The Ku Klux Klan, in some ways, was like other 1920s advocacy groups like American Legion, the Anti-Saloon League, and the League of Women’s Voters. But, as historian James Madison, put it, it differed in “its essentially negative and wicked influence on Indiana politics, government and society.” Indiana cultivated one of the largest Klan memberships, in part by being flexible with its message and marketing by “selling them the thing they want.” The Klan in Indiana was, however, consistent in its messages of: a) American and Hoosier exceptionalism, a flag waving, Fourth of July kind of appeal; and b) Protestant Christianity. Patriotism and Protestantism was an easy sell in Indiana, particularly in the wake of the social upheaval of recent years.
But, this message was pretty easily used in an “us” versus “them” kind of way. And the Klan always likes to punch down against less privileged members of society, in 1920s Indiana, the group tended to promote a negative vision of Patriotism and Protestantism, “defending” them against Roman Catholics, the foreign born, Jews, blacks, and the old White Cap enemies: the immoral such as adulterers, gamblers, and drinkers. The Catholics, in particular, seemed to cause anxiety in the sorts of folks who joined the Klan in 1920s Indiana.
The Klan promoted its message in its newspaper, The Fiery Cross, but also used intimidation tactics such as cross burnings, marches, vandalism, and boycotts. Fortunately, there don’t seem to have been lynchings associated with the group during that period of time. Opponents were too few and generally ineffective.
The Klan opened an Indiana chapter in 1920 in Evansville. The Klan was able to recruit 5,400 men from Vanderburgh County. One of its most successful recruiters — and eventual Grand Dragon — was D.C. Stephenson. The entry fee was $10 and recruiters got to keep $4 of that. Stephenson made a fortune. In Indiana, the membership grew to about 250,000 which represented about one-third of the white men in the state. In the 1922 election, Klan influence was beginning to be felt. One analyst concluded that its brand of anti-Catholic bigotry was felt most in the central and southern part of the state.
In 1923, a Fourth of July Celebration was held in Kokomo with 100,000 Klansmen and their families attending. The rally is considered the largest in the nation’s history. Doug Linder describes some of the event as follows:
That night, Stephenson, in his newly-won golden orange robe and hood, enjoyed the conclusion of the “Konklave in Kokoma.” A Klan parade, with robed high Klan officials on horseback and a dozen floats wound its way through town. “Onward Christian Soldiers” blared from a forty-piece marching band. When the parade was over, the crowd moved to Foster Park and sung hymns such as “The Old Rugged Cross” around a sixty-foot high fiery cross. Fireworks streaked through the nighttime sky. Stephenson soaked it all in. He was, he thought, soon destined to be the most powerful man in Indiana.
Now, it wouldn’t be long before Stephenson fell hard and took the Klan with him (more on that later). But, on that night, he and the Klan were on top. What brought them there was a change-weary, aggrieved native-born, white male, protestant population. It was a minority of that demographic, but a substantial one coupled with a majority that did not push back hard enough against them. The public statements were often framed in a way that allowed them to plausibly deny the hateful subtext (perhaps even to themselves). Linder, once again:
In fact, Stephenson’s speech that day was entitled “Back to the Constitution.” He denounced political corruption, American imperialism abroad, and called for an end to deficit spending. He ended his hour-long, enthusiastically received talk with the cry, “Where there is no vision, the people perish!” All in all, there was scarcely a phrase in the speech that would embarrass a major party candidate today. There were better places than a huge rally attended by media from several states to deliver the KKK’s anti-Catholic, anti-black, anti-Jewish message.
But, the Klan was not always well received in Indiana.
In South Bend on May 17, 1924, another tri-state Klan meeting and march precipitated a riot. There were many opponents of the KKK among South Bend’s large Hungarian and Polish immigrant population. Students from Catholic Notre Dame also showed up to protest the march and in the ensuing fracas most of the Klansmen were roughed up badly; only a downpour ended the affair. All the time, police looked the other way.
Governor McCray got on the Klan’s bad side. Several members of the administration were Klansmen as were a substantial number of members of the General Assembly. In 1921, the General Assembly passed a bill to approve a “Klan Day” at the state fair. McCray vetoed it. One of the Klan members of the administration was Secretary of State, Ed Jackson. In 1922, Jackson granted the Klan a state charter. McCray objected on the basis that an organization should not get a charter if its leaders were not willing to step forward publicly and receive it. D.C. Stephenson apparently directed Jackson to try to bribe McCray. McCray was wealthy and declined the bribe.
McCray’s wealth, however, was not liquid. Much of it was in land, and in the 1920s, land prices collapsed, putting McCray in a difficult situation. He apparently arranged to have the State Board of Agriculture loan him $155,000. He paid the loan back with bank loans that were allegedly coerced. Bank presidents claimed that McCray had threatened to withdraw state deposits if he didn’t receive the loans. He was indicted November 1923 and tried in state court in April 1924. He was acquitted of the state charges but had been indicted by the federal government in February of 1924:
McCray’s trial lasted for seven days. The prosecution showed that the governor passed some some $1 million in worthless notes on the banks in Indiana and other nearby states in an attempt to regain his standing. McCray denied any intent to defraud the government, but also testified that he used his political standing to get money from the state board of agriculture and designate banks as state depositories to get loans. It took the jury only 13 minutes to return a guilty verdict on 13 counts of mail fraud. McCray resigned from office on April 29, and Lieutenant Governor Emmett F. Branch took over.
Twenty minutes after resigning, McCray was sentenced to ten years in prison. He served three years of his sentence and was released in 1927.
Emmett F. Branch (1924-1925) I’m afraid that Gov. Branch is going to get only very brief treatment here. He was lieutenant governor and served out the remainder of McCray’s term. Branch had been a state legislator from 1902 to 1910 and served as Speaker of the House in 1907 and 1908. Of note was that he ended the practice of passing omnibus bills that joined numerous disparate bills and allowed them to be passed without debate. From 1910 until 1920, he returned to his private law practice before running for lieutenant governor in 1920. Branch continued McCray’s work expanding the state highway system, completing the new state prison, and expanding the school for the blind. He oversaw the completion of the Riley Hospital for Children.