9.20.2008

Racial Views and The Long Shadow of Bigotry Still Drive How Some Hoosiers Will Vote This Year

VERY sadly, I know this article is true because of where I grew up. Here are the Census stats for my former home county in Indiana. Check out line 9! Seriously, how scary and embarrassing is that in 2008? I left it 20 years ago and the county has since become a bedroom community for Indianapolis. So I hope that general attitudes and feelings have changed and evolved since I was a child. I'll stick to what I do know.

I talk to my old friends and classmates from there all the time, and many of my generation are Obama supporters and if they aren't it has nothing to do with his color. But, I have two friends who admitted to me they are going to vote for Obama, but in no way could they ever admit it to their families or feel safe to say that out loud. By safe, they mean blacklisted in the community. They are afraid their businesses will suddenly drop off, wills could be amended and their membership in the local lodge will suddenly expire. This is a fact for these men, I don't exaggerate that. I also don't generalize this. These men and their families are thankfully now in the minority, which was certainly not the case when I was growing up there. I'm pretty sure their business will be fine, but being dis-inherited or thrown out of the lodge are probably within the realm of possibilities.

I talk to others in my family and among my hometown folk (names won't be mentioned) they flat out tell me, they won't vote for a black man. They don't trust "them" He'll make Washington a "black panther rally" (they aren't the most zeitgeist savvy), "black people aren't smart enough to lead the Country" and of course, my favorite, "You know he's a Muslim!"

I don't hate these folks. They are my old friends and family and I've achieved the wisdom that after 30 years of arguing, statistics, anger, and even once pie charts, I will not change their opinions. I just have to quietly let it roll off my back, re-enforce the fact that I in no way agree with what they are saying and remind them that very very angry seeker65 will come out if they EVER, EVER EVER spew this ignorant, hateful, bile anywhere towards my children, OK?? Ok! (calming down now)

I've learned, as an adult, through my studies of history, that the North, historically, has been much less open and receptive to race. It makes a strange sociological sense. Lack of exposure tends to engender mistrust and fear. The South had enslaved black men and women, but they also lived with them, saw them, talked to them. Exposure bred familiarity. This wasn't the case in the North. Mostly I'm focusing on the area that was once known as the Northwest Territory, it's the area I've studied. Indiana in particular has a sad history.

Yes, during the American Civil War, Indiana was a Northern state and yes our Governor, Oliver P. Morton and most volunteer officers and Generals from Indiana were overwhelmingly pro-abolitionist, especially future President Benjamin Harrison. BUT Indiana also passed a law that was technically on the books into the 20th Century that by it's language, made it illegal for a free black man to actually live in Indiana. Many communities were more than wiling to look past this and welcome the influx of newly freed men and women. Other Indiana counties harbored racial hatred into the 20th and 21st centuries. With Reconstruction ending in the South and the rise of Jim Crow laws, this left many people of color literally between a Rock and Hard Place. Sure, the North welcomes you with open arms, just don't go to certain parts. With this came the rise of the KKK. The KKK has risen and fallen at least four times over the last 140 years.

In the late 19th and early 2oth Centuries, the Klan was a social and political organization who held picnics, church socials, political rallies and 4th of July parades for Hoosier families. They stood for isolation, anti-union, Ag. reform, and was virulently anti-Roman Catholic, some groups even welcomed black members, 'cause, ya know, they hated Catholics then much more than "Negros".

A majority of people have an already formed image of the Ku Klux Klan.  Men, dressed in white robes and hoods, riding throughout the countryside harassing blacks.  Most believe that the Klan is an extinct organization, once comprised of rednecks and racist southerners.  However, unfortunately, the Klan is still alive in Indiana.  There was a time in Indiana when Klan membership could help an aspiring political career.  Leonard Moore from the University of California has carefully analyzed Klan membership documents of Indiana and discovered that at it's peak, 250,000 white men in Indiana (about 30% of the native-born Caucasian men in Indiana) joined the Klan in the early 1920s.[1]

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Klan grew in strength.  America now had to be ‘protected’ from the Germans and others: Catholics, Jews, Socialists, blacks and union leaders.  Membership in the Klan was a way for citizens to help out the war effort in Europe by making sure American soil was kept ‘pure.’  The Klan was quickly becoming something universal and not just a southern racist group. Indiana was, at one time so wedded to the Clan, it was it's unofficial headquarters when a Hoosier, D. C. Stephenson became the Grand Dragon.

D.C. Stephenson was born in Texas and soon would become the most powerful and influential man in Indiana.  Stephenson found himself, eventually, in Evansville working as a salesman of bonds for the L.G. Julian Coal Company.  By 1921 he was being paid to recruit for the newly re-organized Indiana chapter of the Klan.  He was making a pretty good living with both jobs. 

D.C. Stephenson, like all other new members, had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Klan and a vow of secrecy.  New recruits were asked 9 questions:

  1. Is the motive prompting your ambition to be a Klansman serious and unselfish?
  2. Are you native born, white, Gentile, American citizens?
  3. Are you absolutely opposed to and free of any allegiance of any nature to cause, government, people, sect, or ruler that is foreign to the United States of America?
  4. Do you esteem the United States of America and its institutions above any other government, civil, political, or ecclesiastical in the whole world?
  5. Will you, without mental reservations, take a solemn oath to defend, preserve, and enforce these same?
  6. Do you believe in Klannishness and will you faithfully practice same toward your fellow Klansmen?
  7. Do you believe in and will you faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of White Supremacy?
  8. Will you faithfully obey our constitutions and laws, and confirm willingly to all our usages, requirements, and regulations?
  9. Can you always be depended on?[2]

Stephenson's public speeches surprisingly weren't filled with the racist rhetoric as many of the other leaders of the Klan.  He usually left the hate speeches up to others in the power structure of the Klan.  His talent was centered around organizing the Klan in Indiana and collecting new recruits.

Membership in the Indiana division of the Klan began soaring with each new speech that the charismatic Stephenson made.  The group began to expand to the western states and industrial cities of the Midwest, the Klan was no longer a southern sensation. 

The Klan even made inroads into Indiana churches.  The Reverend William Forney Harris of the Grand Avenue Methodist Church preached in 1922 that secret societies like the Ku Klux Klan would not get his support.  However, these were times of "moral decay," and as such, any organization that stood for decency and order ought not to be shunned.  Other clergy found themselves offering similar endorsements to their congregations as the Klan membership began to grow locally.[3]

D.C. Stephenson went on to become a powerful political figure in Indiana.  His rise to power was short-lived, however.  In 1922 Stephenson was appointed Grand Dragon of the KKK for Indiana.  In 1925 he had met a statehouse secretary, Madge Oberholtzer, at an inaugural ball for Governor Ed Jackson.  She was later abducted from her home in Irvington, a neighborhood of Indianapolis and taken by Stephenson and some of his men to the train station.  While on a trip to Hammond, Indiana, Stephenson repeatedly attacked and raped Oberholtzer in one compartment of his Pullman railcar.  In Hammond she took poison to frighten Stephenson into letting her go.  He immediately rushed her back to Indianapolis where she died a month later, either from the effects of the poison or the severe bite marks she incurred during the rape.

Stephenson was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.  The sensational trial took place in Noblesville, Indiana in 1925.  His conviction sent Stephenson to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana for the next 31 years (the longest imprisonment in this state for that crime).  He was released from prison in 1956 and faded into obscurity.  However, not before causing the shocking downfall of many corrupt political officials within Indiana.  When he went to jail he was convinced that Governor Ed Jackson, who he had helped elect, would pardon him.  Governor Jackson never came through with the pardon and Stephenson began to talk.

With help from The Indianapolis Times (which won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigations), the structure of Indiana politics would be shaken.  Stephenson began to talk about who had helped him rise to power named names.  The aftermath was shocking, indictments were filed against Governor "Big" Ed Jackson, Marion County Republican chairman George V. "Cap" Coffin, and attorney Robert I. Marsh, charging them with conspiring to bribe former Governor Warren McCray.  Even the Mayor of Indianapolis, John Duvall was convicted and sentenced to jail for 30 days (and barred from political service for 4 years).  Several Marion County commissioners also resigned from their posts on charges of accepting bribes from the Klan and Stephenson.

This was not the image that Indiana wanted to portray during its "golden age."  Stephenson at the peak of his political career and influence had remarked, "I am the law in Indiana."

Believe me when I tell you, the long shadow of racism and xenophobia, especially post 9/11 are still alive and well in some parts of Indiana. So expect many registered Democrats to cross party lines and vote McCain this year, because those racist family members and former friends of mine?  They really LOVE Sarah Palin. It'll be interesting to study the voting stats of Indiana Counties after this election. How much an impact this will have on Indiana's Election this year I couldn't say. The current polls have Obama with a slight lead over McCain here, but who are they poling? What demographics are they targeting? Indianapolis only? Surrounding counties? Rural counties? Ft. Wayne, South Bend, Evansville, Richmond, Terre Haute and Gary? Are these cities included? I don't know?

Please don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that ALL of Indiana is racist! As a matter of fact most of my friends, family and acquaintances here are blissfully ignorant of Indiana's past. When I speak of this stuff and my upbringing, they often question me like Margaret Mead meeting some tribe in Borneo. It's endearing and gives me hope.

I'm NOT saying anyone who doesn't support Obama is a racist. And I'm NOT saying anyone who votes for McCain or likes Sarah Palin is racist. I'm saying that the press is finally willing to speak the unwritten and mostly unspoken truth and calling out the bigots that still live in this Country. My hope is the bigots decide to stay home this election and just quietly let their views go into the abyss with them when they pass, because this State, this Nation cannot survive the World that will be on our door-step in less than two decades with it still even a small part of our culture.

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[1]Lutholtz, M. William.  Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana.  Purdue University Press: Lafayette, 1991.

[2]Ibid. p25.

[3]Ibid. p32.

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