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Today’s pick is a nonfiction book that will make you angry and probably break your heart, but it’s a really important book because of the scary parallels between the past and now. All the content warnings for sexual assault, white supremacy, hate crimes, and racism.
A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them by Timothy Egan
During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t seen as a domestic terror group. Instead, millions of white Americans bought into the idea that the KKK was a society of brotherhood, American values, and fellowship, despite the white supremacy they preached and the violence they enacted against Black and Jewish Americans, Catholics, and immigrants. A man named D.C. Stephenson was responsible for scamming his way into the upper echelons of the KKK national organization, and recruiting tens of thousands of people in Indiana, making it the state with the most KKK members. He was the law in Indiana and had set his sights on Washington, D.C., when his path crossed with a young woman named Madge Oberholtzer, who would bring his empire of hate crashing down.
If you’ve spent any time in the U.S. or know anything about 20th century American history, you’ve likely heard of the Ku Klux Klan. I’d never really learned about their history and therefore didn’t realize just how pervasive they were in American life and culture in the 1920s — far more so than I realized. They started as a vigilante group following the end of the Civil War but were quashed under President Grant’s term (though never eradicated) until they rose again to prominence in the 1910s and grew and expanded until membership reached the hundreds of thousands in the 1920s. At the height of their power, they marched unmasked in Washington, D.C., and drew tens of thousands of supporters.
I appreciate that Egan makes no excuses or apologies, and he’s very frank on his representation of the facts: Many, if not most, people in the Midwest were a part of the KKK at this time, and they were blatantly violent and hateful. It is likely that many white Americans had ancestors who were members. The parallels between the justification that many used to join the group feel eerily similar to today — all excuses about preserving American values and protecting Christian families, which is chilling. What’s even more horrifying is that Stephenson and the KKK’s rise seemed unstoppable, and his presidential candidacy seemed inevitable until Stephenson met Madge Oberholtzer. She was a young woman without any power or influence, and when Stephenson targeted her for his cruel and sadistic ways, her story just happened to go public — and her tragic run-in with Stephenson changed everything for him and for the KKK on a national scale.
Despite the chilling nature of this story, I think it’s really important to read histories like this to understand where we’ve been and recognize when we’re going too far down that road again. This book is meticulously written and researched, compelling like a train wreck, and really heartbreaking. But until we face the darkest parts of our history, we can’t truly reckon with what it means to be American. The tragic truth is that it took a horrific crime to be committed, some brave souls to publicize it, and a brave jury to find a man guilty to slow the spread of the KKK’s hate. So while this is not an easy read, it is an essential one.
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