The Echoes Of History

I just finished reading The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, James H. Madison’s deeply researched and very readable account of Indiana’s history with the KKK. To say it was sobering would be a considerable understatement.

Madison, an Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University, is often referred to as the “Dean” of Indiana historians, and this recent book, published by IU Press, is a good example of his meticulous approach and his ability to place historical events in a larger context. He cautions us that the malcontents who currently affiliate with the Klan and other white nationalist organizations are very different from those in the broad-based movement that included thousands of “good Indiana citizens” in the 1920s–a movement that effectively took over the state’s political establishment for a time.

Times change, but sometimes less than we might hope. After reading the diatribe Becky shared in yesterday’s comments, I was especially struck by its echoes in Madison’s description of the Klan’s 1920s appeal:

In churches, town halls, and public parks, Hoosiers heard the warnings. People not like us were tearing down our religion and our country. Enemies were rising up. The Klan could identify them. The Klan could show 100 percent Americans who they should fear and how they should fight.

I don’t want to overstate the case. We really have come a long way from the hysteria of the 1920s, and the susceptibility of enormous numbers of Americans to fear and hatred of “others.” But as Trump devotees remind us, an uncomfortable percentage of Americans still respond to messages of division, threats of  displacement, and hostility to people they perceive as different from themselves.

I grew up in Indiana, but Madison’s book expanded considerably on what I’d known about Klan dominance in the state. I’d heard about the passage of a state law authorizing sterilization of people deemed “defective,” but I was totally unaware that our first state constitution denied African-Americans the right to vote, or that its replacement in 1851 (affirmed by a large vote) “excluded African-Americans from taking up residence in the state.”

I knew that the Klan had been active in Indiana politics, but I was surprised to read an excerpt from a New York Times article reporting that the “Indiana Klan had a machine that made [New York’s] Tammany seem amateurish,” and depressed by assertions that “85% of the [Republican] party were Klan members.”

I was also largely unaware of the degree of anti-Catholic fervor the Klan tapped into–although I do recall a couple of people telling me in 1960 that Catholics were stockpiling firearms in church basements, and that if John F. Kennedy won the election, the Catholics would mount a take-over. (I thought those people were nuts. It didn’t occur to me that such a myth was widespread, but evidently it was.)

It was impossible to read this history without discomfort, or without hearing its echoes in today’s fringe precincts. Madison pointed out, for example, that the  Klan constantly whined, consistently characterizing white Protestants as “victims” and seeing any and all social change as a descent into immorality, crime and godlessness. I had been unaware of the Klan’s considerable role in pushing for Prohibition, its suspicion of public libraries (!), and its savvy use of that new communication device called radio. “This new technology helped create the imagined community of like-minded Americans separated by distance.”

And I’d known nothing about the Klan’s “aggressive” education agenda–bills to require (Protestant) Bible reading in the public schools, to allow the state to approve all textbooks in both public and parochial schools, and ensure that curricula advanced “patriotism and Americanism.” (Where have we heard that lately?)

I recommend the book.

As Santayana warned, those who don’t know their own history are doomed to repeat it.


  1. And I thought I left behind the John Birch Society and the Klan when we relocated to southern California from Texas. The media paid little attention, but vistages of emboldened behavior showed it’s ugly head when mistaken my accent to be a planted ally. The plants historically were more pervasive in Indiana, but significant presence not unique to Indiana alone. But the pervasiveness in Central Indiana suppressed economic growth at a time automotive manufacturing was establishing foothold. Early history of popular auto racing positioned Indianapolis as a natural nationalnhub to establish early factories. Klan resistance to recruiting immigrants to provide the labor force pushed manufacturing to cunningly smarter Michigan and more specifically Detroit. This was a brutal lesson for Indiana. Managing diversity yields new prosperity.

  2. Regarding Catholics, five or six years ago I went into a small business in Martinsville and overheard the end of a conversation between the shop’s owner an a customer. The shop owner said: “But Catholics are Christians too,” and the customer hesitated and then she said: “I never thought about it that way.”

  3. Back in the run-up to the Kennedy/Nixon election, my late mother came home from work one afternoon furious at a flier left on the windshield of the family car at the curb in front of our house in an integrated neighborhood in Fort Wayne. The flier was a scree about Catholics and how Kennedy, if elected, would make all of his decisions only after consulting with the Pope. The flier was published by a KKK organization and made no secret of that affiliation.

    We had moved to Fort Wayne from a small town in Northwestern Ohio where one of the very small (27 families) congregation members of our local Catholic church had come home from Mass on a Sunday morning to find a cross burning on their front lawn just the year before.

    Mom was a lifelong devote Catholic and a staunch Republican who volunteered at the polls for years. I don’t think I had seen her that angry and disgusted ever before that day. It was not in her character to show that kind of emotion so to see her that angry was frightening and memorable to a very young teen.

    The legacy of hate and vicious, often deadly, intimidation that was so prevalent in the early 20th century has been passed down to succeeding generations at the kitchen tables and family gatherings of the same folks who shared their ideology among themselves with unguarded enthusiasm, resentful of the “other” making any advancement to secure a piece of the American promise of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. To think that the hate and resentment disappeared with the decline of the public political dominance of the KKK and its various spin-offs, is to ignore the reality of today.

    Living in a diverse community allows us to see the “other” as of our own humanity. In towns and villages of almost exclusive white residents, the fear and resentment of the “other” has no chance of being dispelled by association in the marketplace, school or church. The political opportunists who fan the flames of that resentment and fear recognize the fertile ground it provides to keep them in office. We are seeing that hourly in the tweets from the WH and the overtly racist ads/literature coming to us from the Republican candidates in our state. We can only vote and do whatever we can to help those who oppose those who bank on hate and fear to cement their threatened status.

  4. This is not just history. You should acquaint yourself with the Facebook writings of John Jacob, the official, Republican Party nominated candidate for a Southside Indy-Johnson County Indiana House of Representatives district. Just two years old. The Pope is the anti-Christ. The Catholic Church is a cult. He must be very conflicted by anti-abortion Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court. However, he is increasingly the future of the Indiana Republican Party.

  5. I look forward to reading Dean Madison’s book.

    As for Becky, I’ll give her this. She wrote a very clear and concise summary of Trumpism, essentially a list of white grievances. It’s not really hard to understand and underneath it MAY be one or legitimate claims. Unfortunately they’re completely obscured by hateful rhetoric and cult-think. And it’s definitely an echo of a century ago.

  6. This is of no importance, just a bit of my history. I am from Dearborn Co. in south east Indiana. This little event took place in the 30’s. I had an uncle who was a Klan member and he once dressed in his robe to show off to a bunch of kids. My mother and father were not pleased when they heard about it. And that’s the story.

  7. I’m thinking of my own prejudices here.
    As a child I was taught by my father, who I revered, that Kentuckians were all hillbillies and didn’t wear shoes. But most of his scorn was reserved for the people from Texas. “Braggarts and liars”.
    To this day I cannot meet someone from Kentucky without my knee-jerk reaction of looking at their feet to see if they have shoes on. And Texans! Inside my head the walls go up, and distrust instantly rears its head. I have to force myself to be open and accepting.
    We all learn this kind of crap. Recognizing it and un-learning it so that we can deal with the world is the hardest part of growing up.

  8. I’ll put the link for the interview with Anne Nelson, a historian and journalist, whose recent book (Shadow Network) is about the Council for National Policy. CNP has become the core of the far-right ideology now controlling the GOP. There appears to be much overlap with the former KKK. Even the use of protestant churches as campaign headquarters to get out the vote. Nothing brings people together, like hate.

    It still cracks me up that Muncie, Indiana, was used as a microcosm for the USA in the 1930s. The Middletown Studies ignored the treatment of black people in the city. Even the library of Middletown research within Ball State University whitewashed the poor treatment of blacks. They blame all the issues on the KKK instead of the Ball family, who controlled the city underwriting institutional racism (codified) in almost every relevant document in our history.

    During the race riots in the 1960s, Muncie built another high school on the “south side of town” where white people lived, mainly the auto manufacturing working class. They were appropriately called Southside Rebels, and yes, the confederate flag was on the wall inside the entrance. Ball brothers brought up many workers from TN to work in the factories because there weren’t enough. Many of those workers stayed.

    During consolidation measures several years ago, the high school was closed and merged into one high school. The people protested vehemently. After the protests ended, the school was closed. Many southside parents moved their kids to county schools where the minority population is less than 5%, whereas the city is around 40%.

    As small as the county is, it would be effortless to confirm the zip codes of children attending each county school to show the migration into county schools. I was told the data was not available. I asked one of the administrative secretaries how they knew where their students lived if they didn’t keep the student’s address. She didn’t respond.

    During the Tea Party’s peak, they were responsible for using all kinds of fear-mongering marketing in the southern parts of town. Since it was pre-Trump, they were using racial dog whistles.

    In other words, the KKK didn’t go anywhere — they’ve rebranded and are going by different names like Americans for Prosperity, or Hoosiers for Trump. 😉

  9. Upon Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to SCOTUS, 2/3 of Justices are Roman Catholic. One was raised Catholic and now attends an Episcopal church. Two are Jewish. No Protestants, Evangelicals or Unitarians. An excellent analysis was published in the Jesuit “America.” Search ‘Why the Supreme Court is Two-thirds Catholic.’

  10. I remember the Klan marching in full regalia behind the children through the streets of Elwood for the Halloween parade in the late 60s. Even at the tender age of 8 or 9 I knew this was creepy and pathetic. There was a guy passing out flyers that had images of a white person’s skull, a gorilla skull, and an African’s skull, supposedly providing evidence that Africans were closer to gorillas, therefore not really human. I also fondly remember that some people threw tomatoes at the Klan marchers. (-:

  11. Indiana has a long and distinguished history as a fearful, racist, dogmatic state. My childhood is filled with bad examples: the sign warning African Americans (not the language used) to be out of Greenwood by sundown, the park that wouldn’t allow my class to have an eighth grade party if we insisted on bringing our one African American member, the neighbors who burned down the new house of a family friend rather than have “them” in the neighborhood, and the co-worker who was killed in broad daylight on the streets of Martinsville for daring to sell encyclopedias there.

    There were a few glimmers of daylight, like the Baptist minister who lived across the street, who came to our house to apologize for the actions of his fellow Baptists in their response to JFK .

    If you didn’t know how bad it was, count yourself lucky or privileged to live out of the reach of hatred or maybe you just didn’t notice because it was everywhere and accepted as normal. We must never be allowed to go back to those ways of thinking.

  12. I was born and raised in a small town in southern Indiana and remember living kitty-corner across from the volunteer fire station there. There was a liar’s bench in front of the fire station building and there were a couple of retired black coal miners who lived a few miles out of town who on Saturdays would walk to town and sit on that bench. Our town marshal was a big Irish type guy who when the sun was going down would come up to these two and say: “O.K., boys, it’s time,” upon which they would stand up and leave without complaint. I saw and heard such a directive more than once, and am ashamed to admit that I thought at the time and as a kid that this was normal, i.e., the way it was. Little did I know at the time that I would some day graduate from college and law school and as a senior would be the justice of my law fraternity who would (over the objection of some of our practicing fraternity alums) initiate our first black pledge into our fraternity, a pledge who, by the way, graduated and had a successful practice in Indianapolis.

    How the lesson was learned? Exposure to change, and I have been exposed. If I were in that small town today and heard the marshal giving racist orders to black people to go home at sunset, I would, as I have told my elder daughter, confront him and tell him to go home, an abode protected by redlining and KKK drivel though, perhaps during this interval in time the marshal would now be attending to his primary duty to keep the peace rather than playing village sociologist. Perhaps.

  13. When I was 18 it was 1960 and I packed up a few belongings and went 600+ miles away to attend Virginia Tech for no reason other than engineering was the only possible career that interested me and they had a good, but more importantly affordable, school teaching it. I had been born with some curiosity about how things worked and into a family where debate was expected and culture was never taken as gospel but my parents were not willing to accept the consequences of shunning (not the formal kind). We went along to get along. When I crossed the Mason Dixon line I found that I would be exposed not only to real understanding of how things worked academically but also by living in a different cultural zone and time zone that seemed several decades behind even small town NY. It took me awhile to even speak the lingo and but the culture always seemed even more foreign.

    Of course now I have a whole lifetime behind me of intellectual curiosity about how things work.

    I though that for most of that time the whole country had moved beyond that southern culture but now know we had just painted over it by going along to get along. Dang! Even worse though we had failed to notice that it was organizing and planning a coup with the help of Russians, religion and Republicans.

    I’m hoping that post coup we will actually do some meaningful work to understand towards fixing the enormous unaffordable burden of hate and move towards actually living in these times.

    I was always been confident in progress but now can see that it has to be for everyone to keep us all in the same time zone. The question is can we keep up with other nations and at the same time maintain our society living roughly in the same time zone.

    We need new brains working on that problem.

  14. The organized KKK and their Vigilante Night Riders terrorized the nation from just after the Civil War well into the 20th Century. The Dixiecrats emerged during the Truman years. The Dixiecrats in a sense placed the KKK garb in storage and traded it in at least public for the suits.

    The Warren Court and JFK’s and LBJ’s pursuit of Civil Rights for all met strong resistance. The Federal Government was now the enemy. The task laid out for the Reactionaries was to gain control or at the least throw roadblocks up to Progressive Policies one way or another.

    As Todd wrote the KKK and it’s attitudes did not go away, it morphed. Along the way they latched onto religion – Male-Macho-Authoritarian Religion, women could make coffee and babies. Women would have no power, they were expected to be empty intellectual vessels.

    The Trumpet has all the code words down pat, The Trump Cult hears the call loud and clear. The camouflaged, firearm toting Macho Men are the modern version of the Night Riders.

  15. In the seventies I lived in a small but diverse town halfway between Baltimore and Washington. Laurel – a bedroom community for many NSA employees – was also the home of a Ku Klux Klan chapter. An FBI agent was assigned to infiltrate the Klan and earn their trust. He did such a fine job of it that he eventually became president of the chapter, after which be brought in enough of his colleagues that they constituted a majority of the group. One evening, one of the agents, during a meeting, rose to propose a motion. He moved that the Laurel branch of the KKK merge with the Prince Georges County branch of the NAACP. The motion passed, made the front page of the local paper, and the Klan was not heard from again in our area. Violence is not always necessary to deal with terrorists.

  16. Must read this book. I’ve been waiting for a good book to tackle the subject of the KKK in Indiana. I’ve ready a lot about the subject. Catholics were probably the prime target of the 1920s Indiana Klan. Catholics and immigrants. Most immigrants at that time were coming from Catholic-dominated countries. Store owners used to post signs that said “100% American” to signify their support for the Klan’s ideas.

    I think something like 1 out of every 3 men in Indiana was in the Klan in the 1920s. After you subtract out Catholics, Jews and African-American men, that’s a very high percent of Protestant white men who were in the Klan.

    I read a terrific book on the history of the Indiana state legislature several years ago. In the early 1900s, there was a big split in religious affiliation of the parties. Catholics were predominantly Democrats while Protestants were Republicans. That the 1920s Klan was so virulently anti-Catholic in Indiana may be why the Klan affiliated with the Republican Party rather than the Democrats. At the time, in the South the Klan was more aligned with the Democratic Party.

    Growing up I remember hearing a story of the Klan burning a cross on a nearby hillside fully visible to members of my southern Indiana Catholic parish which was hosting a picnic. Apparently some members of the church got their shotguns to run them off, but the Klan members had already fled the scene.

  17. Even the great Spanish/Harvard aphorist is guilty of poisoning our minds with…another aphorism.

    “As Santayana warned, those who don’t know their own history are doomed to repeat it.”

    Consider: those who DO know their own history are also doomed to repeat it…

    because no institution can know ALL of its history;

    because history cycles are more powerful than memory;

    because we are sorely tempted to believe the latest prelations and advances provide a safety harness for a grand new try at failed old movements, after all a false and vain faith in the history we do know of the first failure appears to reveal so many tactical mystakes we can avoid the second time;

    because a colossable segment of the population rejects the truth and the lessons of the history it does know;

    and because for far too many people fear of the new is more powerful than fear of repeating failures of the past.

    So, what good is an aphorism when its exact opposite is also true?

  18. My father and his parents were extremely bigoted. My mother and her parents were not, and I decided to follow my mother’s example.

    I never saw a KKK parade in the small towns where I grew up. I didn’t see one in Liberty, Cottage Grove, or Rushville The minister of our church in Rushville had left Mississipi because racists had threatened his life due to his support of ML King and the civil rights movement. My teacher of Indiana history in the 7th grade never discussed Indiana’s history with the KKK.

    I wonder what if anything is being taught about the history of racism in Indiana and in our country in our schools.

    It is my understanding that the song “Strange Fruit” was inspired by a lynching in Marion, In.

    Now I live in an integrated community. I have been challenged to check my own “fear of the other” when interacting with my neighbors and that has forced me to grow more comfortable with racial diversity.

  19. I would add that the 1920s Indiana Klan tried to promote a much different image of the Klan than what we think of today when we think of the KKK. The Indiana Klan provided a lot of rotary club type functions for its members that made it appear like it was a harmless social organization. The Indiana Klan would host picnics, sponsor sporting events, etc. They made the Klan appeared very mainstream and that it was important to join to advance one’s career. That is no doubt why it was so popular with Indiana Protestant men. But of course the KKK had a much more sinister side, not to mention the political agenda which Sheila discusses at the end of her column.

  20. The book is on my list, thank you.
    Regarding Theresa’s comment, I have northeastern born cousins in both Kentucky, and Texas, and they’ve been living there for 40-50 years. They are progressives, as am I, living in Florida.
    It ain’t easy.
    But, yes, we have to be open and recognizing our biases, in order to deal with them. There is an old movie, called “The Color of Water,” that confronts this issue head on. It taught me to recognize, when seeing someone “different,” acknowledge that there is difference here, but “Be open.”
    One truth that Trump(ism) taught many of us, is that there are so, so many bigots among us. Some research has recently pointed out that, if I recall properly, 85% of trump followers are there because of that bigotry.

    In, “The Worm at the Core, The Role of Death in Life,” the 3 psychologists who developed the theory of “Terror Management” describe how much fear of the “other” is based on how otherness can easily threaten our personal worldview, which helps to buffer us from the recognition that we are mortal. And so, they, and their worldview are seen as enemies.

  21. Mitch D. I was trying to make the point about learning our prejudices from our parents. At any rate, as far as what I learned from my father who was in other ways very much a progressive, it was a Catholic nun who paved the way for racial acceptance that I remember the most. In 1952 our third grade all white class was integrated with the arrival of two African American children.
    For a couple of days there was much staring, whispering, and pointed questions about their color. Our teacher put an end to it one morning with an explanation that all could understand. She reminded us that God made all of the flowers in nature and those flowers were all different colors. Why, she asked us, would God not make people the same way… of different colors. “Think how boring the world would be if we were all just alike. ”
    Made sense to me.

  22. Peggy Hannon , we don’t have to “go back.” Unfortunately that way of thinking never left us.

  23. Becky’s various comments made me very sad. My fundamental approach to life, and it works both for teaching and for governing, is that I want to help the people that need help the most. I want policies that help the most people but with a focus on the less fortunate among us. I am fine if my policies help the wealthy and powerful, as well, but I’m not concerned about them; they will be fine regardless.

    Many Trump acolytes qualify as people I desire to help. The reason I am so saddened by Becky’s posts is that I want desperately to have some way to communicate with that group. I run arguments and scenarios through my head all the time. In every case, I can easily see the reaction: denial and dismissal. They are predisposed to disbelieve me, to doubt my claims, to presume conspiracy, to see me as an enemy.

    How does this get fixed? I wish I was smarter and could see a way, but I cannot. My sadness deepens.

  24. I learned from Ken Burns that the klan and the prohibitionists worked together to ban alcohol, for very different reasons, but talk about strange bedfellows!

  25. History consistently repeats itself! It always has and always will!

    Where do you think the Nazis got their idea of Eugenics and the perfect Aryan race? It was from Britain and the United States, where Eugenics started.

    Why do you think that the Germans thought that Britain and the United States would eventually come over to their side? Because, the thought process was so similar.

    How many Jews were sent back to Europe to their death? When the United States was refusing entry for European jews?

    Woodrow Wilson screened “Birth of a Nation” in the White House! Fascist white nationalism runs deep in this country, and it was promoted throughout this country’s history! And that includes Manifest Destiny and American Romanticism of southern plantation life. American Exceptionalism? Maybe you’re American, except, if you are not white or wealthy! Another exception would be, being brown, black, native american or Asian!

    You know why they get these idiots to not wear masks? And why they refuse to enact measures to prevent the spread of Covid 19?

    The virus is doing the job of Eugenics for them! Eliminating the stupid, the sick, the poor and large amounts of black, brown, Native American and Asian folks!

    This country has been rotten to its core for a long long time, truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    And, what’s the common thread in all of this conduct throughout history? Protestant Evangelical Fanaticism! It goes hand in hand with Fascist White Nationalism!

  26. I had learned about Indiana’s past, but growing up in Michigan, we had Father Coughlin and Henry Ford (Catholic and Protestant bigots).

    I am reminded of the parallel phone calls my parents received, the first in Detroit, asking if they wanted to sell their home because “those” people were moving in. The first Black family in the neighborhood bought the house from the family of the street’s bully. It was a wonderful improvement.

    Later, when my parents moved to the suburbs, there was another call about a different “those” people moving into the neighborhood; this time, “those” people were us. The caller was right. That suburb is now home to the heart of Detroit’s Jewish community — and the Chaldeans.

    Now Michigan is home to a bunch of crazy “militia” groups.

    I was once told to extend the Mason-Dixon line to understand the “mid-west” (southern IL, IN, OH), but I think the differences are not as stark as that advice would suggest.

    The book sounds like an important read. Thanks Sheila.

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