When Samuel F. Williams, a black man, took to the stage to address the 1896 Knights of Columbus Massachusetts State Convention, African Americans were still excluded from many Catholic parishes, schools and seminaries in the United States.
The NAACP would not be formed for another 15 years. The movement for racial harmony was led by people like Booker T. Washington, who had delivered his cautious “Atlanta Compromise” speech a few months earlier. It also faced setbacks like the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld segregation later that year.
But Williams spoke that day not as an outsider. He spoke as a brother Knight, a co-founder and officer of Sheridan Council 119 in Southborough. And two future supreme knights — State Deputy James Hayes and Supreme Director Edward Hearn — were in the audience listening.
Though noteworthy, Williams’ membership was only the practical application of the principles on which Father Michael J. McGivney had founded the Order 14 years earlier.
As the Knights of Columbus responds to racial division in society today, it is worth remembering the Order’s history of unifying work through the decades. From its earliest days to the recent Novena for National Unity & An End to Racism, the Knights of Columbus has drawn inspiration and impetus from Father McGivney’s vision.
The Knights of Columbus was founded with a framework which could — and would — support membership drawn from the broadest possible diversity of practicing Catholic men.
Indeed, historian Christopher Kauffman wrote of the Order’s early ethnic diversity, “It was the only American fraternal society which did not, by its constitution, prohibit Negro (sic) membership.”
Recollections of Father McGivney describe a man who knew the trickle-down dangers of prejudice, and who believed that bringing Catholic men from disparate backgrounds together in faith was possible, good and broadly needed.
When thousands of Knights visited the grave of the founder in Waterbury, Conn., in 1900, Father James O’Donnell gave a speech expounding on the Order’s principle of unity: “Before the altar all are equal. The beggar if such there be, kneels by the side of the possessor of wealth and the man of dark skin occupies the same pew with his white brother. And this spirit pervades the Knights of Columbus; and so should it ever be.”
One of the Knights’ original incorporators, Daniel Colwell, likewise confirmed this intent for the Order: “It was designed to unify American Catholic citizens of every national and racial origin in a social and fraternal organization,” he wrote, “giving scope and purpose to their aims as Catholics and as Americans.”
Colwell had worked shoulder to shoulder with Father McGivney on the details of the Knights’ founding, and when McGivney stepped down as supreme secretary, it was Colwell who took his place.
By the turn of the century, the Knights of Columbus was promoting missionary work among African American communities, such as a college for black Catholic catechists in Montgomery, Ala., headed by Father Thomas Donovan, a Knight from Richmond, Va.
The belief that faith forged a unity powerful enough to draw all men together played out in the Order’s charitable endeavors as well. This was especially apparent during World War I, when the Order became “the official agency for all Catholic [troop] activity.” The Knights adopted the slogan “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free,” and in keeping with that slogan, it ran the only racially integrated facilities available to the troops — three decades before the U.S. military itself was integrated.
In The American Negro in the Great War (1919), African American author Emmett J. Scott — who served as special adjutant to the U.S. secretary of war — singled out the Knights of Columbus for its wartime service to African Americans: “Unlike the other social welfare organizations operating in the war, it never drew the color line.”
Black soldiers returning from the war could also count on the Order’s extensive educational programs for veterans. Hundreds enrolled in “free supplementary evening schools” in various cities. “It is work for God and Country because it is the fostering of the American promise of opportunity to all,” Supreme Knight James Flaherty wrote in Columbia in 1921. “We have served men and women of all colors and creeds in these schools.”
In the years after World War I, the Ku Klux Klan began to fan the flames of racial and religious bigotry, targeting African Americans as well as Catholics, Jews and other immigrants. Though much smaller in size, the Knights of Columbus took a public role in opposing the Klan.
The Klan responded by attacking K of C activities, conventions and publications, and printing libelous tracts about the Order. A Klan-published pamphlet in 1921 identified the Knights of Columbus as “the organization most interested in the destruction of the Ku Klux Klan.”
The KKK set its sights on individual members of the Knights of Columbus as well. It urged legislation to penalize and even criminalize belonging to the Knights, and harassed, threatened and in some cases physically attacked members — priests and laymen alike. The Klan also targeted celebrations and statues of Christopher Columbus.
During this time, the Order established its Historical Commission to combat prejudice with education. To address omissions in generally Anglo-centric histories of America, the commission published a series of books that highlighted the many ways that maligned minority groups had contributed to the country’s good.
“This series is unlike any heretofore published,” the head of the commission noted, “since it gives the actual history of racial contributions to the making of the United States, not from the isolated viewpoint of a single race, concerning other races, but from the viewpoint of each race concerning itself.”
W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the NAACP, was commissioned by the Knights to author what would become the most notable work in the series: The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America.
With the Racial Contribution Series and similar efforts, the Order was decades ahead of Church leadership in some parts of the United States. In a 1925 letter, Du Bois lamented, “I have just written, for the Knights of Columbus, a volume in their admirably conceived series of monographs for interracial understanding of the making of America. But because Catholicism has so much that is splendid in the past and fine in its present, it is the greater shame that ‘n—’ haters clothed in episcopal robes should do to black Americans in exclusion, segregation and exclusion from opportunity all that the KKK ever asked.”
By this time, the Supreme Council had begun funding the Cardinal Gibbons Institute, a new school for African Americans led by a black couple in southern Maryland, Victor and Constance Daniels. The Order’s financial assistance was crucial to the opening of the school, and through a per capita assessment, every Knight provided support. At the groundbreaking in January 1924, U.S. Navy Adm. William S. Benson, a Fourth Degree Knight, said, “It is not charity, the building of this institution; it is but giving an opportunity to prosper where little has been given before.”
In the 1930s, the crucible of the Great Depression prompted Supreme Knight Martin Carmody to reflect on and promote the Order’s principle of fraternity, which transcends differences and unifies men in action and mutual support.
“True fraternalism brings into the group a cross-section of the whole society of the country,” Carmody wrote in Columbia. “It unifies various racial groups, giving them a sense of their common citizenship, an awareness of their place and importance in the common work of building the nation.”
Carmody’s successor, Supreme Knight Francis Matthews, truly became a champion of racial integration and equality. After guiding the Order through World War II, he stepped down as supreme knight and served on President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights. That commission took up the difficult racial issues of the day and was credited with Truman’s executive orders integrating the federal workforce. Then, as secretary of the Navy from 1949-1951, Matthews spearheaded the integration of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
As the United States continued to grapple with racial issues and integration, another supreme knight, Luke Hart, was tapped by President John F. Kennedy to participate in a White House meeting of religious leaders about eliminating racial discrimination. Hart had previously served as supreme advocate since 1922, and was at the forefront of the Order’s clash with Klan.
As the civil rights movement advanced, the Knights took action, adopting a two-part strategy with regard to racism: changing hearts where it could and limiting the negative impact where it could not.
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963, numerous clergy were in attendance courtesy of the Knights of Columbus, which provided $25,000 for their lodging.
The next summer, the pivotal Civil Rights Act of 1964 advanced the cause of an equitable society, but discrimination was, sadly, far from gone.
In fact, it became clear that some K of C councils had prevented black Catholic men from joining the Order; at the time, it took only five votes to block a candidate. The Supreme Council took increasingly aggressive steps to root out the problem, including amending its bylaws in 1964 to “remove forever the opportunity of prejudice.” To drive the message home, all Supreme Convention delegates received a pastoral letter on race relations by Supreme Chaplain Bishop Charles P. Greco of Alexandria, La.
Before that year’s convention even began, the Knights confronted persistent segregation at the host hotel in New Orleans. Supreme Knight John McDevitt threatened to move the convention to another site, and the Roosevelt Hotel — whose owner had one time declared it would never desegregate — integrated that day.
The message was further highlighted at the convention by the presence of Father Harold R. Perry on the dais at the States Dinner, the first black clergyman to offer a prayer in Congress. Father Perry had also participated, like then- Supreme Knight Luke Hart, in a meeting on civil rights called by President Kennedy, and he would later become the first black priest consecrated as a bishop in the United States in a hundred years. Fourth Degree Knights served as an honor guard at the consecration Mass in January 1966.
Supreme Knight McDevitt, a former educator, was eager to move Catholics toward concrete efforts in the area of civil rights. Under his leadership, the Knights of Columbus undertook a number of public initiatives related to racial equality.
At Yale University in 1965, the Order co-sponsored a conference titled “From Words to Action — a commitment of the Catholic body to the unending struggle for interracial justice and charity.” Knights were among its organizers and speakers, and many more were among the 2,000 attendees.
Beginning in 1967, the Knights also collaborated with the John LaFarge Institute in New York City to promote social justice and racial equality through dialogue and research. The Supreme Council furnished all state deputies and more than 800 local councils with discussion material from the institute, with the intention to “make fraternity an instrument welding discussion and action into a powerful force for good.”
The Order’s work for racial equality continued in the following decades with particular emphasis on providing support for the practical and spiritual good of African Americans.
In the 1970s and into the 1990s, the Order funded programs through the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice in Washington, D.C., during the administrations of both McDevitt and his successor, Virgil Dechant.
In 1996, the Supreme Council contributed $100,000 to establish a scholarship for African American students pursuing Catholic education. And a year later, the Order allocated the same amount to help fund the construction of a chapel dedicated to Our Mother of Africa at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Time is cluttered with the wreckage of broken communities which have surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way.”
In the new millennium, Supreme Knight Anderson ensured that the Knights remained engaged, promoting racial harmony through the Order’s founding principles, and with the sentiments of Rev. King at the forefront.
Anderson’s personal experience — serving for nearly a decade on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the 1990s, and his previous work for co-sponsors of the Civil Rights Act and Equal Rights Amendment — has informed his work as supreme knight.
In recent years, the Knights of Columbus has brought critical issues and voices to the attention of the nation’s leadership. This has included organizing meetings of black clergy with government officials such as the vice president, to discuss race, poverty and models of policing.
The Order also funded the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ establishment of a new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism in 2017. The supreme knight serves as a consultant.
In collaboration with African American clergy, particular attention was given to promoting King’s message of nonviolence and of equality for all. As part of these efforts, the Supreme Council organized and took part in a news conference at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial with senior Catholic and Protestant clergy to discuss the twin evils of racism and violence. The message was also taken up in an opinion piece published by Time magazine co-authored by Supreme Knight Anderson and prominent African American Pentecostal pastor Eugene Rivers III.
Continuing the commitment to education, in recent years the Knights of Columbus has also provided substantial assistance to Catholic inner-city schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, led by Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William Lori.
The Knights of Columbus has also brought to new audiences the legacies of African Americans who were pivotal in civil rights history. In 2009, for example, the Supreme Council republished — with a new foreword by Supreme Knight Anderson — The Gift of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. Last year, the Order sponsored a vocal and orchestral concert in New Haven that commemorated the landmark performance of Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939.
Knights and their families around the world have been invited to join in the Order’s latest efforts.
When Supreme Knight Anderson announced the Novena for National Unity & An End to Racism in early June, he urged Knights to “redouble our efforts to overcome the suffering and injustice which result from the sin of racism.”
Citing Pope Francis and Martin Luther King Jr. and their shared emphasis on justice, reconciliation and nonviolence, he wrote, “We pray that we can all follow this other way and come to understand that injustice to a black person is injustice to all; that regardless of race or culture, all people, without exception, are made in the image and likeness of God, and are deserving of our respect and love.”
This mandate has been consistent within the Order for nearly 140 years.
Indeed, if Father McGivney and the first Knights of Columbus had lived to hear the speeches that King delivered some eight decades after the Order’s founding, his words would have resonated with them. After all, they envisioned the Knights as a way of uniting men of every color and race under the banner of faith.
“Knowing Father McGivney as I did, I was acquainted with his motives and intentions in the foundation of your Order,” said Father William J. Slocum, speaking to the Knights who gathered at Father McGivney’s grave in 1900. “So long as the [Knights] follows in the pathway marked out by Father McGivney, it is bound to prove a power and blessing in the world.”
His words — like McGivney’s founding of the Order itself — have proved prophetic.
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