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Opinion | Let's not forget the nationalistic history of the Midwest

Ku Klux Klan

On Oct. 22, 2018, President Donald Trump announced that he was a nationalist. People may have assumed this meant he loved his country but that's not the meaning of nationalism. Others remembered that Hitler and Mussolini both came to power on a nationalist platform. But what few may have remembered is that 100 years ago, America's most powerful political party was nationalistic. The current climate in our state in our nation is a cautious reminder of the rise of that party, the Ku Klux Klan.

Around 1915, the Klan realized that if it shifted from a race organization to a nationalistic organization, they could expand into the north. In the United States, the central belief of nationalism is “all Americans are equal, but some people are more American than others.” For the Klan, this meant that only white male Protestants were true Americans.

The KKK advertised itself as a Christian fraternal organization that promoted morality. According to "Citizen Klansman: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana,"  the group declared that “America must close the doors to the disease minds and bodies and souls of people of foreign lands. Immigrant invaders are composed of Italian anarchists, Irish Catholic malcontents, Russian Jews and other undesirable groups. "The Midwest was particularly susceptible. The state of Michigan was rated the eighth largest Klan organization in the country, with 93 chapters. Estimates of membership ranged from 80,000 to 260,000. However, because of the group's secrecy, exact information about the Michigan Klan isn't available. Indiana, which had the largest and most powerful branch of the northern Klan, yields more information concerning how the Klan functioned.

Michael Ryan

By 1925, an estimated 30 percent of all native white males in Indiana were members of the Ku Klux Klan. This was due in large measure to the charismatic leadership of a Texas shoe salesman, D.C. Stephenson, who was said to have abandoned to wives before setting in Indiana. Stephenson, who quickly rose in its ranks, saw the great potential of the Ku Klux Klan. He enlisted Protestant ministers to sell memberships to their parishioners; those who resisted lost their jobs.

Stephenson's next step was a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. He used lies and misinformation to smear anyone who opposed him and replace them with KKK puppets. The Klan shunned established leaders and took over both state and local governments. By 1924, Republicans were powerless to stop the Klan from controlling both the governor and both houses of the state Legislature. “I am the law in Indiana,” Stephenson declared. 

The Klan was finally unmasked when Stephenson, its most powerful leader, was arrested and convicted of kidnapping, torturing, raping and killing a young woman. When the Klan’s atrocities came to light, good people quickly dropped their memberships.

The parallels between Trump and Stephenson are obvious. Both are con artists who used lies and misinformation concerning minorities and their opponents to gain power. They both hijacked the Republican Party and the Christian right. They both encouraged hatred and violence to suppress democracy.

Many of the major sites of the KKK in Michigan are now the locations of radical militias. There's a cancer of hatred and racism in the United States, which must be identified and stopped. Like many Americans, I once thought the threat to America and our values was minor. I was wrong. Unless we are vigilant, this cancer will destroy our democracy.

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