The Ku Klux Klan is about 151 years old, and their presence has been felt in Elkhart County at least as far back as the 1970s and likely stretching back to the early part of the 20th century.
By that decade, “internal conflicts, court cases, a seemingly endless series of splits and government infiltration” had weakened the Klan, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit and civil rights advocacy group. Some factions of the Klan tried to enter the mainstream by labeling their point of view as “civil rights for whites,” while others continued to be openly racist or militant.
Today, it’s estimated that there are between 5,000 to 8,000 Klan members in the country, according to the SPLC. There are more than 40 different factions, though the civil rights group Anti-Defamation League puts their numbers closer to 5,000.
That doesn’t mean the Klan has remained idle. Beginning in 2006, factions have “attempted to exploit fears in America over gay marriage, perceived ‘assaults’ on Christianity, crime and especially immigration,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
There are some caveats to what we know about the presence of the Klan in Elkhart County. For one, we’re not sure when the Klan first appeared in Elkhart County. What we do know is that, by 1972, the grand dragon of Indiana claimed that the county had the fourth highest Klan membership in the state.
The timeline below is also not an exhaustive list of all the Klan’s activities in the county but it does highlight some of the important local events that involved the group, such as the introduction of Goshen’s mask ordinance in 1998 which the Klan opposed on First Amendment grounds.
The three Klan factions that were active in Elkhart and St. Joseph counties during that time were the Church of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of South Bend; the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Butler; and the United Klans of America of Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Our story begins with the National Knights, which an Elkhart man would later lead as their imperial wizard.
The National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is founded as a response to the growing civil rights movement, according to the SPLC. They’re made up of Klan groups from several southern states.
March 26, 1960
The National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan claimed to have between 10,000 to 15,000 members, according to the SPLC. They coordinated reportedly more than a thousand cross burnings across the South.
February 26, 1972
William Chaney, the Ku Klux Klan’s grand dragon in Indiana, held a press conference in Elkhart, according to an article published April 16, 2012 in The Elkhart Truth. He said that Klan membership in Elkhart County only lags behind Marion, Lake and Vanderburgh counties.
March 1972 to March 1973
Elkhart authorities reported that six burning crosses had been placed in people’s yards, at two schools and the Benham Avenue underpass, according to an article published April 16, 2012, in The Elkhart Truth.
February 28, 1973
The United Klans of America placed a classified advertisement in The Elkhart Truth that encouraged those who are interested in the group to write to an Elkhart post office box, according to an article published April 16, 2012, in The Elkhart Truth. The advertisement sparked controversy.
Railton Loy, an Elkhart man and member of the United Klans of America, later wrote a letter to the editor defending the newspaper’s decision to allow the advertisement. Railton Loy was a railroad worker who went by the Klan name Ray Larsen, according to the SPLC.
September 18, 1973
A U.S. District judge sent three Ku Klux Klan members from Elkhart to prison for three years in connection with a bomb threat against a black Elkhart woman, according to an article published April 16, 1975, in The Elkhart Truth.
They had placed a pipe bomb in April outside of her Monroe Street apartment. The woman kicked the bomb down the staircase, and it exploded. No one was injured.
September 20, 1975
The United Klans of America burned a cross at the Osceola drag strip off C.R. 1 in western Elkhart County, according to an article published April 16, 1975, in The Elkhart Truth. It drew about 100 people.
Railton Loy took over as the imperial wizard for the Church of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
1996 - 2000
The American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held rallies on April 27, 1996, in LaGrange; Aug. 17, 1996, in Goshen; April 11, 1998, and Nov. 11, 2000, in downtown Elkhart, according to an article published April 16, 2012, in The Elkhart Truth. Groups opposed to the Klan held counter-demonstrations during each of these rallies.
The 1996 rally led to the creation of Goshen’s Diversity Day, which celebrates the city’s different races and ethnic groups every year, according to an article published April 16, 2012, in The Elkhart Truth.
The city of Goshen also enacted an ordinance which makes it illegal for people to wear a mask or hood in public to conceal their identity, according to the SPLC. The only exceptions were masks worn for religious, personal safety or medical reasons.
“The law was an effort to stop the violence and, supposedly, intimidation caused by the wearing of Klan regalia and to help law enforcement apprehend criminals,” the SPLC wrote.
Jeff Berry, the imperial wizard of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, challenged the Goshen ordinance on First Amendment grounds in a lawsuit filed in federal court, according to the SPLC.
The Klan claimed that its members wear the masks to conceal their identities so that they won’t be harassed, lose their jobs or suffer any repercussions because of their point of view.
U.S. District Judge Robert Miller struck down the ordinance “holding that by ‘directly chilling speech,” the law violated the Klan’s right to associate anonymously. Miller added that city officials did not have any evidence of Klan members wearing masks to hide any criminal activities.
“More than a century ago, the Ku Klux Klan wore masks to terrorize persons they wanted to drive from their communities,” Miller wrote in his decision “Today, the Klan’s descendant organization uses its masks to conceal the identities of those who hold ideas the community wishes to drive off.”
He said that the city could prevent such violence without having to violate Klan member’s right to remain anonymous.
The American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan “largely collapsed” after Jeff Berry was convicted for conspiracy to commit criminal confinement with a deadly weapon, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Jeff Berry was arrested in 1999 after he and other armed members of the Klan held a television reporter and a camerawoman captive in his home, according to the SPLC. Jeff Berry wanted the journalists to hand over a videotaped interview of him.
Police did not bring charges against Jeff Berry because the journalists’ account of what happened was in conflict with those Klan members had to say.
The SPLC later sued Jeff Berry in 2000 on behalf of the journalists, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison a year later after pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy and criminal confinement with a deadly weapon.
August 3, 2002
Richard Loy, Railton Loy’s son, sponsored a white pride festival on his property along Ash Road in St. Joseph County, right where it borders Elkhart County, according to an article published April 16, 2012, in The Elkhart Truth.
The people who attended the festival burned a wooden swastika and cross that was estimated to be at least 25 feet tall. They then chanted “Seig Heil,” “white power” and “RAHOWA,” which stands for racial holy war, according to the article.
The SPLC offers a slightly different account of what happened during what was billed as a “Christmas unity rally.”
About 50 people attended the event, including members of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations. A red-suited “Klanta Klaus” entertained the crowd.
Klan members attempted to set fire to a wooden swastika, but the burning Nazi symbol collapsed to the ground. They struggled to get their wooden cross to stand up straight as well and later sawed about 12 feet off the bottom to fix the problem.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations also “recoiled with horror” when the Loys served a “dead pig that by all accounts was barely cooked,” according to the SPLC.
Many Klan members are followers of Christian Identity, which believes that whites can’t eat pork. That’s because their theology holds that Jewish people are “biologically Satanic and whites are the true Israelites.”
Jeff Berry had a change of heart at the age of 51, according to the SPLC. He renounces the Ku Klux Klan and declared that he has “turned his life over to God.”
Anthony Berry, Jeff Berry’s son who was raised up to be a white supremacist, tries to rekindle the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan with a friend.
Jeff Berry is released from prison.
Anthony Berry and Fred Wilson, his friend and Klan member, attacked Jeff Berry at a barbecue, though their reasons for doing so aren’t clear, according to the SPLC. Doctors at first described his injuries as “life-altering.”
Anthony Berry pleaded guilty to a felony charge of criminal recklessness, and he’s sentenced to a year on work release. He’s also ordered to pay $15,000 toward his father’s medical bills.
Railton Loy, who moved to Mishawaka, stepped down as imperial wizard and became emperor of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
May 31, 2013
Jeff Berry died at the age of 64 of lung cancer at a hospital in Cook County, Ill.