1920s Klan fought to control schools

Schools were a key battleground as the Ku Klux Klan fought to dominate Indiana’s political and cultural life in the 1920s. The Klan promoted Bible reading and prayer in schools and demonized the spread of parochial schools and an imagined Catholic influence in public education.

Klan members thought Catholics were taking over America, Indiana University historian James Madison writes, and “the first point of takeover was public schools. Like generations of American reformers before and since, the Klan saw education reform as necessary for the nation’s revival.”

Book cover of The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland

Madison’s new book, “The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland,” focuses on a shameful era in Indiana’s past, when the Klan gained remarkable power and controlled public offices from the Statehouse to local school boards. The organization largely died out within a decade, but its influence continued in racially segregated schools and other aspects of Hoosier life.

Importantly, the 1920s Klan saw itself as mainstream, not an outlier. It promoted patriotism, civic duty and “100% Americanism.” It held massive rallies and marches, complete with marching bands and women’s auxiliaries. It raised money for churches and sponsored musical groups and youth basketball and baseball leagues. Its cross-burnings were spectacles that wowed audiences.

It has been estimated that 30% of white, native-born, Protestant men joined the Klan in Indiana. These were not disaffected loners; they were not the Proud Boys of their day.

“Klansmen came from the middle ranks of white-collar and skilled workers who could afford the $10 initiation fee and the monthly dues,” Madison writes. “Some blue-collar workers joined, but more members were lawyers, physicians, government employees, and owners of small and medium-sized businesses.” Protestant clergy provided important support.

Contrary to popular belief, the 1920s Klan in Indiana did not practice lynching, although it did threaten and intimidate its foes. It saw African Americans and Jews as inferior, but its real enemies were Catholics and immigrants, many of whom had arrived to work in Indiana factories.

First-generation immigrants had reached almost 15% of the U.S. population in 1910, fueling a nationwide backlash. The bogus “race science” of eugenics gained tremendous influence, including among prominent intellectuals. Prohibitionists associated German, Italian and Irish immigrants with the evils of alcohol. The Klan seized on those trends, especially in Indiana.

Education was at the forefront of the Klan’s agenda, which centered on keeping the public schools as preserves of a white, Protestant version of Christianity. Klan publications spread wild claims that Catholic teachers were infiltrating public schools and indoctrinating children.

“A massive parade through downtown Indianapolis in late 1924 featured several floats with school themes and the words ‘One School, One Language, One Bible,’” Madison writes. “Often Klan parades featured a float with a ‘Little Red Schoolhouse’ representing the essence of public education and the rejection of parochial schools.”

State legislators elected with Klan support in 1924 introduced bills to require Bible reading and religious instruction in schools, limit teaching licenses to graduates of public schools and ban the wearing of “religious garb” in public schools; the latter was aimed at Catholic nuns who sometimes taught in public schools in areas with teacher shortages. The bills didn’t pass, but local measures gained more traction. While there had always been some racial segregation in Hoosier schools, Indianapolis, Gary, Evansville and Kokomo opened separate high schools for Black students in the 1920s. (The legislature outlawed school segregation in 1949, but it continued in practice for years after that).

Madison rejects the story usually told about the 1920s Indiana Klan: that it collapsed with the arrest and conviction of its charismatic but vicious leader, D.C. Stephenson, for causing the death of a young woman. ““Blaming a wicked Grand Dragon absolves all others and makes the Klan a fluke occurrence that arrived and disappeared along with Stephenson,” he writes.

“The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland” also covers the resurgence of the Klan as a small, virulently racist group in the 1960s, but its focus is the large and influential Klan of the 1920s; and what’s striking about the story is its familiarity. The mass events, the celebration of “100% Americanism,” echo in today’s Make America Great Again rallies. The demonization of immigrants sounds a lot like President Donald Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists.” The demand for Bible reading in schools foreshadows today’s support of Christian education with state-funded vouchers.

It’s easy to point fingers, however, and this history should also remind us of some uncomfortable truths: One person’s “Hoosier values” can look like hate to someone else. “Us against them” divisions can quickly turn ugly. And the rhetoric of public education can be used to exclude as easily as to welcome.

The Klan era of the 1920s is a not-too-distant mirror reflecting a strange but recognizable image of our own time. What we see will depend on how critically – and how self-critically — we look.

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