Sunday, May 08, 2005

Those Who Cannot Remember The Past Are Condemned to Repeat It

The famous Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, observed after World War II that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Santayana noted that closed, autocractic societies decay while open societies thrive. The latest efforts in Indiana by religious zealots to foment hostilities towards gays and lesbians is not something new to our state. The worst example occured in the 1920s. During this era the Ku Klux Klan reigned supreme over Indiana politics, controlling the legislature, the Governor's office and many other lucrative offices. This era was marked by a depressed economy, prohibition, immigration, dissolutionment and reaction according to a noted historian on nativism, John Higham. Moral righteousness reached its all-time high in Indiana as the Ku Klux Klan expanded its reach over the state. Higham said, "Never before had a single society gathered up so many hatreds or given vent to an inwardness so thoroughly."

The man behind this movement was the infamous David Curtis (D.C.) Stephenson. Stephenson, a native of Texas, made his way to Evansville, Indiana in 1920. He soon took up a fight against the Pope, Jews, blacks and foreigners. He became an active member of the Ku Klux Klan, eventually rising quickly to the rank of Grand Dragon, whereupon he moved to Indianapolis. It is reported that Stephenson enlisted as many as 300,000 Hoosiers to the KKK. For $26 a person each member got his standard hood, bed sheet and "naturalization papers." Stephenson quickly became a millionaire, pocketing a substantial part of the membership fees. With his newfound wealth and influence, Stephenson began buying off politicians. He took control of the Marion County Republican Party and expressed his desire to run for the U.S. Senate or President. Stephenson was onced quoted as saying, "I am the law in Indiana."

Stephenson's and the KKK's influence peaked during the 1925 session of the Indiana General Assembly. With total control of state government, the KKK pushed its legislative agenda, which the organization dubbed, "Americanization." The KKK and Stephenson were alarmed by the influx of new immigrants to the state, many of whom were Catholic. The purpose of the Americanization agenda was to make the state as inhospitable to Catholics and other immigrants as much as possible. The legislature led an all out assault on parochial schools, even attempting an out-right ban of them. They sought to mandate that an American flag be flown in every public classroom, and that classroom instruction include Bible study and anti-Catholicism. The KKK let it be known to all politicians in Indiana that you were either for their "Americanization" agenda or against it; there was no middle ground. While their legislative agenda passed the House overwhelmingly, internal feuding between KKK leaders caused the agenda to breakdown in the Senate. The KKK did succeed, however, in passing the Wright Bone Dry Law, which criminalized the consumption of any intoxicating liquor. Violators could be punished by a prison term of up to 2 years and fined $1,000. Anyone convicted of violating the law also had to pay a $25 prosecution fee, a move that enriched many prosecutors throughout the state who vigorously enforced the law against persons whom they disapproved, particularly immigrants and Catholics. The KKK-led legislature celebrated the passage of the Wright Bone Dry Law by engaging in "drunkard debauchery" at the Claypool Hotel according to the Indianapolis News.

Apparently D.C. Stephenson did a little too much partying during the 1925 legislative session. He impregnated a legislative secretary, Marge Oberhauser. A married man, D.C. Stephenson took matters into his own hands. He kidnapped Oberhauser, boarded a train headed to Chicago and poisoned her. Oberhauser was able to escape from Stephenson during a stop in Hammond, Indiana, but she later died from the poisoning a few days later. Before year's end, Stephenson was convicted of her murder in a highly celebrated trial which took place in Noblesville. With the hypocrisy of the organization's leader in full view, the KKK's influence began to wane in Indiana; however, it was not crushed until the Democrats swept the state in the 1932 elections following the start of the depression. The damage to the Republican Party, however, took hold prior to 1932. African-Americans had been monopolized by the Republican Party in Indiana prior to the rise of the KKK; thereafter, African-Americans in Indiana have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates. While the KKK was more influential within the Republican Party, it also had many supporter and sympathizers within the state's Democratic Party though obviously not as pervasive as the Republican Party. In the South, the KKK and the Democratic Party acted in tandem throughout this era and thereafter.

I attribute much of this historical perspective to "The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly," by Justin Walsh. This is perhaps the most authoritative book ever written about Indiana politics.

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