The Journal Gazette
Sunday, November 29, 2020 1:00 am


Story of Klan's '20s Hoosier heyday maintains plenty of resonance today

James H. Madison, professor emeritus of history at Indiana University Bloomington, is the author of a new book about the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, focusing on the Klan's rise in the early 1920s. In an email exchange, Editorial Page Editor Karen Francisco asked him about the book, based on three years of research at historical societies, libraries, the Library of Congress and in digitized newspaper accounts.

Q: Most people seem to think of the Klan primarily as a threat to Blacks, but that wasn't the case here in the 1920s. Who were the primary targets of Klan hatred?

A: Those who joined the Klan in the 1920s thought of themselves as the best people, 100% Americans. Native-born, white, Protestant, they were respectable citizens from all walks of society. They believed that the Klan was a mainstream reform movement to make America better.

The Klan was very good at identifying enemies and making people fear others. First on the list were Catholics. Anti-Catholicism was deep in Protestant culture and in Klan culture. Other enemies included immigrants, especially from southern and eastern Europe, Jews and African Americans. But Catholics were always the most dangerous, with their foreign Pope, their undemocratic hierarchy, their growing parochial schools, their plot to take over the nation, so the Klan preached. Thus, the Klan newspaper, the Fiery Cross, labeled Fort Wayne “the Sodom of Indiana” because of its immigrant and Catholic population as well as the culture of bootlegging and other sins. Still, Fort Wayne had a very active Klan.

Q: The link between religion and KKK membership is fascinating. How did the Klan use Indiana churches to advance its message? Why were Protestants receptive to that message?

A: The Klan and Protestant denominations joined in common goals to return America to a time of greater morality, to clean up corruption, enforce Prohibition and eliminate all the sin that seemed to be washing across the Jazz Age. Klan and church also agreed the 100% Americans, the best people, should call the tune and protect America from the Klan enemies.

Q: We generally think of Klansmen as violent, but that wasn't the case, correct?

A: There are very few cases of documented violence in Indiana in the 1920s. The Klan did bomb a Catholic priests' residence in one town, but that was an exception. Klan leaders warned members that violence was counterproductive because they wanted to be accepted as good Hoosiers. However, the Klan devoted lots of energy to intimidating people, displaying its power, creating anxiety and trauma that persisted long after the organization was gone. Massive Klan parades, cross burnings and threating language did just that. Robes and hoods can still frighten today.

Q: The 1930 photo of the lynching of two young Black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in Marion is etched in many Hoosiers' minds. You write that it was not the work of the organized Klan but came from its “venomous mindset” – how so?

A: By 1930, the Klan was dead in Indiana. When I was working on my book about that Marion tragedy, “Lynching in the Heartland,” I tried very hard to find evidence of Klan involvement. There is no evidence. At the same time, I'm quick to argue that Klan ideals were at the foundation of that lynch mob's mentality.

Q: Your book notes the 1924 election found Black voters turning from “the party of Lincoln.” What was the Klan's role in that?

A: African American Hoosiers had voted for Republican candidates since the days of Lincoln. When the Klan entered into a mutually beneficial partnership with Republicans, Black leaders organized in NAACP branches across the state. Black ministers and others joined to advocate abandoning the Republican Party. Many voters did and for the first time in their lives voted Democratic, testimony to the disruption the Klan caused.

Q: The 1925 session of the Indiana General Assembly was referred to as the Klan legislature. Why? And what happened?

A: In the 1924 fall elections, Klan/Republican candidates swept into power, including the governor and a majority of the General Assembly. Expectations were high for enacting a Klan legislative program, but squabbling among several Klan factions stymied action.

Q: It was surprising to learn how lucrative the Klan was as an enterprise. Where did the money come from and how was it spent?

A: The Klan was a very sophisticated business organization. With headquarters in Indianapolis and Klaverns in every county, leaders organized paid staff and volunteers to plan events and recruit new members. Dues and fees for robes brought in large sums to the Klan treasury, financing, for example, the Klan's entry into politics and a lavish lifestyle for D.C. Stephenson and others.

Q: You suggest the focus on disgraced Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson gave Indiana Klan members a pass. How is that the case?

A: Stephenson was among the most wicked men ever to walk the soil of Indiana. He was also a great leader and a charismatic personality. His story deserves attention, and I devote a chapter to it in the book.

But too often fascination with Stephenson and his crimes results in avoiding the key issue of those hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers who joined and genuinely believed.

In addition, if the spotlight and blame are put mostly on Stephenson, then ordinary Klan men and women are exonerated. I believe they were not dupes, not manipulated, but understood and agreed with central tenets of the Klan.

Q: Should Indiana's Klan history be taught in its schools today?

A: Absolutely. Hoosiers have a long tradition of ignoring the Klan. It's too uncomfortable. It doesn't fit the neighborly image we want for Indiana. We create myths to avoid the tragedies in our past. This sort of comfort history is suited for children as bedtime stories. Only by understanding the Klan and the persistence of Klan-like thinking in our own time can we act as adult citizens in a democracy.

Q: In an interesting contrast to these COVID-19 days, calls for “anti-masking” were heard in the 1920s. What role did those play in the Klan's demise?

A: Several Indiana mayors attempted to prevent Klan marchers from covering their faces with hoods. Most failed. In fact, Klan members grew increasingly proud to show their faces even though the robes and hoods gave them an identity and a means of intimidating of others.

Q: It's easy to see parallels between the Hoosiers who joined, supported or at least tolerated the Klan a century ago and the rhetoric of “very fine people on both sides” today. What would you like readers to take away from the book?

A: I regret to conclude that while the Klan is mostly dead today, with only a few remnants that come and go, Klan ideals thrive. Dog whistles and code words and even exact language today are often similar to Klan rhetoric of the 1920s. In nice suits and silk blouse, some today still seek to exclude others from the democracy, to assert a version of 100% Americanism, to identify enemies and create a political culture of us and them.

Nonetheless, to end on an optimistic note, the Klan always had opponents, good-hearted Hoosiers who stood up and challenged. One example is Jesse Green, editor of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, who condemned the Klan “as the most un-American, vicious and impossible organizations that ever insulted the nation.” Today, I believe, opposition to modern-day Klan ideals is more powerful than ever.

An excerpt: Students get their Irish up

The most remarkable event in South Bend came when the Klan gathered on May 17, 1924, to celebrate victories in the spring primary election. News spread to the Notre Dame University campus, and students began to stir. Reverend Matthew Walsh, the university president, ordered students to remain on campus, deploying the caution that often marked university administrators in such situations. Students disobeyed. Hundreds sprinted toward downtown, where robed Klansmen were directing traffic toward the rally site at Island Park. Students began to send cars in the wrong directions. They marched to Klan headquarters at the corner of Michigan and Wayne streets, where the Klan's third-floor office window displayed a large electric cross with red light bulbs A barrel of potatoes sitting in a street-level grocery provided the ammunition to throw at the cross. An oft-told story, likely apocryphal, is that when only one red bulb remained, the Notre Dame quarterback, soon to be famous as one of “the four horsemen,” grabbed a potato, took aim, and threw a touchdown pass. Raucous cheers erupted. As (Grand Dragon) D.C. Stephenson arrived to complain about violence, students proudly displayed tattered robes and hoods they had pulled off Klan members. Perhaps Father Walsh smiled as he decided not to punish his rowdy students. There was some embarrassment over the stereotypes of young Irish men fighting in the streets with potatoes, but Walsh in 1927 approved the university's new official nickname, “the fighting Irish.”

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