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It’s been nearly a century since the KKK dominated Indiana, but Hoosiers see lasting effects

 

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

Taylor Wooten, formerly a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, recently graduated from Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism. This report on the legacy of the Indiana KKK was completed as part of her senior project.

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