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Book review: Timothy Egan’s ‘Fever in the Heartland’ reminds us of a hateful history

By Ron Sylvester For The Spokesman-Review For The Spokesman-Review

Timothy Egan has written a book destined to be banned in part of America.

“A Fever in the Heartland: the Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them,” has the potential of offending white people nationwide – or at least in Florida.

That’s exactly why it’s an important and a must-read for those who want to learn more about the history no one taught them in schools.

Egan’s “Fever” chronicles the rise of white supremacy during the 1920s, antithetical to the roaring portrait of the decade of jazz, flappers and free-thinking in the world of people such as F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This is a world of a disenfranchised class in middle America that saw its very life view threatened by an influx of immigrants and a rise in popularity of Black culture.

Egan’s meticulous research details a history that some might find fantastical.

Imagine a world where a braggadocious blowhard and sexual predator with the gift of gab could convince an entire political party to bend to his will and rule the seat of power for years. This leader could raise money from starving farmers who saw him as a savior and be so brazen as to say he could commit crimes and not be prosecuted. He would gain the support of Christian Protestant church leaders who would preach his personal gospel from their pulpits.

He built a mass following that supported a platform of smashing immigration, suppressing minority voters and keeping white America in power at all costs.

But that’s the story behind D.C. Stephenson’s rise to power with the Ku Klux Klan and the seeds he planted in Indiana just a half century after the end of the Civil War freed African Americans from the bonds of slavery.

Egan documents Stephenson’s rise to power as the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Indiana, where he recruited hundreds of thousands of men, women and children – the latter named Ku Klux Kiddies – to don sheets, masks and terrorize their neighbors in the name of patriotism.

“I did not sell the Klan in Indiana on hatreds,” Stephenson said. “I sold it on Americanism.”

Stephenson, meanwhile, wasn’t alone. The KKK grew across the country, from Oregon to Virginia, pushing to put its members in power in city councils, state legislatures and even Congress to do its bidding.

“The governor of Georgia, Clifford Walker, told a Klan rally in 1924 that the United States should ‘build a wall of steel, a wall as high as heaven’ against immigrants,” Egan writes.

Stephenson indoctrinated every part of community life in both urban and rural areas with the white supremacy. Politicians, newspaper publishers, law enforcement at every level and Main Street merchants all swore their allegiance to the Klan, and also gave $10 dues which Stephenson pocketed to a tune he later estimated at $28 million.

The Grand Dragon played on fears that the Civil War and immigration had unleashed a movement that provided a great replacement of white protestant America with a melting pot of cultures and ideas. White America responded, first throughout the South, then throughout the country.

“The North had won the war,” Egan writes. “The South was winning the peace.”

Stephenson was a slick salesman.

“He understood people’s fears and their need to blame others for their failures,” Egan writes. “He discovered that if he said something often enough, no matter how untrue, people would believe it. Small lies were for the timid. The key to telling a big lie was to do it with conviction.”

Stephenson’s campaign started in the pulpit, paying off preachers to support the Klan’s mission. It worked, with pastors lining up to line their pockets and give sanctity to bigotry. Stephenson would call white supremacy being 100% American, suggesting those who weren’t white were something less. That included Catholics, who suffered night raids and cross burnings on the campus of Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana.

While men signed up to protect white privilege, Stephenson and the Klan appealed to women with a promise to support Prohibition and the sanctity of marriage – swearing allegiance to monogamy and family.

Problem was Stephenson and his top henchmen didn’t practice what they promised. During the height of Prohibition, Stephenson held debaucherous parties, fueled by booze and misogyny. Women later reported being raped and molested at the hands of the Grand Dragon. As the title implies, it would finally be one of these women who brought him down.

Stephenson put governors, judges and senators in office with Klan influence, bribes and downright threatening voters. He wanted to be president of the United States and might have just done it, had it not been for Madge Oberholtzer, who would give everything to save her state and possibly her country.

Egan’s writing does a masterful job of connecting cultural paths that cross in the night. The same Indiana burgs that gave rise to the Klan also produced one of the early jazz recordings by King Oliver and a protégé named Louis Armstrong. A night ride on a minister’s house in Nebraska would turn out to be the childhood home of civil rights leader Malcolm X. A throng of Notre Dame students that stood up to the Klan and drove them off the streets would lead them to name their sports teams the Fighting Irish.

While Stephenson’s rise and fall drives the narrative, Egan points out the rise of the Klan nationwide. He also cites how America’s leaders, including the complacency of Woodrow Wilson and the silence of Calvin Coolidge, led the Klan to take over the Republican Party of the 1920s. At one point, the Klan was 6 million strong across the U.S.

This is a fascinating read and revelation of American history in a time often glossed over and hushed.

“Fever in the Heartland” is a book sure to elicit emotions from egos easily bruised. Similar tales of historical truths already are being yanked from book shelves.

Read this one while you can.

Ron Sylvester has been a journalist for more than 40 years with publications including the Orange County Register, Las Vegas Sun, Wichita Eagle and USA Today. He lives in rural Kansas.

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