Herb Juliano

In Herb's Archive this month, an interesting analysis of the conflict from Herb's Notre Dame Odyssey.


In Herb's Archive this month, an interesting analysis of the conflict from Herb's Notre Dame Odyssey:


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 Bend Tribune:


There is no sacrilege in this spelling.
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.
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 more.

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 against 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 order."

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 intimidated.

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 opposition,

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.


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