- 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
There were continual petty annoyances, pranks mostly, not intended to do us any harm but designed to create an atmosphere of anxiety and dread. More than once, when Father was at a meeting or when I had a date, the air was let out of the Hudson’s tires or the battery was disconnected. Our window screens were soaped with the three K’s. In the middle of the night the telephone would ring and when we answered, no one would be there. One sneak enjoyed a particularly annoying practice of partially unscrewing the light bulbs in our garage, so that when we drove in at night we could not turn them on. It was like a perpetual Halloween in midsummer.
As July wore on into the dog days of August, the Klan came more into the open—as an organization, that is. The lay members and politicians did not unmask or make themselves known, but the Klan leaders became bolder. The Evansville Klavern bought full-page advertisements in the Evansville newspapers announcing a public meeting in the Coliseum. The advertisement said: “Joe M. Huffington of Evansville, nationally known Klan leader, will discuss the Klan from a local viewpoint.” I went down to the Coliseum that night when my work was finished and found the big municipal auditorium packed with people. A program, handed to me by a hooded usher, gave the title of Joe M. Huffington’s speech: “Here Yesterday, Here Today, Here Forever.” In the course of the speech, Huffington explained (inaccurate in his date): “The original Klan of 1861 was organized to deal with a bad system of local government. The present Klan was formed to preserve the best system of government in the world.” The multitude cheered.
Making the rounds of the county fairs had been one of the pleasures of the campaign of 1922, but not in the summer of 1924. The Klan took over with a Konklave at each of them. At New Harmony, in Posey County, they publicly initiated a class of three hundred new members on the fairgrounds and afterward paraded, several hundred strong, through the village that a century before had been the scene of Robert Owen’s experiment in social equality. At Boonville, in Warrick County, where Abe Lincoln used to come afoot from his father’s cabin on Little Pigeon Creek to hear the law trials, three thousand of them gathered in the anonymity of their robes for an all-day outing and a big parade and speeches about the need for OneHundred-Per-Cent Americans to take the law into their hands, while an airplane circled overhead dragging a twenty-foot cross. They even turned up at the fair in Dubois County, where the population was predominantly Catholic.
Klantauguas, or lectures on the principles of the Ku Klux Klan, were common at club meetings and semipublic gatherings. Processions of robed Klansmen marched into churches on Sunday mornings in the middle of services and laid sums of money on offertory rails, and some preachers were suborned and spoke in support of “the Klan ideal” thereafter. One who did not, in the northern part of the state, was taken across the Michigan line and branded. The Klan licensed bootleggers, and the Horse Thief Detective Association raided those who did not pay. Kiddy Klaverns were organized, Konsorts gathered in auxiliary clubs, and an abortive plan was launched to make Valparaiso University, upstate, into a Klan Kollege. The Klan’s Kourier solicited the membership of native-born, white, Protestant Hoosiers and offered Klectokons, the Klan regalia, for sale.
By mid-August they were parading in Evansville. I stood one steaming August noonday at the corner of Seventh and Main and watched them march past, men on horseback, men in cars, men on foot, women, children, all in robes, all hooded, some carrying naming crosses on long poles, silent except for the hum of motors and the clop of hooves and the soft shuffle of shoes on the half-molten asphalt. Afterward, the newspapers said there were more than five thousand of them. I wondered whether the Pattersons and my girl’s family were among them. I wondered how many of them were our neighbors on Chandler Avenue.
People still were loath to talk about the Klan. Suspicion sealed everyone’s lips. My father told me once he felt as if he were campaigning in a vacuum. He was not an orator and, for the most part, hammered away methodically at the issues. A member of the House Rivers and Harbors Committee, he advocated a badly needed program of flood control along the Ohio River. Although he did not drink, he was a “wet,” opposed to Prohibition. He was an oldfashioned low-tariff Democrat and a strong believer in the principle of the graduated income tax, still a fairly new venture in taxation. But it was almost impossible to make the Klan an issue in that year of its beginnings; with no focal point for attack in the shadows of the Invisible Empire save a few acknowledged leaders and organizers, he could speak only in generalities on the subject of tolerance and decency, asserting his contempt for the forces that worked in secret against him.
Sometimes, when he and I were alone, he would shake his head in dismay and say, “I would never have believed that a thing like this could happen to Indiana. Hoosiers have always been generous, friendly, and kind. A poison has got into their blood.” But when my mother and sister were around, he would not talk about politics. He still tried to joke and tease occasionally, but the attempts were feeble failures. I could tell from the troubled look in my mother’s eyes that she knew the reason. Even garrulous and uninhibited Mr. Patterson, Link’s father, continued to hold his tongue—until the very last day I was in Evansville.