It’s been awhile since a non-fiction book captivated me in the way that A Fever in the Heartland by Timothy Egan did. The research and storytelling was incredible and I had to remind myself constantly that THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED. This is our history. This was and is racism in the United States. There are so many books out there that share pieces of history that most of us never learned in school. That makes them even more important to pick up and read. It is evident that Egan spent many hours scouring through historical paperwork, newspapers, court documents, and statements to put this story together. It is a must read.
A Fever in the Heartland is set in 1920’s Indiana and centers around a charismatic man, D.C. Stephenson, who was a major influence on the expansion of the Ku Klux Klan. Stephenson’s influence made the KKK expand from the old Confederacy to the Heartland of the US, as well as the West coast. They openly spoke hate against Black folks, Jewish people, Catholics, and immigrants, while taking steps to amplify their message into influential elected positions. Stephenson called himself the ‘Grand Dragon’ and spread the KKK’s message of hate through grass roots methods at churches, town festivals and family picnics. At the peak of the KKK’s power, a woman named Madge Oberholtzer was the victim of a heinous crime but became the catalyst for putting the final nail in Stephenson’s coffin, and subsequently, the KKK’s public downfall.
When I am telling you I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough and read with my jaw on the floor, I am not lying. This book reads like a fiction thriller. It is truly unbelievable to learn all that went into Stephenson’s hate campaign and how many people bought into it and supported it, especially those in powerful positions. What the KKK stood for is still alive and well, but not touted in public like it was in the 1920’s, but that makes it even more dangerous. I couldn’t help but think to myself and wonder how many of those walking among us are descendants of former Klan members and how many still subscribe to its teachings. It is truly scary, but a reminder that the work is not done. One of the quotes that stood out to me the most is one that mentions that the hate has always been there and as long as there are people like Stephenson, there are people who will continue spreading it.
Read these quotes and let them sink in a bit. My bet is that there are several prominent politicians, celebrities, television hosts and commentators, social media influencers, etc. that come to mind, and it has been 100 years since these words were spoken:
“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.”
“The Klan prided itself on how quickly it could spread a lie: from a kitchen table to the whole state in six hours or less.”
“He discovered that if he said something often enough, no matter how untrue, people would believe it.”
“A vein of hatred was always there for the tapping. It’s there still, and explains much of the madness threatening American life a hundred years after Stephenson made a mockery of the moral principles of the Heartland.”
“Jim Crow was a bipartisan crime.”
Other books about US history that you never learned in school:
*Click on title links for my reviews*
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones
The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond