The Hooded Order in the Pulpit: Klan Membership in 1920’s Indianapolis Churches
In January 1923 the Westview Baptist Church at Belmont and Jones Street heralded an evening “KKK sermon” dubbed “The Truth About the Ku Klux Klan: Is It An American Institution?” The lecture by its Pastor J. Luther Jones was advertised in The Fiery Cross, the Klan’s Indianapolis-based newspaper, and there is no evidence that the church or its Pastor were particularly unusual in their public color line politics. The Klan’s story is well-known in Indiana history, but relatively little attention has been focused on the individuals who were members of the hooded order, and J. Luther Jones was probably typical of the many people who were at least publicly sympathetic to the Klan’s nationalist provincialism. The Klan’s secrecy makes it predictably challenging to identify individual Klansmen (or the women and children in its auxiliary chapters), but in the 1920s many Indianapolis residents were unapologetic about their allegiance to the Invisible Empire, and some residents were identified as Klansmen in period documents. In 1925 there were probably about 166,000 Hoosiers paying Klan dues, and research indicates that the 1920’s Klan represented every socioeconomic class and was strongest in central and northern Indiana (compare Lawrence Moore’s 1991 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928). The Klan was not an aberration as much as it was simply an enormously popular civic organization expressing the sentiments of many Hoosiers.
Many of the earliest Klan members were identified in 1923 by the American Unity League’s weekly newspaper Tolerance, which was perhaps the most vocal critic of the Indiana Klan. In early 1923 the newspaper stole a list of the first 12,000 Klan members and identified many of these Klan members, who included city officials, public servants, and prominent community figures. On March 31, 1923 the Indianapolis Star reprinted the names of 69 Indianapolis residents identified as Klansmen by Tolerance (starting here and ending here). Indiana Republican Party chair Lawrence Lyons was the most prominent person identified by Tolerance, and he immediately sent a letter to the American Unity League that was published in the Indianapolis Star renouncing his membership in the Klan.
However, nobody in the Tolerance inventory denied their membership in the Invisible Empire, and there were very few other public repercussions of the Klan affiliation among the 69 Indianapolis Klansmen. In April, for instance, Mayor Lew Shank indicated that it was up to the Police Chief to determine if the seven Indianapolis detectives and a patrolman identified as Klansmen could continue their service, and there is no evidence that any of the eight were reprimanded. The only one of the 69 Klansmen to lose his job apparently was Paul P. Sullivan, the Bell Captain at the Claypool Hotel, who (according to The Fiery Cross) refused to sign a statement affirming that he was not and had never been a Klan member. The Fiery Cross complained that Sullivan’s firing was attributable to “pressure of Roman Catholic and Jewish people whom it is understood predominate and represent a large portion of the patronage of the Claypool hotel.”
Tolerance singled out the eight Methodist preachers in the list of 69 men, though there is no evidence that Klan xenophobia was unique to Methodists. For instance, Luther Jones’ Westview Baptist, the West Morris Street Christian Church at 1534 West Morris Street, and the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church on Division Street were among the West Indianapolis churches whose “100% American” social events were reported by The Fiery Cross. The only West Indianapolis Pastor in the Tolerance list was Claude L. Griffith, who became Pastor of the Blaine Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church at 1427 Blaine Avenue in 1916. Born in Illinois in 1875, Griffith came to Blaine Avenue from Poseyville, Indiana, where had been a Pastor in a Methodist Episcopal church. Griffith lived in West Indianapolis at 1245 Shepard Street, just blocks from Luther Jones’ Westview Baptist Church. The First M.E. Church was re-named Blaine Avenue M.E. Church in 1905, and Griffith became Pastor of the Church in 1916. Griffith may have left little evidence of his Klan membership, but he clearly was associated with Klansmen and appeared at the hooded order’s social functions through the 1920’s. For instance, at the August 1924 dedication of the Belmont Avenue United Brethren Church, The Fiery Cross reported that Griffith preached at an evening service following an afternoon talk by Judge Charles Orbison. Orbison was among the most prominent figures in Indiana Klandom, serving as legal counsel to the American Saloon League, the federal Prohibition director in Indiana between 1919 and 1921, Chosen Potentate of the Murat Temple, and Grand Master of the Grand Masonic Lodge of Indiana, but he was perhaps best known as the Indiana Klan’s legal counsel and a member of the “Imperial Kloncilium,” the Imperial Wizard’s highest advisory board. Orbison had been identified as a Klansman by Tolerance, but like virtually everybody on the Tolerance list Orbison made no public response and continued his advocacy for Klan causes. Orbison was the lawyer defending the Klan in 1928 when the Attorney General’s office attempted to make the group illegal, with the Indianapolis Star identifying Orbison as the “national vice president of the Klan.” Orbison’s death in July 1933 was greeted by effusive obituaries in the state and national press, but as with everybody in the Tolerance inventory not a word was spoken of his lifelong advocacy for the hooded order.
Claude Griffith became Pastor of the Morris Street M.E. Church at 329 East Morris Street by 1925. Like many Klansmen, Griffith was a zealous advocate for Prohibition and a host of moral causes, and when he retired in 1934 he became an officer of the Indiana Anti-Saloon League. Such activism against minor vices was typical of public Klan moralism. In 1923, for instance, a coalition of Klan members and West Indianapolis neighbors billing themselves as the “West Indianapolis Law Enforcement League” were patrolling pool halls and soda shops that were believed to be illegally selling alcohol. In March 1923 The Indianapolis News reported that like the hooded order’s ranks the League’s membership was secret, indicating that “the organization, the names and officers of which have not been made public, was formed a few weeks ago to watch for and report law violations in the district.” In April The Fiery Cross repeated an article from The Indianapolis Star from four days earlier that the league was “formed among church members” and planned to hire detectives to monitor West Indianapolis bootlegging. The League even petitioned the city to give it genuine police powers, but in May the city rebuffed the request.
Most of the pastors identified as Klansmen did not acknowledge their sympathies to the Invisible Empire in the press, but William Henry Brightmire was unapologetically proud of his Klan membership. In December 1922 The Fiery Cross reported that Brightmire, Pastor of Indianapolis’ Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church, had been publicly identified as a Klansman and “received numerous letters from men who desired to join the society.” A month later Brightmire appeared as a featured speaker at a Klan rally in Decauter, Illinois, and in April The Fiery Cross reported that “Rev. Wm. H. Brightmire will address a 100% American meeting held at Hillside Christian church.”
Brightmire was born in 1862 in Huntington County, Indiana, and between 1884 and 1917 he served congregations in Elkhart, Sheridan, and Evansville as well as Ohio congregations in Dayton, Cleveland, and Akron. In late 1917 Brightmire came to Indianapolis where he became Pastor of the Maple Road Methodist Episcopal Church, and then a year later he was named Pastor of Fletcher Place ME Church. By the time Brightmire was identified as a Klansmen in Tolerance in March 1923, he was Pastor of Wesley ME Church at the corner of West New York and North Elder Streets in Haughville. Brightmire continued to lecture for Klan causes or at Klan events through summer 1923, events that sometimes bore the apparent support of his church: in July, for instance, The Fiery Cross advertised a “fiery cross demonstration and lawn social” to be held under the “auspices [of] Wesley ME Church—Pastor Brightmire.” In August Brightmire presided over a Klansman’s funeral, but in September Indiana’s Methodist Episcopal conference met and the Indianapolis News reported that “Leave of absence has been granted W. H. Brightmire. pastor of Wesley Chapel, and he was left without an assignment.”
Brightmire’s ministerial career was over, but he continued to advocate for the Klan. In October 1924 The Fiery Cross referred to Brightmire as the “Imperial Lecturer,”and when Brightmire was called as a witness at a 1926 trial The Indianapolis Star called him a “former national Ku Klux Klan lecturer.” In September 1928 Brightmire appeared at an Indianapolis meeting organized by the Klan, with the “former Methodist minister” accusing Democratic Presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith of being “wet” and reviving support for the Klan. Brightmire accepted membership applications after his lecture, but the Klan had collapsed as a political force in the wake of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s 1925 murder conviction and Stephenson’s subsequent revelations of the Klan’s bribery and control of Indiana politics. Nevertheless, Brightmire told his Indianapolis audience that the Klan “was here to stay.” By his 1928 appearance Brightmire had become critical of Stephenson’s foray into politics, and the former Pastor concluded that and that “’The Ku Klux Klan is not going into politics again. … We only stand for the things that are clean.’” In January 1929 Brightmire registered as a lobbyist for the “Indianapolis Protestant Club,” but there is no evidence Brightmire or the Klan maintained their legislative influence, and in 1931 he and his wife moved to Evanston Illinois to live with a son. Brightmire preached at his former Indianapolis churches when visiting the Circle City in the 1930s, and he died in November 1939.
The Methodist pastors included in Tolerance’s Klan members list mostly left a much less clear record of their allegiance to the Klan. Delbert L. Thomas was Pastor of the Barth Place ME Church when he was revealed to be a member of the Invisible Empire. Thomas was born in Michigan in about 1860 and became Pastor of the Merritt Place ME Church in 1909. Merritt Place united two former congregations on Indianapolis’ near-Westside, the Blackford Street M.E. church and the California Street M.E. church. The new congregation constructed a church in the same neighborhood at the corner of California and New York Streets that was dedicated in September 1911, and after that dedication Thomas was re-assigned to First Methodist Church in Seymour. Thomas was a Pastor in Aurora, Indiana in 1920 and came to Indianapolis’ Barth Place ME Church in 1923, where he was when Tolerance included him amongst the Klan Pastors in the city. In September 1924 Thomas was replaced at Barth Place ME Church, and he moved to Warsaw Indiana where he died in 1933.
William Everett Cissna was Pastor of the West Washington Street M.E. Church at Warman and West Washington when he was identified as a member of the hooded order. Born in 1877, Cissna had been a school teacher in southern Indiana at the turn of the century and became a Methodist Pastor in 1908, coming to the West Washington Street church as its Pastor in about 1918. Cissna moved from the West Washington Street church to a Kentucky congregation in 1925, where he eventually returned to teaching and wrote two religious tracts before his death in 1968.
Nearly all of these Pastors escaped any apparent repercussions from their unmasking as Klansmen. Ray A. Ragsdale was Pastor of the Brightwood ME Church when he was revealed to be a Klan member in 1923. Ragsdale became a Pastor in Vincennes early in the 20th century, and like many fellow Methodists and later Klansmen he was active in the prohibition movement; at a September 1908 Methodist conference on prohibition and local option laws, for instance, Ragsdale was part of a Vincennes quartet to perform the tune “The Saloon Must Go.” During World War I Ragsdale was Pastor of Broad Ripple ME Church and assumed the same position at Brightwood in 1919. On the eve of his unmasking as a Klansman in late March 1923, Ragsdale’s Brightwood ME Church had as its featured speaker William H. Brightmire speaking on “Christian citizenship.” Brightmire’s affiliations with the Klan were certainly public knowledge, and the event was advertised in The Fiery Cross. In July the Brightwood ME Church had a “100% ice cream social” at the church that likewise was reported in the Klan’s newspaper, but Ragsdale would remain a prominent figure in Indiana Methodism. In December 1923 Ragsdale was elected President of the Methodist Minsters’ Association of Indianapolis. Ragsdale became Pastor at the Fletcher Place ME Church in September 1925, and at his death in 1941 Ragsdale was a Pastor in a Methodist church in New Albany.
After hosting a Klan lecture at his Westview Baptist Church in January 1923, in July Pastor Luther Jones proposed to have a ceremony at his church at which a cross would be burnt on the church’s lawn. The day before the event, Jones secured a fireworks permit from the city and acknowledged that “he understood there was a plan to burn a fiery cross, emblematic of the Ku Klux Klan, at the lawn fete.” By the next day, an 18-foot cross wrapped in oil-soaked burlap had been set into a posthole in the church’s lawn in preparation for the evening’s conflagration, but the cross-burning would violate the fireworks permit. When police arrived to stop the cross-burning a crowd of 7000 to 10,000 people had already gathered, greeting the police “with hisses and catcalls and cries of `Set a match to it,’ and `Don’t let the cops stop us.’” Jones was compelled to encourage the crowd to hold the cross-burning at a rural location, and he led a parade out West Morris Street where the cross was set afire. Upon returning to Belmont Street three smaller crosses were set aflame within view of the church in nearby Rhodius Park.
John Luther Jones may have been relatively typical in his sympathies to the Klan, even though there is no evidence he was a dues-paying member. Jones was born in Tennessee in 1887 and was a minister living in Mishawaka Indiana when he first married in 1907. He had moved to Lenawee County Michigan by 1910, where he identified himself in the census as a “Free Baptist” minister, probably a Freewill Baptist congregation. After his wife died in 1915 Jones re-married and was serving as a minister in Indiana, and after moving to 545 North Tibbs Street in Haughville in about 1919 Jones became Pastor of Westview Baptist Church in 1921. By 1926 Jones was no longer Pastor at Westview Baptist, and the family had moved to Peoria Illinois by 1930, where Jones worked for the Caterpillar Company as a tool designer and retired in 1943. Luther Jones moved to California in about 1952, where he was struck by a car and killed in November 1968.
The most surprising dimension of the Klan’s 1920s popularity was not necessarily clergymen’s membership in the hooded order; instead, the more unsettling reality is that the Klan was never an aberration to an overall history of democracy and Hoosier civility or limited to a particular range of residents. Instead, it was cut from a rather familiar provincialism, nationalist fervor, and uneasiness with the erosion of White privilege that found followers in a host of neighborhoods representing a wide range of backgrounds. Those Klansmen and their families practiced their faith in many different churches, so the record of Methodists is not especially unique. Many of these churches have disappeared, but others became part of contemporary congregations in a city where many of the earliest Klan-sympathetic churches still stand. These 69 people are not deviants from Hoosier values as much as they are part of a national pattern of xenophobia that remains part of contemporary life, and their history becomes more compelling if we can see this Klan landscape and heritage within broader patterns of provincialism, xenophobia, and racism.