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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
“Look, kid,” Dave said then, coldly, “when somebody offers you a tip, you take it. See? Even if it’s a nigger, you take it. See?”
The job was like that the rest of the summer. I suppose Schelhaus tried to get me fired, but maybe there was a friend of my father’s in the downtown office. Anyhow, I stayed. Dave and Schelhaus gave me a bad time, but I got used to it. At least I knew how they stood.
That was not so elsewhere. Although neither Schelhaus nor Dave ever came right out and admitted being a Klansman, both revealed their prejudices more openly than most people did. On the subject of the Ku Klux Klan a strange silence prevailed everywhere that summer, and you could not be sure whether your friends were members of the Invisible Empire or not. Those who were not members were afraid to talk, I suppose; and those who were members were instructed to make a mystery of the organization.
In the main, the politicians too were silent. Those who had the endorsement of the Klan accepted it without comment. Coolidge himself, for example, never repudiated the Klan, never so much as publicly acknowledged its existence. Those who were opposed by the Klan were never sure exactly where, what, or whom to attack because of the general anonymity of their enemies. John W. Davis, when the Democrats finally nominated him for President after 103 ballots that summer, issued a denunciation of the Klan, and the Democratic candidate for governor of Indiana, Dr. Carleton B. McCulloch, said: “The Republican Party has been captured by the Ku Klux Klan and has, as a political party, for the present ceased to exist in Indiana.” But such denunciations and remarks were ignored by the Republicans, and the opponents of the Klan, among them my father, found themselves boxing with shadows. As for the people who would do the voting in November, they simply weren’t talking.
My summer wasn’t all misery. Link Patterson and I restored a kind of basis for our old friendship; we played tennis, took steamboat excursions, and sometimes, after my work hours, had double dates. But more often than not the Pattersons were off somewhere at a “meeting.” They never said what the meeting was or where, and although Mr. Patterson was a Democrat and had supported my father ardently in 1922, he never mentioned the race for Congress that year. It was a strange contrast to the previous campaign of two years before, when Link and I had travelled about the congressional district with my father and eaten chicken and barbecue and applauded all the speeches. Now, whenever I suggested going to a rally, Link always had something else to do.
I found a new girl that summer and for a while we thought we were in love, but I never learned where she or her family stood on the issue of the Klan. She would not talk about it. Almost every time I took her out, my car was trailed by the Horse Thief Detective Association, which was the police force of the Klan. It was always the same car that did the trailing, and I finally got used to it. It would pick me up about a block from our house, follow me to my girl’s house, and wait while I went in to get her, and then follow us to the movies or wherever we were going. When we came out, it was there waiting and would follow us home. One night, when I eluded its shadow and parked on a country road with her, a farmer pulled up beside us and said, “If you kids know what is good for you, you’ll move along. The Kluxers are patrolling this road tonight, and God knows what they’ll do to you if they catch you here.”
I knew. At least I had read and heard stories of what the Horse Thief Detective Association was doing to others. They entered homes without search warrants and flogged errant husbands and wives. They tarred and feathered drunks. They raided stills and burned barns. They caught couples in parked cars and tried to blackmail the girls, or worse. On occasion, they branded the three K’s on the bodies of people who were particularly offensive to them. And over in Illinois there had even been a couple of murders. I took my girl home.
No violence befell me or anyone in my family that summer. Not even a fiery cross was burned in our yard, although I saw crosses burning on hillsides near the places where my father spoke. But there was always the threat of violence around us in the hot and humid air of those breathless months. By chance I answered a number of the anonymous telephone calls we got at our house. “Hi, nigger-lover,” the calls often began, and thereafter were so obscene they were unprintable. I am sure that my father got plenty of them, at his office and at home. Contrary to his former custom of sitting unmoved beside a ringing telephone and letting someone else in the family answer it, he always leaped toward it ahead of the rest of us that summer. Often he hung up without a word and returned to his chair. “Wrong number,” he would say, if we asked him who it was. I suppose my mother answered some of those calls too, and my sister. But we never mentioned them in the family.
There were also anonymous letters in my father’s mail—threats, innuendoes, scurrilous abuse, obscenities. He never spoke of them, but years later, after he died, I found a collection of them shoved into the back of his safe-deposit box at the bank. I don’t know why he kept them. Maybe he forgot they were there. A couple were informing letters which, if he had chosen to use them, might have ruined some of his political enemies.