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.

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Hoosiers resisted school desegregation

After a handful of black students were assigned to attend a previously all-white school, about 80 percent of white students boycotted classes for 10 days. “White students and other demonstrators gathered every day to jeer and threaten black students.”

Little Rock Central High School in 1957? New Orleans Frantz Elementary School in 1960? Somewhere else in the South? No, the setting was Emerson High School in Gary, Indiana, and the year was 1947.

1949 school desegregation bill.

1949 Indiana school desegregation bill. (Indiana Historical Society).

The description is from Emma Lou Thornbrough’s book “Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century,” which devotes an entire chapter to the rocky history of school desegregation in the state. Gary school officials had decided to desegregate after racial tensions, including a strike in which white students demanded the removal of black students who attended separate classes at Froebel High School.

Schools in several of Indiana’s largest cities were formally segregated in the 1920s, the heyday of the Klan in the state. While Gary decided on its own to integrate, Indianapolis and Evansville continued to have racially segregated schools despite decades of objections from civil-rights advocates. Other cities, including Bloomington, had segregated elementary schools and integrated high schools.

In 1949, Democrats took control of the governor’s office and the House, and the state legislature passed a law prohibiting racially segregated schools. But school districts were given several years to comply; and in many communities, housing patterns meant most whites and blacks attended different schools.

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1920s decisions shaped racial landscape

You can look back nearly 100 years and watch as America took a serious wrong turn on race. Indiana, too.

Lynchings were widespread in the years right after World War I. Jim Crow laws solidified, and not just in the South. White mobs killed hundreds of African-Americans, including women and children, in East St. Louis, Illinois, Rosewood, Florida, Elaine, Arkansas, and Tulsa’s Greenwood district.

Indiana didn’t record incidents as horrific as those, but, as Emma Lou Thornbrough describes in the 2001 book “Indiana Blacks in the 20th Century,” the 1920s saw a rise in racial bias and racist policymaking that helps explain why Hoosier schools and communities are so divided by race today.

Book cover“The most conspicuous and lasting evidence of the rising tide of racial prejudice,” Thornbrough writes, “was the effort to segregate housing, by preventing blacks from moving into neighborhoods that white homeowners declared belonged exclusively to them, and to segregate all white and black pupils in separate schools.”

This was the era when the Ku Klux Klan wielded more power in Indiana than in any other state. It gained control of the Republican Party and elected candidates for governor, state legislature, city councils and school boards. It was estimated that 25 percent of native-born white men were members.

But the Indiana Klan of the 1920s was focused less on blacks than on immigrants, Catholics and booze, as historian Jim Madison has explained.The segregation of Indiana schools and neighborhoods was driven by white civic leaders, chambers of commerce and real estate organizations as well as by racist groups called the White Supremacy League and the White People’s Protective League.

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