In Herb's Archive this month, an
interesting analysis of the conflict from Herb's Notre Dame Odyssey:
UND VS. KKK
Knute Rockne's most popular pep talk may
be his "Win one for the Gipper" exhortation in 1928, but his
most crucial pep talk was delivered four years earlier...and it was not to
his football team. In fact, it was not even during the football season.
But it had all the rudiments of a football rally.
It was a Tuesday morning in May. It was during a period when feelings ran
high, even to fever pitch, between students of the University of Notre
Dame and the Ku Klux Klan.
A headline in the Saint Paul, Minnesota, Daily News on May 17,
1924, read: "NOTRE DAME COLLEGIANS CLASH WITH KLUXERS."
The Ku Klux Klan had gathered in South Bend -approximately 4,000 of them
from Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio -- for a "May
Festival" and parade. Although the parade had been postponed by a
move on the part of city officials, it did little to cool anti-klan
feelings. When masked men robed in white appeared on downtown street
corners early Saturday morning to direct incoming Klan families to the
festival at Island Park, angry Notre Dame students, reinforced with
Catholic townspeople, tore at Klan regalia. Domers had baseball bats and
boards swung at them. The students ran wild, overturning cars, smashing
windshields, throwing vegetables and eggs, and attacking anyone holding an
American flag. Not because the students were anti-American, but because
that was the assigned badge of identity for arriving Klansmen.
Klan people arriving on South Shore trains from Michigan City and Gary
were met by mobs and had their white robes torn to pieces. A crowd of five
hundred protesters milled around Klan headquarters at the northeast corner
of Michigan and Wayne streets, where an electric fiery cross hanging on
the building added fuel to their rage. They shattered windows and were
bent on storming the building, but then it happened.
In the early evening a torrential downpour of rain put the damper on both
Klan and anti-Klan anger, avoiding more serious injuries and possibly even
deaths, and resulting in this dramatic editorial in the following day's South
Rightly or wrongly, these visitors were
advertised as fanatical opponents to certain races and creeds. They came
with the reputation of being violently opposed to the religious theories
of a large number of citizens, the color of others and the race of still
- There is no sacrilege in this
- It is the plain truth that last
night this city was saved by a providential downpour from what
seemed to offer all the possibilities of tragedy.
- The responsible heads of government
and of business were frightened by the appearance in this city of a
delegation whose coming was heralded by robes and masks.
For weeks the responsible men of this community have conferred with the
one man they could find who represented this organization and pointed to
the fact that whatever following his order may have obtained elsewhere, an
invasion of this city was fraught with dangerous possibilities.
The mysterious mask and gown which seems to have attracted the members of
this organization has a different meaning to those who do not belong.
To them it means a menace and a threat. It means a challenge that some
secret body intends to supplant the orderly processes of government and
install in its stead the rule of an invisible empire.
Mobs are easily formed. They always spring from prejudice. It takes but a
spark to light the flames of passion and once in motion, a mob is a
terrible thing, hideous, hateful, devilish and without restraint.
Saturday morning opened with a balminess that breathed the atmosphere of
friendship and good will. There was the scent of violets in the air. Men
might easily have become poets. It was spring with all its promise of
future harvest of friendships and affections. Passion and prejudice are
always easily aroused. It takes but a slight thing, unimportant, to fire
the torch of hate and to cause men to lose their reason.
That slight thing was the appearance of men who hid their faces behind
masks standing upon street corners, supplanting the servants of the people
in the peaceful occupation of directing traffic.
From then until the time that, that Providence which guards fools and
children sent his clouds of rain to quiet the passions of men, there was
never an hour when one untoward incident might not have precipitated
bloody clash of force against force, passion against passion, prejudice
Thank God that it rained and that He reigns.
The respite was short-Iived. Anti-Kluxers, infuriated by a report of a
local Klan meeting and the beating of a Notre Dame student, were back in
force by the following Monday. Once again, they formed a mob, gathered
before the electric cross and demanded its removal. South Bend and
Mishawaka police took two hours to disperse the mob from in front of the
Klan headquarters. This time, the day was saved by Father Matthew Walsh,
University of Notre Dame president, through his hurried arrival and
emotional speech from the steps of the courthouse
The next day, Father Walsh, again pleading for peaceful calm, was aided
and abetted by head football coach Knute Rockne.
The Rock told the 2,000 students gathered, "You can not expect to win
a game of football unless the players follow the signals of the
quarterback." The crowd of students roared its approval.
"Father Walsh is your quarterback and you are the great Notre Dame
team," continued Rockne. "It is your duty to follow the signals
of Father Walsh, and when you do that you will be in the right, and will
not be a party to any disorder."
The more Rockne talked, the more the students cheered. As one reporter put
it: "The students pledged to play a winning game for law and
The story of Notre Dame students battling Klansmen in the streets of South
Bend is part of the University's folklore. Many years later, alumni were
still discussing their angry marches into town to fix those masked bigots.
At that time, there were a reported 4,000 Klansmen in St. Joseph County,
500,000 in Indiana, and somewhere between 2 and 6 million in the nation.
The Klan was on the verge of electing assorted officials in St. Joseph
County and a governor in the state. Grand Dragon David Stephenson boasted
of being "the law" in Indiana. But Notre Dame students were not
And this at a time when "audacious acts against the KKK were
rare," according to Indiana historian Irving Leibowitz. The Ku Klux
Klan of the 1920's was an organization too imposing for effective
The Klan never again reached its 1920's numbers and influence, but it has
never completely died, either. During the 1930's it was centered in the
South and directed its animus against blacks, organized labor and
communism. It also directed attacks against the Nazis. In 1936 it suffered
an ignominious setback when it lost its former national headquarters, the
Atlanta Imperial Palace, and had to stand helplessly by as its archenemy,
the Catholic Church, purchased the building.
During World War II, the Klan went bankrupt when the government slapped it
with a huge bill for back taxes, and once again it looked like the end.
Yet it rose again. In the 50's its reaction was to the Supreme Court
school integration decision. In the 60's it targeted blacks and civil
rights "agitators." But by then the movement was badly
splintered into variously named terrorist factions.
But the movement was still not dead and continued to rear its ugly head in
the 1970's and 80's, in Boston, in New York, in the United States Marines,
and sometimes on television talk shows.