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There is no route to the present except through the past.
In 1851, Indiana’s Constitution banned black people and half-black people from moving there. Any white person caught helping a black person move there was fined as much as $500.
In the 1920s, between one-third and one-fourth of Indiana-born white men were enrolled in the Ku Klux Klan. The Indiana Klan was the largest and most energetic in the country, and more than 118,000 members were brought in between 1922 and 1924. It was sold as a Christian organization, whitewashed as a “populist” movement. One scholar from the University of California calculated that some 350,000 Indianans joined. If you weren’t in the Klan, you were not considered to be the cream of the community. There were even Klan-associated groups for women and children.
Indiana also hosted the single largest Klan meeting in history at Melfalfa Park in Kokomo, held in honor of America’s founding on July 4, 1923. One of its main purposes was to collect money for a hospital for Klan members—so they wouldn’t have to be treated by Catholics.
Members of the Indiana Klan were largely educated, middle-class Methodists, Baptists, and Disciples of Christ. No Catholics, no Jews, no blacks.
The Klan in Indiana wasn’t just about segregation. It undertook what it saw as a moral crusade against un-Christian behavior, fighting for the abolition of alcohol and the shuttering of stores on the Sabbath.
The Klan’s control of elected officials was attained not in the South, but in Indiana. With such strong numbers, the Klan was able to sweep the legislature with Republican and elect its candidate for governor, Ed Jackson. It marched, burned crosses, published the Indianapolis-based The Fiery Cross, and boycotted businesses with which it disagreed. It was all in the name of Protestant Christianity and American patriotism.
The man who engineered the Indiana Klan’s rise, coal bond salesman David Curtis Stephenson, became Grand Dragon. In 1925, at the height of his power, he savagely raped and orally attacked Madge Oberholtzer, who ran a literacy program and whom he met at Gov. Jackson’s inaugural ball. “He chewed her like a cannibal,” says one modern historian Wyn Craig Wade. Disfigured and distraught, Oberholtzer swallowed poison, but she had her vengeance. On her deathbed, she issued a statement telling everyone what Stephenson had done.
He wasn’t worried. “I am the law in Indiana,” he scoffed. But when the governor turned his back on him, Stephenson unleashed details about the bribery that ran Indiana’s Klan politics. Oberholtzer died, possibly of human bites, Stephenson was sent to prison for three decades, and the glorious Christian leadership of the Klan crumbled in shame.
The seeds of hatred and violence that Indiana had sown would bear strange fruit for years to come. In 1930, black teenagers Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were murdered by an Indiana crowd in Marion, and the image of their hanged corpses is one of the most indelible images of lynching, an icon of American horror.
In 1995, a contractor in Noblesville cracked open an old trunk and discovered a list of Klan members from the 1920s. Everyone on the list was dead by then, but out of respect for their families, the names were suppressed and their identities were swept under the rug. The children who were raised by the Klan members were spared the reminder or the knowledge.
Millions of children who grew up in Indiana in the 1920s, the grandparents of Indianans today, were raised by Klan members.
Last year, residents in Winchester, Indiana, reported seeing flyers drumming up membership in the Ku Klux Klan.
Indiana’s history is, in a word, sordid.
Its past record of “religious freedom” movements should burn in memory.
As a travel writer and editor, I now will not cover Indiana. I won’t subject my readers to potential discrimination.
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