- Historic Sites
Long, Hot Summer In Indiana
It was 1924 and the Klan was riding high. The author’s father, a congressman, wouldn’t join, and this Is how It felt to be an outcast In one’s own home town that
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
We drove down Chandler to Fourth and down Fourth toward Main. As we approached a large vacant lot we saw that a crowd was gathered under floodlights, and a fiddlers’ contest was in progress on a platform in the blue haze of a pit barbecue. My father said, “That’s probably where the Pattersons are tonight. The Agoga Bible Class is raising money to build a tabernacle on that lot. They outgrew the Strand Theatre and moved into the Victory Theatre, and now they’ve outgrown it. They gave the preacher an automobile last month.”
“But the Pattersons aren’t Baptists,” I said.
“Those aren’t all Baptists, by any means,” my father said, gesturing toward the crowd as we passed. “There aren’t that many Baptists in Vanderburgh County.”
“Aren’t you going to stop?” I asked, remembering the church socials we had attended during his campaign two years before, when I had eaten chicken and dumplings of every Christian denomination.
My father shook his head.
“I’m afraid it wouldn’t do any good. Harry Rowbottom has priority in that crowd.” Harry Rowbottom was my father’s Republican opponent. He had come to Evansville from Cincinnati eleven years before, had worked as a clerk in an oil company, and served three terms in the Indiana House of Representatives. He was not yet forty that summer, fourteen years younger than my father. I had never seen him, and I would not have a glimpse of him in his public life until 1928, when I was a newspaper reporter in Evansville. From that later period I remember him as a bombastic and platitudinous speaker, a vigorous man with large bovine eyes set wide apart in a heavy dark face.
“But Grandmother Cook is a Baptist,” I said.
“I said they aren’t all Baptists!” my father said, almost angrily.
He parked the car on Main Street and went into his office, leaving me alone to ponder his irritation about the Bible class barbecue. He was a man who seldom lost his temper. When he returned to the car, he did not start the motor but sat in silence for a minute or two watching the Saturday-night shoppers pass on the sidewalk. Finally, without preface, he said: “Son, I’m not going to be re-elected in the fall.”
“You’re joking,” I said.
He shook his head.
“A lot of people have turned against me,” he said, “a lot of good, honest, but misguided people like your friends the Pattersons. I decided I’d better tell you tonight, before you begin to hear it from others.”
“Why, Dad, you can’t help winning!” I said. “As many Republicans vote for you as Democrats. You’ve always said that yourself. And there are all those things you’ve done in your first term—the Ohio River bridge and the tax bill you wrote with Mr. Garner and—”
“It isn’t what I’ve done that counts,” he said. “It’s what I have refused to do.”
“What is that?”
“Join the Ku Klux Klan.”
In Cambridge I had read newspaper stories about the Ku Klux Klan that was being revived from the ashes of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s old Klan of Reconstruction days, but college students in those days read newspapers very superficially. I did not take the modern Klan seriously.
“But of course!” I said. “A man like you isn’t going to dress up in a sheet and make a fool of himself!”
Father shook his head again.
“It’s a very serious matter out here this year,” he said. “Senator Ralston warned me about it when he came back from a trip to Indiana last Christmas, and when I came out here in the spring for the primary, I was told to join the Klan, or else . I refused, of course, and now they’re out to beat me, if they have to steal votes to do it. Your mother and sister don’t know yet. I wish I could send them away during the campaign, but of course your mother wouldn’t leave me in an election year. This summer is going to be an ugly business, son. I wis’h there were some way I could spare all three of you.”
I felt his loneliness in that moment and was proud he had chosen to take me into his confidence. But I still thought he was mistaken. He was my father. He was invincible.
“Those people know your worth,” I said, nodding toward the crowds passing on the sidewalk, “and they will vote for you.”
“Too many of them have been bamboozled into a sense of self-righteousness by a bunch of demagogues,” he said. “We’ve gone a long way in this country, but apparently we still haven’t freed men and women of their suspicion of each other, their prejudices, their intolerance. I think that is going to be the big battle of this century. My little fight here in Indiana is just a preliminary skirmish and my practical political sense tells me Fm going to lose it. I’m not a crusader by nature, but, God help me, I’m not going to budge one inch from where I stand!”
My father was a man who gesticulated extravagantly when he talked. At table he was forever upsetting his coffee cup or knocking knives and forks to the floor, much to my mother’s dismay. As he finished this little impassioned speech, he clenched his fist and drove it into the windshield before him, breaking a V in the glass and cutting his hand. Afterward he looked ruefully at what he had done to the car and to himself and said: “Now, what are we going to tell your mother? They ought to put better glass in these windshields. They ought to invent a glass that won’t break.” I wanted to laugh at him, and at the same time I wanted to cry.