On June 16, 1928 ten thousand members of the Ku Klux Klan assembled in Jamesville, New York. The Syracuse Herald reported that “entire families with lunch baskets” had spent the afternoon enjoying choral music and, at 7.30 pm, the star of the show took to the stage. The Alabama Senator J. Thomas Heflin was an unabashed white supremacist and a man who, as Time magazine once put it, “mortally hates and fears the Roman pope.” Heflin was the darling of KKK crowds throughout the 1920s, not least during the febrile political year of 1928.
A Roman Catholic, Al Smith, was running for the Democratic presidential nomination and the prospect horrified Heflin. His speech was slightly delayed on that June evening – the stage collapsed, and Heflin naturally blamed Catholic ne’er-do-wells – but he soon had the opportunity to spout his habitual themes. Immigrants were ruining American culture, a vast Popish conspiracy was threatening the republic, and straight-talkers like Heflin were routinely misrepresented. His speeches in the Senate, he grumbled, were “garbled up in the newspapers, which are controlled by Catholic interests.”
By the time Fr William Aitcheson became embroiled with the Klan, forty years ago, the organisation had lost much of its political punch, but no-one had forgotten that, during the 1920s, the Klan boasted a membership of between three and four million Americans across all forty-eight states.
Some of the Catholic teachers and public officials who had been harassed, some of the store-keepers and saloon owners who had been chased out of town, and some of the victims of hateful violence were still alive. The Klan’s rhetoric was as noxious as ever and the crosses were still being burned.
Fr Aitcheson has issued a frank apology for his past actions and his account of the transformative influence of faith strikes me as sincere. Still, it would be useful to know much more about how a Catholic, albeit non-practising at the time, found common cause with one of the most virulently anti-Catholic movements in America.
It’s important because, oddly enough, Fr Aitcheson’s story is not unique.