With February being Black History Month, maybe we should pause to look back to where we were 100 years ago compared to where we are now.
We don’t hear much from members of the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) these days, but we certainly hear many of their philosophies echoed by people who hold seemingly identical views.
Back in the 1920s, Klan membership included the governor of Indiana, more than half of the state legislature and an estimated 30 percent of all native-born white men in Indiana.
We have no idea how many of these were Hancock County residents, but when the Ku Klux Klan held a parade and demonstration in Greenfield in May, 1923, a “conservative estimate” of the crowd was 20,000. [Per the Hancock Democrat, 24 May 1923, Page 1.]
Today’s advocates of white supremacy, however, are quite clearly not racist like they were a hundred years ago. We know this because many of their statements begin with, “I’m not a racist but…”
Excepting that disclaimer, there certainly are some glaring similarities.
We often forget that the Klan of the 1920s, especially in the Midwest, was an influential mainstream movement that “…disguised their racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic message in the guise of patriotism and Christian righteousness…” [IU Historian Dr. James H. Madison]
It wasn’t just the taint of black blood that Klan members abhorred; it was also the new wave of immigrants coming into our country.
These Catholics and Jews were a dire threat to white, hegemonic, Protestant America.
According to IU Historian James H. Madison: “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.”
And the Klan wanted to protect “us” from “them.” They stood for America “first, last, and all the time.”
The Klan pushed for the passage of the eugenics-inspired Johnson-Reed Act [Immigration Act of 1924], which was essentially “a legislative expression of xenophobia” that was particularly restrictive for Eastern and Southern Europeans and Asians.
Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson cited eugenicists to claim these immigrants were “less intelligent and more prone to mental disorders and criminal tendencies.” They also were (and this certainly sounds familiar) taking jobs from real Americans and their ranks were filled with drunkards. [The Klan was strongly in favor of prohibition.]
Many folks like to blame Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson for Indiana’s deep dive into racism and hatred a hundred years ago, but the reality is that everyday Hoosiers eagerly bought the product that he was selling.
And aren’t we buying it again?
We’re defaulting back to the age-old human tendency to divide the world into groups and discriminate in favor of our own.
And — as has seemingly happened throughout history — religion is used to justify our actions.
Christian nationality was the heart of the Klan movement. IU Historian James H. Madison, who has researched and written extensively about the Klan noted: “The Klan has two symbols. One is the cross, the Christian cross. The other is the American flag. These are American patriots… To them, religion, politics, government and patriotism were all deeply entwined.”
Since 9/11, American flags have been proudly displayed everywhere — even in the back of people’s pickup trucks next to the Confederate flag. We proudly wear and display symbols that demonstrate we are part of “us,” not “them.”
The beginning of the end of the Klan’s dominance in the 1920s came about because Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson believed he was above the law and untouchable.
He didn’t say he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody,” but he did believe he could rape and murder without consequences.
Madge Oberholtzer tried to kill herself after Stephenson raped her, but the coroner’s report verified she died from the injuries Stephenson inflicted, not her own suicide attempt. And she lived long enough to tell others what had happened to her.
Stephenson’s trial, conviction and imprisonment shook the foundations of the Klan as a political force in Indiana and significantly damaged its standing nationally. But the nail in the coffin came when Indiana’s governor failed to pardon Stephenson, and that led Stephenson to “spill the goods” on those he’d used to obtain and hold power in Indiana.
Indictments and national scandals followed.
It’s been often said that “those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it,” and this certainly appears true.
The PRRI/Brookings Christian Nationalism Survey released in 2023 clarified that Christian nationalism is growing in the United States. One in 10 Americans identify as adherents and another 19% are sympathizers. Additionally, Christian nationalism values have become seemingly engrained in mainstream culture.
The KKK has mostly faded away, but there are numerous white supremacy groups that have aligned with the far right/alt-right/neo-Nazi groups who use the shields of “patriotism” and “religion” to protect and promote themselves.
And what successful politician would ever disavow a large block of voters, let alone those that carry the shields of “patriotism” and “Christianity?”
We are in very serious danger of repeating the mistakes of the 1920s at a national level, and there’s no guarantee that there will be another Madge Oberholtzer or even that such a scandal would be sufficient to force us to “wake up” and confront this issue.
After all, we ignored Jeffery Epstein’s connections to just about everyone except Prince Andrew. And wasn’t it convenient that Epstein died when he did?
White supremacy isn’t just going mainstream. It’s already here. And its winning.
A lifelong resident of Hancock County, Linda Dunn is an author and retired Department of Defense employee.