Introduction: Indiana and the Radical Interpretation of the Ku Klux Klan

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Indiana and the Radical Interpretation of the Ku Klux Klan

The image of the robed and hooded Ku Klux Klansman is one of the most vivid and frightening in American history. It is the image of the southern racial terrorist, the midnight raider with the lash or club in hand and the hangman's noose or shotgun within easy reach—the image, in other words, of the Reconstruction-era Klansman and his descendant who emerged during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Most Americans are probably aware that Klan groups made their presence felt at other times between 1865 and 1965, and that isolated pockets of Klansmen continue to exist today. But the popular perception of the Klansmen seems welded securely to those two momentous periods, when reformers pressured the federal government to extend basic civil liberties to black Americans, and when Ku Klux Klansmen acted as the self-appointed shock troops of white supremacy, the most radical and dangerous bigots in American society. 1

Historians have long maintained that the other major Klan movement in American history—that of the 1920s—did not conform in many respects to the popular images so strongly associated with the Klans of the Reconstruction and civil rights eras.2 Unlike its earlier and later counterparts, the Klan of the twenties was not primarily southern. Rather, it became popular throughout the nation, enrolling at least three million and perhaps as many as six million members. From its national headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, the Klan did attract a significant fol-

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lowing in southern states, particularly Georgia and Alabama, but it prospered as well in parts of northeastern states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. It built large, extremely influential organizations west of the Mississippi in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Colorado, Montana, California, and Oregon. The largest, most powerful state organizations were those of the Midwest—Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and especially Indiana, where, by all accounts, the Klan gained its greatest influence and highest level of membership for any state. 3

While the Reconstruction- and civil rights-era Klans depended exclusively on violence and intimidation, Klansmen in the twenties engaged in a wide range of activities and appeared especially interested in political power. The Democratic National Convention of 1924 provided one example of the Klan's political influence. During a bitter, sixteen-day meeting at New York's Madison Square Garden, Klan supporters and detractors hopelessly divided the convention and the party. In the process, they all but ensured that the presidency would remain in the hands of Calvin Coolidge and the Republicans—who carefully avoided the Klan issue at their convention.4 Numerous political candidates supported by the Klan won state and local elections throughout the nation, including U.S. Senate races in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, and gubernatorial contests in each of these states except Texas, where an anti-Klan candidate narrowly won. In 1924, a Klan candidate won the governorship in Kansas and another was narrowly defeated in the U.S. Senate race in Montana. Oregon voters elected a Klan-endorsed gubernatorial candidate in 1922 and at the same time passed an anti-Catholic school bill that the secret order sponsored even more enthusiastically than the governor. In many communities—probably many more, in fact, than historians have currently documented—Klan chapters briefly dominated local politics. This was true in major cities such as Denver and Indianapolis, as well as in smaller communities such as Youngstown, Ohio, El Paso, Texas, Canon City, Colorado, and Anaheim, California.5

The Klan movement of the twenties stood apart not only because of its national scope and emphasis on politics, but also because of its ideological orientation. While the Klans of the Reconstruction and civil rights eras were driven primarily by the single issue of white

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supremacy in the South, the Klan of the 1920s espoused, through its many newspapers and widely distributed recruiting pamphlets, a more complex creed of racism, nativism, Americanism; the defense of traditional moral and family values; and support for Prohibition. The popularity of this ideology, historians have generally concluded, could be traced to a sense of national peril, a pervasive fear by native white Protestants that rural, small-town culture had lost its place at the center of American life, that the nation had been delivered into the hands of urbanites, anarchists, and immigrants. 6

Although historians have noted these distinct characteristics of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, the accepted interpretation of this mass movement still remains tied to the radical image of its counterparts during Reconstruction and the civil rights period—and not without reason. The Klan of the twenties, after all, drew its inspiration from the mysterious Reconstruction-era vigilantes romanticized in Thomas Dixon's best-selling novels and D. W. Griffith's controversial, but immensely popular film, The Birth of a Nation, which Klan agents used as a recruiting tool.7 The ideology of the Klan in the twenties, though more elaborate, in its own way seemed no less extreme than the ideas of the vigilante Klans. To some degree, the Klan of the twenties may have appeared even more threatening precisely because its list of enemies was so long, including, in addition to blacks, Catholics, Jews, immigrants, political radicals, feminists, intellectuals, gamblers, bootleggers, thrill-seeking teenagers, motion picture producers, and many others. Moreover, it clearly contained extremist elements and during its early stages, many individual incidents of vigilante violence—both mild and severe—were associated with the movement, particularly in the South and the Southwest. Indeed, in a decade that witnessed a frightening wave of race riots, the Red Scare, the onset of national Prohibition, blatantly racist and discriminatory immigration restrictions, Sacco and Vanzetti, and the Scopes trial, the Klan in many ways appeared to be at the forefront of a national wave of dangerous intolerance, confusion, and fear. Like the southern Klansmen of other eras who were unwilling to accept the idea of racial integration, those who participated in the Klan movement in the twenties seemed unable to adjust to the wider notion of pluralism in an urban-based society.8

The radical image of the Klan and the volatile climate of the 1920s

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also led historians to conclude that those who joined the order or supported it with their votes represented disaffected fringe groups in society. One persistent view was that the Klan of the twenties attracted a particularly strong following in small towns and villages. The residents of these communities, historians believed, were the victims of provincial isolation and ignorance. Almost all of them were thought to be fundamentalists, drawn to the Klan as a result of their deep resentment of what, by that time, had become the obvious dominance of cities and cosmopolitan values in American life. 9 Other scholars placed less emphasis on the idea of urban-rural conflict, claiming that the Klan movement was equally popular in major cities. According to this interpretation, large numbers of Klansmen could be found in lower middle-class white and blue-collar neighborhoods. Badly paid and poorly educated, residents of these areas were thought to have joined the Klan largely out of resentment at being trapped in economic and residential competition with the growing populations of blacks and immigrants nearby.10

Historians' just contempt for the Klan's intolerance certainly contributed to many of these conclusions. Much of the history of the Ku Klux Klan was written during the late 1950s and 1960s by a generation of scholars that had witnessed the horrific consequences of European fascism, the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s, and the hard-fought battles of the civil rights movement. Many of the most well-known works on the Klan of the 1920s, in fact, were written at the same time that new, extremely violent Klan groups were being linked with the bombings of black homes and churches, the widely publicized execution-style murder of civil rights workers, and numerous other crimes. In such an atmosphere, it may have been inevitable that the condemnation of bigotry would be the first priority in any writing about the Klan. Historians, like many other Americans who were confronted by these deep and disturbing divisions in American society, ultimately concluded that Klan organizations, regardless of the era in which they appeared, represented aberrant outbursts of hatred, ignorance, and anxiety over lost status.11

Yet to whatever degree one may sympathize with these ideas, the fact remains that it has been much easier to damn the Klan of the 1920s than to explain convincingly the reasons for its extraordinary popularity and influence. This book, supported by a number of re-

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cent studies of Klan organizations throughout the nation, asserts that the traditional interpretation contains basic flaws and ultimately does not divorce strongly enough the Klan movement of the twenties from the infamous traditions of the southern vigilante Klans. 12

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Table 5.5 Residential Distribution of Klan Members and All Males, Indianapolis, 1923


All Males

Area Number




North Central* 88




South Central 109




West 43




East 142




North 69




South 41




Other 8





Chi-square (6 dof) = 29.01 P .01

Source: See Appendix.

* Contained a large black community.

If ethnic conflict in several neighborhoods contributed to the Klan's appeal, however, it was only part of a wider pattern of social and political concerns that enticed men into the secret order. As shown in Table 5.5, the Klan was popular in suburban areas in the north and especially in the east, where ethnic minorities represented no threat to generally homogeneous white Protestant neighborhoods. Even in south-central Indianapolis, the Klan's attraction appears to have involved more than a turf battle between native-born whites and ethnic minorities. In her recent history of Indianapolis's Jewish community, for example, Judith E. Endelman observes that while Jewish citizens were naturally outraged by the Klan's ideology and disturbed by its popularity, Jewish neighborhoods were hot torn by conflict with surrounding white Protestant populations during the 1920s. By that time, Endelman argues, the Jewish community generally had "earned the respect of the larger

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community" and sporadic episodes of anti-Semitism were of relatively little consequence. Ultimately, the Klan had "little direct effect on the Jewish community." 67

The Klan's appeal to south-side Protestant German immigrants and assimilated Germans further complicates the picture. Anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiment in the German community may have contributed to the Klan's popularity. On the other hand, working-class German immigrants had always lived in close proximity to other immigrant groups in that part of the city and there is no evidence that tensions increased significantly during the Klan years. Given the powerful trend toward assimilation by German-Americans in the twentieth century and then particularly after World War I, it is likely that many ethnic Germans perceived the Klan as a patriotic citizens' organization and joined primarily for that reason.68

The Klan can be tied more directly to the racial conflict in north-central neighborhoods. In 1925, the Indianapolis Klan gained control of the Republican political machine and made a clean sweep in the municipal election. Under the at-large scheme for electing city councilmen, six new members of the council were chosen in November, all Klansmen and all garnering approximately the same number of votes. Although only two of the new councilmen lived in the north-central section, all appeared sympathetic to the white neighborhood protective associations that were pressing the city to restrict the movement of blacks into white neighborhoods. Shortly after taking office early in 1926, the new Klan councilmen passed a residential segregation ordinance that gave white citizens the right to exclude black families from their neighborhoods. The ordinance was overturned by the courts and never put into effect, but its passage represented a clear example of the racist sympathies of the Klan councilmen.69

One of the more significant, and perhaps ironic, aspects of the residential segregation ordinance episode was the relatively small role it played in the larger context of the Klan's involvement in Indianapolis politics. The segregation campaign predated the Klan's emergence as a force in the city. First directed at the public schools, it resulted in a decision by school officials in 1922 to reorganize elementary schools along racial lines and build a new high school that all black students would be required to attend. The attempt to ex-

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tend a legally sanctioned system of segregation of residences in 1926 was the next step in the ongoing campaign, rather than something new, and actually generated relatively little controversy among the white citizens of Indianapolis. While Klan politicians supported the measure, it had not been an important campaign issue or the subject of weighty debate between Klan and (white) anti-Klan forces. 70 Two other issues, in fact, engendered a good deal more political strife. One involved the Klan's assault on the city's Republican machine and the battle over patronage that ensued once the Klan slate had been swept into office. The other issue—by far the biggest of the election—involved the public schools but had nothing to do with racial segregation. Instead, it centered on the Klan's support for a widely supported school building and modernization program and the refusal of school officials to get it under way.

Although the state Klan movement had begun to lose momentum by November 1925, the hooded order was still strong enough in Indianapolis to propel two of its members into top leadership positions in the local Republican organization. One of these men was John L. Duvall, an attorney who since 1909 had made a living operating a series of small suburban banks and whose previous experience in politics was limited to one term as Marion County treasurer. Duvall joined the Klan sometime in 1922 or early 1923 and became its candidate to replace the anti-Klan Republican mayor, Lew Shank, in 1925. Klansman George V. Coffin became even more powerful than Duvall. The former Indianapolis chief of police and Marion County sheriff became a high official in the city's Republican machine beginning in 1924 and surpassed all other leaders of the organization once Duvall and the other Klan candidates were elected in 1925.71

The issue of patronage surfaced immediately after Duvall won the mayoral contest and revealed the Klan's powerful new role within Indianapolis's Republican organization. Duvall quickly established that the Klan would be repaid for its support. The day after the election, he left Indianapolis for a secret location in Illinois where he could meet with Klan leaders away from the glare of the press and the pressures that were sure to emanate from the Republican establishment. During the next several weeks he issued a series of announcements about expected appointments in the upcoming administration, almost all of which met with the Klan's approval. A number

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