August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
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
When I think of the nineteen twenties, I think of the heat of summers in southern Indiana where I spent my vacations from Harvard. They were mostly happy summers, but there was one that was not—the summer of 1924, which came at the end of my freshman year. It glows luridly in my memory, an ordeal by fire through which I had to pass in the process of growing up.
We drove home to Evansville that year from Washington, B.C., in mid-June, my father and mother and sister and I, in the family Hudson. I had taken the Federal Express down from Boston as soon as my exams were over, and the next day we left the capital, where my father had just finished his first term as a congressman from Indiana. I was pleased with myself, secretly but no doubt obviously, for surviving the year at Harvard fresh and green out of a midwestern high school, and I was proud of my father for his record as a freshman in Congress.
We sweltered all the way home, across Maryland and Pennsylvania and Ohio and on into Indiana, the sun burning bright little braziers of blinding fire all around us on the nickel trimmings of the Hudson as we raced across the countryside at my father’s touring speed of thirty-eight miles an hour. “Is it hot enough for you?” the filling-station men invariably said when we pulled up for gas; and in the tourist homes where we stopped, we kept the electric fans going all night. But I did not mind the heat. A Hoosier boy, I had been miserably cold in New England all winter, and homesick too. When we crossed the state line east of Richmond, I remember, we all sang “Back Home Again in Indiana,” unashamedly sentimental.
On our arrival in Evansville, there was the old house on Chandler Avenue to explore and readjust to, and there were all my stored possessions to sort over and reappraise: adolescent love letters hidden in the secret compartment of my roll-top desk, minutes of the club I had belonged to in high school, yearbooks, dance programs, my rock collection, and even a bag of marbles from grade-school days, with an agate mooned by many battles. I thought I had outgrown them all but discovered I could not throw anything away. Eighteen is an age that looks both ways. There were also those first home-cooked meals after a year of institutional fare, and there was the impatient waiting, all that long first day, to see an old high-school friend whom I shall call Link Patterson. Link had not gone to college and had a job, like any grown man; he would not be at home till suppertime.
After supper I walked over to Link’s house. The moist, hot air was fragrant with the smell of the Ohio River and new-cut grass, and catbirds mewed in the bushes under front porches, where people sat in swings and rockers and said “Good evening” as I passed. But I was thinking of Link Patterson. Four years before, Link and I had bought our first long pants on the same day. We had double-dated in his father’s car and in my father’s as soon as we were old enough to drive. We had survived Miss Long in Latin together, and Mr. Baldwin in trig. We had tried out for the senior play and failed, and tried out for basketball and made the squad, though never the team. We had even had one glorious, bloody fight and afterward, for six weeks, walked to high school and back together without speaking to each other. We were the best of friends.
But the Link Patterson who met me on his front porch that night was not the Link Patterson I remembered. He looked the same and he greeted me in the old way, by cracking me hard on the biceps with his fist as I came up the porch steps. But he was not the old Link Patterson. Nor were his parents the same. I had loved his mother almost as much as I loved my own, and his father—garrulous, bawdy, and uninhibited—had always given me a man-to-man feeling that I had never shared with my own more dignified father. But that night Mrs. Patterson was restrained and formal and seemed only half-glad to see me, and Mr. Patterson said almost nothing at all. I remember especially how they watched me, as if they were waiting to accuse me of something that they knew about but I did not.
The four of us sat on Link’s porch for a while exchanging banalities. It was hot; we all agreed on that. In Boston, I told them, the winters were very cold. Yes, Harvard played basketball, but it wasn’t Indiana basketball, and I bet our old team at Central could beat the Harvard varsity without half trying. Did I know they were building a new high school out on Washington Avenue? And what did I think of Tunney’s chances against Carpentier? But we never got down to fundamentals, like girls or whether Billy Little’s new band was as good as Hoagy Carmichael’s up at Indiana University, and at the end of a half hour, Link said, “I’m sorry, Bill, but Mom and Dad and I have to be somewhere at eight o’clock,” and I left and walked home, disappointed and puzzled.
My sister said I had outgrown Link Patterson, and that made me angry because it implied that I had become a snob or something. But my mother said it was sometimes hard to renew an old acquaintance, and she was sure Link and I would be back on the old basis soon. My father said nothing. He sat in the porch swing drumming his fingers on the arm of it in the way that made my mother nervous, until my mother finally said, “Will, I wish you wouldn’t do that,” and he got up and said he had to go down to the office, and wouldn’t I like to come along?
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.
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.”
Dave took off his cap and put it back on.
“Are you a crossback, kid?”
“A what?” I said.
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“I heard your old man was one.”
“Well, he isn’t,” I said. “But what difference would it make if he was?”
“We don’t want no crossbacks or kikes around here,” Dave said. “Politics is different. Nobody’s a Democrat or Republican any more. Hell, I used to be a Democrat myself! And you being a college boy is O.K.—with me anyhow. I wouldn’t’ve minded going to college myself.” He repeated the ritual of the cap and, afterward, clucked his tongue. “All them flappers! You tell ‘em, saxophone!”
I knew by then what I was up against, but I was resolved to make the best of it. As the evening wore on, however, nothing more was said about my father, and I began to think my biggest problem would be to remain neutral in the tension between Dave and Schelhaus. There was not much to admire in Dave, but there was even less in Schelhaus. He was not only disagreeable; he was lazy. He often went to the toilet when there were cars in the drive, and after Dave and I had done all the work, he was critical. “Can’t you clean a windshield better than that?” he would say to me; or, to Dave: “The nozzle nearly fell out of that tank while you were filling it. You better watch yourself, or I’ll have to report you.”
The first Negro came into the station about an hour after I started working. He was driving a Ford truck, with “Hauling” painted crudely on the panels. I wiped the windshield and filled the radiator while Dave stood at the back cranking out the gasoline. It was not until the truck drove off that I saw the dark, rainbowstreaked puddle of gasoline on the concrete. Dave must have spilled at least a gallon. I was sure that before long Schelhaus would lash out at him for his carelessness, and there was an awkward silence among us when I sat down between him and Dave and tilted my chair against the wall.
“What the hell did you mean, doing that?” Schelhaus said, finally.
I glanced covertly at Dave, who remained silent, his gaze fixed on the cars passing in the street.
“You a Bolshevik or something?” Schelhaus said.
Still Dave did not speak, and then I saw that Schelhaus was addressing me.
“You mean me?”
“Who the hell else would I mean? What did you think you were doing back there?”
I turned in appeal to Dave. But Dave continued to stare straight ahead.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“Oh, yes, you do!” Schelhaus said. “You know damn well what I mean. Giving that nigger radiator service and wiping off his windshield.”
“But you said—”
“I never said you was to give free service to a goddam black nigger!” Schelhaus shouted, sweat popping out on his oily forehead. “There ain’t no job in this country can make a white man wait on a nigger! This is still a free country, and you’d better learn that pretty quick—you and your old man both!”
At the unexpected inclusion of my father in the tirade, I lost my temper.
“If it’s a free country, then the Negro should get the same service as everybody else,” I said.
“The Nee gro!” Schelhaus mocked, almost screaming. “Listen to him, will you? The Nee gro!”
Before I could speak again, he got up and went into the toilet and slammed the door behind him.
I was trembling, and when Dave reached over and laid a hand on my shoulder, I jerked away.
“I don’t have to listen to that kind of talk,” I said, “and if he says anything about my father again, I’ll punch his nose!”
“O.K., O.K.,” Dave said, trying to quiet me. “Schelhaus is an s.o.b., and I don’t blame you. But you got to think of the principle of the thing too, kid. If you give a nigger an inch, he’ll walk all over you. Schelhaus is right about that. It’s a matter of self-respect, kid. A guy has to keep his self-respect or he ain’t worth a damn. It’s just a matter of self-respect. See?”
No more Negroes came in until the end of the evening. Then a big Marmon rolled up with a prosperous-looking black man at the wheel. Dave and Schelhaus were inside totalling the day’s receipts, and I was out beside the pumps hosing down the concrete. I filled the tank with gas, and although Dave and Schelhaus could see me, I wiped off the windshield and checked the radiator. The gasoline came to exactly two dollars, but the Negro handed me two one-dollar bills and a quarter. They had told me at the downtown office that anyone caught accepting a tip would be fired, and I handed back the quarter.
“O.K., Mr. Crescent City Refining Company,” the Negro said. “You don’t want my two bits, that’s O.K. with me.”
He revved the motor and the big car lurched out of the drive.
When I went into the station, neither Dave nor Schelhaus looked at me. After a long, tense silence, Schelhaus turned.
“Listen, Mr. College Boy Bolshevik!” he said. “If you think you can come in here and start turning down tips, you’ve got another think coming! Maybe you don’t need the money, your old man being congressman and all, but Dave and I do. We work for our living. And anyhow your old man ain’t going to be there much longer, so you’d better—”
He ended speechless and went into the toilet.
“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.
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.
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.