In 1923, in Hammond, more than 5,000 regalia-clad Klansmen marched downtown, with an additional 300 to 400 in regular clothing. “Spectators lined the streets in support.” Four crosses were burned in the area, and Rabbi Max Bretton spoke of a burning on the grounds of Temple Beth-El.
A year later, on election night, the Klan-backed candidate for governor swept the state. The newspaper headlined, “A Cross Blazed In Every Park of Hammond.”
One week later, Rabbi Bretton and his congregation began the Beth-El Open Forum. Two nights later, 13 robed Klansmen visited the new African Methodist Episcopal church, donated $100, and extended words of greeting to the congregation. Klan members marching into a church was a frequent tactic they used to intimidate congregations.
In the 1920s, Indiana led the country in the number of Klan members. It was the largest organization of any kind in the state, with more members than veterans’ organizations and even Methodism, the leading Protestant denomination.
Against this intolerance, the Beth-El Open Forum stood tall.
For 19 years, a broadly representative committee brought thought-provoking lecturers to the community. Among the committee leaders were Dr. Hedwig Stieglitz Kuhn and Arthur Weiss.
This was a time when many clergy and their congregants had to be brave to take a stand on social issues. It was also a period when we had a structure for civil discourse in the nation.
Begun in Boston in 1908 as the Ford Hall Forum, with initial funding by the Baptist Social Union, the movement spread to hundreds of cities and became the Open Forum. The locally planned, trans-denominational public lectures, followed by fully open question periods, were characterized as “the striking of mind upon mind.”
This unique movement, which once reached thousands of people from a wide range of economic backgrounds and faiths, has been lost until now in the historical record. Understanding the initiative provides fresh insight into the nation’s history and broadens our awareness of personal and community courage, democratic planning and broad-based learning. In bringing forward the courageous clergy and community leaders, we can recover an important path to civil discourse for our time.
I will discuss the national movement and its impact on Hammond at 2 p.m. March 16 at the Hammond Public Library. My book uncovering the movement, "Democracy in the Making; The Open Forum Lecture Movement" (University Press of America), was recently published.
I began researching the movement while director of the Hammond Public Library from 1986 to 1997. I have been director of Russell Library in Middletown, Conn., since then.