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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
On Monday, still incredulous, I went out to the Willard Library on the other side of town and did some long-neglected homework among the bound newspapers on the political situation in Indiana.
There was a man named D. C. Stephenson who had come to Evansville from Texas two years before and entered the Democratic primary but, without explanation, had not campaigned and had lost the nomination to my father by an overwhelming majority. D. C. Stephenson was now, in 1924, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, which had a half million members, and he was ruling his Invisible Empire from a luxurious suite of offices in Indianapolis. “I am the law in Indiana,” he was saying. Although he was only thirty-three years old, he signed his letters “The Old Man.” In April, 1924, Governor Warren T. McCray had been sentenced to federal prison for using the mails to defraud, and Stephenson was supporting McCray’s secretary of state, Ed Jackson, as the Republican candidate to succeed him. Jackson had given the Ku Klux Klan its charter to organize in Indiana three years before, and Stephenson had become the organizer in 1922, dropping his campaign in the primary race that spring against my father. Rumor had it that Stephenson had made over two million dollars in eighteen months from the sale of Klan memberships and Klan regalia. A congressman’s salary in those years was only $7,500.
Stephenson was also supporting my father’s Republican opponent now. But whether men like Harry Rowbottom and Ed Jackson on the Klan slate were actual members of the Klan was a question that could not be answered, for in 1924 no one except Klan officials was publicly professing membership. After all, candidates for office did not have to make an issue of the Klan; the Klan’s support was enough. In the spring of 1924, Stephenson was quoted in the newspapers as saying, “God help the man who issues a declaration of war against the Klan in Indiana now.” This meant any man, like my father, who refused to go along with their intolerance.
The times were ripe for the Klan’s views in the midTwenties. Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism had been repudiated; provincialism was the order of the day. Corruption had been the order of the day during the Harding administration, and his successor was the apostle of mediocrity and laissez faire. America was in the doldrums of a vulgar prosperity from which any kind of “crusade” would be a relief. White Protestant Americanism was the “ideal” the Ku Klux Klan set up for the smug and self-righteous who shared in the nation’s prosperity and for the malcontents who had no share in it. If you were rich you could attribute your riches to your God-given right as a one-hundredper-cent American to be rich and to be suspicious of anyone not of your kind who wanted to share the wealth with you; if you were not rich, you could at least be proud that you were not a Catholic who worshipped in Latin, a Jew who had a foreign-sounding name, or a Negro whose skin was black. Complacency and boredom, combined with an unacknowledged sense of guilt, can demoralize a nation as much as division or dissension.
Although I had promised my parents to take some vacation before I looked for a summer job, I set out from the library at once to find one. I wanted to return to college in the fall, but I knew that my father, out of office, was going to have a hard time keeping me there. Within an hour I was signed up to work for the Crescent City Refining Company in one of their filling stations. I was to work weeknights from five o’clock to nine, with one night off, and twelve-hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays, and my pay would be fifteen dollars a week. That was not much toward a Harvard education, even in those days, but it was something. I went to work that evening.
I had been assigned to a station at the edge of the Negro district, and at quarter to five I appeared for work in oversized khaki coveralls that my father wore when he tinkered with the Hudson.
“I’m the new helper,” I said to the man who sat in a chair tilted against the one shaded wall in the sunbeaten waste of the station. “Schelhaus” is as close as I can come to remembering his name.
He looked me up and down slowly, chewing on a matchstick. A long, oily nose drooped over his thin mouth. His black eyes were set close together. Finally he dropped the front legs of the chair sharply to the concrete.
“College boy, ain’t you?”
“What’s your name?”
“Wilson? You the Congressman’s son?”
“I heard they hired a couple of boys today and you was one of “em.” He looked at the hand he had raised from a grease-stained knee. The hand was wrinkled, oily, and brown. He studied it uncertainly for a moment and then let it drop back upon the knee. “Well, you’re on time. That’s something. Name’s Schelhaus. You take your orders from me.”
“They told me downtown that you were the boss here, Mr. Schelhaus,” I said.
“You’re goddam right I am!”
At that moment another man came round a corner of the station, and Schelhaus said, “Here’s the new helper, Dave. We got the Congressman’s son.” He stood up then, went inside, and shut himself in the toilet.
Dave looked friendlier than Schelhaus. He was younger, thirty maybe, with a wide mouth and yellow hair and blue eyes. He kept taking off his cap and putting it back on, like a baseball player.
“Schelhaus is an s.o.b., kid,” he said. “You ’n’ me’ll stick together.”
“Apparently he doesn’t like my father’s politics,” I said. “Or maybe it’s because I’m a college student.”