Seventy-eight years ago this week, on May 17, 1924, hundreds of Notre Dame students gathered at the train station in South Bend, Ind. They were waiting to greet a train, but the mood was anything but festive. For on the train were members of the Ku Klux Klan, heading for a mass Klan rally in South Bend. Their decision to hold the gathering in South Bend was no accident, for Indiana’s Klansmen looked upon Notre Dame as a symbol of rising Catholic power in America. The Klan event was intended to send a signal of intimidation to the university, its faculty and students that they were unwelcome in the American heartland. Instead, the only message delivered that morning came from Notre Dame’s students, who pummeled the Klansmen as they disembarked from their train.
Founded in 1842, Notre Dame remained a largely unknown college until the 1920s when its remarkably successful football team made it a household name. The success of Note Dame was a microcosm of the rising status of Irish Americans in the 1920s and the latter became enthralled by the team’s successes, especially when it knocked off the schools that symbolized the Protestant power structure in America — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Army. And with the advent of radio in the 1920s, Catholics across the country could tune in to the big games and listen to the action live.
As Notre Dame gained more and more attention, school officials — especially president Fr. John F. O’Hara — went to great lengths to emphasize that it was a Catholic college. O’Hara, for example, invited the press to cover the football team’s tradition of receiving communion before games. It made for a marvelous image — a bunch of tough young men who prayed before they played. Gone, it seems, were the days when American Catholics felt they had to keep their religion out of the public eye for fear of sparking an anti-Catholic reaction.
Not everyone saw this growth of Catholic confidence as a good thing. Americans often think of the 1920s as a “roaring” era, but it was also a reactionary time. For while many Americans embraced the glitz and glamour of jazz, cars, skyscrapers, speakeasies, cigarettes, and flappers, many others reacted in horror. Denouncing these changes sweeping America, they mobilized to “save” their country from the pernicious forces of modernity. Not surprisingly, alongside the more upbeat images of the ’20s we find vivid symbols of reactionary backlash — The Red Scare, Immigration Restriction, the Scopes Trial, to name but a few. Perhaps most significant was the rebirth of the KKK.
The original KKK was established in the post-Civil War South to suppress black freedom and reestablish white supremacy. This it helped accomplish by the mid-1870s, but the organization soon disintegrated. It was reborn, however, in 1915 with a new and expanded mission and character. Its enemies list expanded to include Jews and Catholics, in addition to African Americans, and it spread far beyond the South to the North, Midwest and West. By the mid-1920s, the Klan’s membership hit 5 million.
Nowhere in America was the Klan stronger and more vocal than in Indiana. According to historian Murray Sperber in his excellent book, “Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football,” about one in three adult white men (approximately 250,000) in Indiana in 1924 were members of the Klan. They were drawn to the Klan’s professions of patriotism and traditional values. Economic factors also played a role, as the American farmer — in contrast to the “roaring” economies of the cities — suffered from falling prices and foreclosures in the 1920s. The Klan helped them identify the sources of their woe — Jewish bankers, Wall Street tycoons, uppity blacks, and the Catholic Church. Not surprisingly, Notre Dame became a favorite target of Klan conspiracy mongers.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Needless to say, Notre Dame students and faculty were keenly aware of the Klan’s animosity. So when the Klan’s newspaper, The Fiery Cross, announced that a week-long “Klavern” would take place in South Bend beginning on May 17, passions were aroused and plans quietly made for the Klan to be met with an appropriate greeting. When the first Klansmen stepped off their train on the 17th, a crowd of angry students descended upon them, beating them and shredding their robes and regalia before forcibly putting them back on the train. South Bend police arrived soon thereafter and allowed the successive trainloads of Klansmen to detrain.
Nonetheless, clashes between Notre Dame students and Klansmen occurred throughout the weekend near the convention hall housing the Klan’s rally. The students’ fury reached a fever pitch on May 19, when rumors (false it turned out) flew about that Klansmen had killed a Notre Dame student. Thousands of students massed downtown intent on tearing the Klavern to shreds. Only the arrival of college president Fr. Matthew Walsh and a spring downpour managed to cool the crowd and no further violence occurred. The next day, football coach Knute Rockne spoke at a campus rally and implored the students to obey the college president and refrain from further violence. A few days later the Klavern broke up and South Bend returned to normal.
But for the Klan’s sympathizers, the events in South Bend only convinced them even more that Notre Dame was a sinister institution and that the enemies of America, Protestantism, and rural values had to be stopped. Pro-Klan newspapers printed allegations that Notre Dame students assaulted women and children and destroyed American flags. At that summer’s Democratic national convention, the Klan made its strength known when Klan-friendly delegates successfully blocked an anti-Klan plank in the party platform and then stymied the nomination of its sponsor, New York Gov. Al Smith. That fall the Klan helped elect a pro-Klan governor in Indiana who promptly introduced several anti-Catholic bills in the state legislature, including a proposal to outlaw parochial schools. Four years later, the Klan would again mobilize its forces to help defeat candidate Smith in his bid for the White House.
As it turned out, however, the sun had already begun to set on the KKK. Infighting and scandal caused membership to decline after 1925. Then came the Great Depression and a successful suit by the federal government for back taxes. By the mid-1930s the national KKK organization had been reduced to rubble. While it would never quite disappear, especially in the Deep South, the Klan would never again match the strength and influence it exerted in 1924.
And Notre Dame? In 1924, its greatest days lay ahead.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
May 16, 1926: Fianna Fail (“Soldiers of Destiny”) founded by Eamon DeValera and followers.
May 17, 1974: Unionist bombs kill 33 in Dublin and Monaghan.
May 19, 1863: Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher resigns in disgust as head of the Fighting 69th Regiment when his request that his tattered force be allowed to withdraw and rebuild is rejected.
May 16, 1952: Actor Pierce Brosnan is born in of Navan, Co. Meath.
May 22, 1859: Writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is born (to parents born in Ireland) in Edinburgh, Scotland.
May 22, 1901: Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin is born in Boston.
Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.