Most American history buffs have seen the terrifying photograph of the Ku Klux Klan’s parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925, with the U.S. Capitol visible in the background. Sadly, that’s just a minor glimpse of the klan’s sway during what we prefer to remember as the Jazz Age. But in fact, there are more white robes concealed in musty attic trunks than we may realize; at its height, the klan had 6 million members.
The KKK originated in defeated Confederate states after the Civil War, but the epicenter of the revived klan in the early 1920s was well to the north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Upper Midwest was a stronghold—particularly Indiana, where the klan effectively controlled the state’s political system. In his latest enthralling historical narrative, A Fever in the Heartland, Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author Timothy Egan charts the klan’s rapid rise and spectacular collapse in 1920s America.
The new klan rose in reaction to the convergence of four things: high levels of immigration from Catholic and Jewish people, the Great Migration of Black Americans, the release of the racist movie The Birth of a Nation and the widespread popularity of fraternal organizations. The KKK pretended to benignly uphold “Americanism” but not-so-secretly terrorized anyone who wasn’t a white Protestant, with the complicity of a staggering number of clergypeople.
Egan, author of bestsellers including The Worst Hard Time and A Pilgrimage to Eternity, homes in on Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, “the most talented psychopath ever to tread the banks of the Wabash,” who ran the Indiana KKK, of which the governor was a proud member. A serial sexual predator, Stephenson had not-unrealistic aspirations for high office—even the White House. But his plans were derailed when he sexually and physically abused Madge Oberholtzer, an educated young professional whose brave response helped turn public opinion. Egan skillfully leads readers through the horrifying experiences of Oberholtzer and a handful of other beleaguered klan opponents.
American democracy had a close call in the 1920s. The KKK disintegrated as a powerful political force, but not before its influence helped pass much of its anti-immigrant and Jim Crow agenda. Its malevolence went underground for a while, but history shows that it has resurfaced again and again, like in the 1950s and ’60s. A Fever in the Heartland is just one important chapter in an ongoing history.