A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan's Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them by Timothy Egan
Published by Viking Adult
Publication date: April 4, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Non-fiction, History
I had little idea what to expect when I picked up Timothy Egan’s new book, A Fever in the Heartland. I knew it was about the Ku Klux Klan, but its subtitle seemed a bit dramatic: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them. It actually proved to be accurate in this little-known history of the KKK at a time and in a place I had never heard associated with the group.
I knew of the KKK as a domestic terror group set in the post-Civil War South who focused their hate crimes against Blacks. A Fever in the Heartland reports on a Klan resurgence in the 1920s, based in the Midwest with headquarters in Indiana, a state that fought with Union in the war. This rebirth was largely brought about by the machinations of D.C. Stephenson, a grifter, sociopath, and criminal whose goals were no less than to be elected to the White House in 1928. He didn’t succeed, but his efforts left the entire state of Indiana in the hands of Klan, from local courts and police forces all the way up to the governor. Despite being a state that was 97% white at the time, with Catholics and Jews comprising less than 15% of the population, Indiana embraced a virulent hatred of entire groups they knew nothing about, with 250,000 Klansmen in the late 1920s. Often under the banner of family values, patriotism, and Christianity, but in no way representing the meaning behind those concepts.
A Fever is largely about Indiana, but the state is not alone in shameful statistics. Colorado, Ohio, Oregon, Michigan, and Washington State helped push KKK membership numbers up to 3,000,000. Active members who not only committed hate crimes with impunity, but used the legal avenues of government and law enforcement to further their goals.
A few mind-boggling facts from the book:
- The Klan sponsored and pushed the federal Immigration Act of 1924 prohibiting virtually all immigration into the U.S. by any group other than WASPs.
- Early proponents of eugenics as a way to stop ‘undesirable’ population growth.
- Added a women’s brigade to spread “poison” (disinformation, gossip) via sewing circles etc and a children’s group (Ku Lux Kiddies) for early indoctrination.
I understand that there is only so much time to teach American history in schools. I also understand that learning about the dark side of one’s national heritage can be unpleasant, but after reading A Fever in the Heartland I’m convinced, more than ever, of the truth behind the quote, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” (George Santaya, 1905).
The word “unprecedented” has been invoked ad nauseum regarding the tenure of the previous GOP president and the havoc it wrought, but none of what this country is experiencing right now is unprecedented. Egan’s work is rigorously researched, based on extensive, solid documentation, and facts and clearly shows the horrifying parallels between the America of the 1920s and America now. For those who shrug away the KKK as a group from the past, A Fever in the Heartland clearly illustrates that the repugnant values and goals of that organization are still thriving in the increasing number of hate groups founded on their principles. This is vital reading for every American concerned about our democracy.
Interested in other obscured times in American history? I highly recommend The Woman They Could Not Silence.
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