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The Knights vs. the Klan

11/1/2017

by Kevin Coyne

At the peak of the Ku Klux Klan’s popularity, the Knights of Columbus stood as its most vigorous opponent

Alfred E. Smith (1873-1944), a longtime governor of New York and member of Dr. John G. Coyle Council 163 in New York City, gives a speech as the Democratic candidate in the 1928 U.S. presidential race. Smith was vehemently opposed by the Ku Klux Klan, which burned crosses during his campaign and claimed that “A Vote for Al Smith Is a Vote for the Pope.” Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

One evening in the summer of 1923, Supreme Advocate Luke E. Hart looked out the window of the train he was riding through southern Indiana.

“The lights of the automobiles lit up the roads for miles and made quite an impression on the travelers on our train,” he wrote in a letter the next day. He estimated that there were “not less than 1,000 automobiles filled with members of the Ku Klux Klan” returning from a KKK parade in the town of Orleans.

A St. Louis lawyer, Hart had been named supreme advocate barely a year earlier, at a time when the Klan was on the rise and on the attack. The Klan and its allies’ campaign of racial and religious bigotry extended to Catholics in general and the Knights in particular — portraying Catholics as foreign invaders beholden only to Rome, and the Knights as the Church’s enforcers.

The introduction of a 1921 KKK pamphlet titled The Ku Klux Klan or the Knights of Columbus Klan referred to the Knights of Columbus as “the Pope’s Knights of Mob and Murder, his Militia of Christ, his pliant tools who have bound themselves together in a secret, unholy compact to destroy our free American Public School system, our Constitution and its guarantees.” It further stated, “Apparently the organization most interested in the destruction of the Ku Klux Klan is the Roman Catholic Order of the Knights of Columbus.”

The Klan grasped one grain of truth: The Knights of Columbus did indeed work to counter the Klan’s malicious ideology. Moreover, the Order’s passionate, nonviolent response to the Klan’s anti-Catholicism, racism and historical revisionism remains a model for Knights today.

NATIVIST SLANDER & VIOLENCE

The size and reach of the Ku Klux Klan, and the racist, nativist beliefs it traffics in, have ebbed and flowed through the history of the United States. Born in the South after the Civil War, the group’s hatred was initially aimed at newly freed slaves and Yankee carpetbaggers. The Klan surged again in the years before Hart’s train ride, spreading to the rest of the nation and broadening its list of enemies at a time when racial and cultural prejudice was magnified by political and economic fears.

Immigrants — “Italian anarchists, Irish-Catholic malcontents,” as a Klan pamphlet of the era described them, “the scum of the Mediterranean and the middle European countries … masses of ignorant, superstitious, religious devotees … festering sores on the American body politic” — were still arriving at a pace that alarmed those who believed that the United States was, and should remain, a nation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

The Klan cast itself as the sentinel against the kind of rapid social change that many Americans found unsettling. Membership soared past 4 million by the early 1920s, large enough to gain wide political influence and sway elections. For example, the Klan was instrumental in electing governors or senators in Oregon, Oklahoma, Indiana, Colorado, Maine and Texas, as well as many local government officials.

As the size of the Klan peaked, so did its battle with the Knights — fought with legal briefs and letters, pamphlets and magazines, speeches and meetings, and sometimes with violence.

Knights and their allies from around the country reported on the Klan’s actions in missives addressed to Supreme Advocate Hart — typed neatly on the letterheads of parishes and local councils, scrawled hastily in pencil on pages torn from notebooks, dispatched urgently in telegrams.

From Santa Maria, Calif.: The Klan was invited to march in the Armistice Day parade, but the Knights were not. From Scottdale, Pa.: “The Klan is just now running the town, or think they are.” From York, Pa.: The Klan was sponsoring appearances by Neva Miller Moss, a “self-styled ex-nun” peddling copies of her salacious book, Behind Convent Walls.

Many of the complaints concerned the Klan’s circulation of the “Bogus Oath,” a compendium of lurid anti-Catholic fantasies that had been circulating in various forms for centuries, but that had been attached most persistently in recent years to the Knights. It was purported to be an oath taken by Fourth Degree members and included such intentions as to “hang, burn, waste, boil, flay, strangle and bury alive” Protestant “heretics” and to undermine civil government.

In Terre Haute, Ind., Klansmen rode through the night tossing copies of the Bogus Oath onto lawns and porches.

“Each pamphlet was wadded up and jammed into a wooden clothes-pin, thus making it easier to hurl,” one letter reported. In Kingsville, Texas, copies of the Bogus Oath in Spanish “caused quite a little excitement among our Mexican population,” another correspondent wrote.

Protected by the dominance of the Klan in some regions, KKK members went beyond propaganda to commit acts of violence.

On an August afternoon in 1921, at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Birmingham, Ala., the pastor, Father James E. Coyle, presided at the wedding of Ruth Stephenson, a recent convert, and Pedro Gussman, who was Puerto Rican. Born and ordained in Ireland, Father Coyle had spent 25 years in Alabama ministering to immigrant Catholics, many of them drawn to work in the mills, mines and foundries. He was a charter member of Mobile Council 666 and chaplain of Birmingham Council 635.

An hour after the wedding, Father Coyle was sitting on the porch of his rectory when Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson, a Methodist minister, approached with a gun. The minister, who was the bride’s father and a Klansman, shot the priest in the head, killing him. The Klan paid for his lawyers, three of whom were members. The fourth, Hugo Black, who later became a U.S. Senator and Supreme Court justice, also joined the Klan after the trial. The judge and the foreman of the jury were both Klansmen as well. After a weeklong trial, the jury returned quickly with its verdict: not guilty.

Several years later, as the Knights of Columbus spoke out strongly against Mexico President Plutarco Elías Calles and the violent persecution of the Church in Mexico, the Klan offered its own members as soldiers for the Calles regime in the event that they were necessary.

Supreme Advocate (later Supreme Knight) Luke E. Hart, an adamant foe of KKK bigotry and libel, is shown in a 1920s portrait. Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives

K OF C RESISTANCE

The Knights’ first Spanish-speaking council in the United States, Del Norte Council 2592 in El Paso, Texas, repelled a Klan attempt to take over the school board and mayor’s office in 1922. K of C members followed Klansmen to their secret meetings and then wrote down their license plate numbers and made their names public.

K of C councils in other cities, such as Anaheim, Calif., had similar success in countering the Klan’s infiltration of local government.

Sometimes, the Knights answered the Klan with their own show of force. In 1924, after hooded Klansmen abducted, severely beat and mutilated Father John Conoley in Gainesville, Fla., Knights armed with shotguns stood in the windows of the rectory, protecting another priest and the church itself from the Klan’s threats to burn it.

Most often, the Knights responded simply by using words, reason and the law. Anyone circulating the Bogus Oath got a stern cease-and-desist letter from Luke Hart. Those who failed to comply got a libel suit. The editor of the Rail Splitter Press, which published reams of anti-Catholics tracts, called Hart’s letter “the most damnable piece of papal insolence that has ever come into this office,” but he never reprinted the oath again.

Rewards were offered to anyone who could prove the oath was genuine. “It was clamoring to be claimed, but no one came,” the bishop of Galveston wrote about the $5,000 deposits that waited in banks in each of the five Texas dioceses — $25,000 with no takers.

The Knights also distributed literature of their own, including pamphlets reprinting speeches against the Klan by public figures.

“I heard of the Knights of Columbus on the battlefields of France; I heard of them in the hospitals over there nursing the boys; but I did not hear anything of the Klan over there, and no masks were worn over there except gas masks,” declared Mississippi Sen. LeRoy Percy after a Klan representative had spoken at the county courthouse in Greenville, Miss. “If you love your people, if you love the welfare of your community, do not be led off after this firebrand creed that is built on dissension, hatred and factional strife.”

In the tumultuous debate over who was, or ought to be, American, the Knights published more substantial volumes, too, defending not only their organization and their faith but their larger belief in an open and diverse nation.

The Knights of Columbus Historical Commission was established in 1921, and three years later, it published the Racial Contributions Series: The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America, by W.E.B. DuBois; The Jews in the Making of America by George Cohen; and The Germans in the Making of America by Frederick Schrader.

Around the same time, a KKK pamphlet titled Knights of the Klan versus the Knights of Columbus portrayed Catholic and Jewish immigrants as a menace to U.S. society.

Christopher Columbus, too, received the Klan’s hatred. Eager to defame this Catholic, non-Anglo explorer, celebrated by immigrants, the Klan targeted anything that honored him. In Oregon, for example, the Klan fought to get rid of Columbus Day. In places such as Richmond, Va., and Easton, Pa., the Klan nearly succeeded in blocking the erection of statues of Columbus. Elsewhere, Klansmen disrupted Columbus Day celebrations, such as with a cross burning in Nanty Glo, Pa.

Whereas KKK publications called Columbus Day “a papal fraud,” the Knights insisted that U.S. citizens’ embrace of Columbus — and the immigrants he represented — enriched rather than threatened American identity.

DEFENDING RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

The Knights’ most lasting victory over the Ku Klux Klan was in a legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1920s, several states tried to force Catholic school children out of parochial schools and into public ones, but none were as successful as Oregon, where the Klan was strong and Catholics were sparse.

In the 1922 Oregon state election, the Klan supported Walter M. Pierce for governor, as well as the ballot initiative that Pierce endorsed. Later known as the Oregon School Law, it required all children to attend public school through eighth grade. Pierce and the ballot initiative both won.

“There is only one way left for us to defeat this infamous law, and that is through the courts,” wrote the Knights’ state deputy of Oregon.

Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty agreed. “I call upon members of this Order everywhere,” he wrote, “to rally in defense of the Catholic schools.”

The plaintiff in the case was an order of teaching nuns, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, and the Knights helped finance their legal battle. When the Supreme Court eventually ruled unanimously against the Oregon law in 1925, the Knights saw not just a legal victory but also a moral one.

“We see about us the fruits of irreligion, and we see that they are bitter fruits. It is clear to us that if the seeds of irreligion are sown and resown, our nation will reap a dangerous harvest indeed,” Flaherty wrote. “Let us be proud of our part in the good fight, let us rejoice that when, in the dark hours of bigotry’s first threatening advance, the victims of a small and prejudiced group sought our aid, they didn’t seek in vain.”

Although the Klan was shrinking in numbers and influence by the end of the 1920s, conflicts continued.

After Msgr. Bernard J. Quinn, the founder of the first church for black Catholics in Brooklyn, established a Catholic orphanage for black children on Long Island, it was burned down twice in arson attacks attributed to the Klan. Msgr. Quinn, who had previously served as a K of C chaplain in World War I, responded by simply rebuilding the orphanage, the second time in stone and brick.

That same year, the Klan met Al Smith’s presidential campaign train to Oklahoma with fiery KKK crosses.

“I here and now drag them into the open and I denounce them as a treasonable attack upon the very foundations of American liberty,” Smith said about the Klan to a packed crowd of 10,000 in the Oklahoma City Coliseum Sept. 29. “Nothing could be so contradictory to our whole history. Nothing could be so false to the teachings of our divine Lord himself. The world knows no greater mockery than the use of the blazing cross, the cross upon which Christ died, as a symbol to instill into the hearts of men a hatred of their brethren while Christ preached and died for the love and brotherhood of man.”

Though Smith, who was a member of Dr. John G. Coyle Council 163 in New York City, ultimately lost the election, the Klan’s influence continued to decline.

But decades later, when another Knight, John F. Kennedy, a member of Bunker Hill Council 62 in Charlestown, Mass., ran for president in 1960, the Bogus Oath surfaced yet again.

Led by Luke Hart, who had served as supreme knight since 1953, the Knights once again responded. Through publications, lawsuits and public witness, the Order was determined to stamp out the Klan’s bigotry and falsehoods for good.

KEVIN COYNE is an award-winning writer and professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. He lives with his family in Freehold, N.J.


From left: Rev. William Bass; Rev. Eugene Rivers, founder and director of the W. J. Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies in Boston; Bishop Edwin Bass, president of the Church of God in Christ Urban Initiatives; Jesuit Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism; and Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson.

KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS, RELIGIOUS LEADERS PROMOTE MLK’S MESSAGE OF NONVIOLENCE

JUST HOURS after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, a group of Christian leaders gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., for a news conference organized by the Knights of Columbus Oct. 2.

Leaders from the Knights, the Seymour Institute, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) endorsed Dr. King’s message of nonviolence, famously outlined in his 1957 essay, “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.” They called on religious leaders of all denominations to join USCCB president Cardinal Daniel Di- Nardo of Galveston-Houston and Bishop George V. Murry, S.J., of Youngstown, Ohio, chair of the USCCB’s new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, in signing a letter committing to these principles.

Citing the Las Vegas tragedy and other contemporary challenges, “including a renewed racism by groups like the Ku Klux Klan,” Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson warned against discouragement or despair. While things looked bleak in the early stages of the civil rights movement, Dr. King held fast to the American principle that all are created equal and that there “can be no place for political violence,” said Anderson. “Dr. King held that high ground and people rallied to him.”

Pentecostal minister Rev. Eugene Rivers, founder of the Seymour Institute, and COGIC Bishop Edwin Bass also called for 2018 to be declared the Year of Martin Luther King Jr., as next year marks the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.

Bishop Murry said, “Nonviolence is the prerequisite to hearing each other’s stories and entering into an honest dialogue.” Such dialogue, he added, can “open roads to justice and reconciliation that will lead to the true communion of civic friendship.”

Visit kofc.org/nonviolence for more information.