D. C. Stephenson and the Indiana KKK in the 1920s
Ku Klux Klan Cross Burning
In 1922, the Hoosier state suffered the largest membership in the terror arm of the Democratic Party known as the Ku Klux Klan. The dynamic leader and Democratic operative, D. C. Stephenson, amassed a fortune recruiting membership in the Klan.
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 when 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 need corporations and victim groups to get elected, the political class in Indiana during the early 1920s needed the Klan to get elected.
D. C. Stephenson
Democratic Party 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 Monthly has it that he remarked regarding his tardiness:
My worthy subjects, citizens of the Invisible Empire, Klansmen all, greetings. It grieves me to be late. The President of the United States kept me unduly long counseling on matters of state. Only my plea that this is the time and the place of my coronation obtained for me surcease from his prayers for guidance.
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 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.
Governor Warren T. McCray
Governor Edward 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.
Portrait of Edward L. Jackson
The KKK in Indiana Today
According to the Indiana government website,
By 1926 the Ku Klux Klan was crippled and discredited. Later efforts to revive the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s and 1970s were attempted, but its message was not received in large numbers, as it had been forty years previously.
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,
The KKK had hoped to hold an annual cookout at the park, but it was over before it ever really began with counterprotesters taking over the park first. Just after 1:30, a small motorcade of KKK members first arrived. After revving their engines past the counterprotesters, about 10 klan members parked at an adjacent pavilion with two carry-out pizzas in hand. Law enforcement was there to keep the peace as counterprotesters outnumbered the KKK.
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:
Here’s what a Ku Klux Klan recruiter looks like. Or, at least, this is what someone looks like trying to stir the pot in downtown Lafayette for the second time in as many years. Either way, Lafayette’s security camera footage at Sixth and Main streets — secured through an open records request — shows a lone man dropping materials for the Ku Klux Klan in front of downtown businesses early Tuesday.
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.
Countering the Klan - Kokomo, Indiana
- 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.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes