The St. Louis Monthly Observer: Dethrone the Veiled Prophet
White supremacist and anti-labor organizations are no longer welcome in St. Louis
By guest writers Devin Thomas O’Shea, Chelsea K. Merta
One of the most remarkable things about St. Louis is how much of our history still haunts us. Sometimes, that history attracts fawning attention to the City’s past: Its unmatched architecture, the beautiful public parks, the world-renowned museums. But more often than not, racial injustice calls the most attention to the City’s history: our police are notoriously brutal, City leadership has divested millions of dollars from predominantly Black neighborhoods & public schools, and our government allowed the “War on Drugs” to ravage what remained of those communities. Like many of St. Louis’s dark relics, the Veiled Prophet lingers like an unwelcome guest.
The City is once again wrestling with the core contradiction of the Veiled Prophet tradition: A club that parades down the streets of St. Louis with the mayor, a caricatured Klansman hidden by a veil and waving white-gloved hands, seated on an opulent throne beyond reproach: a public display while demanding secrecy. Snopes and conservative fact-checkers rushed to emphasize that “The Veiled Prophet isn’t the KKK.”
Move along and don’t look too much further.
There is an opportunity for Mayor Jones to end the racist, classist dog-whistling altogether: Cancel the Veiled Prophet Parade & Fair, and kick the event out of our City.
This debate always, intentionally, circles back to whether or not the Veiled Prophet is “technically” the KKK. To be crystal clear: the Veiled Prophet is a Klansman. He is a “Ku-Kluxer” in the Reconstruction Era lingo, the title perfectly designed to slip past detection in the unsuspecting (or even complicit) press.
The first iteration of the Klan commonly practiced “veiling,” to conceal their identities behind weird theatrics and orientalist performance during the Reconstruction Era. The first wave Klan was a terrorist movement started in Pulaski, Tenn., by former Confederate soldiers, engaging in unchecked violence against recently-freed Black persons and becoming such a nationwide problem that the Grant Administration and Congress had to legislate the first wave Klan out of existence. The first wave Klan did not burn crosses or wear white-steepled hats that we’ve come to recognize today. Those hallmark features came in the 1920s, following the release of the film “The Birth of a Nation,” inspiring and launching the second wave of the Klan.
The first Klan was forced to use masks and these theatrics to evade laws like the Third Enforcement Act (or Klan Act) in 1872, which forbade Klansmen from assaulting labor leaders and destroying Black homes. In Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction, Elaine Parsons writes that the first wave of Klansmen declared themselves “Moon Men,” cosplaying as wizards with ghostlike nightgowns, pretending to be fallen Confederates at Shiloh. Prominent Klan members were fined or locked up by the Reconstruction government, disrupting the organization and its ability to recruit. But a loophole in the law allowed the Veiled Prophet Society to use a public procession - a parade - to display their own Klansmen to everyone in 1878. He didn’t call himself a “Grand Wizard;” he called himself “the Veiled Prophet of Khorasan” or whatever.
The theatrics and mysterious imagery of the Veiled Prophet intentionally were used to intimidate Black and white laborers in direct response to one of the largest general strikes in U.S. history. During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Black wharf workers and their higher-paid white railroad counterparts united to organize a general strike that shuttered St. Louis for nearly a week in what came to be called the St. Louis General Strike of 1877. Workers armed with their tools marched through the streets, the strike committee seized control of the waterworks, a sugar refinery, in a cross-racial work stoppage unparalleled in the United States at that time or since. Threatened by the unification of the City’s multiethnic working class, the white wealthy City “fathers” organized their own counter-strike, partnering with City police, local military, and an armed civilian militia to bust the strike.
The parade that followed the strike-breaking, the first Veiled Prophet Parade, reestablished the City’s white elite back at the top. City fathers marched through riverfront working-class neighborhoods in veils and orientalist costumes, savoring their victory over “the rabble.” Every worker, no matter their race, looked up at the Veiled Prophet on the first float, standing next to a butcher and bloody block, and understood that although the Klan had been forced into hiding, they were still looking at a Klansmen. Plausible deniability in the media carried the Veiled Prophet, a secret society formed to suppress multiethnic working-class dissent, and continuing for far too long after he should have been crushed.
Unmasking the Prophet
In 1972, civil rights activists Percy Green, Gena Scott, and The Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION) managed to Oceans 11-style rip off the Prophet’s veil during the annual Veiled Prophet Ball. Since that time, activists and members of the public have been working to “unmask” the Veiled Prophet’s affiliation with the City’s ongoing struggles with addressing white supremacy. Direct actions made it harder to keep the white supremacist ties quiet. In the aftermath of the ’72 unmasking, the Veiled Prophets were forced to move the parade from night to day and to choose a different season for their celebrations.
Membership in the society eventually became undesirable in St. Louis. When CIA Director nominee and Veiled Prophet member William Webster was summoned before Congress in 1978, he was made to account for his involvement in the all-white, all-male secret society. Only after massive amounts of public pressure did the Veiled Prophets initiate their first Black members in 1979 — although, of note, there have been no Black debutantes named as Queen. In 2014, Ferguson activists outed then police chief Sam Dotson as one of the guests at the ball.
But it took the “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” for the racist dog-whistling to finally catch national attention. Over the recent Memorial Day weekend, some accounts on Twitter rediscovered that The Office and Kimmy Schmidt actress, Ellie Kemper, was crowned Veiled Prophet Queen in 1999. Her participation in the event - noted as a Princeton student at the age of 19 - launched into the national spotlight, her decades-long failure to denounce ties to the racist, segregationist Veiled Prophet Society.
The recent kerfuffle is far from the first revelation of her involvement in the secret society, and Ellie Kemper will most likely say nothing in response to this controversy. As a white wealthy St. Louisan from a well-known family, she enrolled in an exclusive private high school with 99% white teachers and 99% white peers; the likelihood is slim that she questioned her parents, the structure of their wealth, her family business’s role in widening the racial wealth gap in Missouri, or even the kind of city in which she lived. Becoming the Veiled Prophet Queen was an honor for her, if not a little silly tradition. Old money St. Louis, just as the first klan, knows to enjoy the spectacle and stay quiet about the rest.
Directly naming the Veiled Prophet Society for what it is may not elicit a response from Kemper, but the organization’s exposure as an outdated, racist institution certainly raises the stakes for future debutantes. Now that the whole country is talking about the anti-labor, white supremacist roots of the Veiled Prophet, what university would want to accept its Queen as a student and representative? We may not get an apology from participants, but we can force the group further into the margins.
Much ado about Special Event Permits
While we can count on Mayor Tishaura Jones to not attend the Veiled Prophet Parade, today rebranded as “America’s Birthday Parade,” the question then becomes whether the parade will happen at all.
The Veiled Prophet’s destiny is likely in the hands of the City at this point. While many other major summer events have been postponed or canceled, the Veiled Prophet Parade hasn’t been clear about its plans. They may still be pending approval for an event permit by the Department of Public Safety.
In just this year alone, voters have witnessed aldermanic clashes over acknowledging May Day, the infiltration of the rightwing “Victims of Communism,” legislative efforts to abolish “critical race theory” in public schools -- this is not a welcome environment for the Veiled Prophet Society. Then-Comptroller Virvus Jones divested public funds from the Veiled Prophet in 1989, sending a message that the white power that effectively blocked Reconstruction Era progress was no longer welcome in the City. In a bit of poetic justice, his daughter - our Mayor - now oversees the Office of Special Events responsible for issuing the permit application for the Veiled Prophet Parade.
Mayor Jones can hammer that final nail in the coffin of the Veiled Prophet by denying the organization’s special event permit application. She could go one step further by declaring racism in St. Louis as a public health emergency and banning the Veiled Prophet Parade from the City altogether. Now is Mayor Jones’ opportunity to follow Percy Green’s advice from a 2019 St. Louis Public Radio interview: Expel the Veiled Prophet from our City. The decision is now hers.
If the Veiled Prophet Society wants to have its parade, then it is welcome to march through the municipalities where the debutantes and their rich daddies actually live — the very home of white flight in St. Louis — St. Louis County.
Devin’s writing is in Current Affairs, Boulevard, CHEAP POP, The New Territory, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. He went on NPR and the TrueAnon podcast to talk about Veiled Prophet, and graduated Northwestern’s MFA program in 2018. @devintoshea on twitter, @devintoshea on instagram.
This costume aesthetic goes back to a European tradition called “charivari.” After the Civil War, the old-country harassment was adopted by the KKK to reassert white supremacy as the dominant law in postbellum America—creating the world we live in today.
Her father, David W. Kemper, is the Executive Chairman of Commerce Bancshares. Learn more about the Kemper family in Missouri here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Thornton_Kemper_Sr.
City standard policy for big events like festivals, parades like this is for organizations to apply for a Special Event Permit no more than 60 days before the event, to provide time for review by streets, public safety, and other effective entities. The whole process is overseen by the Office of Special Events within the Department of Public Safety. For a parade scheduled the weekend of Independence Day, that would place the application deadline right at the beginning of May, which is normally when we see announcements of the official parade route, schedule, advertisements placed in local media and falls just before the CDC released their revised guidance on large events and vaccinations. No such announcement has been made yet, no event posted on the city website.
Better info about the first VP event will be revealed in the #FailedJoke of the #VeiledProphet when my book of that name is released in October.