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, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.