- The Ku Klux Klan, in their white hoods, and with their burning crosses, might be the very personification of the ugliest and most hate filled parts of the American psyche. Though mostly known today for their bigotry and hate crimes towards African-Americans, Anti-Catholicism was one of the pillars of prejudice upon which they were founded.
The KKK’s hatred of “Papists” grew out of the long tradition of Anti-Catholicism in American society, with its direct predecessor being the “Know Nothing” movement of the 19th century. Tied to the xenophobic fear of the large amount of immigrants immigrating to the United States from traditionally Catholic countries, such as Italy, Germany, and Ireland, the “Know Nothings” believed a “Romanist” conspiracy was afoot to subvert civil and religious liberty in America and sought to politically organize native-born Protestants in the defense of traditional religious and political values.
Pamphlets were spread accusing the Church of kidnappings, infanticide, bizarre Satanic rituals, some even becoming best sellers, such as “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk“. Even the assassination of President Lincoln was claimed to be a Popish Jesuit plot.
Much of the bias and the absurd conspiracies created by the nativist Know Nothings was eventually absorbed into the ideology of the Ku Klux Klan, who like the Know Nothings, fought to keep American “pure” from the Catholic immigrants flooding America.
The Ku Klux Klan, believed that Catholicism was incompatible with democracy and that parochial schools encouraged separatism and kept Catholics from becoming loyal Americans. The Catholics responded to such prejudices by repeatedly asserting their rights as American citizens and by arguing that they, not the nativists (anti-Catholics), were true patriots since they believed in the right to freedom of religion.
With the rapid growth of the second Ku Klux Klan (KKK) 1921–25, anti-Catholic rhetoric intensified. The Catholic Church of the Little Flower was first built in 1925 in Royal Oak, Michigan, a largely Protestant area. Two weeks after it opened, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of the church.
On August 11, 1921, Father James Coyle was fatally shot on his rectory porch in Birmingham, Alabama. The shooter was Rev. E. R. Stephenson, a Southern Methodist Episcopal minister. The murder occurred just hours after Coyle had performed a wedding between Stephenson’s daughter, Ruth, and Pedro Gussman, a Puerto Rican immigrant. Several months before the wedding, Ruth had enraged her father by converting to Roman Catholicism. Stephenson was defended by Hugo Black, a future Justice of the Supreme Court. The judge, William E. Fort, a Klansman, and the jury, all hand-picked bigots, most of whom were Klansmen, acquitted Stephenson, on the grounds of “temporary insanity”.
In 1928, Al Smith became the first Roman Catholic to gain a major party’s nomination for president, and his religion became an issue during the campaign. His nomination made anti-Catholicism a rallying point, especially in the South. They warned that national autonomy would be threatened because Smith would be listening not to the American people but to secret orders from the pope. There were rumors the pope would move to the United States to control his new realm. His candidacy was strongly opposed by the Ku Klux Klan. One Klan leader mailed thousands of postcards after Democrats nominated the New Yorker, stating firmly, “We now face the darkest hour in American history. In a convention ruled by political Romanism, anti-Christ has won.” Smith ultimately lost to Herbert Hoover in a landslide.
Northern Indiana’s industrial cities had attracted a large Catholic population of European immigrants and their descendants. They helped established Notre Dame University, near South Bend, Indiana. In May 1924 when the KKK scheduled a regional meeting in the city, Notre Dame students blocked the Klansmen and stole some KKK regalia. The next day the Klansmen counterattacked. Finally, the college president and the football coach Knute Rockne kept the students on campus to avert further violence.
In addition to these notable instances, there were countless episodes of harassment, violence, intimidation, and slander directed at Catholics by the Ku Klux Klan.
After the election of JFK in 1960, and with protestant and evangelical leaders finding common ground and allying with Catholics on social issues, such as abortion and traditional marriage, much of the Open an institutional anti-Catholic bias in the country has subsided.
But in a time where we are seeing a resurgence in activity by the Ku Klux Klan and organizations aligned with them directed at certain groups, as Catholics, it is important to remember when we were the targets of the Klan.