Watching Spike Lee’s new film BlackkKlansman yesterday, it was evident that the director/provocateur has skillfully exploited a current of widespread cultural anxiety, which the Klan once embodied on a mass scale. The cinematic result is a timely, skillful and often gripping entertainment.
As a call to social action, however, I think it largely misfires. In organizational terms, the KKK in 2018 is not that big a threat: groups are small, and they dissipate much energy in infighting. In December, 2016, for instance, a Klan “victory rally” was announced for North Carolina (the “victory” being the outcome of the 2016 presidential election) . The event was dogged by militant protesters and dissolved in confusion before it even started. Yet there was one casualty: a Klan “leader,” Richard Dillon, said he was beaten and stabbed, by two other Klan “leaders” at a post-rally “meeting” that devolved into a brawl. The attackers were arrested.
Such atomized, quarrelsome hate groups are dangerous, but not exactly a threat to overthrow the government (which, for that matter, they currently don’t want to do anyway). The slide from last year’s torchlit march and fatal mayhem in Charlottesville to the resounding fizzle of the “Unite the Right” White House rally a few days ago is another indicator.
The more likely hazard from their ranks and hangers on is more incidents of terrorism, such as the killing of 9 in a Charleston SC black church by a professed white supremacist; or the 2016 anti-gay massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Florida (though that shooter had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, not the Klan). Or, for that matter, the cross-burnings and attacks planned by a local Klan chapter in Blackkklansman, which was based on actual police work to foil real, if unmemorable Klan crimes in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Rather than “the organization” (as Lee’s Klansmen call their group), it’s the spirit of the Klan that’s now resurgent, and is still very much alive and active in American society. It rarely shows up in the old robes, and its best disciples have switched to politics has found more sophisticated (and effective) means of manifestation, especially via politics.
But I’m not complaining. If Spike Lee had turned overtly earnest and didactic, Blackkklansman would have lost much of its verve. Better for the audience that I was kept far from the project.
Still, as long as the Klan is back in the news, it’s worth mentioning that there’s a major chapter in Ku Klux Klan history that involves many Quakers. This one is real, nonfiction, solid, and verified — yet Quaker historians have been almost totally silent about it:
Say Hello to Friend Daisy Douglass Barr, popular Quaker pastor, and “Queen” of the Indiana Women’s Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s.
(If thee is tempted to snicker, don’t. The Klan was a very big deal in the 1920s; it made Barr famous and rich. Not to mention its racism and violence, which she evidently ignored, or went along with.)
There’s a fine substantial article about Friend Barr and her eye-popping career online here, by a Hoosier historian, Steven Taylor. Don’t miss it.
I’ve borrowed some info and old photos from it. And another scholar, Leonard J. Moore, has added substantially to what we know in his book, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928.
Moore builds on the fact that the membership list of the Indiana Klan was preserved (most others were lost or destroyed); and the Hoosier Klan was the nation’s biggest and most powerful in its 1920s heyday.
Moore’s analysis of the KKK list for Wayne County — home of the city of Richmond, numerous Quakers, and the Quaker Earlham College — offers a startling (to modern Friends) disclosure:
The religious affiliations of the Klansmen also closely approximated the city’s Protestant spectrum . . . . The large, traditionally evangelical denominations (Methodist, Baptist, Disciples of Christ, and Presbyterian) were strongly represented, but so too were the equally consequential German (Lutheran and United Brethren) and Quaker churches. (Emphasis added.)
That is, Indiana Quakers were just as likely to join the 1920s Indiana Klan as members of other churches; and many did.
Daisy Douglass Barr was their star. She served as pastor in at least five prominent Friends churches, and preached in many more, over many years.
She also used her notoriety and her Klan office to make money. The profit came mainly from selling Klan women’s robes and other paraphernalia. When the Indiana Klan could boast several hundred thousand members, and draw tens of thousands to its (white) family-friendly mass rallies, the paraphernalia business was good; nay, it was a goldmine.
By and large, according to Moore, the 1920s Indiana Klan, while committed to white supremacy, was not much into the racial terrorism of the group’s original Reconstruction-era incarnation.
Well, “not much” is a relative term. On August 7, 1930, one of the iconic lynchings of the era occurred in Marion, Indiana, near Daisy Barr’s birthplace. Two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were dragged from jail and left hanging from a tree, surrounded by a festive mob numbered at 5000, unashamed of the camera’s eye. Despite the thousands of eyewitnesses, no one was ever prosecuted for the lynchings; a grand jury refused to issue any indictments.
Did I mention that Marion was home then to a large Friends Church? Still is.
Despite such savage incidents, it is still fair to say that even more than race, the Klan’s main “theme” was “Americanism.” That’s what its Indiana Grand Dragon, D.C. Stephenson, who was a political kingmaker for several years, droned on about ad nauseam in his speeches. For that matter, it was even stressed above race in the Klan’s “Kreed”:
Further, its “Qualifying Interrogatories for new applicants,” #5 asked:
“Do you esteem the United states of America and its institutions above any other government, civil, political or ecclesiastical, in the whole world?”
Quaker Daisy Barr was all in on this. To quote historian Taylor:
In July 1923, Barr — the only woman on the program — addressed the assembled Grand Dragons of the Klan in Asheville, North Carolina, where she read a poem she’d written. Starting out in first-person, Barr spoke about my “all-seeing” eye and revelations and “the love of Christ.” Chillingly, it becomes clear that the “I” of the poem is “the Spirit of Righteousness”:
“They call me the Ku Klux Klan.
I am more than the uncouth robe and hood
With which I am clothed.
YEA, I AM THE SOUL OF AMERICA.”
Hostility to “new” immigrants (those not from northern, Protestant Europe, along with anti-semitism) was integral to this “Americanism.” It is a cry that echoes to this day.
So while no one should overlook the racial, religious and ethnic aspects here, there is yet another which is central to both “Americanism” and to KKK history, namely: making money. For the KKK, when it had a mass membership, took in truckloads of money; and its officials seemed unable to stop quarreling over it, or accusing each other of stealing it.
Daisy Barr wasn’t accused of theft; just good old-fashioned American profiteering. Which there seems little doubt she actively engaged in.
The Greenfield Reporter (at left) put the question baldly, and the answer was more or less yes, though exact figures are not available.
For several years in the 1920s, the Klan and head man, D.C. Stephenson, ran Indiana, and lived high on the hog. But then in 1925 Stephenson, 34, who had an eye for younger women, was arrested and tried for the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer, age 28. He was convicted, spent years in jail, and with his fall, down went the Indiana Klan as a major organization.
Daisy Barr went on til 1938, when she was killed in a car wreck. Her name was still on the list of recognized ministers of Indiana Yearly Meeting, and she was prominent in interdenominational and patriotic women’s groups. Her funeral was, unsurprisingly, held in a Friends meeting.
The rise and fall of the 1920s Klan in Indiana (and in the rest of the U.S.) is an epic and gripping story, well worth reading more about. [And shoutout to Spike Lee or other ambitious filmmakers; this is a mother lode of exciting cinematic material!] Yet it’s not so much my subject here. Instead I see it more as a parable that has all too much current resonance. For, whether in white robes or (more likely) not; whether put through the Klan’s laughably ridiculous initiation rites (or more likely not), the Klan agenda of unremitting hostility to new immigrants, especially of color; plus its devotion to the post-Obama-era of repackaged and “sanitized” white supremacy; and its focus on one political party, all are very much still with us.
And that is not all. There remains a big chunk of unfinished business for American Quakers: how and why did so many Indiana Friends, custodians of some of the most honored shrines of antislavery witness, and many of whom had relatives lost or wounded in the Civil War to end slavery, get drawn into this openly racist, anti-immigrant group? And what do we need to learn now from this dreadful history then?
We won’t learn much from Quaker historians; they are still essentially silent about it. The most detailed treatment I’ve yet seen of this episode was a novel for teenage readers, called Mim and the Klan, by Cynthia Stanley Russell. In it a young Quaker girl stumbles across the fact that her aged grandparents were part of it, and starts digging out why. In one (fictional, but likely “authentic”) passage, her grandmother sums it up:
“It was a social activity to belong to the Klan in Indiana. There were picnics and rallies for America.
We had just come out of World War I when everybody needed to be highly patriotic to weather the war together. And the Klan preached Americanism–put the flag on your window and so forth. And some people didn’t see the dark side of the Klan because they didn’t want to.”
Another way to put this is: these Indiana Quaker Klan members were not aliens or monsters; they were otherwise respectable, even “good” people; and they are our spiritual forebears (as well as many living Quakers’ relatives).
Some may prefer to send all this down the memory hole, and pretend it did not happen. But it did, with echoes that still reverberate. These stories, even that of Daisy Douglass Barr, are connected to ours. How? And what do they mean?
And we need no “Anonymous” hackers collective to bring it to light; merely an end to denial.
Besides a chance to face some of Friends’ hidden history, the resurgence of “Klanism” is also a summons to grapple with the movement’s key themes, because they have much current echoes and resonance in our public life.
I researched these themes and the images in the summer of 2017. And a key to their resilience came in an obscure editorial in one of the few Indiana newspapers to challenge the Klan. In 1925 when the order was riding high in the state, an unnamed, beleaguered editor in South Bend, prophetically wrote:
“Klanism”; it’s a clumsy term, but then the Klan specialized in ungainly verbiage. And the editor was right: the Indiana Klan, followed by other Klan groups, collapsed from internal corruption and scandal by the late 1920s. Yet the attitudes evoked in these images and its standard rhetoric not only survived, they have assumed other guises and continued to flourish in Indiana and national politics.
After all, even in the 1920s many Klan sympathizers were prevented from officially joining by work rules or other constraints. But this didn’t prevent them from sharing the Klan’s signature issues — or from sticking with them when the Klan itself receded.
At its height, the 1920s Klan attracted hundreds of thousands of “respectable” folks: professionals, successful business people, prominent matrons, church leaders. (In fact, Klan leaders made special efforts to recruit ministers and pastors, waiving fees and other requirements, and not shrinking from offering outright bribes.)
One such beneficiary was the famously pugilistic evangelist Billy Sunday (1862-1935), one of whose mottoes was “fighting the devil & sin.”
Once in 1922, Sunday was about to launch into a sermon in Richmond, Indiana (home of Earlham, a Quaker college, and many Quaker Klan members) when, according to the Indianapolis Times, a dozen Klansmen came marching in, “clad in white robes and attended with much mystery.” They presented Sunday with a fifty dollar, um, contribution, and a letter of endorsement. (Unlike the devil, Sunday did not fight them off.)
This was no isolated incident; I have found records of the same thing happening in least two midwestern Friends churches, along with many others.
The cross, the flag & especially “America” — these were the 1920s Klan’s main symbols and platform. The common image of the group as being above all obsessed with race hatred directed at blacks misses most of their priorities. Sure, they wanted to keep down African Americans; but in the 1920s, particularly in Indiana, they hardly bothered to talk about that.
My guess is that this reflected a period that was a low point of civil rights agitation; so the Klan turned to its other targets, of which it had many: immigrants (Europeans and Asian); Catholics, Jews, and anyone who opposed Prohibition. There was some violence, but it was subdued and often clandestine. In its frequent public events the Klan emphasized a respectable-sounding, “positive” message, which centered on, as we have seen, “100% Americanism,” casting itself as its premier defender. (And many female members were strong supporters of women’s new right to vote.)
The Klan’s largest ever public rally was held in Kokomo, Indiana on July 4, 1923. Estimates of attendance range to 200,000 and beyond. Credible accounts paint it as a kind of patriotic segregated Woodstock, a family-oriented, day-long affair, with games and picnics, a parade, and many bands.
The climax was a long, tedious address by one D.C. Stephenson, the “Grand Dragon of the Indiana Realm of the Knights of the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan,” who arrived in his own airplane. His topic was not about repressing people of color; it was “Back to the Constitution.”
The occasion’s symbolic climax was the burning of a cross said to be sixty-feet high, accompanied by hymn-singing and fireworks. Numerous other huge Klan rallies were held across the state in those years.
“All in all,” wrote one historian without irony, “there was scarcely a phrase in the speech that would embarrass a major party candidate today.”
Stephenson was riding high in 1923. He and his Klan had taken over the Indiana Republican party, and seemed to be controlling the state. He was said to be looking to run for the U.S. Senate and then the presidency, aiming to land in the White House with Klan support as his launching pad.
But instead, his career soon crashed and burned. Despite the order’s much-trumpeted reverence for Prohibition and strict “family values,” Stephenson himself was a notorious drinker and had a charismatic predator’s taste for grabbing young women, consent being optional.
In 1925, a young woman he had kidnapped and raped took poison and left a long, damning deathbed affidavit, made public after her death. Stephenson was tried and convicted of second-degree murder. He served many years in prison.
The resulting scandals rocked the state Republican leadership, and sent the Klan organization into a terminal tailspin, not only in its onetime national stronghold, but across the country. Respectable people stampeded out the door, and into what I call the Ku Klux Kloset.
The secret character of the Klan now became the cover for its embarrassed members; a vow of silence spread across families and whole communities. In a state where perhaps a third of the adult white Protestant population had been part of the Klan, it quickly became a generation’s shared family secret, one that’s been kept remarkably well.
The vow still persists. How sturdy the Ku Klux Kloset‘s construction could be was shown by a 1995 incident in Noblesville, Indiana. An old trunk turned up in an abandoned barn and was opened — and in it was the membership list of 1920s Klan members in Noblesville and the surrounding area. On it was just about every Protestant white male, and many women.
The list was turned over to the Hamilton County Historical Society. A local historian began retyping the list to preserve it, and was soon shocked to find his father’s name on the list. And soon all hell broke loose. As the New York Times told it:
The historical society, after some debate, voted to accept the Klan list, but to restrict access to it.
“It would be embarrassing to some families” to publish the list, Mr. [David] Heighway [the society’s director] said, adding that threats of boycotts of merchants by the Klan also had to be considered. “There’s an ethical question here, too, since we don’t know how many people were forced to join the Klan.”
The last living person on the list died several months ago, but the roster will still be made available only for scholastic or genealogical purposes. The Historical Society said it would require researchers to gain the consent of all descendants before publishing the name of any Klansman, a requirement that would seem virtually impossible to meet.
The local NAACP objected to this concealment; their protest was ignored.
A similar example occurred among Indiana Quakers. With the Klan’s political collapse, Daisy Barr quit pastoring and faded from the public eye; but she was still quietly prominent in the WCTU and other white women’s organizations. When she died in 1938, sizable obituaries ran in several major papers around the state, some on the front page. Yet not one of the half-dozen I found said a single word about her Klan career. Neither did the memorial notice in the records of the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Quakers, of which she was still a member in good standing at her death.
The point here is that, as politics in Indiana have often showed since, in many corners of the state, Klan attitudes persist; but in this Kloseted fashion. No doubt many Hoosiers who uncovered these links in their family histories today would be as shocked as the Noblesville historian: none of their relatives had paraded in a white robe in their lifetimes. Yet in Indiana, the continuity of attitudes, the long shadow of Klanism, is not hard to identify. It is shown in a recent governor’s attempt to ban immigration by Syrian refugees; a vicious anti-LGBT law, and numerous other measures.
So despite the tightly-sealed doors of the Ku Klux Kloset, there are many telltale signs of what is inside. There the Klan’s “brand” survives. Many of the same “platform planks” persist, long after the old robes have moldered, or been forgotten in an abandoned barn. The speakers today can ritualistically denounce the Klan, especially in its minor, often clownish current guise. But the echoes, and more than echoes, ring from a time when it was a major force in U.S. politics, a time when “Klanism” seems to be rising yet again.
By the way, a word about the 1920s sketches posted here. They come from an unexpected source: the Pillar of Fire Church, a group which had its headquarters. including a college and a clinic, not in Indiana but in Zarephath, New Jersey, a hamlet smack between the two academic powerhouses of Princeton and Rutgers. The church’s founder and bishop, one Alma Bridwell White, was both a feminist and an ardent adherent of the Klan.
In the 1920s she published a series of three widely-read books, extolling the Klan as the savior of America, and even a redeemer figure foretold in biblical prophecy. The books were heavily illustrated by Branford E. Clarke.
That was 93 years ago. But the editor was right. 100 percent. And my hope for Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman is that the film will push many toward the overdue reckoning with our Quaker and national Kan history, and resolve to follow its implications with action.
PS. For some additional reading, look into these titles:
Leonard J. Moore, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 (1991); Shawn Lay, ed., The Invisible Empire in the West: Toward a New Historical Appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s (1992); Stanley Coben, Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America (1991); Kathleen Blee, Women of the Klan: Race and Gender in the 1920s (1991); Nancy MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (1994).
And a 1916 Klan Handbook is reproduced in full online here.
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