During its 1920s heyday the Ku Klux Klan was unremitting in its hostility towards Catholicism. As one Arkansas member put it, the loyalty of Catholics was “across the sea and the religion they profess is a foreign religion … the quicker we invite them to go back to the other side of the big pond the better it will be for us”. A typically rabid editorial in one of the Klan’s many periodicals – with the suitably sinister headline “To Your Guns!” – hammered the point home to its readership: “Drop not your fiery cross but carry it over vale and hill till pagan Roman Catholicism is expelled from our fair and free American life forever.”
The Klan pursued a goal of what it termed “100 per cent Americanism” and Caleb Riley explained why this made detestation of the Pope obligatory: “I am an Anglo-Saxon white man, and so constituted and trained that I cannot conscientiously take either my politics or my religion from some secluded ass on the other side of the world.” A Klan member from Mississippi was more succinct: he had no time for “that old dago by the Tiber”.
The fantastical allegations came thick and fast. Every time a Catholic father had a son he would add a rifle to the arsenal stored in the basement of his local church. It paid to be prepared for the great Catholic insurrection that was sure to come. After all, who could fail to notice that two antique cannon at Georgetown University in Washington were pointed directly at the Capitol Building? Worse yet, the Pope had already bought lands close to DC and was planning a “million-dollar mansion” from which he could mastermind the overthrow of the government.
At North Manchester, Indiana, a rumour once circulated that the pope was on board a train from Chicago so Klan members duly assembled at the station in the hope of giving the Pontiff what-for. In Florida, Governor Sidney J Catts, supported by the KKK, spent an inordinate amount of time travelling through his fiefdom warning of an imminent papal invasion of the state.
Ahead of the cataclysm, the Klan explained, Catholics would do their level best to ruin public morals and undermine American values. Klan audiences in the 1920s were routinely treated to speeches by women who claimed to be former nuns: they would often display leather bags in which, it was alleged, the newborn children of illicit liaisons between nuns and priests were carried to church furnaces to be cremated. Did people not realise, a Klan member in Sacramento asked, that “nearly all the bawdy houses, bootleg joints and other dives are owned or controlled by Romanists”?
Tragically, these were not simply the ravings of a fringe group. During the 1920s the Klan was extraordinarily successful.
Its membership probably topped four million and it was spread across all 48 states: 700,000 in Indiana, in the region of 400,000 in Texas and Ohio. The Klan was part of the mainstream of American politics, perfectly capable of determining the outcome of elections great and small.
Campaigns were launched against the provision of federal funds to Catholic parochial schools and Catholic teachers
in the public sector were hounded; in Atlanta, members of the school board who refused to follow the Klan’s whims had their lives threatened.
In some places, the Klan’s power went largely unchecked. When, in 1921, a man confessed to killing a Catholic priest in broad daylight, the jury in Birmingham, Alabama, mostly made up of Klan members, blithely acquitted him. Elsewhere, tensions between the Klan and its opponents boiled over. At Lilly, Pennsylvania, in 1924, a Klan rally descended into chaos and four people died. Twenty-nine rioters, all but four of them Klansmen, were arrested. In Niles, Ohio, when the Klan erected one of its burning crosses in front of a church, local Catholics burned tires outside Klan members’ houses. Such was the pitch of reciprocal violence and menace in Lafayette, Louisiana, that the local bishop urged his flock not to take “cheap revenge upon the Klan”.
By the end of the 1920s, the KKK had managed to divide the Democratic Party and had played a major role in derailing the Catholic Al Smith’s bid for the presidency, but its period of widespread political influence evaporated almost as quickly as it had arrived. The rants continued, of course, just as local politics could sometimes be infected by the Klan’s activities, and the memories of the terrible 1920s would leave deep wounds.
It was important for American Catholics to remember the stories of men like Pearce DeBardeleben, a Catholic store owner from Sylacauga, Alabama, who, in April 1921, was dragooned to the woods by Klan members, flogged with leather straps and punched so brutally that he lost most of his teeth.
The ugly nostrums that allowed the KKK to reach such giddy heights of influence may no longer be bandied about the corridors of power, but it would be remiss of American Catholics to assume that they have entirely disappeared.
Jonathan Wright is an honorary fellow in the department of theology and religion at Durham University. His book Layered Landscapes: Early-Modern Sacred Space Across Faiths and Cultures, co-edited with Eric Nelson, is published by Routledge