Reviewed by Chuck Fager
Shameful History of Quaker Involvement with the Klan
Besides producing an interesting story for young readers, Cynthia Stanley Russell has also done something very important for adults in this debut novel: she has written as a Quaker about the reality of Quaker involvement in the Ku Klux Klan. This is the first time I have seen this shameful piece of history addressed in print by any Quaker; I suspect it’s no accident that it took a novelist to do it.
The facts of this connection are straightforward and well-documented in non-Quaker sources: Shortly after the end of World War One, the Ku Klux Klan came out of the shadows and quickly enrolled millions of members, including many outside its former base in the South. In fact, its greatest stronghold in this era was Indiana, where it spread like wildfire, openly entered politics, and even elected a governor.
After its spectacular rise, its fall was nearly as precipitous: in 1925, the Indiana Grand Dragon, D.C. Stephenson, was tried and convicted of kidnaping and murdering a young woman. In the ensuing scandal the Klan collapsed, and the careers of numerous Klan-connected politicians tumbled with it. Historians have produced several accounts of this seamy and often shocking saga, which make fascinating and chilling reading.
But if there has been any Quaker accounting of the involvement of Friends in the Klan, it has until now been well-cloaked in obscurity.
This involvement, as Russell’s protagonist, Mim Hanley discovers, was not minor: the head of the Indiana Klan’s huge women’s division, Daisy Douglas Barr, was an activist Quaker minister who had pastored the influential Friends churches in both Muncie and New Castle. Another Quaker pastor, Ira Dawes of Wabash Friends Church, was a Klan leader and organizer there.
Nor were the ties confined to a few leaders. Historian Leonard Moore’s book Citizen Klansmen reported on his detailed study of Klan membership records in, among other places, Indianapolis and Richmond. When the Wayne County Klan, which included Richmond, was the biggest organization in the area, “Richmond’s large Quaker community,” he says, “one of the oldest and most influential in the state, showed no special immunity to the Klan.” Quakers there signed up in almost exact proportion to their share of the overall population. Moore’s data from Indianapolis yielded similar results.
Russell cites a telling sentence from the Klan newspaper, The Fiery Cross, reporting on one meeting in 1922: “Richmond Council is growing very rapidly, having a class of 25 last Saturday night. Go to it, you Quakers, we are for you.”
The work of Moore and other secular scholars shows that the Indiana Klan in the 1920s was, at its rank and file level, primarily a populist grasping after community among white Protestants uneasy with modernity; for the vast majority, membership activity had more to do with parades and picnics than anything else. Compared with its first, post-Civil War generation, the 1920s Klan was much less given to vigilante violence.
Nevertheless, its mass Hoosier following found their community in a group formally committed to, as Moore succinctly puts it, a “complex creed of racism, nativism, Americanism; the defense of traditional moral and family values; and support for Prohibition.” The 1920s Klan, he adds, had a long enemies list, “including, in addition to blacks, Catholics, Jews, immigrants, political radicals, feminists, intellectuals, gamblers, bootleggers, thrill-seeking teenagers, motion picture producers, and many others.”
Furthermore, plans for organized Klan violence were definitely part of the longer-term vision of its leaders. Biographer M. William Lutholtz in Grand Dragon records how D.C. Stephenson took a comically-named, near-moribund Indiana anachronism, the National Horse Thief Detective Association, and turned it into the prototype of his own “military machine,” which was meant to enforce Klan decrees as it gained power. Even a cursory examination of this record makes one shudder to think how far the 1920s Klan might have gone if Stephenson, a brilliant organizer, had not been providentially destroyed by scandal.
In sum, the phenomenon of the 1920s Klan, especially in Indiana, looms over in the history not only of that state, but of America at large in that era. Moreover, many of the issues and themes championed by the group have by no means disappeared from our culture. The spirit of the 1920s Klan is still very much with us.
Given its substantial impact, the attention the movement has gained from secular historians is entirely justified. But given also the unquestioned evidence of widespread Quaker involvement in it, one wonders when we shall see an effort by Quaker scholars and writers to come to terms with the Society’s part in it.
Tangled up in this history are some very important theological issues as well. To take only the most obvious: how did large numbers of members of a sect that had once been in the vanguard of the struggle against slavery and religious intolerance, based on clear affirmations of the sacred humanity of all, become so vulnerable to a movement which was so inimical to its history and ethos? Or another: how was the Quaker sense of singularity and “peculiarity” so fully assimilated to the Klan ideology of American/white supremacy? And how much of this assimilation remains among our branches?
Which brings us back to Mim and the Klan, because the question of persistence is a subtext in its plot. In the story, Mim Hanley is a high school senior living on a farm near Wabashin 1969. She loves animals, wants to study veterinary medicine at Purdue, and is just beginning a very decorous romance with an older boy. Mim is also, along with her family and relatives, completely and happily embedded in the culture of her pastoral Friends Meeting.
The bulk of Stanley’s story is a vivid portrait of a fortunate youth in a nurturing milieu. Mim loves her family, does the toughest farm work as well as any boy, and finds the round of monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings as natural and complete as the seasons. There is a distinctly elegaic overtone to these parts of the story, a hymn to a world that was passing inexorably away.
But in the midst of this idyll, her grandfather one day refers in passing to how their county was “Klan country” in his youth. This sends a curious Mim off on a quest to learn more about what is essentially a hidden chapter of her history, but one with continuing relevance even four decades later, even in her beloved home meeting.
As her research proceeds, Mim talks candidly with her relatives about what she’s learning. This was, she says, “material I was not really happy to hear, but facts were facts, and history should not be rewritten, not even our own.”
Her grandmother helps fill in the picture, explaining that, “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.”
In the story, Mim’s family and her meeting confront this history, and its dark side. Yet it is here that Russell’s fictional artifice is most evident. The setting and the history are otherwise entirely plausible; but if there has been any such open examination of Quakerism and the Klan in “real life,” it has still to come to light. This history remains to be faced and understood by the Quaker community which experienced it and which, of all groups, ought to have known better.
Again, in the absence of nonfiction attention, Cynthia Stanley Russell’s brief novel has a much larger significance than its genre form would suggest. It is no substitute for careful scholarly study; but in a place of denial and silence, it speaks a quiet word which echoes loudly.
When Mim chafes at what she’s discovering, her Grand-mother persists: “Mim, our history is part of who we are today. If we face it squarely, we can go on to better days.”
This is the word of the Lord. Friends generally are in Russell’s debt. Besides the young people who will enjoy it, Mim and the Klan belongs particularly on the desks of our historians and theologians. Let them read this story, and be ashamed of their failure to tell it in more detail, more openly, already.
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*Mim and the Klan: A Hoosier Quaker Farm Family’s Story. Cynthia Stanley Russell. Guild Press of Indiana, 1999.122 pages, $18.95.