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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
An hour before train time on that day in mid-September, I went over to the Pattersons’ house to say good-bye. It was a Sunday, and they were all at home. They shook my hand and wished me well.
“Write, now,” Link said; and I said I would.
Mrs. Patterson told me to be a good boy, and Mr. Patterson advised me not to do anything he wouldn’t do; and I promised.
But it was an awkward and stilted farewell, and we all knew it.
At the very last, as I was going down the porch steps, Mr. Patterson pushed Link aside and followed me out to the sidewalk. There he moved close and, holding up three fingers between his face and mine, said, “Tell your dad it’s not too late.” That was all he said. But I knew what he meant. Those three fingers were for the three K’s.
I did not tell my father. I knew he would not change, and I did not want him to.
My parents drove me up to Terre Haute to catch the Southwestern Limited, and I returned to Harvard and began my sophomore year. For the next six weeks my father sent me clippings from the Evansville courier almost daily so that I would be informed without his having to write long letters. I watched the rest of the campaign in print. But the print was not very illuminating. The newspaper gave little space to the Klan and was noncommittal editorially. But on the day before the election, the Courier did publish on its front page a prediction that Congressman Wilson, alone among Democrats, was sure to win, and by at least 10,000 votes. That clipping arrived in Cambridge the day after the election, and I already knew that my father had lost, by 3,500. I remembered what he had said in the car on Main Street in June: “They’re out to beat me, if they have to steal votes to do it.”
That morning after the election I talked with my family on the telephone. My mother and sister wept a little, but my father’s voice was strong and clear. He sounded almost cheerful. “Next time, son,” he said. “Next time.” He was overoptimistic. He was defeated again in 1926; and two years later, when the Klan was at last collapsing and the Indianapolis Times and its editor, Boyd Gurley, won a Pulitzer Prize for campaigning against the organization, he had to step aside for younger men in his party. But that morning in the fall of 1924, my father’s voice on the telephone gave me the confidence and courage I needed. I knew that as long as there were men like him in Indiana, the Ku Klux Klan too would pass.
Power eventually corrupted the efficiency of the Klan, and the leaders began to quarrel among themselves. D. C. Stephenson broke with the national leader, Hiram Wesley Evans, early in his bid for power, and in time was himself being “banished” by local Klaverns here and there in Indiana over various disputes. But he remained “the law” in our state until April 2, 1925, when he was arrested for sadistic sexual assault on a young Indianapolis woman named Madge Oberholtzer. Twelve days later Madge Oberholtzer died, and the charge was changed to murder. According to the young woman’s dying statement, Stephenson and two henchmen kidnapped her and took her to a town in northern Indiana. Stephenson, she said, had viciously assaulted her on the train en route; then he held her prisoner in a hotel. Finally, to console her, he sent her out with money to buy a new hat. She bought poison instead, and when Stephenson discovered she had taken it, he refused to call a doctor and drove her home to Indianapolis and dumped her on her doorstep. Stephenson always protested that he was “framed” by his enemies, but he was sentenced to life imprisonment for second-degree murder.
Governor Ed Jackson, too, ran afoul of the law eventually. Following his term in office, he was indicted for offering bribes but was saved by the statute of limitations. Harry Rowbottom, my father’s opponent in 1924, was re-elected in 1926 and 1928 and finally defeated in 1930. On January 27, 1931, while still a lame-duck congressman, he was arrested for accepting $750 from two men in Spencer County, Indiana, for the appointment of the son of one of them as a rural mail carrier. Rowbottom was sentenced to one year at Leavenworth penitentiary and fined $2,000.
So, within a few years the Klan did pass, and the men who were riding high in that long, hot summer of 1924 fell from their eminence and power. Since those ugly days, Indiana has proved herself time and again, at the polls, by her laws, and by the practices of her people, emancipated from those old hates and fears, and men like my father in both parties have, on most occasions, prevailed on the political scene.