho, Mon, Dec 20, 1965
The Idaho Statesman, Boise, Idaho, Wed, Jan 19, 1966
The Bellingham Herald,Bellingham, Washington Fri, Jun 04, 1971
The Cincinnati Enquirer Cincinnati, Ohio Tue, Jun 10, 1969
The Southern Poverty Law Center
Peninsula Daily News, October, 6, 2021