Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Massachusetts

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Massachusetts

Article excerpt

Editor's Introduction: HJM is proud to select as our Editor's Choice Award for this issue Mark Paul Richard's timely, illuminating and sobering study, Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England in the 1920s (2015) published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Richard breaks new ground in terms of both the thoroughness of his research and the arguments he makes. In the book 's concluding paragraph he suggests that, in order to effectively address the resurgence of racist, nativist and anti-immigrant prejudices today, we must "recognize the importance of the Ku Klux Klan in earlier historical periods, particularly the 1920s, when so many ordinary Americans joined the organization to form one of the largest social movements the country has ever experienced." Although "the Klan 's presence in New England does not currently form part of the historical memory of most Americans," Richard writes, the prejudices expressed through the KKK "continue to find expression in contemporary society, even if refashioned and exploited by groups who were themselves previously targeted. " He concludes that "only by understanding and acknowledging the KKK's activities in New England. . . during the 1920s can we begin to confront the persistent cultural prejudices of modern society" (206-07).

Founded in 1866, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) extended into almost every Southern state by 1870 and became a potent vehicle for white Southern resistance to the Republican Party's Reconstruction-era policies aimed at establishing a modicum of political and economic equality for African Americans. Its members waged an underground campaign of intimidation, terror, and violence. Although Congress passed legislation designed to curb Klan terrorism, the organization saw its primary goal-the reestablishment of white supremacy-fulfilled across the South in the 1870s.

During the early 1920s the Ku Klux Klan experienced a remarkable resurgence that brought literally millions of American men and women into its ranks. The resurrected Klan, based in white Protestant nativist groups, burned crosses and staged rallies, parades and marches denouncing immigrants, Catholics, Jews, blacks, and organized labor. Demonstrating at the height of their power, on August 8, 1925 twenty-five thousand members of the Klan marched in full regalia down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D. C.

In Not a Catholic Nation, Mark Paul Richard examines the KKK's largely ignored growth in New England and details the reactions of the region's Catholic population, the Klan's primary target. Dr. Richard's extensive research draws upon a wide range of previously untapped primary sources. These include French-language newspapers; KKK documents scattered in local, university, and Catholic repositories; and previously undiscovered copies of the Maine Klansman. Richard argues that the Klan was far more active in the Northeast than previously thought. He also challenges the view that the Ku Klux Klan became a mass movement during this period largely because it functioned as a social, fraternal, or civic organization for many Protestants. Although Richard concedes that some Protestants in New England may have joined the KKK for those reasons, he shows that the politics of ethnicity and labor played a more significant role in the Klan's growth in New England.1

Not a Catholic Nation offers comprehensive analysis of the Ku Klux Klan's antagonism toward Catholics in the 1920s. More importantly, perhaps, it also chronicles widespread resistance to the Klan. This resistance was particularly fierce in Massachusetts. As the author writes in Chapter Seven:

Opposition to the Ku Klux Klan in Massachusetts came from many different quarters . . . The most significant and effective anti-Klan activities in the Bay State were the grassroots efforts undertaken by residents, many of whom were the Catholic targets of the Klan. Perhaps coming as a considerable surprise to the KKK, Catholics in over twenty communities of the Commonwealth did not hesitate to use extralegal means, including violence, in their counterattack against the hooded society. …

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