In 1922, the Hoosier state suffered its largest membership in the American terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan. Before being convicted of and sentenced for murder, the dynamic leader and Democratic party operative, D. C. Stephenson, amassed a fortune recruiting membership in the Klan.
The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, by a group of disgruntled former confederates, who were becoming disaffected by the abolition of slavey and the destruction of the South by the Civil War, fought primarily on southern soil. While the original intention seemed to be the formation of social club, the group quickly became politically militaristic, aligning with the Democratic party, eventually serving as an American terrorist arm to that party. According to Columbia University historian Eric Foner,
University of North Carolina historian and emeritus professor, Allen W. Trelease has affirmed in his book, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction, “The Klan became in effect a terrorist arm of the Democratic Party.”
While the Klan spread throughout the country, by the 1920s the Indiana branch of the Ku Klux Klan under David Curtiss “Steve” Stephenson emphasized morality and claimed its main purpose was to help the poor and promote traditional values. The Klan’s stance against African Americans during this period was not uppermost as it had been as the original Klan was founded after the Civil War in Pulaski, Tennessee.
The Indiana Klan’s influence became so great that by 1925, a third of the Indiana General Assembly and the governor of Indiana, along with many top local and state officials were members. As current politicians rely heavily on corporations and victim groups to get elected, the political class in Indiana during the early 1920s needed the Klan to get elected.
Democratic Operative D. C. Stephenson
David Curtiss Stephenson was born in Houston, Texas, on August 21, 1891. His sharecropper family relocated to Maysville, Oklahoma, where he briefly attended public school, and later served as an apprentice to a printer. He joined the Socialist Party and became an activist.
D. C. Stephenson had sought elected office running unsuccessfully in the Democratic congressional primary in 1922. At that time, he ran as anti- prohibition, but as Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, he touted prohibition to gain support of ministers and church organizations. Stephenson changed his political party affiliation to further his hold on power; thus he went from Socialist to Democrat to Republican.
Stephenson’s ability to schmooze politicians seeking power and those already in power became widely known. After being appointed Grand Dragon is the Klan, Stephenson turned up late to his acceptance ceremony. Legend with help from the Atlantic Monthlyhas it that he remarked regarding his tardiness:
Stephenson’s Klan promotion created a climate that even Republican politicians came under the Klan influence. He was often heard boasting, “I am the law in Indiana.” As secretary of state, Edward Jackson, relying on public opinion of the Klan as defenders of justice, morality, and Americanism, accepted Klan support only to later regret that decision.
The Klan began to make demands on Edward Jackson, who had aspirations of running for higher office. Because of those aspirations, Jackson issued the Klan a charter and tried to persuade Governor Warren T. McCray to support the Klan agenda. When McCray resisted, Jackson offered McCray a bribe of $10,000. McCray was offended by Jackson’s suggestion of a bribe and refused.
Jackson’s Fall From Grace / Demise of the Ku Klux Klan
Nevertheless, through Klan support, Jackson did eventually become the 32nd governor of Indiana. Although Jackson’s administration oversaw the payoff of the state’s nearly $4 million debt and instituted a significant reduction in taxes, his ties to the Klan became Jackson’s ultimate undoing.
In 1925, D. C. Stephenson was arrested and tried for the rape and murder of Madge Obetholtzer. After his conviction and sentence to life in prison, Stephenson appealed to Jackson for pardon. When Jackson refused, Stephenson released to the press evidence of Jackson’s attempt to bribe former Governor McCray, taking down both Jackson and Stephenson’s Ku Klux Klan.
Jackson left office disgraced and Stephenson saw the demise of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan. After boasting a membership of a quarter of million in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan is now virtually non-existent in Indiana and elsewhere.
The KKK in Indiana Today
According to the Indiana government website,
To demonstrate how little interest today’s Hoosiers have in the KKK, one need only observe that attempted Klan rallies draw more protesters than Klan members. For example, in August 2018, in the small town of Madison, Indiana, a Klan “kookout” was planned and fliers sent out announcing the event.
But only 13 Klan members showed up, and only 7 or 8 people joined the members to learn about the organization. Contrasting the roughly 20 Klan “kookout” attendees, over 300 protesters were on hand to counter the group.
In August 2019, one year later, the KKK again attempted to sponsor their second “kookout,” but according to WTKR,
An example of the anemic recruiting in today’s Hoosier state features one lone man leaving fliers in freezer bags as he strolls through the city of Lafayette:
It is safe to say that the Klan is dead in Indiana, as well as in most states. However, the KKK still lives rent free in the minds of rabid political left-wingers, who disingenuously continue to accuse their political opponents of Klan-style behavior. Of course, individual acts of racism may pop up from time to time from any demographic, but as a system, racism remains the driving force of the ideologies of political correctness and identity politics, most ardently practiced by modern liberals and the Democratic Party, the same party that gave birth to and fueled the career of conman and murderer, D. C. Stephenson.
- Eric Foner. A Short History of Reconstruction: 1863–1877. Harper-Collins Ebooks. Accessed September 2021.
- Allen W. Trelease. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. Harper & Row. January 1, 1971. Print.
- Edoardo Teso. “When Executives Donate to Politicians, How Much Are They Keeping Their Companies’ Interests in Mind?” KelloggInsight. October 5, 2020.
- Joshua Mitchell. “The Identity-Politics Death Grip.” City Journal. Autumn 2017.
- Stephen J. Taylor. “Koo Koo Side Lights: George Dale vs the Klan.” Hoosier State Chronicles. Nov 17, 2015.
- Karen Abbott. “The Rise and Fall of D. C. Stephenson.” smithsonian.com. Aug 30, 2012.
- “The Dying Declaration of Madge Oberholtzer.” Law2.
- “The D. C. Stephenson Trial: An Account.” Famous Trials.
- “Ku Klux Klan in Indiana.” IN.gov.
- Darcy Costello. “Madison Picnic Drew 13 Ku Klux Klan Members.” IndyStar. Sept. 1, 2018.
- Dave Bangert. “Ku Klux Klan Recruiter Caught on Surveillance Video.” Lafayette Journal & Courier. April 18, 2019.