Creative Nonfiction: Adam Carter

Invisible Empires

On the 4th of July 1923, an estimated crowd of two-hundred thousand gathered at Malfalfa Park, just outside of my hometown of Kokomo, Indiana. For a city of thirty thousand citizens, it would have been quite the spectacle. Robert Coughlan was only a child at the time, but in an essay later published in The Aspirin Age, he paints an opening image that would make Norman Rockwell proud. “The kind of day when the heat shimmers off the tall green corn and even the bobwhites seek shade in the brush—a great crowd of oddly dressed people clustered around an open meadow.” Coughlan describes an excited crowd, eyes to the sky, eagerly awaiting a special guest. Their patience is eventually awarded. A gilded airplane, glistening in the summer sun, comes into view. The plane makes a bumpy landing. The crowd cheers. A man hooded and robed in purple silk disembarks.

“Kigy,” he says to a small group of approaching dignitaries.

“Itsub,” they solemnly reply.

The man, trailed by his entourage, makes his way through the mass of spectators. Mounts a platform flanked with flags and bunting. Steps to the podium. D.C. Stephenson, the man in the purple robe, addresses his people. “My worthy subjects, citizens of the Invisible Empire, Klansmen all, greetings!”

 

Although I knew little of Kokomo’s Klan history growing up, I wasn’t completely oblivious to racism. Kokomo is a town considerably north of the Mason-Dixon line, but that distance and the passage of time don’t insulate it from a sinister past. My father told me of growing up near a Klu Klux Klan Grand Wizard in the single-stop-sign town of nearby Kempton. There were no people of color in that community, so it had seemed more an oddity than a threat to him. Another family friend, a Catholic, told of hiding in barn rafters as a boy to watch a Klan rally from afar. He spoke of confusion—why would the white-hooded men that gathered that night hate him for his religion? These sounded more of campfire tales than history lessons to me. Stories so far removed from my own naive childhood that they felt like children’s fables, warnings like the wolf in grandma’s clothing or a witch in the woods who eats children, warnings meant to instill morals, to protect against dangers that no longer seemed real.

Seventh grade is when I recall catching my first hint of how close the reality of racism is for those who live in the rural Midwest but aren’t a monochrome of mayonnaise-white. That year, I played football with a boy named Bobby Freeman. Bobby was big for middle school. Standing over six-foot tall and one of the only Black students in our grade, he couldn’t just fade into the crowd. He sported a tall “Kid and Play” box haircut that that he could balance his baseball cap upon. He made sound effects. Could make a yo-yo walk the dog for days. From my point of view, it seemed that Bobby was comfortable in his skin.

We were both lineman on the football team, Bobby at tackle and I at center. Bobby was the only Black man on the team that year—one of the few Black men to ever play for the Western Panthers. We had played together before, would play on the same offensive line throughout our high school careers. Bobby and I were schoolhouse friends—we cut it up in hallways and locker rooms, but in the twelve years we were classmates I rarely saw him outside of school functions. I never visited his home. Never invited him to mine.

 

The day before the presidential election I watched from my apartment as businesses boarded up their windows below. The TJ Maxx beneath me has yet to re-open. Same for the CVS down the street. Both set afire in the months after George Floyd was killed. The risk of damage is too immediate to be ignored.

The local sports radio host often turns to politics these days. Even though football has returned to play among the COVID outbreak, he seems more passionate about other matters. His “What-Da-Hell Wednesday” commentary is reflective of many complaints in the community.  Downtown is a mess he warns his statewide listeners. He speaks of open drug deals in the streets, of the homeless talking over. Watch out where you walk, he warns, people are taking dumps right on the sidewalk.

Local government listens. They increase the police presence downtown. At night I’m bombarded by the sound of patriotic music played at high volume from the city circle a block away. Red, white, and blue lights reflect off my windows. Home of the Brave reverberates off my walls. This song and light show plays every hour, on the hour, all day through the dark of night. Due to COVID, there are no tourists these days. Although the “Visit Indy” website claims the show is to “remind the world that we stand united in our fight against COVID-19,” it seems more likely to discourage visitors. Like an ultrasonic hum to repel insects—or a dog whistle, perhaps—an annoyance to chase the homeless away.

Indianapolis downtown businesses are largely white-owned, and I have little doubt who most of those owners will vote for. Indiana is predicted to go Red by a wide margin. I wonder if these business owners secretly suspect that the potential election of their preferred candidate—that his disdain for Black Lives Matter and the causes they support—will bring about the very destruction they are prepping for.

Like my apartment and the businesses that surround it, the building that houses my office is boarded up as well. I am a State Public Defender. When I see plywood walling off the ground floor windows, two by fours bracing the doors against illicit entry, read emails reminding me to have my government-issued identification at ready in order to enter, I think of my clients. Disproportionately Black. Locked inside prisons across the State. Another empire protected by its walls.

 

The 1923 Malfalfa Park rally is considered by some historians to be the largest Klu Klux Klan gathering on record. Coughlan describes a family affair: cars loaded with luggage, camping equipment, picnic baskets, and children in little Klan outfits. Following Stephenson’s induction as the Grand Dragon of Indiana, Dr. Hiram Wesley Evans, national leader of the Klan, gave the final speech. Having travelled there from Georgia, he noted that “the center of Klan activities seemed to have shifted from Atlanta to Kokomo.” His speech was entitled, “Back to the Constitution,” a familiar theme that the country was in peril from foreigners and “foreign influences.”

After the speech it was time for lunch. Cafeteria tables lined the banks of the Wildcat Creek, where the women’s auxiliary of the Klan laid out a spread of “five thousand cases of pop and near-beer, fifty-five thousand buns, twenty-five hundred pies, six tons of beef, and supplementary refreshments…”.

By Couhlan’s estimates, half of the male population of Kokomo were Klan members at the time. As a nine-year old white boy, Coughlan would not have initially appeared out of place. Although he was Catholic, and his father’s role as a Kokomo teacher had drawn the ire of local Klansmen, in the eyes of Kokomo Klan members “[n]ot all Catholics were in on the plot: for example, the Catholics you knew. These were well-meaning dupes who one might hope to save from their blindness.” Hoosiers were convinced that the Catholic Church was an invading force. A rumor had spread in the tiny town of North Manchester, Indiana, that the Pope himself was coming on the south-bound train from Chicago to take the place over. A mob formed to storm the train. The fact that they discovered only a travelling salesman—one eventually able to prove he was not the Pope in disguise—did little to quell regional fears. A friend of Coughlan’s mother continuously railed against the Catholic invasion, “Now I want to tell you, honey,” Mrs. Wilson would proclaim. “As soon as you’re born, the Pope is coming over here with his shirttail aflyin’!”

There was a parade down Main Street that night. The Union Traction Company transported three railcars full of white horses for the event. In Klan tradition, there was no music during the march. Only a slow, heavy drumbeat. Three hundred mounted Klansmen were interspersed among the fifty-thousand hooded men, women, and children. Many carried flaming torches. Flag bearers preceded every local chapter, with regional Klan flags—most bearing some form of the cross—flanking an American one in the middle. The parade marched from the far northside of Kokomo to Foster Park downtown, where they circled a final flaming cross, twenty-five feet tall.

At the close of the procession was an enormous flag, an estimated thirty feet long, with a dozen or so men on each side to support it. The middle sagged under the weight of coins and bills. The collection was “for the new ‘Klan hospital’ that was to relieve white Protestant Kokomoans of the indignity of being born, being sick, and dying under the care of nuns, a necessity since the Catholics supported the only hospital in town.”

 

Our seventh-grade team was on a bus headed for a rival football field when I first caught glimpse of the Bobby I didn’t know. It’s hard to say which county school we were headed to. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter. It could easily have been one of several that fit the description. It was a town bigger than the Kempton one my father grew up in, but one considerably smaller than Kokomo. Our school was located in a cornfield on the outskirts of Kokomo, but we pulled just enough of our student body from the surrounding suburbs to feel superior when visiting our more rural opponents. Smells like manure, we’d say. We must be getting close.

I was no doubt delving into such shit talk when I first noticed Bobby’s demeanor. His helmet gripped hard in his lap, his welcoming smile absent. He stared through the seat back before him, steel-faced and frozen. Only his cleats moved, scraping at the bus floor like a mouthful of grinding teeth. Bobby had never been the type to get pumped up for a game; he was usually as carefree on the field as he was in the classroom. Something else was in play.

In my memory, I ask Bobby what the problem is. He tells me a story that his father had told him, one about the little town where we were headed. How it had been a “sunset town” before. More specifically, there was a sign on the border of town that read “don’t let the sun set on your black ass here.” I hadn’t properly considered the impact of the past until I witnessed it weighing upon Bobby, as if he had just seen the sign himself as we drove by. Like the hometown my father shared with a grand wizard, or a Klu Klux Klan rally witnessed from a barn’s rafters, I had wrongly considered these things irrelevant to our current middle school lives—unfortunate pieces of the past that no longer applied.

 

It’s five months before the election and the drive-in movie I am attempting to watch keeps getting interrupted by text messages from various friends and family.

You are welcome at our house if you need to get out of downtown. 

Have you seen the news?

It looks like they are heading your way. 

The night before, protests in Indianapolis against the murder of George Floyd turned to riots after police officers tear gassed crowds. I ventured out when I first heard about the gassing, phone in hand. I had volunteered as a neutral observer for the ACLU during protests aimed to remove Confederate monuments in Florida; tasked with taking pictures and getting badge numbers if police got out of hand. I hoped to perform an impromptu version of the same service, counting on a combination of my law degree and my white privilege to keep me out of jail. There was little to observe. The crowd had mostly been chased off by the time I arrived—the crunch of broken glass underfoot and sting of lachrymator in the air the sole remnants of insurrection.

Somehow, the text messages the next night are more menacing than living within rubber bullet-shot of the action. I scroll through social media between movies, checking for damage. As I walk my date to her door following the second film in the double-feature, I wonder about my impending safety driving home. My fear is rioters, but I am instead confronted with a different show of force.

The first exit into downtown Indianapolis is blocked by patrol cars. I assume they are positioned to prevent me from driving into protesters in the street. Or an unrelated accident making the road impassable. I proceed around I-465, the interstate circling the Circle City, to find another route in. At every exit I am confronted with more police blocking ingress. Social media will later suggest that police were tipped off that busloads of “antifa” were being sent to “take over” the city. All I know at the time is that a wall of blue is preventing me from going home.

I exit the interstate driving away from the city then double back, hoping to find another way in. The first side street I arrive at is also blocked by police cars. Only, unlike those on the interstate, these officers are standing outside their vehicles. Brandishing shotguns.

I pull up next to the squad car. Tell the officers where I live. Ask how they expect me to get home. I can tell from the emblem on their car that they are from a different jurisdiction, and they are clearly on edge. I’m clearly annoyed. Thoughts of caselaw are fueling my frustration. Search and seizure. Unjustified police stops. The Fourth Amendment.

“We aren’t even from here,” the officer tells me when I demand to know how I am supposed to get home. “All I know is we aren’t letting anyone through.” I don’t reply. I do the lawyer thing. Wait him out. Lure him into saying more, as I would if he were on the witness stand.

“Get moving,” is all the more he has to offer.

I continue around this massive barricade of blue. Every road is blocked. When I cross the outer barrier of the street I live on, I try again.

“Where do you live?” this new officer asks. My date is on speaker phone, and I’ve been spouting off a series of Constitutional arguments as I drive. Illegal roadblocks. Brown v. Texas. Indianapolis v. Edmond. 

I give my address, pointing for emphasis “ten blocks down this road.” The officer keeps his eyes on my hand rather than in the direction I just gestured. I place it back on the steering wheel.

He confers with his partner. I overhear “nobody’s knows anything.” I can see that they are also not local IMPD.

“Drive around,” he says pointing towards the sidewalk. They aren’t willing to move their cars, but I’m driving a Jeep, so I take it. I nod, push in the clutch, and shift to first.
“Don’t hit his car,” the cop says, referring to the other officer, as I start to inch away. I waive him off. He finishes his sentence.

“Did he just say what I think he did?” my date asks over the phone. It takes a moment to register what I have heard. To confirm the officer’s words: “He will shoot you.”

This warning is almost hard to comprehend. Privilege has instilled in me that police are a roadblock, rather than a threat.

 

Coughlin describes a Klan in the Midwest that thrived on a fear of foreigners. Undoubtably their belief in a pure white race mandated a hatred of all who didn’t fit the requirements of their invisible empire, but unlike in the south, northern Klan leaders like D.C. Stephenson found that the fear of foreign influence was more palpable for their members—including a Pope in the Vatican City that they believed held aspirations of expansion. It wasn’t as if the Klan members north of the Mason/Dixon weren’t racist, as well. It just wasn’t their primary platform.

D.C. Stephenson rode that platform to great success, eventually becoming the “king kleagle” of seven other states. He headquartered his operations out of Indianapolis in a suite of downtown offices and lived in a showplace home in nearby suburban Irvington. He maintained hotel room suites, a fleet of automobiles, and a convoy of bodyguards. He even owned a yacht on Lake Michigan, which he used to entertain congressmen, judges, governors, and a U.S. Senator, all of whom stood to benefit from the door-to-door campaigning of Klan members. He became brazen enough to openly declare, “I am the law in Indiana.”

On this final point, Stephenson was mistaken. In a case demonstrative of the true morals of the outwardly Christian Klan, Stephenson was sentenced to life imprisonment for second degree murder for his rape, and the subsequent suicide, of a female colleague. Even in prison, Stephenson was convinced the empire he had built would result in a pardon. When he realized that his political allies had abandoned him, Stephenson produced his “little black box” of records, the contents of which landed the Mayor of Indianapolis, the Sheriff of Marion County, a congressman, and various other officials in jail for crimes of corruption.

The fall of Stephenson and his political cronies was a severe blow to their invisible empire. Nationally, the Klan tried to dissociate itself from Stephenson, but their claims to morality were severely undermined. The public took up the term “Stephensonism” and applied it to the Klan as a whole. By 1935 they had fallen on financial ruin, and the “Imperial Palace,” national headquarters of the Klan in Atlanta, had been purchased by the Savannah-Atlanta diocese of the Catholic Church for the site of a new cathedral.

In Indiana, Republicans disavowed any relationship with the Klan. Democrats turned their backs as well, a prominent Democratic party leader proclaiming that, “we don’t want the poisonous animal to crawl into our yard and die.”

In Kokomo, the hospital built with money raised from the Stephenson Klan rally lasted only five years before it failed. A charitable organization stepped in and purchased the property—the Catholic Sisters of Saint Joseph. The hospital still operates under its current name of St. Vincent.

Eventually, the organization that owned Malfalfa Park in Kokomo went bankrupt as well, and the land was donated to the YMCA. The location of the largest rally in Klan history became Camp Tycony, where I would later earn a few Cub Scout badges, unaware at the time of what that soil had seen.

 

Over twenty years after our high school graduation, I called Bobby. I had been writing an essay for a graduate course that rekindled the memory of that seventh-grade bus ride. I wanted his take.

We hadn’t spoken directly since graduation but had stayed in a vague form of touch through the “thumbs up’s” and “Happy Birthday’s” of social media. I wrote a message to Bobby, trying to explain what I wanted. He didn’t hesitate.

The call could have been awkward, but Bobby made it easy. We both loved football, so we soon found common conversation on the field. Bobby reminded me that being the only Black player was the norm for those county games. We laughed about how Bobby would goad on the defensive lineman across from him. Start the inevitably white opponent off with general pre-snap chit chat, which the opponent would inevitably ignore. Bobby would keep at it. Ask him about the weather. What his favorite food was. If he liked his team’s home or away jerseys better. Finally, when the game neared a crucial point, Bobby would turn his pre-snap attention to his teammate next to him.

“This guy won’t talk to me,” Bobby would say. “You think he’s racist? I bet he wants to call me the n-word.”

Whether they were racist or not, no opponent ever said the word. Just bringing it up was enough to throw most guys off their game. Make them reckless. Susceptible to a quick cross block that would spring our running back for a big gain. Even at a young age, Bobby was smart enough to know that talking race throws people off balance.

*

This is how Bobby eased me into the question he knew was coming. The one about the bus trip—the one that I remembered so many years later—the one that had first opened my eyes to lingering ghosts of racism.

“I don’t doubt it happened,” Bobby replied, “and, I can guess which school it would have been. But to be honest, I don’t remember it.”

I learned that Bobby’s father couldn’t have told him the story of a sunset town sign. Bobby’s father was in prison, and Bobby grew up fearing what would happen if his father came home. As our phone call progressed Bobby provided a peek into his life that revealed why a moment on a bus that seemed so traumatic to me would have been barely a blip on his radar if it registered at all. Stories about how he felt the responsibility of standing up for his Black classmates who weren’t given the respect at school that being on the football team granted Bobby. How that respect wasn’t absolute. How he was confronted by a classmate for daring to wear a neckless with the African continent portrayed in the red, black and green of Black Nationalism. Told to “go back to Africa.” How our football coaches had to break up a fight when his own teammate called him the one word that in all those years of trash talk his opponents had never dared.

As I hung up the phone, I realized that I barely knew Bobby at all.

 

 

In the days following election night, the vote count swings towards Biden. Trump becomes a one-term president. You know the rest: Refusal to concede. Claims of fraud. Lawsuits. Counterprotests. Proud Boys. Coup. My social media feed assures me we’ve won. Hope springs ephemeral.

In Kokomo, Bobby raises a family of his own. In the months leading up to the election a truck drives through a crowd of Kokomo citizens protesting police violence against Black Americans. The group of over one-hundred protesters was marching north from Foster Park towards downtown at the time. The inverse route of the Klan parade Coughlin described so many years before. The driver is identified as a white woman. A local correctional officer. Days later, she turns herself in at the jail. She’s booked, posts bond, and is released in twenty-eight minutes. Her most serious charge is reckless driving.

Shortly after the election, an Indianapolis grand jury votes not to indict an officer in the shooting death of Dreasjon Reed. Grand juries are the scapegoats of State governments when police officers kill. Jury members serve anonymously at proceedings where only the State presents its case. The testimony is sealed. The jury result is revealed without context, alongside whatever facts the State chooses to share in support. A Black colleague, Mark Nicholson, says it best, “Black, brown or poor whites, they really don't get grand juries. They get charged with a crime, and after they get charged with a crime they have to go to a public hearing to find out what the result is going to be."

What the State chooses to reveal about Dreasjon’s death sounds all too familiar. A young black male. Shot thirteen times by officers after a vehicle stop followed by foot pursuit. Dreasjon live-streamed the pursuit, and his ultimate death, on Facebook. Otherwise, we surely would not have been told about the end. About the joke an officer made while standing over Dreasjon’s dead body. “I think it’s going to be a closed casket, homie.” The initial reason for the stop? Reckless driving.

*

Coughlin closed his essay about the 1923 Klan rally on a positive note: “When a new bogey appears on Main Street to take the place of the Pope, and a new organization arises to take the place of the Klan, one can only hope that the new generation will turn out to be less ignorant than the old.”

Coughlin and I shared the same delusion. A belief that invisible empires fall. That they don’t just evolve. That the KKK can’t rebrand as Proud Boys. That the fear of an invading Pope on a train won’t morph into busloads of antifa bogeymen. That justifying police killings with grand juries isn’t the modern-day equivalent of sheriff-sanctioned mob lynchings. That another world won’t emerge from the flawed memory of a sunset town—a world only invisible if you choose not to look.

 

Contributor's Note:

This essay began with Dr. Lemons and my fellow students in his course, African American Literature: bell hooks and the Power of Autocritography, at the University of South Florida. It ended back in Kokomo, and all would be impossible without Bobby Freeman's willingness to share his story. Thank you.

BIO:

Adam Carter is a Master of Fine Arts graduate from the University of South Florida. While in Tampa he founded Writers with Conviction, a creative writing program at the Zephyrhills Correctional Facility. He currently lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he works as a State Public Defender. His writing can be found in Midwestern Gothic, Florida English Journal, and most recently in New Southern Fugitives. You can follow his work on Twitter @CarterInIndiana.