The Anti-Catholic History of the KKK

by Stephen Wynne  •  •  August 18, 2017   

Members of the Church persecuted alongside African-Americans, Jews

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DETROIT ( - The Ku Klux Klan hates Catholics.

Founded by disbanded Confederate soldiers on Christmas Eve, 1865, the secret fraternal society quickly transformed into a paramilitary group bent on fighting Reconstruction and the advancement of African-Americans, Jews and Catholics.

The KKK's decidedly anti-Catholic bent appealed broadly to Protestant America. Philip Jenkins, Baylor University professor of history, writes, "The Klan was above all a Protestant movement, whose events were accompanied by beloved hymns like 'Onward Christian Soldiers,' but its trademark anthem was 'The Old Rugged Cross.'"

Protestant leadership, in fact, included prominent figures within the Klan. "Protestant clergy were prominent in the leadership of this 'crusade,'" he observes, "'consecrated beneath the fiery cross of militant Protestant Christianity.' Every lodge had its kleagle or chaplain who was always a Protestant minister."

The KKK's anti-Catholic bigotry sprang from a broader antipathy toward the Church. Historian Arthur Schlesinger describes U.S. anti-Catholicism as "the deepest bias in the history of the American people."

Again, Jenkins explains:

Partly, the Klan inherited the very powerful nineteenth century tradition of militant anti-Catholic bigotry, which presented the Church as a vehicle for tyranny, paganism, immorality, persecution and every anti-Christian force. The Klan rehearsed the ancient charges of American nativism about Catholic evils, including the Inquisition, the seditious secret oaths taken by the Knights of Columbus and the conspiratorial nature of the Jesuit order. So much was familiar — but from the 1890s the U.S. experienced a mass immigration largely derived from Eastern and Central Europe, and newer groups were heavily Catholic and Jewish in character.

The KKK underwent rapid growth during the 1910s. By the early 1920s, its membership had swollen to more than 5 million, and its journal, The Fiery Cross, had a readership of 400,000.

Contrary to common perceptions, at that time the Klan was not primarily a Southern phenomenon — its greatest support was rooted in the North and Midwest. Pennsylvania alone counted more than 423 Klan lodges.

At the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York, Catholic Al Smith became a leading contender for the party's presidential nominee. Hundreds of Klansmen delegates responded by disrupting proceedings, shouting calls for violence against African-American and Catholics and defiling effigies of Smith. Democrats came within one vote of adopting a Klan platform plank voting against it 543–542.

Wayfinding sign omitting St. Boniface Catholic Church

In one notorious case in Birmingham, Alabama, Fr. James Coyle was murdered by a Klansman, shot in the head on the porch of his rectory by E.R. Stephenson — a Southern Methodist Episcopal clergyman. Months before, Stephenson's daughter Ruth had converted to Catholicism. Catholics were, in fact, subjected to acts of violence during this period.

The Ku Klux Klan paid for Stephenson's defense, and four of his five attorneys were Klansmen. Not surprisingly, Stephenson was acquitted.

Alabama, for instance, is home to half a dozen KKK affiliates and several other white supremacist organizations. In fact, the state has been bucking a national trend with a recent rise in such groups. In recent decades, overt Klan activity has become less visible, owing to overwhelming rejection of its bigotry. But the organization is still very much alive. Though fewer in number and comparatively more covert, its members remain active across the South.

In the 1950s, the KKK experienced another revival in response to the Civil Rights Movement. Well into the 1960s, the group was burning crosses in front of Catholic churches across the South.

Cullman County is the site of the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament, established by EWTN's Mother Angelica in the late 1990s. Reportedly, it also nurtures persistent, anti-Catholic sentiment.

After Mother Angelica began her activities in Hanceville, Alabama, the KKK sought to intimidate her by lighting bonfires and holding meetings along the Mulberry River, opposite the nuns' enclosure.

Even today, anti-Catholicism manifests subtly but surely. Last year in Cullman County — on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday — the Klan distributed fliers recruiting new members.

In Hanceville this spring, the mayor and city council erected directional signage, pointing the way to almost a dozen different Protestant houses of worship. The one church omitted: St. Boniface Catholic Church, a 100-year-old mission located less than three blocks away.

In the town of Cullman, reportedly, there is even a clogging group proudly calling itself "The KKK."


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