The Great American Cultural Revolution continues apace, this time at my old alma mater, Indiana University at Bloomington. According to WHAS News, the university will cease holding classes in a room with a controversial mural depicting a Ku Klux Klan rally.
Indiana University says beginning next spring, it’ll no longer hold classes in a room where a mural panel depicts a Ku Klux Klan rally.
The scene that’s part of a 22-panel Thomas Hart Benton mural created in the 1930s hangs in Room 100 at Woodburn Hall on the Bloomington campus. The mural panels depicting Indiana history are spread over three buildings.
IU Executive Vice President and Provost Lauren Robel said in a statement Friday the room will have other uses beginning next spring semester.
Jacquline Barrie, a former IU student who started a petition calling for the mural’s removal that collected more than more than 1,000 signatures, told The Indianapolis Star she considers the university’s decision a “small victory.” She has said the scene is a symbol of hate.
I do not believe that the artist, Thomas Hart Benton was intentionally creating a symbol of hate or trying to glorify the Ku Klux Klan. He was commissioned to paint the series of murals to illustrate events in Indiana’s history and the lives of ordinary Hoosiers. At the time Benton was painting the murals, the Ku Klux Klan was powerful in Indiana, and his work depicted that unpleasant fact.
It might seem odd that Indiana was a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, since Indiana is not usually regarded as a Southern state. Indiana was never a slave state and it did not secede from the union. The fact is, however, that Indiana; at least the southern half of the state, tends to be culturally aligned with the South. The earliest settlers came from Virginia, either directly by travelling down the Ohio River or up from Tennessee and Kentucky. There were men who lived in Indiana who owned land and slaves across the river in Kentucky. During the Civil War, there was a great deal of pro-Confederate sympathy along the northern banks of the Ohio, both in Indiana and Ohio. So it was only natural that the Ku Klux Klan might find it easy to gain influence in the area.
It should also be noted that the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s was influential all over the country and not just in the South. This Ku Klux Klan was what historians call the second Ku Klux Klan which was active from around 1915 until 1944, in contrast to the First Ku Klux Klan which existed from 1865 to 1871 and the Third Klan from 1946 to the present. This Second Klan was unlike the First and Third Klans in that it was more widespread across the nation, having branches throughout the midwest as well as the south. There was even a Klan organization in California. The Second Klan did not only support White Supremacy but were anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic. They also saw themselves as moral guardians, protecting their communities against vice and political corruption, and were in favor of Prohibition. Essentially, they were part of the national desire to return to Normalcy after World War I and the Progressive Era. During the 1920’s the Ku Klux Klan was almost a respectable organization with a membership of around six million at its height in 1924.
Indiana was right at the center of the Second Klan. Under the leadership of its bright and ambitious Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson, the Indiana Klan dominated the state’s politics. By 1925, over half the members of the legislators as well as the governor,and many other state officials were members of the Klan. It was not possible to have a political career in Indiana without the support of the Ku Klux Klan. Stephenson himself hoped to use his influence to gain control of the Ku Klux Klan at the national level and began organizing his own Klan organization in the states he influenced. At the height of his power, Stephenson claimed, “I am the law in Indiana”.
It turned out not to be the case. It is said that pride goeth before a fall and that was certainly the case with D. C. Stephenson. In 1925, Stephenson committed an unforgivable crime. He abducted and raped a white woman, a state official named Madge Oberholtzer. His treatment of her was so brutal that she committed suicide and Stephenson was tried and convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Once in prison, Stephenson tried to obtain a parole from Indiana Governor Edward L. Jackson and when Jackson declined to grant him leniency, Stephenson began to talk to the newspapers. He released the names of all the Indiana state officials who were members of the Klan and discussed at length the many unsavory and unlawful activities in which the Ku Klux Klan leadership had been involved, More investigations and indictments followed, and the power of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana was broken. Stephenson’s fall was only the beginning of the end of the Second Ku Klux Klan as more financial and sex scandals erupted nationwide, revealing that far from being the public guardians of public morality, as many members had believed, the Klan leadership was corrupt to the core. Membership in the Klan declined precipitously and by 1930 the Klan had only around 30,000 members.
Such is the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. It is not a part of Hoosier history to be proud of, but neither should it be forgotten or whitewashed. If anyone is troubled by a realistic depiction of this unpleasant history, than good, they should be troubled. The fact that Indiana was a stronghold of the Klan in the 1920’s is something that should be troubling, not covered up out of a misguided crusade against “hate”.
But the odd thing is that these contemporary iconoclasts who have been busy trying to rid the country of “racist” statues are not trying to bury or forget the past. Instead they seem determined to bring to life every conceivable grievance or injustice that every group that could possibly claim to be victimized or oppressed. Why do this if they are so concerned about people being triggered or upset?
I believe the activists see history not as the shared story of a people or nation that unites us and teaches us lessons. Instead they seem to see history as a never ending source of grievances to be used to turn us against each other. They do not see historical figures as complex personalities to be understood in their historical context, but as figures of good and evil in a morality play. If this is the case, than the toppling of statues of Confederate generals and similar instances of iconoclasm are being performed not as acts against hate or attempts to ensure social justice, but a campaign to reopen old wounds and turn us against one another for their own purposes. We ought not to let them get away it.