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The KKK’s Prohibition-era war on the Church

A 1926 edition of The Good Citizen depicts Al Smith as a papal lackey

In 1923 a local Ku Klux Klan newspaper grumbled about events in Gary, Indiana. Enforcement of Prohibition legislation (which came into effect 100 years ago today), had become rather sluggish and the town needed a “sheriff big enough to fight and who can deliver a squared fist at the jaw of the Gary foreign element, battering it to a recognition of the laws of the state and of the nation”. Such a man was “wanted and wanted badly”.

Prohibition was wonderful news for the Klan because it provided another weapon in its bigoted campaign to right the ship of state. Who was to blame for the blight of alcohol abuse? Why, all those continental immigrants, of course. And Catholics – with their pesky exemptions for the use of wine for sacramental purposes – were the worst of the lot.

Williamson County, Illinois, discovered just how damaging such sentiments could become. There was more to the story than wholesome Klan-run family day picnics and county fairs. KKK members began speaking, in their robes, at Protestant services, and congregations lapped up phrases like “enforcement” and “taking the initiative”.

The Klan played it by the book, appealing to figures high up in the Prohibition Bureau. We’d love to help, came the official reply, but we’d need an army. Not a problem, said the Klan. An official observer was despatched to gather evidence, and by December 1923 federal agents were arriving. Hundreds of Klan members were formally deputised and, during the first night alone, dozens of raids were launched and 70 arrests were made. Most were legitimate targets, but the Klan was not minded to stop there. The net was broadened. Private Italian-American homes were barged into, fake evidence of whisky-making was planted and the Italian consulate complained about a “reign of terror”.

The Feds retreated and chaos descended. Raiding parties now included up to 1,000 men. Catholic houses were burned to the ground, gun battles raged in the streets, and even a hospital ward provided the setting for a shootout.

With 14 deaths on the roster, martial law was declared and the National Guard restored order. No one doubted the anti-Catholic impetus behind events. During these terrible months, a Klan cross was set ablaze outside Herrin Catholic Church on 17 occasions. By 1930, a quarter of the county’s foreign-born or first-generation families (more than 3,000 people) had been driven out.

It was just one incident among many hundreds and, crucially, the Klan must not be seen as some fringe group in 1920s America. Its national membership reached as many as five million and its bilious outbursts had a lot in common with anti-Catholic ideas that had always permeated the temperance movement.

During the 1920s scores of public figures stopped short of joining the Klan but were clearly impressed by its activities. As one New York Congregationalist minister put it, “I am not losing sleep grieving over the increase in membership of the Klan.” The Alabama senator, Thomas Heflin, always happy to pocket a KKK donation, developed a paranoid fantasy that before long an actual papal invasion force would be storming the Atlantic seaboard. As a saner colleague suggested, this was “the airiest bubble that had ever found lodgement in an empty head”.

By 1928, the Klan’s influence had waned but there was still time for one last hurrah. When the long-serving Catholic New York Governor Al Smith won the Democratic presidential nomination sparks flew off the KKK’s presses. Smith was portrayed as the man who drove drunk around New York City, who got through a dozen cocktails a day, and if he were elected “bootleggers and harlots would dance on the White House lawn”. In one cartoon he was to be seen driving a beer truck proudly advertising his goal: “Make America 100 per cent Catholic, Drunk and Illiterate.” Smith was a tough politician but even he must have shivered at the sight that greeted him as he rode into Oklahoma City for another stop on the campaign trail. Klansmen stood along the railroad tracks next to burning crosses.

Once again it was those who were in tune with, but not members of, the Klan who did just as much damage. The Southern Methodist leader James Cannon Jr despised Catholicism. Sensible people, he explained, wanted nothing more to do with uncooperative immigrants: “We have been unable to assimilate such people in our natural life.” But there was Smith jollying up to these deadbeats: “He wants the kind of dirty people you find on the sidewalks of New York.”

Regrettably, Cannon’s voice carried a lot of weight. As HL Mencken put it, his “merest wink can make a president of the United States leap like a bullfrog”. Cannon’s opposition had a great deal to do with Smith’s disastrous defeat on election day.

It could, with a lot of charity, be argued that Cannon’s vile stances were at least rooted in a consistent moral vision. The same rarely applied to most members of the KKK. Ethics didn’t enter into their musings. Sometimes, after a night-raid, most of the seized liquor (whether legal or illegal) was handed over to the authorities, but a healthy proportion had another destination.

The Klansmen would shake off their boots, recount their intimidating deeds, and get plastered on the alcoholic spoils. It put something of a dent in the image of the heroic crusaders for a drier, better America.

Jonathan Wright is an honorary fellow in the department of theology and religion at Durham University