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The History of Hate in Indiana: How the Ku Klux Klan took over Indiana's halls of power

The History of Hate in Indiana: How the Ku Klux Klan took over Indiana's halls of power
Posted at 3:40 PM, Dec 08, 2016

There was a time in the 1920s when being seen as a good, upstanding Hoosier meant joining the Ku Klux Klan.

At its peak, the Klan counted among its members the governor of Indiana, more than half of the state legislature and an estimated 30 percent of all native-born white men in the state. More than 250,000 Hoosiers swelled the Klan's ranks – some because they believed in its anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic message, others because being on good terms with the Klan was necessary for their business or political aspirations – making it the largest Klan organization in the country.

By the end of the decade, the Indiana Klan was all but dismantled following the conviction of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson for the rape and murder of a young school teacher named Madge Oberholtzer.

Subsequent efforts to revive the Klan in the state – efforts that continue to this day – have not succeeded. A September rally by the Klan in Madison, Indiana, saw more opposition come out than support.

The Klan may never see a resurgence in Indiana or elsewhere in the country. But could a group with a similar message of hate find itself controlling Indiana's halls of power once again?

A story of ordinary Hoosiers

The temptation in trying to explain the Klan's appeal in Indiana is to look to the top: Grand Dragon David Curtiss (D.C.) Stephenson.

But that would be a mistake, according to renowned IU Historian Dr. James H. Madison.

"The harder story, the more important story, is the tens of thousands of Hoosiers across the state who joined the Ku Klux Klan."

"The harder story, the more important story, is the tens of thousands of Hoosiers across the state who joined the Ku Klux Klan," Madison said. "That story is among ordinary Hoosiers who enthusiastically bought the product. Stephenson had the advantage of being at a certain place in a certain moment in history. This is a time when Hoosiers were willing to listen, to give their membership dollars, to parade, to support the values of the Ku Klux Klan."

Madison is the author of a number of books about Indiana history, including "Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana" and "A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America." He currently serves as the Thomas and Kathryn Miller Professor of History Emeritus at Indiana University.

The Klan of the 1920s is known by historians as the Second Klan – the first having been formed immediately following the Civil War. In the early part of the 20th Century, the Second Klan spread outside of the South, propelled by Prohibition and backlash against a wave of immigrants from Germany and other European countries. It found particularly fertile ground in Indiana thanks to a large Protestant population.

"The folks who joined the Klan in the '20s were Protestants. They were Methodists and Baptists and Disciples of Christ. They were good, god-fearing Protestants," Madison said.

At its peak, the Klan boasted members who were prominent politicians, businessmen and religious leaders.In some counties, Klan membership is estimated to have exceeded 40 percent of all residents.

Madison said the Klan at the time was very good at creating "them and us." It operated sophisticated propaganda campaigns through pamphlets and its newspaper, the "Fiery Cross." In the 1920s, the "them" most targeted by the Klan was Catholics.

"This is very hard for 21st Century people to understand, but anti-Catholicism was deeply ingrained in Protestantism in Indiana and America," Madison said. "In the 1920s anti-Catholicism drove good Hoosiers into the Klan as much as any other influence. So they joined the Klan to save Protestantism from the influence of the Catholic Church – which was, in their opinion, comprised of immigrants, of foreigners, of Germans and others. And the people who joined the Klan were convinced that alcohol was a sin, and that it was these Catholics who were responsible for the consumption of alcohol despite the Prohibition against it."

The other element of the Klan was a patriotism that was deeply intertwined with religion.

"The Klan has two symbols. One is the cross, the Christian cross. The other is the American flag. These are American patriots," Madison said. "Their religion and their patriotism are deeply connected. They are interchangeable. They are back and forth. In their view they are one and the same. Some of us believe in separation of church and state. I myself profoundly believe in separation of church and state. But those who joined the Klan did not share that worldview. To them, religion, politics, government and patriotism were all deeply entwined."

"A 100% American is native born. A 100% American speaks English. A 100% American is Protestant. A 100% American is white. These are the self-professed 'us' of the Ku Klux Klan."

The 1920s was also the time the Klan developed the phrase "100 percent American."

"A 100% American is native born. A 100% American speaks English. A 100% American is Protestant. A 100% American is white. These are the self-professed 'us' of the Ku Klux Klan," Madison said. "They are protecting themselves and their nation from the other: immigrants, Jews, Catholics. It's a horrible notion that contradicts everything I know about American ideals, but a large number of Hoosiers in the 1920s signed up for it."

The snake oil salesman at the top

The Klan was not a headless snake, though. At the top was Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, who had risen to prominence from the Evansville "Klavern" to eventually run the largest Klan organization in the country.

Above: D.C. Stephenson. (Credit: Indiana Historical Society; Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society; Bass Photo Co. Collection, Indiana Historical Society.)

Stephenson, according to Madison, was just the right person to capitalize on the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiment of his day.

"Stephenson was a salesman with no moral core, no ethical core, but very good at selling his product," Madison said. "He could have sold snake oil or anything else. He had a bombastic, authoritarian, 'I am the law' sort of style, and he built a very successful business organization, which is what the Klan was. He certainly did not in his private life hold in high regard the values that Hoosiers across the state who were members of the Klan did."

According to another IU historian, Professor Allen Safianow, the Klan of the 1920s was a magnet for Hoosiers with political aspirations.

"There was a symbiotic relationship between the Klan and people with political ambitions," Safianow said. "Political leaders found it expedient to align themselves with the Klan. The Klan involved itself in elections, and through this they were able to exert a fair amount of influence, to the point where in some communities like Kokomo it's reported that you really had to join the Klan to have a shot at a political appointment."

Whether the Klan exerted political influence because its membership grew large, or whether its membership grew because of its political influence is a chicken-or-egg question, Safianow said. But either way, Indiana's Klan by the mid-1920s could claim politicians ranging from local officeholders all the way up to Governor Edward L. Jackson, along with the majority of both houses of the General Assembly.

Photos courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society. Click the image above to see more.

Though Stephenson first ran for office in Indiana as a Democrat, the Klan eventually aligned itself with the Republican Party, which controlled most of the state at the time.

"Many politicians saw election victory via the Klan," Madison said. "The Klan was very active in political campaigns and elections and government. They made a list of candidates, and a candidate was approved or not approved by the Ku Klux Klan. Democrats tended not to get the approval of the Ku Klux Klan. Some stood up, most stayed silent out of fear of alienating their voters."

Perhaps even more than its actual political power, Madison said the fear the Klan was able to induce allowed it intimidate its opposition into silence.

"If you owned a men's clothing store on Washington Street in Indianapolis, you might want to join the Klan just to make sure you don't lose customers."

"The Klan was intimidating. This was part of D.C. Stephenson's salesmanship. He had a way of striking fear," Madison said. "There were two things there: One was that people agreed with the message. But the other was that people feared what their neighbors would think of them if they didn't join the Klan. That they weren't 100 percent American. If you owned a men's clothing store on Washington Street in Indianapolis, you might want to join the Klan just to make sure you don't lose customers."

Fortunately for the Klan's political opponents, fractures in the organization blunted its effectiveness when it came down to the actual business of governance.

"While it's said the Klan through the Republican Party controlled the state legislature, the two houses were divided, with one house aligned with D.C. Stephenson and the other with the governor," Safianow said. "As a result, the Klan really wasn't able to exert as much legislative influence as it could have."

Madison agreed, saying the Klan's only major legislative accomplishment was passing the so-called "Bone-Dry Law," which enhanced penalties for possession of alcohol during Prohibition.

"The fact of the matter is, Stephenson was not as competent and powerful as he thought he was, and that session of the legislature did not manage to pass any significant laws," Madison said. "The Klan did not, ever, at any time, pass its agenda."

Before the Klan had a second attempt, it had fallen into disgrace following Stephenson's conviction for the rape and murder of Oberholtzer.

TIMELINE: The Indiana Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s.

Could it happen again?

In recent years, the Klan has made attempts at outreach in the state of Indiana – none generating any noticeable results.

Aside from the aforementioned Madison rally in September, various Klan groups have passed out recruitment fliers in Fishers, Beech Grove and elsewhere, hoping to spread their message.

There's no indication any of those efforts have been met with success.

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Both Safianow and Madison say they don't see the Klan – an openly racist organization decked out in contrived mysticism, run by officers called "cyclops" and "wizard" – making a true resurgence in the modern era.

"The people that join the modern Klan are in no way like the people who joined the Klan of the 1920s," Madison said. "They are ignorant, they are uneducated. Many of them are so unstable they almost deserve our pity."

But what about an organization like the Klan?

"I think the answer is no, but the critical question is 'like that,'" Madison said. "I think Indiana has changed dramatically in 100 years in terms of our demography, in terms of our openness, in terms of what Hoosiers think about these sorts of issues. I'm doubtful that an organization of this sort could ever reappear in power in Indiana. But there are still elements of this that are alive and well in Indiana."

Those elements have found themselves in the spotlight recently with the rise of the so-called "alt-right" – a collection of racist, white nationalist and often anti-government forces who oppose what they see as globalization's negative effects on the U.S.

Many in that camp, including white nationalist leader Richard Spencer (who performed the Nazi salute while shouting "Hail Trump" at a recent convention of white nationalists in Washington, D.C.), have cheered the election of Republican Donald Trump – although he has disavowed their support – and see the selection of Breitbart executive Steve Bannon as Trump's chief strategist as vindication of their movement.

Bannon's selection drew criticism from the left and right, with Republican strategist John Weaver tweeting that, "The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office." Bannon's ex-wife has said her husband expressed anti-Semitic sentiments, including not wanting his girls "going to school with Jews." Bannon himself has denied being a white nationalist, saying he is, rather, an "economic nationalist."

READ MORE | What is the alt-right movement? | Anti-hate groups protest Breitbart editor's position in White House | Trump makes controversial pick for senior aide | White nationalists may find a home under Trump presidency

Safianow says he sees parallels between modern white nationalist movements and the sentiments that led to the rise of the Klan.

"It's important to remember that the Klan of the 1920s was not so much a cause of racism as a symptom of it," he said. "This is a long part of American history, you know, the fear of foreigners. We have sort of the same quandary today. People look at Donald Trump's victory, and some wonder how much of this is due to racism or prejudice? It's hard to tell. In the '20s, the Klan was openly nativist, anti-Catholic, white supremacist, and so the ideology was clear. But that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone joined the Klan for that reason. The Klan had other things on its agenda. It supported Prohibition and opposed gambling. It supposedly opposed corruption. One could argue, perhaps, that in the '20s, association with an organization that was racist and nativist wasn't a deal breaker the way it might be today."

Madison echoed similar thoughts.

"Some of the core messages that the alt-right are selling today are not that different [from the Klan]. And again, it's us vs. them."

"Some of the core messages that the alt-right are selling today are not that different [from the Klan]. And again, it's us vs. them. Whether them is African-Americans or Islamic people," Madison said. "It's really a creation of fear. You create people who are not like me. Who are different. And they'll show you how and why they are different, and then they'll go from there to show you why they are a direct threat to you and your family. And so you've got to be afraid. And you've got to take action."

For Madison, the Klan's legacy in Indiana may also be what the state needs to inoculate itself from the group's return.

"I think the Klan left such a stink in Indiana," he said. "It's the foulest-smelling beast we've had to deal with in Indiana. And it created a deep, deep fear in Hoosiers. For a long time Hoosiers would not even talk about the Klan. Not until the 1970s-80s, really. There's still a lot of confusion and anxiety about it. People say, oh, my great-great grandfather was a member of the Klan. Well, of course he was. If he was a good Methodist, he probably joined the Klan."

"There are elements of that kind of intolerance that have always been present in Indiana history, and they pop up from time to time, but I think we have changed," Madison added. "Maybe we learned a lesson there that stays with us."