February 20, 2024

From the Vaults – History . . .


     Before I decided that Geography and Earth Science were going to be my major areas of study in college, History was also in my top three areas of interest.  The maps of historic migrations, battles, and geographical provinces included in the text books we used from elementary school through high school fascinated me to no end.  It was the ‘cartography’ part of being a Geography / Earth Science major that finally tipped the scale in that direction.  I am still interested in history. Not only the history of past events, but also how events of today will be remembered one hundred years from now.  Historians often spout some version of the old saw, ‘Those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it.’  This never sounded quite right to me, so I finally looked up the original quote.  In The Life of Reason (1905), writer-philosopher George Santayana actually said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Looking up Santayana’s quote also cleared up another question for me:  why his name is included in Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire:   ‘Eisenhower, Vaccine, England’s got a new queen, Marciano, Liberace, Santayana, goodbye’.  Evidently, Billy is also a history fan. 

     Santayana’s words are generally interpreted to mean, “without knowledge and understanding of history, people are likely to make the same mistakes or face the same problems that have occurred in the past” (and yes, Wikipedia gets the credit for this little detail).  With the ‘those who cannot remember…’ framework in mind, let me share with you an excerpt from Timothy Egan’s fine book A Fever in the Heartland (2023 – Viking Press):

     “The talented D.C. Stephenson had proved to be quite the prodigy, as he said so himself.  He had the touch and the charm, the dexterity with words and the drive.  He understood people’s fears and their need to blame others for their failures.  He discovered that if he said something often enough, no matter how untrue, people would believe it.  Small lies were for the timid.  The key to telling a big lie was to do it with conviction.  He had once listed himself as a lawyer when he joined a Masonic order, though he’d never passed a bar exam.  Now he began to describe himself as the world’s ‘foremost mass psychologist’.  He became a fan of Benito Mussolini, reading up on his speeches and the parallels to his own rise.”

     Il Duce (Mussolini) came to power in Italy in 1922, the same year that Stephenson began his own campaign to rise to his own position of power.  As a writer observed in a profile about Stephenson at the time, “Mussolini’s methods were, to [Stephenson’s] mind, the model for men  of action like himself.  The difference between the two men was a matter of geography. 

     Mussolini seized control in what would be the first act that would lead Italy into Hitler’s Axis (and their eventual defeat in World War II).  Stephenson’s power grab took place in Indiana, of all places, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  He then set his sights on doing the same in Michigan, Kansas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.  Perhaps if I share the subtitle of Egan’s book, it will help clarify how this ties in with the Santayana quote above:  A Fever in the Heartland – The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them.  Yes, a hundred years ago, D.C. Stephenson was going to fix what he perceived as ‘problems’ in this country by putting the KKK in charge of the ‘solutions’.  In truth, his whole plot was nothing more than a power grab to give himself prestige and make him wealthy wrapped in a cloak of lies and deception.

     To understand how this happened, one needs to go back to the original formation of the Ku Klux Klan in the post-Civil War South.   The first version of the Klan came together in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1866 when six young men gathered to form a new, secret club.  Two of them were former Confederate officers, two were lawyers, one a newspaper editor, and the last was a cotton broker.  They were bitter that four million formerly enslaved people in the South would now make up 35 percent of the population.  They needed a name for their little secret society:  they based it on the Greek word ‘kuklos’ (which represented a circle) and ‘klan’ (to echo the Old World roots for their Scots-Irish Protestant family ties).  They designed a costume with a conical top (it made the wearer look taller), a white mask with eye holes cut out, and a long white robe with symbols attached.  Like some real life version of the Flintstone’s ‘Royal Order of the Water Buffalos’, they invented “silly titles and silly rituals’ ‘ according to Egan.

     In a bit of revisionist history, one of the original members, James Crowe said, “We would frequently meet after the day’s business was over in some room or office.  We would have music and songs.”  After the group marched for the first time in a public parade in Pulaski (with their numbers now swelled to 75), the local paper ran a piece about this, “mysterious new club.  What was the purpose?”  By early 1867, the ‘music and song’ had been replaced by ‘arson and whipping’.  The answer to the question about their purpose became clear:  brotherhood, mystery, and power.  Power to spread fear to those groups they declared were unworthy of sharing ‘their country and ideals.’

     The Klan spread rapidly across the former Confederate states  After a prominent Tennessean named Nathan Bedford Forrest declared himself to be the first Grand Wizard, he told a reporter the Klan’s purpose:  “It’s a protective, political, military organization.”  As word spread about their violent assaults on blacks, immigrants, and religious groups whom they did not approve of, the headlines shocked Northerners.  Many began to realize, as Egan puts it, “The North had won the war but the South was winning the peace.”  Lincoln’s plan for reconstruction were scuttled by his Vice President and successor (Tennessee Democrat Andrew Johnson) who had been put on the ticket as a gesture of unity.  The quarrelsome, foul-mouthed, frequently drunk, and once impeached president was sworn in six weeks after Lincoln’s death.  Egan explained that Johnson, “Would have none of his predecessor’s vision.  He ignored pleas from civil authorities to go after the Klan, and he urged Southern politicians to balk at expanding the Constitution.  He tried to veto the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (which congress overrode) and gave amnesty to all ex-Confederates while restoring them all their rights except that of property ownership of human beings.”

     President Ulyssys S. Grant was elected President in 1868 and he promised to smash the Klan.  Grant said this group, “was trying to reduce the colored people to a condition closely akin to that of slavery.”  With his Department of Justice taking the point, the Klan’s crimes were prosecuted as federal offenses and by the end of 1869, they formally disbanded.  Fredrick Douglas, one of the most widely known Black authors of the post-Civil War era wrote:  “The scourging and slaughter of our people have so far ceased.” The reign of terror was over, for now.

       The Klan would rise again in the early years of the new century when southern states passed Jim Crow Laws that wiped out Black voting rights.  Even the United States Supreme Court, save one dissenting vote, let these laws stand.  Jim Crow Laws prevented one in every three citizens  from owning property in middle class neighborhoods, eating, sleeping, traveling, shopping, or going to school with whites.  Other outposts began to spring up across the country in places like Anaheim, California (dubbed ‘Klanaheim’), in Bremerton, Washington (aboard a Naval vessel anchored there), Texas, and Oregon.  Oregon’s governor showed his KKK leanings by using the slogan, “Keeping America a Land for Americans” in his campaign.

     This new KKK is the one most of us associate with the name now – the cross burning started with them, not the original post Civil War version.  In 1915, a wandering hell-fire and brimstone preacher named William Simmons had seen the movie Birth of a Nation.  The movie was yet another historical reimagining of the Civil War with Black stereotypes a plenty.  It fanned the notion that only the Klan could save the country from evil, promoted white supremacy, and introduced the ritual of cross burning.  On Thanksgiving Day 1915, Simmons and fifteen other men climbed Stone Mountain in Georgia.  The son of a former Reconstruction era Klansman, he had had a vision.  Simmons felt he was called to re-create this uniquely American hate society guided by God.  The men on Stone Mountain constructed an altar, laid a bible on it alongside an American flag and a sword.  They burned a cross and swore an oath to the new Invisible Empire which Simmons proclaimed ‘had awakened from the slumber of a half century.’ 

     As their numbers grew, the new Klan set their sights north of the Ohio River.  They began sending out organizers to start cells in areas to ‘naturalize’ citizens by having them take an oath.   They swore allegiance to what soon became the largest secret society in the land.  The political field was rife with Klan backed candidates as they worked toward their ultimate goal:  “a Klan from sea to sea, north to south, anchored in the White House.”  Their influence on the 1924 national Democratic and Republican conventions was so pronounced that Time magazine featured Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans on the cover and dubbed the GOP gathering the ‘Kleveland Konvention’.  There was a plan for the KKK to gain enough power to inflict their brutal agenda on the entire nation.

     D.C. Stephenson arrived in Indiana at just the right time to take advantage of what he saw as an opportunity.  It would change his life, he hoped, for the better.  He had wandered around and tried his hand at a multitude of jobs, but ‘Steve’s’ stock and trade centered around selling himself.  He looked prosperous and sounded educated but was neither – his college credentials changed with each telling.  Stevenson read about the Klan parading into a church service on March 26, 1922 in Evansville, IN.  They presented the preacher with an envelope stuffed with cash (it was front page news so not exactly a secret).   The KKK wanted to normalize their view of ‘America is for Americans’ by buying the endorsement of the clergy.  Some dutifully obliged with sermons of support in exchange for the cash given ‘in the interest of the work you do here’.  Evansville was ready to accept the KKK and Stepheson saw the set up clearly.  Engage the church and they would bless the formation of new Klan chapters.  In that Evansville was already the most segregated city in the state, it only made it easier for the KKK to accomplish thier stated mission to clean out those they determined to be ‘undesirables’.

     Stephenson joined up in 1921 and his zeal for organizing soon put him above the man who brought him into the fold, Hiram Evans.  Organizing a cell came with a twenty-five dollar fee and a ten dollar per head surcharge.  There was also a charge for their uniform and Stephenson made sure he got a cut from every dollar collected for them and from the other dues.  That was quite a sum so one can imagine it wasn’t the poor who were signing up by the thousands.  D.C. leveraged his organizing skills into a money making machine and gained more political power as he enlisted well healed Hoosiers.  He declared himself to be above the law.

     Steve employed muscle men as his personal vigilante force to set things right and to punish those who did not conform to the Klan’s ideals.  Even though the number of cases of horse theft in Indiana had dwindled (so few cases per year they could be counted on one hand), Steve managed to reorganize the Horse Thief Detective Association into his own ‘deputized’ police force to do his bidding.  If you rankled D.C. Stephenson, it was only a matter of time before he sent his minions to harass and intimidate.  The local officials (who were most likely brothers under the hood) turned a blind eye.  One sure sign that a group had earned D.C.’s scorn was a cross burning in front of a church, home, school, or business – a warning meant to strike fear into the hearts of those who were not falling into step with ‘the Klan way’.

     Stephenson put on a good public show – touting family and church values while explaining the Klan was only ‘protecting the American way’.  Behind close doors of his mansion, however, he was anything but the pious, flag waving ‘hero’ he wanted everyone to believe in.  Even as his Klan preached the benefits of prohibition, he hosted lavish parties that featured any form of drink one could imagine.  With enough ingested to free even the most straight-laced soul, debauchery followed.  Steve employed a photographer to make sure he had incriminating evidence to hold over the heads of the powerful people he invited to his den of bacchanalia, just in case they became less Klan friendly.  D.C.’s motto very well should have been, “Live as I say, not as I do.”

     Stephenson’s bodyguard and valet, Court Asher, had a front row seat.  Court had his own ideas of how his boss was able to gain such a foothold for the Klan in Indiana.  According to Egan, “[Asher] marveled at his boss’s talent for mass manipulation.  Court said, ‘Billy Sunday was a great spellbinder.  Steve was a better one.’  He was particularly amazed at how many preachers he’d been able to fool, concluding that men of God were easy marks.  ‘Sometimes we’d leave a wild party, slip into the robes, and go to a church to pray with a bunch of new Klansmen,’ Court said.  ‘Stephenson would kneel down and pray as convincingly as any minister.’  Asher knew of the Old Man’s (Steve’s preferred title) true character.  He’d seen the violent rages, the battered and bloodied woman who fled hotel rooms in tears and torn clothes, the Grand Dragon passed out and smelling of bourbon and tobacco.  Steve could flip on a dime, from benevolent shepard of a vast crowd to an intoxicated monster.  ‘It was the (expletive deleted) thing I ever saw, how this guy could spread the bunk and make the hicks eat it up.’”

     Thus D.C Stephenson rose to the pinnacle – he was the beloved leader of a large hate group.  His aim was nothing more than to gain enough political power to rule the land with an iron fist in his own twisted image of a ‘pure America’.  Rearranging the Constitution of the United States to ‘Keep America for Americans’ was high on his agenda.  If all went according to his twisted plan, a run for the White House was coming closer every day.  In Part II of History, we will explain how our country escaped being ruled by the KKK.

Top Piece Video – I don’t know if there is a ‘good song’ about the KKK, but back in the late 1960s Roger McGuinn took a stab at it – this is a live version from a 1969 concert at the Fillmore.