“they better bring a wheelbarrow”: Austin McGary and the KKK

Today’s blog post is the second half of a presentation that I’ll be giving at the Stone-Campbell Journal Conference in April of this year. The first half will be an updated version of the T.B. Larimore-related blog post I wrote a couple of years ago (which you can find here). Neither project was quite enough material to stand on its own as a peer-reviewed article, but I enjoyed the research and writing processes for both pieces and wanted to share them with readers and attendees in some way. I may do another conference recap later this year, but for now, enjoy a teaser of what I’ll be speaking on in a couple months’ time!

…A similar difficulty arises in trying to verify an unusual story about Churches of Christ preacher, editor, sheriff, and both former member and noted opponent of the Ku Klux Klan, Austin McGary. Born on February 6, 1846, in Huntsville, Texas,[1] McGary (like Larimore) joined the Confederate military at a young age—so young, in fact, that he was still only nineteen at the war’s end.[2] Four years after being paroled from the defeated army at Houston, McGary killed a man in Midway, though his legal defense of self-defense ultimately proved successful.[3] Around the age of thirty, McGary became the sheriff of Madison County, Texas, a post which he held for about two years.[4] During his tenure, McGary killed a suspect who had tried to outdraw him. Perhaps because of dangers like these, McGary later moved into a similar role as a prisoner transport for the state of Texas, a job which he likewise held for about two years. Still a religious skeptic at this point, McGary returned to Madison County to reconsider his future.[5]

On December 24, 1881, McGary was baptized just before the year’s end; he soon pursued his newfound religious calling with the same dedication (and wanderlust) that he had shown during his time in law enforcement. In 1883, McGary relocated to Austin, from which he began publishing the Firm Foundation during the following year.[6] Never content to stay put for long, though, McGary lived in at least six different Texas communities between 1891 and 1897, according to Lane Cubstead, and he even evinced interest in establishing a colony in Mexico around 1900.[7] Eventually losing control of the Firm Foundation in 1902, for reasons doctrinal and otherwise, McGary moved several more times in the following years, including stays in Los Angeles, California; Eugene, Oregon; and Springdale, Arkansas, where he purchased a farm. By the 1910s at the latest, McGary had landed back in Texas, from where he would edit a number of religious and prohibitionist papers in the next few years before passing away on June 15, 1928, in Houston.[8]

This summary has hardly done justice to the larger-than-life story of Austin McGary. Earl Irvin West observes in the second volume of The Search for the Ancient Order that McGary’s stories helped inspire John W. Thomason Jr.’s novel The Lone Star Preacher, and even the usually restrained West devotes an entire chapter to McGary and the exciting, though often uncited, stories of his adventures.[9] In fact, it is one of those stories that I wanted to investigate, since it has, like the above tale about Larimore, shown up in numerous works on McGary in the years since his death. West’s account of the incident is as follows:

The most prominent characteristic of McGary was his courage. Fear had absolutely no part in his make-up. At Willis, Texas, near Houston, the Ku-Klux Klan became active after the Civil War, and McGary was widely recognized as a bitter enemy. He was warned to get out of Willis, but he ignored the warning, until a stranger from another town informed him that he would be killed, and that people from another community would do it if he did not move. McGary was puzzled for a moment what to do. He conceived a plan, and sent an old Negro to every street corner in the town to shout at the top of his voice that McGary would speak on a certain Sunday afternoon at a specified locality on the subject of “Ku-Klux Klan.”

The time arrived and the town was full of people. McGary laid serious charges before the Klan. The Klan was unconstitutional. He related how they had taken an old preacher out of his house at night and beaten him unmercifully. McGary’s language was bitter in the extreme. He told them his door was unlocked at all times; that they could come any time they choose, but they better bring a wheelbarrow in which to haul their boys off. “I have a gun and some of you know that I am handy with it,” McGary cried. The Ku-Klux Klan never bothered A. McGary.[10]

Although I must have initially encountered this story many years ago when reading West for the first time, it was only with the much more recent publication of Jason Fikes’s 2022 article “Jesse P. Sewell, White Supremacy, and the Formative Years of Abilene Christian College” that it jumped out to me. In that article, Fikes summarizes the above anecdote, citing West, and adds that “Later in 1923, McGary wrote an extended editorial to the Houston Chronicle denouncing the Klan’s unlawful and cowardly activities.”[11] This editorial (actually published in 1921) has, thanks to the work of Terry Gardner and John Mark Hicks, has been reproduced on Hicks’s website; in it, McGary forthrightly discusses both his previous involvement with the Klan during the Reconstruction era as well as the reasons for his later opposition to it.[12]

As you may have guessed already, however, I am more interested in the bit about the wheelbarrow. This particular aspect of McGary’s anti-Klan activity is much harder to verify: Fikes cites West, but West cites no one! The dearth of citations in West’s McGary chapter has already been identified and explored at length in a helpful post by Terry Gardner in the “Friends of the Restoration” Facebook group, which fact-checks the widely repeated but erroneous claims that McGary never carried a gun, or killed anyone, or both.[13]

Since West also does not give a date for the story in question, we must first try to figure out when it could have taken place, if indeed it did. Two options jump to the top of the list. The first extrapolates from the dates given by West for other milestones in McGary’s life and assumes that the historian slotted the story into the appropriate place in the narrative, even though he did not call attention to it. This would place the story somewhere in the vicinity of 1883-1884, between McGary’s move to Austin and his founding of the Firm Foundation.

This hypothesis has several definite drawbacks, however. While nothing in West’s version of events necessarily requires McGary to have been living in Willis at the time of the confrontation, it seems less than likely that he would have moved to Austin in 1883, started his paper in the same town in 1884, but have also spent enough time in Willis in the meantime to provoke such hostility from the Klan—especially since Willis is much closer to Houston, where McGary also lived for several years, than to Austin.

A stronger option places the potential Willis incident at some point in the very early 1920s, just prior to the aforementioned Houston Chronicle editorial. In that piece, McGary states that he had decided previously not to speak publicly about the Klan “again,” although circumstances had forced a change of plans. A.R. Holton places McGary in Willis during the 1920s,[14] and the McGary-Douglas debate locates in Willis at the time of the discussion in 1921.[15] Though this timeline doesn’t square with West’s implied chronology, it is a much more feasible window for the incident to have occurred, and it would also explain the strong (even by McGary’s standards) rhetoric in the Houston Chronicle editorial.

Even with this more plausible timeline for the Willis confrontation, however, we still need to evaluate (in the absence of any primary source evidence prior to West’s chapter) how believable the story is. To be sure, the ideas that McGary would stage a public scene of this nature, that he would threaten violence if someone challenged him, and that he would be strongly opposed to the Klan in these later years of his life are all reasonable; there is nothing in the story that immediately jumps out as being out of character for McGary. However, West’s version is very light on details; in addition to the missing time frame, none of the other participants in the story besides McGary is identified, and neither is the “other town” from which the specter of violence was emanating. It sounds like a preacher story–it’s interesting, it gives us a feel for McGary as an individual, but even though it tells us truth in the abstract sense, it may or may not do so in a more literal way.

[1] F.D. Srygley, Biographies and Sermons: A Collection of Original Sermons by Different Men, with a Biographical Sketch of Each Man Accompanying His Sermon, Illustrated by Half-Tone Cuts, 358.

[2] Many of the dates in this presentation come from the timeline compiled by Terry Gardner at “Austin McGary,” The Restoration Movement, https://www.therestorationmovement.com/_states/texas/mcgary,austin.htm, hereafter referred to as the “Gardner timeline.”

[3] Terry J. Gardner, “McGary, Austin (1846-1928),” in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, eds. Douglas A. Foster et al (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 507-508.

[4] Srygley, Biographies and Sermons, 360.

[5] Srygley, Biographies and Sermons, 360-361; Earl Irvin West, The Search for the Ancient Order: A History of the Restoration Movement, vol. 2, 1866-1906 (Indianapolis: Religious Book Service, 1950), 403.

[6] West, Search for the Ancient Order vol. 2, 403; Srygley, Biographies and Sermons, 361; Gardner timeline.

[7] Lane Cubstead, “History as the Firm Foundation Made It,” Firm Foundation, April 28, 1959, 259; Earl Irvin West, The Search for the Ancient Order: A History of the Restoration Movement, vol. 3, 1900-1918 (Indianapolis: Religious Book Service, 1979), 362.

[8] Gardner timeline.

[9] West, Search for the Ancient Order vol. 2, 397. The chapter continues through p. 408.

[10] West, Search for the Ancient Order vol. 2, 404-405.

[11] Jason Fikes, “Jesse P. Sewell, White Supremacy, and the Formative Years of Abilene Christian College,” Restoration Quarterly 64, no. 3 (2022): 176.

[12] Republished as “A Stone-Campbell ‘Father’ on the Ku Klux Klan,” https://johnmarkhicks.com/2011/12/31/a-stone-campbell-father-on-the-ku-klux-klan/.

[13] Terry Gardner, “Austin McGary and Internet Quotations,” in “Friends of the Restoration” Facebook group, November 3, 2021.

[14] A.R. Holton, “75 Years Advancing With Texas,” Firm Foundation, January 20, 1959, 38.

[15] The debate was published in serial form in The Apostolic Way beginning with the January 15, 1921 issue, and all three pieces (April 1, 1921, and October 1, 1921, are the other two) have McGary posting his correspondence from Willis. Eventually, the work was compiled into a book, the full citation for which is given in Michael W. Casey, “From Religious Outsiders to Insiders: The Rise and Fall of Pacifism in the Churches of Christ,” Journal of Church and State 44, no. 3 (Summer 2002): 464 n47.

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