Mark Bennett: Lessons from dark chapter in Hoosier history worth learning

Difficult, important: Historian James Madison wrote “The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland” because the lessons of such a painful history remain relevant today.Courtesy Indiana University Press

A retelling of history must be real and complete. Otherwise, it provides future generations with only half of a lesson.

Respected Indiana historian James Madison spent three years researching and writing his latest book. It took Madison nearly the same amount of time to convince himself to write it. Madison’s commitment to the value of historical accuracy nudged him into action.

“I felt I had to do it,” he said last week.

Mark Bennett: Lessons from dark chapter in Hoosier history worth learning

Courtesy Indiana University PressRecounting history: James H. Madison, professor of history emeritus at Indiana University, has written a dozen books, including his latest account of the Ku Klux Klan in the Hoosier state during the 1920s.

The book details a segment of Indiana’s past that many would prefer left unsaid, forgotten. “The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland” explains how that notorious hate group gained almost mainstream status in multiple aspects of Indiana society during the 1920s. Nearly one-third of white, Protestant “native-born” adult males in the state joined the Klan in that era, according to Madison’s extensive research of newspapers, libraries, archives and historical societies. Unknown numbers of women joined, too.

In his book’s closing lines, Madison writes, “The Klan story does not give comfort,” but adds, “A clear-eyed history shows us that seemingly good people can make bad choices, that changing times brought challenges too large to understand, and that there was evil.”

That happened in 1920s Indiana.

Madison lays out the saga in “Heartland,” which Indiana University Press will officially release Tuesday. It’s the latest of a dozen books written by Madison, an award-winning historian who’s been honored as the Thomas and Kathryn Miller Professor of History Emeritus at IU in Bloomington.

Fear and resentment of those deemed “un-American” lingered in the aftermath of World War I. The Indiana Klan insisted the nation “was heading in the wrong direction,” Madison writes. The atmosphere fed the Klan’s push to define who qualified as “100% American.” The Klan’s definition excluded Americans who were Catholic, Jewish, African American and immigrants.

“People who were not white, Protestant, ‘100% Americans’ — native born — were the enemy,” Madison said.

Its appeal in Indiana wasn’t limited to people on the fringes of society in those days. “They were mainline, mainstream people — ‘good Hoosiers’ in their view,” Madison said. They ranged from bankers to doctors, farmers and churchgoers. They deemed themselves patriots on a moral crusade, rather than bigoted racists.

Indiana residents had gained a reputation for having a down-to-earth, giving nature — “nice people, friendly, hospitable,” Madison said. “And here’s this organization that was anything but nice and friendly, yet a substantial number of Hoosiers joined.”

The Klan infiltrated the ranks of Indiana government with candidates overtly supported by Klan leader D.C. Stephenson and his network of followers statewide. That wave reached a peak in the 1924 election, with Stephenson promoting “militant Americanism” over “pussy-footed patriotism.”

Indeed, the Klan’s diabolical agenda of white supremacy was furthered through intimidation — including through the voting process — and violence. It used various methods. The Indiana Klan of a century ago made its own movies, phonograph records and newspapers, and relished the public spectacle created by parades through Hoosier streets and cross burnings.

“They were very sophisticated in getting their grassroots message to Hoosiers and convincing Hoosiers that joining the Klan was the right thing to do,” Madison said.

Many mainstream organizations and entities, including many newspapers, around the state remained silent about the Klan and its activities, Madison explained. One of the first signs of resistance came from the Indiana Bar Association. At its annual meeting in Kokomo in 1923, the lawyers unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the Klan’s hate and “decrees of secret tribunals the members of which conceal their identity behind robes and masks.”

“That was a brave and courageous thing for the lawyers and attorneys in the state to do,” Madison said.

The targets of Klan vitriol — Catholics, Jews and African Americans — began pushing back, too.

One obsession of the Klan — its support of outlawing liquor through Prohibition — also spurred resistance in pockets of Indiana such as Gary, South Bend and Terre Haute, where alcoholic beverages remained available in speakeasies. The Klan often singled out those towns in its rhetoric.

Mark Bennett: Lessons from dark chapter in Hoosier history worth learning


“Terre Haute was among the least friendly places for the Klan,” Madison said.

In fact, one of this city’s most progressive mayors, Ora Davis, ran for governor in 1924 on a platform opposing the Klan and its heinous discrimination. That stance may have cost Davis in that year’s Republican primary. Davis got just 2% of the vote among a field of six candidates. Klan-supported Edward L. Jackson won the party’s nomination and then the governor’s seat. Davis’ run isn’t cited in Madison’s book, but it does explain that another anti-Klan candidate — Indianapolis mayor Lew Shank — finished second in the primary to Jackson.

Eventually, the Klan’s dominance unraveled. D.C. Stephenson wound up spending 31 years in prison, convicted in 1925 of murdering a young woman. Stephenson later fed authorities dirt on corruption by Klan-aligned Hoosier politicians at all levels of government. Governor Jackson narrowly evaded a bribery conviction. The Klan’s power and base eroded. It never returned to the level of the 1920s in Indiana, Madison writes, though small factions stirred trouble in the 1960s and ‘70s and subsequent decades. Over time, resistance to the Klan has quickened and strengthened.

Madison’s book ends with that observation and a “hope that the great moral arc has been bending, if slowly, toward justice.”

Vigilance must continue to prevent a repeat of that dark chapter in history, when the Klan gained power in 1920s Indiana. Clearly, hatred hasn’t disappeared in the 21st century, nor has the practice of blaming minorities for society’s problems.

Madison hopes his book helps readers realize “they can also have the kind of historical antennae to recognize that a leader or group is campaigning on those same kind of ideals, even though they’re not wearing a robe or a hood.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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