In the early 1920s, Oregon, with a population of only 700,000 and an agriculture- and timber-based economy, seemed far removed from the unrest that buffeted other parts of the United States in the wake of the First World War. But the state’s isolation also made it a fertile ground for a movement largely spawned by D.W. Griffin’s epic 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. The film, originally titled “The Clansman,” presented an idealized view of the Ku Klux Klan as crusading knights, representing a “reborn” Americanism. The impact of the film was still strong when Ku Klux Klan recruiters began work in Medford in early 1921, offering hood, robe, and membership for $18.50. Within a short time, the Oregon Klan, often referred to as “The Invisible Empire,” grew to 15,000 members and was backing a candidate for governor.
The Oregon Catholic community had its own crusaders in the form of Knights of Columbus. Much smaller than the Klan, the organization numbered less than 2000 members organized into 21 councils. At the time, the Knights of Columbus was viewed by the public as a national philanthropic organization that that provided recreation and educational opportunities to the military during World War I. Accustomed to neutrality in political matters, the Catholic knights in Oregon were slow to recognize the threat posed by the Klan. In June 1921, the Catholic knights the sponsored a flower-covered float at the Portland Rose Festival while on nearby Mount Scott thousands of white-robed Klan members in burned a cross. The Knights of Columbus were not the only unaware of the threat. “We woke up one morning and found that the Klan had about gained control of the state,” a leading politician later recalled. “Practically not a word had been raised against them.”
The threat posed by the Klan and other anti-Catholic groups became more evident when copies of a spurious Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree oath began circulating throughout the state. The flyer, showing pictures of the Spanish Inquisition, queried: “Is the Knights of Columbus an Un-American Society Bound to the Pope By Pledges of Treason and Murder.” Preoccupied with the bogus oath, the knights were unprepared for the attack against the Catholic parochial school system that soon followed.
During the previous three decades the Catholic community had created an impressive network of 46 parochial schools serving over 4000 students. By April of 1922, it became the Klan had co-opted a compulsory education measure originally developed by the Scottish Rite Freemasons, designed to assure that all Oregon elementary school children receive an “American education.” The bill required all Oregon school children from the first to eighth grade to be enrolled in public schools and imposed severe financial penalties and incarceration of parents who failed to observe its petitions. Although the measure applied to a number of institutions, its primary target was the Catholic parochial school system.
While the Catholic community remained relatively quiet in the media and focused on a parish-level get-out-the-vote campaign, the Klan played a far rougher hand. In Pendleton, the Klan succeeded in firing a teacher from her job in a public school because she sent her own children to a parish school. Anti-Catholic rhetoric in private gatherings was extreme. An Oregon Klan leader proclaimed in reference to Catholic school children: “Somehow these mongrel hordes must be Americanized; failing that, deportation is the only remedy [in the] best interests of America.” Other promoters argued the need to protect the public schools from the “Roman monopoly” and the “catechized monstrosities [that] would destroy all of our public schools.” To make an all-American nation,” the Klan insisted, “we must have all-American instruction for our children.” For many Oregonians, the message resonated. On Nov. 7, 1922 the Compulsory Education measure passed into law by a 10,000-vote majority out of some 210,000 votes cast.
The success of the initiative galvanized the national leadership of the Knights of Columbus. Barely a month after the election, January 1923 edition of Columbia Magazine, Supreme Knight James A. Flaherty characterized the Oregon law as part of a “national movement to abolish the Catholic school” and urged knights to “unite to protect our rights.” Money was pledged to assist the Archdiocese of Portland in challenging the act, collections were taken up in Councils throughout the country, and when the first briefs were presented in Federal Circuit court in June of 1924, lawyer fees had been paid for with Knights of Columbus dollars. Somewhat belatedly the newly reinstated National Catholic Welfare Committee (NCWC), the administrative arm of American bishops, also took up a fund raising campaign on behalf of the Oregon Holy Names Sisters legal challenge to the law. Not wishing to be upstaged by the knights, the bishop’s requested the knights to withhold further contribution, and the knights acquiesced. The Oregon Knights, undoubtedly with the connivance of their national leadership, thereupon directed another $10,000 of their own money to support a suit filed on behalf of Hills Military Academy of Portland, a prestigious private institution. As Oregon Supreme Knight P.J. Hanley later wrote, “because the Hill Academy [was] a non-sectarian institution” the funding provided by the knights served as a powerful argument “that the fight was not solely a Catholic one.”
In March 1924 the law was declared unconstitutional by the Oregon Circuit Court. Soon thereafter, Oregon’s newly-elected, pro-Klan, Governor Walter M. Pierce appealed to the US Supreme Court. Oregon remained remarkably calm. “Should need arise the knights could always be counted on…in upholding the orderly process of the law.” The Oregon State Deputy declared on more than one occasion.
But elsewhere in the nation, pressure for action was building. Following the passage of the Oregon Compulsory Education Act, shadowy groups of young Catholics, known as name Knights of the Flaming Circle, formed in the East and Midwest. Using the symbol of a burning circle to contrast with the burning crosses of the “Invisible Empire,” these groups adopted rough-shod tactics of the Klan.
In 1923 thousands of masked Klansmen descended upon South Bend, Indiana and were met by even larger numbers of University Notre Dame students that drove them from the city. On Aug. 15, 1923, a Klan banquet at a hotel in Steubenville Ohio was broken up with bricks, bottles, and clubs, in a brawl involving over 2000 people. Anti-Klan riots led Catholics took place in Northern Ohio, and Massachusetts. In the Boston area such melees became a standard feature of large Klan rallies. Anti-Catholic bills proliferated in state legislatures. In 1927 a Pennsylvania legislator unsuccessfully promoted a bill that included a penitentiary term of up to ten yeas for being a member of the Knights of Columbus. Slates of Klan candidates for public office became common. Historian Stephen Jenkins notes that in Pennsylvania “Klan electioneering…appears to have done more good than harm…as Catholics were apparently galvanized to register and vote in unprecedented numbers.”
Violence by some Catholics had placed Klan on the front page of the nation’s newspapers, but it was the discipline and organizational strength of the Knights of Columbus that produced the more lasting results. In a landmark ruling of June 1, 1925, the US Supreme Court Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (268 U.S. 510), affirmed:
The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty, to recognize, and prepare him for additional duties.
The Supreme Court ruling in Pierce vs. the Holy Names Sisters has been cited as a precedent in more than 100 Supreme Court cases, and in more than 70 cases in the courts of appeals. In 1929, Pope Pius XI, cited the text of the Supreme Court case in his encyclical Divini Illius Magistri, a classic document which provided direction to Catholic schools for the next several decades and became a foundations stone of Vatican Council II’s Declaration on Christian Education.
As for the Klan, it soon became a victim of its own excesses. In Oregon, issues of embezzlement and sexual improprieties on the part of Klan leaders led to the demise of the movement within two years of the passage of the Compulsory School Act. Similar scandals rocked the Klan in other states, and when the US economy boomed in the late twenties concern over immigrants and Catholics lost appeal. By 1930, the Klan as a significant national movement had become a spent force.