National News

Church’s Battle vs KKK Reached Peak in 1920’s

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) – Given the Ku Klux Klan’s historical animus toward Catholics, one of the most unusual stories that emanated from the aftermath of the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” march and its deadly aftermath in Charlottesville, Va., was the self-penned admission by a priest in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., that he had been a member of the Klan 40 years ago, before his entry into the seminary.

The revelation came shortly after a freelance journalist – who, as a child, was a member of a Virginia parish where the priest was assigned – connected the dots and linked him to a cross-burning conviction and civil judgments for this and other racial terror tactics not far from the Maryland suburb where he was raised.The priest’s recent request to take a temporary leave from active ministry was granted by the diocese.

The intersection of the KKK with Catholics came to an ugly head in the 1920s, when the second version of the Klan was making inroads not just in the South but throughout the nation.

In the 1920s, the Klan mushroomed in membership. Estimates put its number at between three million and five million – staggering numbers when the total U.S. population in 1920 was 106,021,537. Subtract Catholics, Jews and African-Americans from that total – they were the groups most despised by the KKK – and the Klan’s always-secret membership could have been equal to 15 percent of the eligible population.

A 1923 dispatch from Bastrop, La., by NCWC News Service – the initial name of Catholic News Service – spoke of a “crack troop of cavalry” ready to defend townspeople from the Klan, and described a process used by the KKK called “selling out”: “killing as many as possible before a person is killed himself, in other words, trading one’s life for the highest price possible.”

Also that year, the Missionary Sisters of the Most Blessed Trinity declared they would ignore Klan threats in Sterling, N.J., and open a retreat house there.

A 1924 story noted how Catholic teachers were blaming the KKK for being discriminated against in hiring in public schools. It was the mission of women in the Klan to protest the employment of Catholics as teachers. The NCWC News Service story listed no cities or states; in fact, it featured two long dashes in place of specific locales.

Given the tenor of the times, there was guilt by association.

Earle Mayfield was dubbed “the KKK candidate” in a U.S. Senate race in Texas because both he and the Klan supported prohibition. Although one Catholic quoted in a 1922 story claimed Mayfield would not win, and not be seated if he did win, Mayfield won handily over a write-in candidate, but was not seated until the following December due to procedural challenges to the election. He served but one term, losing the 1928 Democratic primary.

While in office, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, a Democrat running on an anti-KKK platform in 1924, won a two-year term to become Texas’ first female governor.

In 1924, denunciations were collected from newspapers in Georgia after then-Gov. Clifford Walker addressed a Klan “konvocation” in Kansas City, Mo. A Dalton Citizen editorial said Walker’s charges against Catholics in the remarks were “back alley gossip about papal control of America, originated by a certain class of people who are selling their souls for money, and who have no more regard for America than for Borneo.”

Two decades later, in 1946, Ellis Arnall, by this time Georgia’s governor, tried to drive a stake through the heart of the Klan in its Peach State birthplace. As the world learned of the extent of the Third Reich’s campaign of extermination of Jews in Europe, Arnall called the Klan “Hitler stuff.”

Arnall ultimately paid for his stance. He lost a re-election bid in the Democratic primary that year to Eugene Talmadge, who branded Arnall a “race traitor.” Arnall made a new bid for governor in 1966, but lost a runoff in the Democratic primary to Lester Maddox, an ardent foe of desegregation.

In Indiana, where the Klan may have been at its strongest in the 1920s, a sensational deposition was given by David Stephenson, once the second in command in the KKK but by 1928, was serving a life term for murder.

“Catholic churches were burned and pillaged, riots were incited and political officials bent to corrupt ways through orders of the Klan chiefs,” Stephenson said.