With the exception of the prologue, the setting for my soon-to-be-released book, The Bequest, is a fictitious small town in north central Indiana in 1924. That year was an election year, and in Indiana it was an election year like no other. The reason is simple and, to our thinking, most strange: the overwhelming influence of the Ku Klux Klan in the state’s political and social fabric.
If you can’t imagine your vote being influenced by your local chapter of the KKK, that’s a testament to how much our state, indeed our whole culture, has changed in the last 87 years. Actually people’s thinking about the Klan began to change in 1925, only a year after the setting of my novel.
Most people are aware that the Klan had its origins in the years following the Civil War. Society had changed greatly after the war and those changes were not to the liking of many southerners, including many former confederate soldiers, who saw black independence as a threat to their lifestyle. That first Klan was an extra-judicial attempt to control blacks and restore white supremacy.
But that original Klan only lasted 7 years, until 1874, when it all but disappeared. It stayed that way for 41 years until 1915. In that year the movie “Birth Of A Nation”, which glorified the old Klan, was released in theaters and became immensely popular. Influenced by the film, Dr. William Simmons, a fraternal organizer, climbed Stone Mountain near Atlanta, Georgia on Thanksgiving night with fifteen members, set a wooden cross ablaze, and proclaimed the establishment of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
As Simmons intended, the Klan in those days was seen, more or less, as another fraternal organization much like the Elk or the Moose. Its focus was not so much on lynching blacks as it was on defending White Anglo-Saxon Protestants from the perceived dangers of Catholicism, immigration and booze.
After WW1, membership in the Klan exploded, particularly among military veterans who had an abundance of patriotic fervor that needed an outlet. Eventually the Klan made its way into Evansville and, under the leadership of its Grand Dragon, D. C. Stephenson, was soon the dominant force in Indiana state politics. Wikipedia states that, “At the height of its power the Klan had over 250,000 members, which was over 30% of state’s white male population.” The success or failure of many candidates in the 1924 election was largely determined by how much Klan backing they had.
Stephenson, however, cared little for the perceived Klan virtues of 100% Americanism, prohibition, Protestantism, and the honor of women everywhere. D. C. Stephenson had one goal and that was ensuring that D. C. Stephenson was the most powerful and influential man in the state. At the pinnacle of his power he boasted in 1925 that “I am the law in Indiana”.
However, Stephenson’s days at the top were short-lived. In November 1925 he was convicted of 2nd degree murder in the rape and eventual death of schoolteacher Madge Oberholtzer. The fallout from the trial discredited the Klan in the eyes of most Hoosiers and the organization went into rapid decline in Indiana and elsewhere.
Today the Klan has virtually no power to influence elections. Yet I fear that, until Christ returns, there will always be an increasing number of D. C. Stephensons: men and women whose sole agenda in seeking political office is the accumulation of wealth and power. May we all pray for the day when that one great King will return who “shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 23:5)