The KKK’s Campaign To Close Catholic Schools In Oregon! What’s The Aftermath?

In the 1920s, The Ku Klux Klan in Oregon concentrated on prohibiting private schools and enjoyed electoral success in the process.

Oregon was 98% white when the reconstituted Ku Klux Klan emerged here a century ago and became the dominant force in state politics.

Only 1,556 Black people lived in Portland, the white supremacist movement’s Western heartland.

As a result, the newly formed Klan, which took off in the early 1920s, chose Catholics as its new target minority group. Catholic immigrants were a part of a more recent surge of immigration that altered the demographics and culture of many American cities.

Early in 1921, the first commission-paid Klan recruiters were sent to Oregon from the KKK’s Atlanta headquarters to enlist white, Protestant, native-born men as dues-paying members. The following year, the Klan overthrew an elected governor and installed a supporter in his stead. But its biggest victory in that election in November 1922 was the approval of a measure on the ballot that attempted to close Catholic schools.

Since the 16th century, the tension between Protestants and Catholics had simmered throughout Europe. When Europeans founded the original 13 colonies and shortly thereafter white settlers arrived in Oregon, such religious conflicts spread to American shores.

Malcom Clark Jr. stated in a 1974 scholarly study for Oregon Historical Quarterly that “very literally, anti-Catholicism arrived west in the luggage of the Protestant missionaries.”

6,000 people paid to attend conservative preacher Ruben Sawyer’s speech on “The Truth About the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan” during the Klan’s first significant public gathering in this area in December 1921 at Portland Municipal Auditorium.

Blacks and Jews were still reviled by the Klan in those days.

“Jews are either Bolsheviks, subverting our government, or they are Shylocks in banking or business, controlling and commanding Christians as debtors or employees,” Rev. Sawyer declared to the audience.

Rev. Sawyer asserted that black people had nothing to be concerned about with the Klan unless they “sow the seeds of racial hatred among Negroes by teaching social equality.”

The Klan’s bigger target in this situation, according to Sawyer, would be Catholics who attempted to involve their church in public affairs. That apparently meant having the audacity to run for office and send their kids to exclusive Catholic schools.

When speaking to a group of Salem Klan members, the Rev. James R. Johnson, who would later be the leader of the Portland Klan chapter, was more menacing. Johnson asserted that “killing a Catholic is the only definite remedy.”

The Kkk's Campaign To Close Catholic Schools In Oregon
The Kkk’s Campaign To Close Catholic Schools In Oregon

Anti-catholic Movement’s Beginnings

Around Oregon in the middle of the 1880s, the overtly anti-Catholic American Protective Association was very active. According to Clark, that laid the groundwork for the Klan’s assaults a quarter-century later.

The Federation of Patriotic Societies was established in Portland during World War I by Presbyterian clergyman G. Davidson Buchanan as a new anti-Catholic organization. It was made up of Protestant congregations and fraternal organizations. According to Clark, one of Buchanan’s pamphlets stated that Catholics “are unsuited for public service.”

According to the historian E. Kimbark MacColl, “Anti-Catholicism has long been subtly fostered among the congregations of fundamentalist Protestant churches,” in “The Growth of a City,” the first book in his trilogy on the history of Portland.

But after World War I, attacks against Catholics became more frequent, according to MacColl. The national resentment against the more recent flood of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe peaked at that point.

According to David Horowitz, an expert on the Klan and a history professor at Portland State University, an anti-Catholic coalition took control of the Portland school board in 1921.

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