Ann Patton’s newest book tells the gripping tale of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, its mesmerizing young leader David Curtis Stephenson, his rise to soaring power, and the brutal rape and murder that killed the Klan empire. Now updated, this book includes a foreword by Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the country’s leading anti-Klan organization.
Ann’s true crime book of non-fiction political history reads like a fiction thriller and offers important lessons for America, today and tomorrow.
Throngs of Americans rallied at the feet of Grand Dragon Stephenson, a blond charmer who was marketing hate as a political weapon, with violent undertones and vast fiscal rewards. In the process, he was melding his followers into a polished political machine that could not be stopped. At its height, the movement captured the loyalty of millions around the nation, and it worked like magic – for a while. But he stumbled on his way to the White House and his empire, inherently flawed, crumbled, tarnishing all it touched.
There are lessons, eerily relevant today, to be learned from the rise and fall of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan and its leading light, showman/salesman Stephenson, a narcissistic political genius who would be President. They called him Steve, the “white knight” of the Klan. Many of Steve’s divisive issues, such as immigration and religious bigotry, are still alive today.
The 1920s KKK was not your grandpa’s 1800s Klan, which was created after the civil war to hold on to power by terrorizing black former slaves by any means possible, including torture and lynching. Rather, before 1920 the second KKK was re-created as a money-making fraternity and cynically sold through the then-new science of public relations. The result: a secret fraternity that captured the fancy of mainstream America and made its backers millionaires on pyramid-style fraternity dues and the markup on the sale of sheets.
If you wanted to belong and progress in your town, you had better join the Klan.
Once organized, the sheeted secret society searched for purpose. Its backers tapped into the rich vein of regional fears, mobilizing millions at fever pitch to fight anyone deemed different or threatening: first Catholics, Jews, and blacks; then immigrants; then anybody deemed to be doing wrong by Klan standards; ultimately anybody who might speak ill of the Klan. Their brand of vigilante justice begat violence, unspeakable atrocities, murders, and a reign of terror in many communities.
But the crowning touch came when the Klan married the political system. Steve built the Klan into an Indiana political powerhouse with breath-taking skill. Self-taught as an itinerate editor of small Oklahoma newspapers, Stephenson dabbled in Sooner socialism, became a mesmerizing orator, and made his first million as a Klan “Kleagle” (salesman) assigned to “klux” Indiana.
”I did not sell the Klan in Indiana on violence,” he said later; “That is not my way.” Instead, he cleverly absorbed institutions into his Klan: the Protestant church, law enforcement, womenfolk and little Klan-kids in their diminutive hooded sheets, ultimately the Republican party of Indiana. And his eye was focused far higher.
“He is the Law,” people said. If you cross him, “he will crush you.”
Steve’s Indiana Klan was big on intimidation, but it was probably the least violent in the nation. Around the nation, torture and murder followed the Klan everywhere.
As the Klan grew, so did frenzy in the news media (then “the press”). Congress held hearings. Editorial writers decried the uprising, dipping their pens in deep wells of sarcastic prose and ridicule. But the more the press and liberal establishment attacked, the more the Klan grew. The press and Congress MADE us, said the ‘20s Klan founder, Colonel William Joseph Simmons.
The high point for the Klan came in 1925, when a throng variably estimated above 60,000 (or half that) marched through Washington, D.C., to eerie drumbeats and the shuffling of thousands of scuffed shoes. Klan membership was estimated at some 3 million across the USA, strongest in the basin stretching from Texas through Ohio.
Things were going great, for both the Klan and D.C. Stephenson. What could go wrong?
Ann tells the story in unflinching prose, as public horror at a sensational rape and murder finally stirs a nation in the grips of the Klan phenomenon. The reputation of the Klan was killed. Slowly, slowly, a working majority of the USA began to reject Klan-style violence, bigotry, torture, lynching, and intimidation.
David Curtis Stephenson and the formidable, feared Klan of the 1920s, unmasked, proved to be ridiculous paper puppets of evil puffery and narcissism, offering important lessons for us all, revealed to be ultimately unfit for civilized society.