Bill Mann’s brave reflection on his ancestors’ support for the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana is a good opportunity to recommend local author Timothy Egan’s book-length history of the …
Bill Mann’s brave reflection on his ancestors’ support for the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana is a good opportunity to recommend local author Timothy Egan’s book-length history of the Indiana Klan, “A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them.”
The story of the Klan in Indiana in the 1920s is brutal enough. Its parallels to today’s politics make it electric. This book is a call for Americans today who believe in equality, justice, and the rule of law to stand up for those values.
I was struck by how closely Klan ideas in the ’20s sound like those of today’s Republican Party. The Klan in the ’20s was virulently against immigration from anywhere but northern Europe. (Remember Trump’s rant against immigrants from so-called “[expletive]-hole countries?”)
Kluxers espoused the “great replacement theory,” in which America’s white population is “replaced” by rising numbers of non-whites, Jews, and “swarthy” southern Europeans. Of course, that theory is central to today’s white-power movement, embraced whole-heartedly by too many leaders of the Republican Party.
The Klan in the ’20s did everything it could to suppress and nullify the Black vote. Similarly, today’s Republican Party is using gerrymandering, harsh voter ID laws, election-day tricks and more to limit the number and effect of Black and Brown voters.
The Klan in 1920s Indiana signed up 40,000 armed “deputies” whose job was to harass and intimidate the Klan’s enemies. Today Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, neo-Nazis, white-supremacist militias, and various white-power domestic terror groups serve as the de facto armed wing of the radical Republican Party.
The Indiana Klan was led by a charismatic sociopath and serial assaulter of women,
D.C. Stephenson, who was fond of publicly saying, “I am the law.” (Author Egan left obvious comparisons to Trump to the reader.) Stephenson evaded accountability for his crimes because his influence in Indiana’s Klan-infested politics was so great that he felt untouchable — until one of his victims, Madge Oberholtzer, who died from the effects of Stephenson’s hideous sexual attack, put him away with her deathbed testimony.
The parallels with today’s right-wing Republican Party go on without end. The Klan campaigned on a eugenics-based racism that echoes in today’s scapegoating of non-white migrants as drug runners, sexual predators, terrorists and criminals, and people of color in general as more prone to crime. Republicans’ current persecution and scapegoating of sexual minorities is a classic Kluxer move reminiscent of their promotion of white “moral purity.” The Klan expanded exponentially in Indiana when Stephenson recruited many Protestant church pastors to champion the Klan and its deceptive messages of all-American, Godly “Christian” whiteness and “traditional values,” even while its thugs intimidated Black voters, ran boycotts of Jewish and Catholic businesses, attacked Notre Dame University, harassed and terrorized opponents, and more. Today, an astounding number of white evangelicals are among Trump’s staunchest followers.
The Klan, like too many of the radicals in the Republican Party, was anti-intellectual, misogynist, isolationist, and deeply opposed to equality for all. Book-banning a la Ron DeSantis, Jew-hating a la Marjorie Taylor Greene et al, embracing terrorist groups like the Proud Boys a la Donald Trump were all part of the Kluxers’ ways of trying to achieve a dictatorship in Indiana politics. They almost succeeded.
The book has some inspiring moments as well, when individuals like smalltown newspaper editors, a Civil War veteran, a prosecutor who believed no one was above the law, a Jewish small-business owner, anti-Klan leaders of all stripes, students at Notre Dame University (who gleefully threw the Klan out when it physically attacked the campus), or the immortal Madge Oberholtzer herself — stood up against Stephenson and his thugs.
Those stories are good moral lessons for how Americans — Republican, Democrat and Independent — can stand up to bigoted ideas and those who want to exploit them for their own power and riches — especially for the many Republicans who don’t support these anti-American ideas, and who are aghast at the way their formerly respectable party has been hijacked by the radicals within. Those stories alone make this book required reading in 2023 America.