Indiana History  »  The Golden Era of Indiana (1900-1930)


Indiana and the Ku Klux Klan

Klan members on Franklin Street in downtown Valparaiso, Indiana.

A majority of people have an already formed image of the Ku Klux Klan in their minds. Men, dressed in white robes and hoods, riding throughout the countryside harassing blacks. Most believe that the Klan is an extinct organization, once comprised of rednecks and racist southerners. However, unfortunately, the Klan is still alive in Indiana. There was a time in Indiana when Klan membership could help an aspiring political career. Leonard Moore from the University of California has carefully analyzed Klan membership documents of Indiana and discovered that 250,000 white men in Indiana (about 30% of the native-born Caucasian men in Indiana) joined the Klan in the early 1920s.1

The Klan has appeared and disappeared more than four times throughout its history. It is the constant bad dream for a free American society to deal with. Just when you think it’s gone, it rears its ugly head once more. In its various forms and incarnations, the Klan has not entirely remained a southern-dominated organization. White supremacy has always been its goal, its anger and hatred has been used against other minority groups than just black Americans.

Its first appearance in American history was in the South, organized for only a short number of years between 1865 and 1872. The group was started by a group of 6 men from Pulaski, Tennessee, mainly as an elaborate game and roleplay of wearing eerie costumes while riding on horseback. It didn’t take long for the Ku Klux Klan (its name, supposedly, derived from the Greek word kuklos, which means “circle”) to go from a fraternal organization to a vigilante group bent on violence. An ex-Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was chosen to be the Klan’s first leader.

Forrest headed up a committee that made the Klan a secret society with elaborate and, sometimes, bizarre titles: grand wizard, grand dragon, titans and cyclops. The Klan was filled with members of the recently defeated Confederate army. Their focus was threefold: to strike back at the federal Reconstruction government, to put the blacks “back in their place,” and to chase the white carpetbaggers back North.1 Because many southerners believed that the North was using the Reconstruction to hand over the South to illiterate blacks, the Klan was a way for southern whites to strike back.

The first Klan attacked with a fierce vengeance. This first Klan set the violent tone of the future organization. Anyone, either black or white, would meet a violent death if they stood in their way. The Klan’s tools of intimidation included lynching, shooting, stabbing and whipping. They perceived their mission as defenders of the white way of life. They also saw themselves as protectors of white women and the property of their birth. The federal government, however, saw them as criminals.

The government stepped in and ordered Nathan Forrest to disband the Klan. He reluctantly agreed and the secret organization of terror dissolved in 1869. However, violence towards blacks continued even after the dissolution of the Klan. The Klan’s reign of terror was temporarily over.

The Birth of a Nation

The Klan would have been forgotten if Thomas Dixon, Jr., a novelist, hadn’t produced a romanticized version of the Klan’s history. Dixon claimed that the Klan was fighting for a just cause, defending their honor from wild blacks and white criminals. In 1915, almost 10 years after Dixon’s writings, film maker D.W. Griffith used his book as a basis for a new movie. The new movie was entitled, Birth of a Nation and it was praised in the South and crucified in the North. The South saw it as a true depiction of the raw deal of Reconstruction, while the North saw the film as a way to legitimize racial hatred and violence toward minorities. However, when President Woodrow Wilson, a southern Democrat, saw the film and remarked that it was “all too terribly true,” the rest of America flocked to see this new epic.1

When Birth of a Nation debuted in Atlanta, Georgia on December 7, 1915, an advertisement appeared in the Atlanta newspaper calling for southern white men to join “A High Class Order for Men of Intelligence and Character.” This was, of course, the new rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. This new Klan was, basically, a fraternal social club for white supremacists.

The first imperial wizard of this second Klan movement was a former Methodist preacher named William Simmons. He was interviewed in 1928 as to why people joined this new Klan movement. Simmons said:

I went around Atlanta talking to men who belonged to other lodges [Masons, Woodmen of the World] about the new Ku Klux Klan. The Negroes were getting pretty uppity in the South along about that time. The North was sending down for them to take good jobs. Lots of Southerners were feeling worried about conditions. Thirty-four men belonging to various other lodges, promised to attend a meeting in [attorney E.R.] Clarkson’s office. And on the night of October 26, 1915, we met. They were all there. Two of them were men who had belonged to the old Klan. John W. Bale, speaker of the Georgia legislature, called the meeting to order. He was the first man in America to wield a Klan gavel. I talked for an hour and we all decided that the idea would grow. We voted to apply for a state charter.1

In November of 1915, Simmons and the new Klansmen held their first initiation ceremony and cross burning. With Birth of a Nation providing free recruiting advertisement for the Klan, membership soared.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Klan grew in strength. America now had to be ‘protected’ from the Germans and others: Catholics, Jews, Socialists, blacks and union leaders. Membership in the Klan was a way for citizens to help out the war effort in Europe by making sure American soil was kept ‘pure.’ The Klan was quickly becoming something universal and not just a southern racist group. William Simmons now realized that the Ku Klux Klan could now become a national fraternal movement.

D.C. Stephenson and the Indiana Klan

A man named Joe Huffington was chosen by Simmons and other top Klan officials to start organizing the Klan in Indiana. Huffington’s first base of operations was located in Evansville, Indiana. In the late summer of 1920 he began preparations to bring the Klan to Indiana. It was not long before Huffington met a young man named D.C. Stephenson.

D.C. Stephenson was born, probably, in Texas and soon would become the most powerful and influential man in Indiana. Stephenson

D.C. Stephenson

found himself, eventually, in Evansville working as a salesman of bonds for the L.G. Julian Coal Company. By 1921 he was helping Huffington recruit for the newly formed Indiana chapter of the Klan. He was making a pretty good living with both jobs.

The Klan had a large vocabulary of secret words and titles that Stephenson had to learn. William Simmons was known as the imperial wizard, the top office of the Klan. Other office titles included: kligrapp, kludd, nighthawk and cyclops. Their secret meetings and gatherings were known as klonvocations. Membership fees were called klecktoken.

D.C. Stephenson, like all other new members, had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Klan and a vow of secrecy. New recruits were asked 9 questions:

Is the motive prompting your ambition to be a Klansman serious and unselfish?

Are you native born, white, Gentile, American citizens?

Are you absolutely opposed to and free of any allegiance of any nature to cause, government, people, sect, or ruler that is foreign to the United States of America?

Do you esteem the United States of America and its institutions above any other government, civil, political, or ecclesiastical in the whole world?

Will you, without mental reservations, take a solemn oath to defend, preserve, and enforce these same?

Do you believe in Klannishness and will you faithfully practice same toward your fellow Klansmen?

Do you believe in and will you faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of White Supremacy?

Will you faithfully obey our constitutions and laws, and confirm willingly to all our usages, requirements, and regulations?

Can you always be depended on?1

Did D.C. Stephenson take the oath seriously? No one really knows. Stephenson’s public speeches aren’t filled with the racist rhetoric as many of the other leaders of the Klan. He usually left the hate speeches up to others in the power structure of the Klan. His talent was centered around organizing the Klan in Indiana and collecting new recruits.

Membership in the Indiana division of the Klan began soaring with each new speech that Stephenson made. The group began to expand to the western states and industrial cities of the Midwest, the Klan was no longer a southern sensation.

The Klan even made inroads into Indiana churches. The Reverend William Forney Harris of the Grand Avenue Methodist Church preached in 1922 that secret societies like the Ku Klux Klan would not get his support. However, these were times of “moral decay,” and as such, any organization that stood for decency and order ought not to be shunned. Other clergy found themselves offering similar endorsements to their congregations as the Klan membership began to grow locally.1

D.C. Stephenson’s home in the Indianapolis neighborhood of Irvington.

D.C. Stephenson went on to become a powerful political figure in Indiana. His rise to power was short-lived, however. In 1922 David Curtis Stephenson was appointed Grand Dragon of the KKK for Indiana. In 1925 he had met a Madge Oberholtzer, who ran a state program to combat illiteracy, at an inaugural ball for Governor Ed Jackson. She was later abducted from her home in Irvington, a neighborhood of Indianapolis and taken by Stephenson and some of his men to the train station. While on a trip to Hammond, Indiana, Stephenson repeatedly attacked and raped Oberholtzer in one compartment of his Pullman railcar. In Hammond she took poison to frighten Stephenson into letting her go. He immediately rushed her back to Indianapolis where she died a month later, either from the effects of the poison or the severe bite marks she incurred during the rape.

Stephenson was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The sensational trial took place in Noblesville, Indiana in 1925. His conviction sent Stephenson to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana for the next 31 years (the longest imprisonment in this state for that crime). He was released from prison in 1956 and faded into obscurity, however, not before causing the shocking downfall of many corrupt political officials within Indiana. When he went to jail he was convinced that Governor Ed Jackson, who he had helped elect, would pardon him. Governor Jackson never came through with the pardon and Stephenson began to talk.

The Downfall of the Klan in Indiana

With help from The Indianapolis Times (which won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigations), the structure of Indiana politics would be shaken. Stephenson began to talk about who had helped him rise to power and began to name names. The aftermath was shocking, indictments were filed against Governor Ed Jackson, Marion County Republican chairman George V. “Cap” Coffin, and attorney Robert I. Marsh, charging them with conspiring to bribe former Governor Warren McCray. Even the Mayor of Indianapolis, John Duvall, was convicted and sentenced to jail for 30 days (and barred from political service for 4 years). Some Marion County commissioners also resigned from their posts on charges of accepting bribes from the Klan and Stephenson.

This was not the image that Indiana wanted to portray during its “golden age.” Stephenson at the peak of his political career and influence had remarked, “I am the law in Indiana.”

__________________________

1. Lutholtz, M. William.  Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana.  Purdue University Press: Lafayette, 1991.

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