In 1968, a 20-year-old Black woman was selling encyclopedias door to door in Martinsville. Carol Jenkins, a graduate of Rushville High School who dreamed of becoming a model in Chicago, was murdered by a white man.
When Jenkins was killed, Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, was 10 years old. But the memory and fear caused by Jenkins’ murder lived on. When Summers was in college, her parents warned her not to drive through Martinsville to get from Indianapolis to Bloomington.
“You know, you're letting your daughter get in her car and drive, and it's just up the road,” Summers said. “But do not drive through Martinsville.”
Summers, now 64, sees the lasting repercussions of the hate in Indiana.
When Hoosiers decided to break up with the Klan in the 1930s and again in the 1990s, some were quick to sweep the nasty history under the rug. At the peak of the Indiana Klan in the 1920s, an estimated one-third of native-born white men in Indiana were in the group. But historians, political scientists, legislators and Black Hoosiers say this past isn’t too far away, and it’s left scars on the state.
In James H. Madison’s book “The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland,” he writes that the Klan posed the question, “Who is an American?” and came to the conclusion that an American is white, Christian, born in the U.S. and straight.
One hundred years later, the state remains largely segregated with ideologies of the Klan permeating politics and education in coded language. Though more discrete, the attitudes of the hate group still exist today.
Madison, a historian and former history department head at Indiana University, chronicled the history of the KKK in his book.
The white hoods, burning crosses and “100% American” materials aren’t as common today as they were in the 1920s or 1960s, but many late Klan ideas have morphed into current political stances. Modern white supremacists were also emboldened by the rhetoric of former U.S. President Donald Trump, Madison said, which echoed anti-immigrant and white nationalist views of the Klan.
Madison said people downplay the impact of the Klan for comfort.
“[The] myth was, ‘Wow, they really weren't that bad. They really weren't that serious. People were manipulated into joining the Klan, they don’t believe this stuff,’” Madison said.
“We're doing a great disservice to our children, and a great disservice to democracy if we present, as you say, a rosy picture of our past.”
The Klan lives on through memories of elder legislators and officials
Indiana’s history of racism has left marks through stories passed down in families.
The Indiana NAACP formed in 1924 in response to KKK activity. The group fought against the hosting of Klan marches and rallies and helped to protect the interests of Black Hoosiers.
Joselyn Whitticker is president of the Weaver Historic Landmark Settlement and the Marion NAACP.
Whitticker said her grandmother was put in danger by being a member.
“When my grandmother joined the NAACP, if she had an NAACP card found on her, she could have been killed,” Whitticker said.
Whitticker not only heard stories about the group from her grandmother; she also experienced the wave of Klan activity that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s.
While she was teaching in Evansville in the late 1970s, a student placed a KKK flier on her desk, Whitticker said. She also taught the son of the grand wizard, who she said needed her help.
“He could not read, bless his heart,” Whitticker said.
Many of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, now in their 60s and 70s, remember fears surrounding Martinsville and other sundown towns.
Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said he received the same message as Summers: stay out of Martinsville. When he drove from his home in Gary to Bloomington for college, his parents told him to take the long way around.
“We were even told in the ‘60s not to stop in Martinsville because supposedly that was supposed to be the home base for the Ku Klux Klan,” Smith said.
Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, said he worked alongside the murderer of Jenkins at a Rolls Royce factory long before he was arrested for her murder.
These combined experiences have even greater impacts. Indiana still has a small Black population and few Black legislators, and it faces constant debates about race.
A 2021 fight over race in education shows increased divide in legislature; schools are point of contention
Smith said he’s watched legislators become upset about discussion of racism on the House floor.
“You wonder because you can see some of the thoughts, which people don't even express, when it comes through their behavior and their facial gestures and so forth, that they support some of this craziness,” he said. “And they get irritated when, for example, some of the Black Caucus members are speaking to the issue. They get upset over it.”
Smith pointed to an incident that occurred during the 2021 legislative session as an example of racism being apparent in the Indiana General Assembly.
“We got the boos and the verbal attacks and got the physical threats that were made by certain ones about colleagues. So, he let us know that some of these thoughts are still in place, among our colleagues in the House,” Smith said. “I'm not saying how prominent it is. But it's certainly there. And it comes out.”
House Bill 1367 would have allowed St. Joseph County schools to leave South Bend Community Schools and go to a school district that was less diverse and more white. Black lawmakers, dressed in African garb to celebrate Black History Month, said the legislation was discriminatory. Republican lawmakers booed and shouted at Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, as he spoke on the floor of the temporary COVID-19 House Chamber in the Indiana Government Center.
Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, walked out of the temporary chamber in protest. Lucas has been accused of racism in the past due to Facebook posts he has made.
After the discussion, Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, clashed with Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, in the hallway. Eberhart said Summers, a Black legislator, accused him of being a racist. Summers said Eberhart attempted to hit her.
Summers said nothing was really done about the incident. House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
In 1925, the Indiana Statehouse played host to a "Klan legislature," which didn't directly admit to being Klan members, but the majority were suspected to be associated or sympathetic to the Klan. The governor was later found to be a member.
Despite the time since the Klan ruled the legislature being nearly 100 years ago, Summers said that in her 30 years as a legislator in the General Assembly, she’s never seen it worse. All members of the IBLC are Democrats, so whether due to her race or the partisan divide, she feels more hostility from her fellow legislators.
“It literally was not always like this,” Summers said. “We had good people that understood human beings.”
She said many legislators don’t seem to understand her and her colleagues in the IBLC. She said they know who their “resident Republican racists” are.
“They come to the legislature and they look at you like, 'I've never seen anything like you before,' and you know when they have never in their life had to deal with anybody of another race,” Summers said.
The 2021 spat wasn’t the first or last time the legislature has disagreed about education decisions involving race. In the 2022 legislative session, debates began about CRT, or critical race theory. But rather than targeting the law school concept CRT, bills sought control of diversity, equity and inclusion and social emotional learning initiatives.
Smith said the legislature not caring about diversity and prioritizing school choice hurts diverse communities.
“They really don't care about the education of urban children,” Smith said. “And I think they're, what they're doing is downsizing the thrust for quality education for children of color.”
Summers said Black children learn their history from their community. But she’s not optimistic that white children will be taught the same things to understand what their classmates deal with due to their race.
“In a utopia, a perfect world, that would be right,” Summers said.
Whitticker said that when history is whitewashed to remove significant contributions from Black people, it paints an incomplete picture.
“The world is not a white world. The world is made up of all people,” Whitticker said. “And the reality is if you are looking at what the world is, what the NAACP is, you're looking at racial justice, you're looking at immigration, you are looking at equal opportunities for all people.”
While the Klan is not a bright spot in the Hoosier state’s past, Madison said it is important for older students to learn the history.
“My argument is that the Klan is among the most important stories in all of Indiana history,” Madison said.
The Klan in Indiana existed in two waves, taking place in the 1920s and the 1960s. The 1920s group was mostly anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish, but saw Black people and other people of color as a lesser threat. This group was largely nonviolent, according to Madison.
Klan ideas evolve but never disappear completely
In the 1960s, the Klan returned with increased racism and viciousness but decreased numbers and more resistance. The group found pushback for their changed views, which continued to target Black people but also touted homophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Like the 1920s Klan, modern-day white supremacists can still be people in power, Madison said. But they may also be harder to spot, since they no longer don white robes or burn crosses.
Unlike the 1920s, when Klan rhetoric was popular, Madison said current-day white supremacists have to use “dog whistles” that hint at racist ideas without saying them directly. He called this “more sophisticated.”
Madison used the example of U.S. Sen. Mike Braun saying he thought individual states should be able to reverse and make their own decisions on Supreme Court issues like interracial marriage. Braun later corrected himself, saying he meant to say gay marriage.
“They put it in words and images that at first glance may not seem offensive, but I think when you look behind the screen, when you think about the long tradition and these sorts of issues, they are offensive,” Madison said.
Madison said today there are Americans who think, as 1920s Klan people thought, that they are being good, Christian citizens.
“There's us really good people, whether 100% Americans or whatever label you want to call us. And there's them, those people who are not like us,” Madison said.
For the Klan, these “other” people were Catholics, Jews and Black people. Now, he said, this racism and antisemitism has continued along with newer homophobic and anti-immigrant ideologies.
“All sorts of people are ‘not us,’” Madison said. “And the very smart leaders today in elected positions, some of them in church leadership positions and other forms of powerful places, they can say these things and package them in ways that seem unoffensive.”
Andy Downs, head of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue Fort Wayne, said Indiana may have legislators that support KKK-like ideologies because those ideologies has been known to have voters in support of them.
“Indiana has definitely been home to individuals who were open to that way of thinking,” Downs said. “And since they are—or since we are— that means that people who are going to be running for office have to be thinking about who the voters are. And if the voters are looking for anything close to that ideologically, candidates may tailor their message to meet that to some degree.”
Downs said the Indiana KKK aligned itself with the Republican party more out of convenience than any actual ideological similarities.
The Klan promoted the idea of being 100% American. They flew American flags and held events on the Fourth of July. Madison said the use of patriotism or nationalism has continued with modern-day white supremacists.
On Jan. 6, 2021, self-proclaimed patriots broke into the United States Capitol, brandishing American flags while attacking Capitol police officers. This, Madison said, is the most extreme example of patriotism being used as an excuse for violence.
Smith also pointed to the insurrection as an example of Trump’s impact on the far right.
“He opened a door that will permit those people who want to exhibit superiority and hate to feel comfortable in doing it. It even led to the seizure or the attempted seizure of the U.S. Capitol,” Smith said.
Some point to Trump’s reign as a reason for a resurgence in outright racism and the increase of white nationalist ideologies. Smith, 78, said he thought that racism in the U.S. was declining, at least in public.
“I thought a lot of the prejudice and racism was gone,” Smith said. “That it was suppressed, not that it was all gone. I thought that it was just a minority of people holding on to that ideology.”
“We didn't see an uptick in this until he showed up on the scene. He's given people permission to be who they want, you know, to show their colors,” she said.
Bartlett said the same kind of racism exists, it’s just veiled.
“They took off the sheets and put on the Brooks Brothers suits,” he said.
Whitticker said there have been several instances of racism in her area, including the defacing of a church and three rallies with Confederate flags in trucks.
“Things have gotten better,” Whitticker said. “But things are still not where they should be.”
Whitticker spoke specifically of people who use their faith as a shield from criticism of their beliefs. Christians who spread hate should understand that it goes against their faith, she said.
“You say you’re a Christian,” Whitticker said. “You will burn in hell.”
The Klan has mostly disappeared. But how do we move forward?
Carol Jenkins’ murderer wasn’t caught until 2002. The FBI refused to investigate, and Jenkins’ family received justice through an anonymous tip and private investigators. Thirty-three years after her death, police arrested Kenneth C. Richmond in an Indianapolis nursing home. The elderly man was declared unfit for trial and died two weeks later. His accomplice was never identified.
The downfall of the Indiana Klan came in two ways, Madison says in his book. The first was Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s crime. More slowly, the state rose up against the group’s beliefs.
In 1925, Stephenson, a key figure in the politics of the Indiana Klan, raped and killed a 28-year-old white woman who worked at the Indiana Statehouse. Madge Oberholtzer, a Butler University alumna, signed a statement on her deathbed that told the awful story of Stephenson’s abuse before he dumped the dying young woman off at her parents’ home in Irvington. She lived for another month.
After being denied a pardon, Stephenson revealed the names of Klan-affiliated politicians in Indiana. These included Indianapolis mayor John Duvall, six members of the city council, and Gov. Ed Jackson. Stephenson was imprisoned, released in 1956 and died eight years later.
Stephenson’s trial wasn’t the end for the Klan’s ideas. It re-emerged in the 1960s, this time as a less mainstream racist group. The civil rights movement fought back against the Klan and the FBI infiltrated it due to the more recent crowd’s crimes. In 1973, The Indianapolis Star reported that there were an estimated 250 members in the state.
Slowly, Hoosiers took the Klan less seriously. In the '90s, small Klan gatherings in the state were dwarfed by huge counterprotests. In 2008, Indiana elected President Barack Obama as the first Black president of the United States.
These changes showed the state had turned its back on the Klan as an organization. But there's still more work to be done towards equality, according to Bartlett.
"I really am not looking for anyone to do anything other than be fair, and if I can get fairness, then that's what I want," Bartlett said. "And I don't see that happening to us in the state of Indiana and, quite frankly, in America."