The Ku Klux Klan and American Anti-Catholicism

Two interesting books were just published this fall about Ku Klux Klan activities in the early twentieth century:One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s by Thomas R. Pegram and Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 by Kelly J. Baker. Both describe how more than three decades after the end of Reconstruction the Klan underwent a major revival.

In 1915, the Klan was revamped in the image of the old Know-Nothings and by the early Twenties could boast a nationwide membership of 4 million. Its newspaper, The Fiery Cross, had a circulation of 400,000 – larger than a few urban dailies.

The authors’ most interesting observation is that in the post-World War I era, the Klan flourished more in the North and Midwest than in the former states of the Confederacy. The reason: the Exalted Cyclops vigorously expanded the mission of the Klan’s bigoted “America for Americans” campaign. 

The list of undesirables that had to be driven from our nation’s shores now included Catholics and Jews, as well as African-Americans. This explains why so many Klan chapters were organized in urban centers north of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Members feared the growing ballot-box power of immigrant Catholics and Jews.

Klan Membership in Select American Cities

Akron, Ohio


Albany, NY Region


Buffalo, NY


Chicago, IL


Cincinnati, OH


Columbus, OH


Dayton, OH


Detroit, MI


Indianapolis, ID


Minneapolis-St. Paul, MO


New York City, NY Region


Philadelphia, PA Region


Pittsburgh, PA Region


In New York’s second largest city, Buffalo, the Klan’s activities in the early 1920s had caused significant religious and racial tensions. An Klan official, who visited the city in 1922, threatened to help elect one of their kind as mayor and told the media:

Klansmen don’t doubt the loyalty, integrity, and bravery of Catholics, Jews, negroes [sic] and foreign-born persons. We realize that these classes proved themselves good and brave Americans during the recent war and we are not against them. Catholics bar themselves [from the Klan] by their allegiance to the pope; the Jews because they do not believe in the birth of Christ, and negroes [sic] because of their color. We want only Caucasians, who, so far as their allegiance is concerned, have it all confined within the boundaries of the United States. That does not mean that we are opposed to them. We are organized to maintain American principles and are opposed only to lawlessness and lack of Americanism.

Reacting to the Buffalo hostilities, Governor Alfred E. Smith did not endear himself to the Klan when he engineered passage of a bill that demanded annual filings by unincorporated associations, a list of members, by-laws, and oaths. Although menaced by angry Klan members, New York’s highest tribunal, the Court of Appeals, upheld the constitutionality of the law.

The KKK was never really on top.

In June of 1924, however, at the Democratic National Convention held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Klansmen sought revenge.  After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stirring “Happy Warrior” speech nominating Roman Catholic Smith for the office of President of the United States, Klan members began chanting “United we stick, Divided we’re stuck, The better we stick, the better we Klux!”

To the Klan-dominated convention, Al Smith was the captive of Tammany Hall, and Tammany was a brothel whose allegiance was pledged to the “Whore of Babylon” – the pope of Rome.

One Klan delegate ranted:  “We want the country ruled by the sort of people who settled it. This is our Country!” The leading presidential candidate, William G. McAdoo, slandered New Yorkers with his declaration that their city was “reactionary, mercenary, sinister, and sordid.”

It was this atmosphere that caused the 1924 Democratic Convention to drag on for 103 ballots and to finally reject a Klan platform plank by just one vote: 543 to 542. To break the nomination deadlock, the convention turned to corporate lawyer John W. Davis – who, according to historian Robert Murray, was “not a Catholic or a machine politician nor a believing Protestant or an enthusiastic prohibitionist.” He wasn’t much of anything, and the results proved it – he got only 28.8 percent of the vote: the lowest vote in the party’s history. That’s because millions of inner-city Catholics and Jews, insulted by Klan activities at the convention, deserted their party.

In 1928, Catholics and Jews struck back and engineered the presidential nomination of Governor Smith on the first ballot. And even though Al Smith went down to defeat in one of the ugliest, most bigoted campaigns in the history of the nation, his 15-million votes significantly exceeded those received by every previous Democratic presidential nominee.

In fact, he doubled the average of the votes received by late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Democratic candidates including President Woodrow Wilson. Smith was the first Democrat to carry America’s largest cities by a plurality.

Smith’s Catholicism was the key to the ballot-box uprising in America’s major cities. “What Smith really embodied,” wrote political analyst Samuel Lubell, “was the revolt of the underdog urban immigrant against the top dog of old American stock.”

While their terrorist methods – lynchings, bombings, and arson –eventually discredited the Klan and led by 1929 to its rapid decline, it was Catholic and Jews who hammered the first nails in the revived Klan’s coffin when they united behind Al Smith in 1928.

These are little remembered facts about America’s political and religious history and we are in Pegram and Baker’s debt for reminding us of this very unfortunate and subtly continuing bias in American culture.

George J. Marlin

George J. Marlin

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter, Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative, and Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner, will be published on St. Patrick's Day.

  • Jim Thunder

    and let me suggest Todd Tucker’s “Notre Dame vs. The Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Klan” (2004).

  • Manfred

    What is the point of bringing this up at this time, Mr. Marlin, if not to confuse the present day Catholic? If the Protestant ascendency had prevailed, do you think we would have abortion on the scale we have it today? Do you think we would have aberrosexual “marriage” and aberrosexual adoption? We might never have recognized Israel and we would probably never have invaded Iraq. We have six Catholic and three Jewish justices on the Supreme Court today and, aside from Citizens United, what feats of jurisprudence have they accomplished? Abortion is still the law of the land. What about the fact that we have millions of illegal immigrants in the Country and there is intention of removing them. What is the purpose of borders if they are deliberatly porous? I have worked with solid Protestants and they see what is happening to the nation they founded and built and they (and I) are disgusted. (Why not do a piece on the Republican and Democratic candidates for the Presidency? That would really make my point.)

  • Louise

    Mr. Marlin,

    Would you please write something that connects this essay with the essay by Dr. Royal a few weeks ago on multiculturalism and the nanny state? Are the two issues even related?

    How does one protect oneself and one’s country against the evils of relativism and multiculturalism (all cultures are equal) and the evils of bigotry and exclusion at the same time?

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    The enemy is no longer anti-Papist Protestantism but dogmatic secularism, which is even more insidious because of its subtelty. Subtrlby, you ask in amazement? The ahtiesit powers that exist cynically appoint to high postions heretical and schismatic Catholics who have self-exommunicated themselves by supporting the evils that Manfred cites above. (Exommunication does not remove the indelible mark of Baptism.) Those heretics are now hailed as the Good Catholics, while those of us who cling to the Teachings of Holy Mother Church are soon to be painted as papists loyal to a force that is alien to the nauralist, materilsit forces that rule the day. So, unlike Manfred I think that Dr. Marlin’s piece was a valuable reminder of what rabid anti-Catholicism can turn into. In the past we were set upon by illiterate yahoo nativists, whereas now it is the very intellectual cream of our country which is being taught to hate teh Chruch founded by Our Savior on the Rock of Peter. God bless Abp Broglio of the Archidiocese for MIlitary Services for stating that there will be no same nuptuals conducted at the Catholic chapel at West Point. But I fear that in a few years the White House will try to withdraw from him the right to decide that. This country and the Catholic Chruch in America were better when although no Cathnolic could not be elected Presdient Abp Sheen ruled his time slot on the airwaves.

  • Nicholas Jagneaux

    Mr. Marlin,

    Two questions:

    1. Are the two books worth reading?
    2. If I might not have time to read both of the books you mention (which is likely the case), which do you recommend that I begin with?

    Thank you.

  • James McHale

    For ‘most 3 generations (commencing in the mid-1940’s)it is no small wonder that The Annual Alfred E. Smith Foundation Dinner, celebrated every October in NYC’s Waldorf Astoria, remains an event of great magnitude @ multiple levels:
    That of…Remembrance (of ‘the man’ himself); Catholic Charities fundraising for worthy causes; and, lest we forget, a potent political occasion for making succinct points and jabs coupled with sufficient amplitudes of good humor. Note: Only those with alligator skin need apply.

  • Ben Horvath

    Far more damaging to Catholics than a little crude language directed towards us was the worldliness that came afterward in the form of a self-conscious cultural cringe. When I was growing up in the 1980’s I was shown the progress that Catholics had made in the country – why that Senator Ted Kennedy was one of us!

  • Graham Combs

    And yet as recently as this year on the NPR program, ON THE MEDIA, Daniel Levitas of the Southern Poverty Law Center (proud of its anti-Klan efforts) declared that there was a highly-organized, well-funded terrorist network targeting abortion clinics in America. The show’s always reliably doctrinaire host assented in silence. Who might those “terrorists” be? I can tell you who are terrorized these days — the working class and working poor of Detroit who can’t escape a city where crime is a daily anxiety and even a young black municipal lawyer staggered into a DPD station after a brutal mugging and the desk sergeant laughed and said “you got played.”

    Who are functionally anti-Catholic and racist in December 2012 in the United States? Let the dead bury the dead. My compassion is for the living who are slandered, libelled, and attacked everyday by the moral complacency of the enlightened classes.

  • robin hensel

    Great article…thanks you.. shared far and wide.