Transcript for Giving Voice: Dr. James Madison
Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.
On this installment of Giving Voice, I talk with Dr. James Madison, whose new book, Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland explores what the Klan of the 1920s in Indiana looked like, how they amassed and wielded their power, and how their legacy continues to be seen in the state today. If you haven’t listened to our latest episode, which covers the story of how the University of Notre Dame harnessed the popularity of their football program to combat a smear campaign carried out by the Klan, I encourage you to do so as it elaborates on some of the aspects we touch on in this conversation.
And now, Giving Voice.
I’m here today with Dr. James Madison, Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University and the author of the new book, Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland. Thank you, Dr. Madison for being here with me today it’s a real pleasure speaking with you.
Madison: Well, thank you Lindsey. I’m always happy to talk history and I’m especially happy to be on this Indiana Historical Bureau program. So, thank you.
Beckley: So, I thought we’d start out with a simple question that might not have a simple answer. Who joined the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in the 1920s? And why did they join?
Madison: That’s a very important question, Lindsey, and we are now able to answer that question. Thirty or 40 years ago, we couldn’t, but there’s been a lot of good scholarship on that and there’s more coming out in the future. White, native born Protestants is the answer to your question.
And that’s very important because the myth that prevails – the wrong headed assumption – that has been hailed for nearly 100 years was that members of the Klan in Indiana in the 1920s were, as the great journalist Elmer Davis called them, the “great unteachable’s.” That they were sort of a lower order, even ne’er do wells. We now know that’s not true. They were good Hoosiers. They were good citizens. Respectable people, for the most part. But they were all in their self-definition, 100% American – that is white, native born, Protestants.
Beckley: And why did they join this fraternal organization? What did they see in it that enticed them to join?
Madison: Here too there is a myth. That the Hoosiers that joined the Klan were manipulated by snake oil salesman like DC Stevenson, the grand dragon. That they were not very sophisticated and that they did not understand what the Klan was about. I think that’s simply not true. The evidence is overwhelming that most of the people who joined the Klan truly believed in the values, the goals of the Ku Klux Klan. That is, to redeem America, to return America to its greatness – return America to a place where the enemies were held in secondary status so that good, 100% Americans could really, really run the nation.
Lindsey: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Because I do think that a lot of people still have those ideas and their head that people were duped into joining the Klan or that it was a bunch of ne’er do wells, as you say, that joined. Whereas it was ordinary citizens going in with eyes wide open.
What conditions here in the state preceded the Klan’s arrival that kind of paved the way for them to gain such massive power in such a short amount of time?
Madison Well, there are deep traditions in Indiana history and in American history that were essential to the success of the Ku Klux Klan. And those include fear and hatred of immigrants an outsiders. Fear and hatred among Protestants of Catholics. Among Christians of Jews. All sorts of prejudices and divisions including prejudices against African Americans in particular. All of these ways of dividing Hoosiers and Americans into us and them had persisted in Indiana from the very beginning. So that’s one essential part of the Klan story in the 1920s.
More immediately, there’s World War One. And World War One was a horrible war in so many ways, including its domestic consequences because it exacerbated – it let forth all sorts of prejudices against them, against people who were others. And that persisted into the 1920s.
And then I’d say also that the decade of the 1920s was an unusual time where Indiana had a particularly mediocre political leadership. There were no men – and we’re talking almost entirely about men here in the 1920s – there were no men in political positions of leadership who had what we might call character or even charisma. They were mediocre. And they were mostly, in fact almost entirely, interested in getting reelected. So, policy issues, questions of central importance to our government and our state were not on their agenda. And when the Klan came along so very, very many of them, especially in the Republican Party, saw the Klan as a vehicle to increase their political power. To get reelected. To be more important in running national politics. So, all of those conditions created an atmosphere that was very, very ripe for the Klan to rise to power in Indiana in the early 1920s.
Beckley: So, that last point that you brought up about politics being more about being reelected than actually getting any agenda achieved, kind of flows well into my next question. Which is, it’s interesting to me that the Klan worked like a well-oiled machine to get sympathetic representatives elected to the General Assembly but then once they were actually there, they didn’t seem to get much actual policy or Klan-proposed policy achieved. Maybe one or two things, but it wasn’t quite the powerhouse that I think that they were intending. What do you think stopped them from achieving more in their short time in power?
Madison: That’s a very good point, and a very important part of this story because – let me speak just quickly to the first part, and that is that the Klan was often assumed to be a bunch of bumblers and not really knowing quite what they were doing. But that’s not true. The Klan was a very sophisticated organization. Hierarchal. Able to recruit large numbers of members. Able to bring in millions of dollars to its treasury. So, it’s a very sophisticated, powerful, well run organization by early 1924. So powerful that the Klan candidates sweep into office in the fall elections in 1924.
The General Assembly that sits in early 1925 is composed mostly of Klan members or supporters of the Klan. The governor of Indiana, Ed Jackson, far and away the worst governor in our history, was very very sympathetic to the Klan. So, a very powerful organization. And yet, as you say, Lindsey, in the General Assembly they proved to be a bunch of ineffectual’s, in particular because they started to fight among themselves. One of the blessings of this kind of movement often is that they are so selfish and power hungry that factions develop. That they split apart in their quest for power. And that’s exactly what happened in the late fall and early spring of 1925, particularly in the statehouse, because there are all sorts of factions and they just sort of fight each other. They were more interested in winning power than they were and passing Klan reform programs.
Beckley: It’s just so interesting how they worked so hard and just kind of slid into power there and then kind of fell apart at the most critical junction. Lucky for Indiana, of course.
Madison: Very, very lucky. Because the Klan program – the Klan legislative program – was serious and had they passed it then come back again in the following General Assembly, who knows what they would have put into the force of law and policy. It’s a dreadful, dreadful thing to contemplate.
Beckley: One quote from your book really jumped out at me and it is that, “Klan women and men saw themselves not as bigoted extremists but as good Christians and good Patriots joining proudly in a moral crusade.” Today, we see those same people as members of a terrorist organization. How did most Americans who weren’t part of the Klan but also weren’t part of the organized resistance, how did they view the Klan from the outside looking in?
Madison: That’s a hard question to answer because it’s very hard to find the primary sources that give voice to that. I think that it’s quite likely that many, many Hoosiers did not oppose the Klan and did not join the Klan. Perhaps a majority of Hoosiers were in that category. And within that category of not opposing and not joining or supporting, there are all ranges of possibilities, some were very, very unhappy about the Klan but unwilling to step up. And I think that’s a large number of Hoosiers. They were unwilling to stand up against the Klan. There were very few profiles in courage in this group. They were fearful because the Klan had such immense power. The Klan had the power to intimidate, to threaten, to make your life difficult if they chose to. But also, I think even those who did not join the Klan tended to think that, “well they’re sort of right. There’s really nothing wrong with this organization. We’re not going to pay our dues and march in a parade, but they are OK. They are normal.” And that’s a very important part of the Klan story in the 1920s. The Klan worked hard to be respected to be a normal part of America. And in the eyes of their members and supporters, they were exactly that. They were not on the margins. They were not a bunch of fools. They were normal, good, respectable Americans. And that’s a very hard thing for us to understand today because all sorts of myths and stories get in the way of that. But that is essential to understanding the Klan in Indiana in the 20s. Normal, respectable, Hoosiers.
Beckley: I think that a lot of people, when they’re thinking about the Klan, their ideas about the organization are kind of clouded by the Klan of the Reconstruction Era and then of the 1960s when it is much more violent and, in the case of the 60s, fragmented and kind of – it is those bumbling people, or at least it was closer to that. So, I think that we are thinking about it and we aren’t – a lot of folks aren’t separating out the three distinct versions of the Klan and the 1920s. It’s so hard to wrap your head around just because they were so respectable. And reading the first part of your book, it almost sounded like frivolous. The people were going to parades and having picnics and even cross burnings were a celebration. It wasn’t necessarily seen by them as a source of terror whereas it would have been seen by their victims as a source of terror, but something as iconic as a cross burning can be seen by members of the Klan as a festival almost. It’s just very hard to comprehend, I think.
Madison: Well, yes. And that’s the way in which the Klan was normal. Because, well the Klan had a very very straightforward purpose: to make America for 100% Americans. And to keep the enemies in their place. But at the same time, these were people who wanted to have a good time, who wanted to be with other like-minded people. It was a very social organization. They had picnics and all kinds of events. They got together in their weekly or semi-weekly Klavern meetings. There were Klavern’s in all 92 counties. They got together, they had a social program, they sang hymns, they had good conversation, they always had food – you know Hoosiers always have food at social events like that especially in the 1920s – so they had good food, good picnics, good times. They had fun and many of them joined in part because of that. But that wasn’t the only reason, or the major reason, that they joined. The idea of good Hoosiers enjoying life as members of the Ku Klux Klan is another one that is hard for us to understand. Because what gets in the way, as you said, was the Klan of the post-Civil War era which was a terrorist organization and the Klan of the 1960s, or that began in the 1960s and continued for decades afterwards, which was a horrible organization of white supremacists and getting towards acts of violence. But the Indiana Klan is not that way. Again, respectable and normal. They were not interested in violence. They were much more interested in having a parade, or a cross burning. Certainly those things intimidate people. It tells them that this is a very powerful organization. You see hundreds of robed people walking down Main Street and around the courthouse square in Indiana – that sends a message. You see a cross burning or several cross burnings on a hill outside of town or at the State Fairgrounds – that sends a message. And the Klan was very sophisticated and sending these kinds of messages. “We are powerful. Don’t cross us. Support us we are the good people and you better stay in your place if you are not one of us and not cause trouble.” So again, a sophisticated organization. A normal organization in Indiana in the 1920s. Not later on in the late 20th century not in the South after the Civil War. But in the 20s in Indiana? Absolutely.
Beckley: So, to close out the discussion today, I have another quote from your book. “The Klan was history. The legacy remains.” That’s a powerful quote and I was hoping that you could talk a little bit more about those legacies that you see remaining from the Klan.
Madison: Well, that’s another one of the many complexities of the Klan, because in some ways, I’ve argued, the Klan by 1930 was dead in Indiana. The Klan that we know in the 20s no longer existed. What happened was, as the Civil Rights movement began to grow in Indiana and in America in the late 50s and especially in the early 60s, it produced a space. It produced opposition. It produced blow back from some white Hoosiers and white Americans who said woah, woah, woah this Civil Rights movement has gone too far. These African Americans have gotten out of their place. They’re asking too much. And George Wallace came to Indiana in 1924 – the segregationist governor from Indiana* – and campaigned on that platform and got about 1/3 of the white vote. Horrible example of the responses to the idea that the Civil Rights went too far, as some whites in America an Indiana would claim. And that cleared a space for a revival, a renewal, of the Ku Klux Klan. Small groups mostly scattered across the state with some self-proclaimed Grand Dragons got a lot of publicity in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. They held rallies and parades in many places including Indianapolis in Kokomo and Madison, Indiana. Always at these rallies in the late 20th century, there were more opponents than supporters of the Klan. Far, far more people came out to protest. So that Klan that revived in the late 20th century really is a bunch of unteachable ne’er do wells. Really white supremacists par excellence. That was their reason for being. White supremacy. That Klan today has very little influence, very little presence. It can still intimidate us. A robe and mask of a burning cross can still cause us to fear. And African American families have stories handed down over the generations with that kind of terror, that kind of fear. But the real problem today I think is not in men and women who Don robes and hoods.
The issue today is respectable Americans, men and women and dark suits and silk blouses who say things that are on the outside may not look so horrible, but if you think a little bit, if you understand America and if you understand our past and our present, what they’re doing is using dog whistles. Coded language to say things that today are very similar to what the Klan said, much more explicitly, in the 1920s. The bigotry, prejudice, the notion that there are 100 percent Americans – that it’s US versus them – is still a notion that flourishes today in America and especially in the last four years. So, in the last four years we’ve seen an intensification of this kind of prejudice, this kind of bigotry, this kind of homophobia and xenophobia all of the things that contradict American ideals. It’s come from the White House, it is come from leaders in our political parties, especially one party in particular. And it has been the most significant attack to fundamental American values in my lifetime.
So, I think that we have in America a challenge of education. A challenge that requires that we understand our history from the very beginning to the present. Not a patriotic history. Not bedtime stories for children. Not myths. But the real history that we can now find and read not only in books but in museum exhibits and programs like this that are so very important to the future of our democracy, to our role as thinking, knowledgeable citizens.
Beckley: Yeah, we hope to always inform our listeners about their own past and how they can kind of utilized that to inform their present, so I appreciate you coming on and having this discussion today. This is such an important part of Indiana history that often gets overlooked or misunderstood. So, I’m I’m happy that we could clear some things up today.
Madison: Thank you Lindsey.
Beckley: A huge thank you, once again, to Dr. Madison. He’s one of the best Indiana historians out there and it was an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with him about such an important and prescient topic. If you’re interested in this period of Indiana history, I can’t recommend Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland highly enough – I know he did a lot of archival research in the past few years while working on it and it really shows.
This is the last episode of the year and we’ll be taking a little break over the holidays, but Talking Hoosier History will be back in February with more stories of the people, places, and events that shaped the Hoosier state. In the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana history tidbits. Subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening.
*George Wallace, the segregationist Senator, came to Indiana in 1964, rather than 1924, when he was running in the Democratic primaries. He was a Senator from Alabama, rather than Indiana.
Show Notes for Giving Voice: James Madison
Learn more about the Klan in Indiana:
Talking Hoosier History, The KKK, Political Corruption, and the Indianapolis Times, https://blog.history.in.gov/the-kkk-and-the-indianapolis-times/
Leonard J. Moore, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana 1921-1928, University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part One: Opposition to the Klan at Notre Dame,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-one-notre-dame-opposition-to-the-klan/
Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Two: Notre Dame’s 1924 Football Team Battles Klan Propaganda,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-two/
Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Three: The Notre Dame Publicity Campaign that Crushed the Klan,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-three-the-notre-dame-publicity-campaign-that-crushed-the-klan/
James Madison, “The Klan’s Enemies Step Up, Slowly,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 116, No. 2 (June 2020), p. 93-120, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/indimagahist.116.2.01?seq=1