1st in a 5-part series

One of my earliest, and most indelible, childhood memories is that of standing with my parents on the corner of Jefferson and Seventh Streets, watching robed and hooded figures in white emerge from a large brick house, each carrying a torch. I see them form into a line on Jefferson and march silently southward.

Transfixed by the exotic effect, I was much too young to know what was happening and only much later learned that it was the start of a Ku Klux Klan parade by masked members who did not wish to be identified.

The Klan in Fulton County? I often wondered what was that all about. Over the years I occasionally asked persons who were there to tell me about those days, but always met a stone wall of silence. Nobody was willing to speak of it.

Their reticence was understandable, for the corrosive influence of the Ku Klux Klan on Indiana's social, political and governmental structure in the 1920s is a dark chapter in the state's history. Indeed, one of its legacies is the unfair perception by many outsiders that reactionary elements still dominate our state.

Those who were adults during Klan times all are gone but the record of those days still exists. From it emerges a story that in turns can be astonishing, shocking, courageous and even amusing. It shall be the subject of this and the next four columns.

But first, the national aberration known as the Ku Klux Klan should be examined if one is to understand the events that took place in Fulton County.

The Klan of the 1920s was the second of three separate incarnations this secretive, racist organization has undergone in America. The first occurred in Tennessee and existed from 1866-72. It was violent, striking at blacks and carpetbaggers in the South after the Civil War. The third arose in the 1960s as a reaction to the black movement toward civil rights. It continues today, peopled mainly by the radical fringe, vigorously opposed by the mainstream of citizens, yet ominously continues to attract followers.

Neither of these incarnations, however, matched the second rising of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the growth, political power and acceptance it received for awhile, particularly in Indiana.

This revival of the Klan (whose name is from the Greek kuklos, circle) began at Atlanta in 1915 when a former Methodist minister, William Simmons, formed a group of white supremacists. Before long it had broadened its appeal to those harboring a wider bigotry and prejudice.

This Klan stood for patriotism and Protestantism but also preached a hatred directed mainly at other whites: Catholics, Jews, the foreign-born, radicals or any other deviants. There was not much terrorizing of blacks, for they then voted with the Republican party to which the Klan was closely linked. Only later did blacks defect to the Democrats, their flight induced partly by the Klan's excesses.

The Atlanta-born KKK spread rapidly from Georgia, peaking at five million members. It was particularly strong in Midwestern states and Indiana became its showcase; there was a chapter in almost every Hoosier county.

The Indiana Klan fought its enemies mainly with intimidation and secrecry rather than deeds. Masked and robed Klansmen silently marched down Main streets, burned crosses as signs of displeasure or warning, organized boycotts of Catholic and Jewish businessmen, spread rumors and issued threats. They often ostentatiously interrupted Protestant church services to leave large cash offerings.

There was not much actual Klan violence nor any lynchings. Nevertheless, the Klan's arrogant and persistence presence in public life developed in many Hoosiers an uneasiness they never would forget.

By 1923 there were in Indiana 250,000 men in the Klan, representing 30 percent of all native-born white men in the state. Several influences brought about this surprising number: a strong nativist sentiment that resented anyone foreign-born; a belief that leaders of the Catholic church in Rome coveted control of the federal government, and the compulsion of Hoosiers in that day to join any new organization. The Klan fed on all these conditions.

By the summer of 1923 the Indiana Klan had become so ambitious that it tried to open its own university. Today's Valparaiso University was a tiny and financially troubled college at that time. The Klan concluded a deal to buy it and offer a "100 percent American" curriculum, but at the last moment the national headquarters in Atlanta refused to provide the money.

And then in November of 1924 the Klan reached the peak of its Indiana power when its hand-picked candidate for governor was elected, along with many Klan-backed Legislative candidates.

The Klan leader behind the college plan and the infiltration of Indiana

politics was David Curtis Stephenson. His story is next.

Published Nov. 16, 1999