Albert Weiss and the Ku Klux Klan
August 4, 2020 – David R. Weiss
If we’re honest, most of our family histories have episodes and chapters in them that we wish weren’t there. Mine does, too. Happily, this isn’t one of them.
But a little background first. In 1920 the Ku Klux Klan began organizing in southern Indiana …
Originally founded in 1865 as a post-Civil War vigilante group of ex-Confederate soldiers dedicated to terrorizing newly freed Blacks in the South, the Klan had largely disappeared within a decade. (To be sure, even though the KKK had been officially disbanded, there were plenty of racist vigilantes still active in the South alongside Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws.)
Then, the 1915 release of the film “Birth of a Nation” unabashedly glorified the Klan as a supposed protector of America’s purity—and white supremacy. The film was praised by President Woodrow Wilson and sparked a resurgence of the Klan beginning in the Deep South. This incarnation of the Klan, however, was led by better-educated and better-connected men; its political influence quickly became formidable. Drawing on the latent xenophobia that always rises in wartime, the Klan wed its racism to added fears of immigrants coming from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe, immigrants most often Catholic or Jewish.
This broadened message of fear and hate helped the Klan move north. Industry was drawing both European immigrants as well as southern Blacks to the area. (Chicago’s Black population more than doubled between 1910 and 1920; Detroit’s grew six-fold in that time.)
So this is the Ku Klux Klan that spread northward in Indiana in the early 20’s. It spread like wildfire. From July 1922 to July 1923 its statewide membership grew by 2000 per week until the Indiana Klan boasted over 250,000 dues-paying members—the largest membership of any state north or south. By 1925 the Governor of Indiana and over half of the members of both house of the General Assembly were card-carrying Klansmen. The Klan’s reach into local communities ran just as deep. Protestant ministers were offered free memberships. At its peak, 30-40% of the white males in Indiana joined the Klan. Even those who did not join were frequently intimidated into silence. And many politicians from the city to state level knew that a Klan endorsement was key to their election.
The Klan’s statewide newspaper, The Fiery Cross, targeted Blacks and Jews (often framed as Jewish Communists), but it saved its strongest venom for Catholics who were accused of plotting secretly to overthrow the U.S. government, hand the nation over to the Pope, and then exterminate Protestants across the country. All who joined the Klan pledged their secrecy, affirmed that they were “native born, white, Gentile, American citizens,” vowed their allegiance to the country, and promised to “faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of White Supremacy.” Remember, over a third of all white men in the state made these pledges in order to join the Klan.
While the Indiana Klan was strongest in the central part of the state, it had members throughout, including perhaps 20% or more in northern Indiana. In 1923 the Klan made a serious though ultimately unsuccessful bid to buy Valparaiso University (at the time nicknamed “the Poor Man’s Harvard”) shortly before its purchase by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. And in 1924 the Klan held a rally in South Bend targeted at Notre Dame. The rally became violent between Notre Dame students and Klansmen (including some who had been deputized by the sheriff).
So, that’s the background. Now meet me at 215 Grant Avenue in Michigan City, the home of Albert and Johanna Weiss, and their son Robert (my grandpa), who would’ve been about ten. Let’s say summer 1923, but it might have been 1922 or 1924. They’re out on the front porch. Maybe after supper on a Sunday evening.
Here comes the Michigan City Ku Klux Klan marching down Grant Ave in their robes. Perhaps a couple dozen of them. Hooded. Likely carrying both an American flag and a Christian flag. The Klan harnessed the worst energies of both patriotism and faith. Their march had three purposes. It served to celebrate the Klan itself—which they would do at the end of the march when they burned a cross (maybe several crosses) in the dunes. But along the way it served two other purposes. To intimidate the Polish Catholics and the Blacks, both of whom were increasing in the city’s west side. And to recruit white Protestant men to join. Men like my great-grandpa Albert.
Albert was a laborer at Haskell & Barker (later Pullman Standard), a manufacturer of railroad cars. His particular work was hard—and hot. He was part of a crew that heated the steel train wheels until they expanded, then forced them onto the axel where they would shrink and seal tight. He undoubtedly knew a host of other immigrants (he’d only come to the U.S. from Germany around 1910). Still, as a white German Protestant, he had every reason to buy into the Klan’s message of fear and hate.
As the marchers walked by, one of them called out to my great-grandpa by name, “Hey, Albert, you should be out here marching with us! Come join!” It might’ve sounded like a friendly invitation, but such invitations often included an unspoken—“or else.” Which made Albert’s reply all the more memorable: “I won’t join anything that requires me to hide my face. If your beliefs are so honorable, why are you hiding behind those hoods?” And he stormed back into the house.
Just like that, the moment was over. Thankfully, so far as we know, there were no reprisals made by the Klan against him. But the scene etched itself into his wife’s memory and became one of the stories she shared with her grandson, Frederick, my dad. For her, it was a story that helped define her long dead husband. A man of hard work, little book learning, very modest means—but with convictions and honor that had roots running down deep, as though into the earth. Unshakeable.
Almost exactly a hundred years ago, in a day when our nation was unsettled by change and uncertainty, and many were easily mesmerized by heightened fear and cultivated hate of others, Albert Weiss, my great-grandfather, said No.
It’s a far different world today, but one in which fear and hate still sell all too well. I now live in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Google maps places me about 459 miles from Albert’s front porch. But standing on my porch, just above a yard sign that proclaims “Black Lives Matter,” the distance—and the century—between us fall away. I never met Albert. He died in 1932, several years before my dad was born. But today I stand on his shoulders.
If you’re one of Albert’s descendants (or even if you’re not!), I invite you to clamber on up. In the face of fear and hate he was unshakeable. Today there’s room on his shoulders for all of us.
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NOTE: The collapse of the Indiana Klan began in 1925 when its leader, D.C. Stephenson, was convicted in the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. Sent to prison (in Michigan City), he counted on clemency or commutation from the governor (a fellow Klansman). When that didn’t happen, Stephenson (from prison) provided the Indianapolis Times with the names of politicians involved in corruption through the Klan. The whole organization was unraveled thanks to a series of reports that earned the Times the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. By 1928 Indiana Klan membership had dropped from 250,000 to just 4,000. But that’s another story.
There’s a lot of online material about the Indiana Klan, including a nice 15-minute C-SPAN video (www.c-span.org/video/?298317-1/1920s-indiana-ku-klux-klan). These are the pieces I relied on for this essay:
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.