The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Book Review: "Not A Catholic Nation"


New England is perhaps not the first region in which twenty-first century readers place the Ku Klux Klan.  Yet, in Not A Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England in the 1920s, Mark Paul Richard thoroughly dispels the notion that the infamous secret society had no substantial presence in New England or the northeast.  Richard, Professor of History and Canadian Studies at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, focuses on the tensions between the KKK and Catholic immigrant populations throughout New England in the 1920s.  Of particular interest to Richard is the resistance to KKK influence by Franco-American populations in the northeast borderlands regions.  French-speaking Catholic groups in all six New England states were at the forefront of anti-Klan activity in the 1920s.

Richard closely examines the rise and fall of the 1920s Klan in New England using newspapers, state government records, and court proceedings as his source material.  Through this research Richard sheds considerable light on the sentiments both for and against the Klan during the 1920s.  Formally re-founded in 1915, the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan spread well beyond the southern states where the original Klan had operated.  Building on a structured hierarchy, the Klan of the 1920s functioned as something like a fraternal and civic organization, espousing the need for Anglo-American Protestants to unite in the face of waves of Catholic immigrants in addition to Jews, African-Americans, and other minorities.  Espousing Nativist ideals, the Klan sought to disenfranchise entire groups of Catholic immigrants from politics and business.  While Klan-affiliated groups in New England remained in agreement with the national Klan with regards to their views on minorities including Jews and African-Americans, Catholic immigrants generally made up much larger portions of the population in New England states and were thus seen as a more immediate threat to be dealt with.  Among their biggest targets were the Franco-American populations in New England.  In the 1920s, Franco-Americans made up a huge portion of both the immigrant and the Catholic populations of New England states.  They would clash with the Klan in their newspapers, in the streets of New England cities and towns, and in the halls of state government.

Richard’s book showcases the efforts of ethnic Catholic groups to dispel the Klan’s exclusionary notions of Americanism.  Furthermore, Richard demonstrates that Franco-Americans in particular acted as their own agents in their ideological struggles with the Klan.  Although Irish-American politicians in New England such as James Michael Curley railed against the KKK, Franco-Americans resisted the influence of the KKK largely through their own efforts.  Richard examines the use of French-language newspapers in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and elsewhere in exposing the contradictions and hypocrisy inherent in KKK ideology. 

In addition to earlier scholarship focusing on the struggles of Irish-American politicians against the Klan,  Richard shows that Franco-Americans were often a favorite target of Klan members and Nativist sympathizers and that they effectively discredited the Klan in New England through their own avenues including French-language newspapers and open protest.  Richard’s book is an excellent read for students of immigration issues in the early twentieth century, as well as of the struggles of Catholic populations against Nativist bigotry.  Scholars of the Franco-American experience in the northeast in the twentieth century will find Richard’s book to be an invaluable tool. 

Below are some materials relating to issues of immigration, race, religion, and civil liberties in Massachusetts from our collections:

Ursuline Convent Trial Notes, 1834.  Call Number: Ms. N-1698.  Shaw, Lemuel, 1781-1861.  Massachusetts Historical Society.

John E. Gilman Scrapbooks, 1885-1890.  Call Number: Scrapbooks 051.  Gilman, John E., 1844-1921.  Massachusetts Historical Society.

Massachusetts Public Interests League records, 1919-1929.  Call Number: Ms. N-514.  Massachusetts Public Interests League.  Massachusetts Historical Society.

American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts records, 1920-2005.  Call Number: Ms. N-2257.  American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.  Massachusetts Historical Society.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 4 January, 2017, 12:00 AM

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