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When Good People Don’t Pay Attention

A century ago, a charismatic charlatan in Indiana by the name of D.C. Stephenson “set in motion the [Ku Klux] Klan’s takeover of great swaths of America.” Stephenson – who was a fraud, a huckster, a braggart, a bootlegger, a sex predator, and a serial liar – was the Klan’s Grand Dragon who, along with millions of his compatriots, hated immigrants, Blacks, Catholics, and Jews. 

He was pretty far along with his scary takeover plan, which was enormously successful for a while and included a scheme to run for the White House – when a “seemingly powerless” woman stopped him. (First, though, he murdered her.)

You can read all about it in a new gripping thriller titled “A Fever in the Heartland” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Timothy Egan.

Stephenson was eventually stopped and sent to prison in 1925 for the grisly murder of that “seemingly powerless” woman, who was 28-year-old Madge Oberholtzer. Her deathbed testimony led to his conviction which, in turn, led to the downfall of the Klan.

But for years, Egan writes, Stephenson was able to spread Klan poison and power throughout the Midwest (especially Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) and some of the West (notably California, Colorado, and Oregon) because “ministers did not give up their Klan robes or turn on their leader in Sunday sermons. Elected officials did not distance themselves from their political master. Most newspapers did not condemn. Cross burnings did not stop. All the right people did not turn down invitation to parties…Many chose selective amnesia in service to the greater good of the Invisible Empire and what it stood for. Some were even impressed.”

George Dale, a crusading newspaper editor in Muncie, Indiana, was not impressed. He was beaten and served several stints in jail for taking on the Klan in print. (At the time, the Klan infested Indiana; all but two counties out of 92 had Klan chapters.)

My grandfather, William S. Mellus, a crusading newspaper editor in Michigan during that era, also was unimpressed when an offshoot of the KKK called the Black Legion resurfaced in the Detroit area in the mid-1930s.

Grandpa printed the names of the Black Legion members on the front page of his weekly newspapers—they included lawyers, doctors, sheriffs, police officers, city officials, and important businessmen — in the summer of 1936, condemning “the insidious workings of the cult” and continuing to highlight the story of “murders and bombings” and “kidnappings and floggings” in the area. As a result, the Black Legion twice put a contract out on his life. Happily, both failed.

Besides being a terrifying page-turner, “A Fever in the Heartland”, to my mind, is a warning about what happens in a democracy when good people don’t pay attention. In Indiana, many of the good folks apparently were distracted by other things as Klan supporters took over the state legislature and the governor’s office, sent several supporters to serve in Congress, and installed Klan members in sheriff’s offices, police departments, and courts across the state.

Many of those good folks apparently didn’t vote either. They were likely scared away by Klan threats and violence, while Klan supporters hurried to the polls to vote for Klan-backed candidates.

Late in his prison term, Stephenson was visited by an old adversary who asked him if he’d been serious about running for the White House. Stephenson said the plan was real although “you wouldn’t have called it President. The form of government might have changed. You might have had a dictator.’”

Jan Collins is a Columbia-based journalist, editor, and author.

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