Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Anniversary of a Campus Bombing | Righting America
Black and white photo of a KKK demonstration with humdreds of participants dressed in full KKK attire with a stage, American Flags, and burning crosses in the background.
KKK Demonstration in Dayton, OH on September 21, 1923. Photo courtesy of Dayton Metro Library.

95 years ago today my home institution – the University of Dayton (UD) – was bombed. And while some specifics have changed, the general reasons why UD was bombed remain with us today. To borrow from William Faulkner, the past is not dead. It is not even past.

One of the most significant features of American life in the early 1920s was the inescapable, powerful presence of the Second Ku Klux Klan. The first Klan appeared in the years after the Civil War, its goal being to demolish Reconstruction, in good part by terrorizing African Americans into not exercising their newly-won rights as American citizens. While this first Klan was not on the scene very long, they helped ensure that white Southerners regained their supremacy. By the end of the 19th century African Americans had been relegated to a status as close to slavery as possible.

Interestingly, in these years a new version of American history appeared that meshed beautifully with the Klan’s own understanding of itself: Reconstruction was bad, white “redemption” of the South was good, and the Klansmen were freedom fighters. This revisionist history was most dramatically portrayed in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. And it was this film that provided the impetus for the founding of a revived Ku Klux Klan, which announced its arrival on Thanksgiving Day, 1915, with the burning of a cross on the top of Stone Mountain in Georgia. (It is worth noting that burning crosses were not used by the original Klan, but were included in Birth of a Nation).

This “second” KKK remained tiny as the Great War raged in Europe. But after the war the Klan exploded upon the America scene. The white-robed Klansmen (and Klanswomen) with their fiery crosses and fiery rhetoric seemed to be everywhere. Historians have estimated that at its high point perhaps five million Americans – 4% of the total population – were KKK members. And it was a truly national organization, with more members in the West and Midwest than in the South.

What made the second Klan so appealing was that it presented itself as the supremely patriotic organization. The phrase they used was “100% American.” And to be “100% American” meant that you were white, and you were determined to keep black people in their place. While the Klan was racist everywhere, in the South this was the dominant emphasis: use intimidation and violence to keep black men and women in their place, segregated and not allowed to vote.

But to be “100% American” in the 1920s did not just mean you were white. It also meant that you were Christian. Protestant Christian. In the years between 1890 and 1920 a flood of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe came to America. These immigrants were primarily Catholic and Jewish. In the eyes of the KKK such immigrants were polluting and endangering America. As the founder of the second Klan put it, “America is not a melting pot. It is a garbage can, and it is the Catholics and the Jews who are the garbage!”

Dayton, Ohio was a Klan hotbed in the 1920s. And the #1 target of the Klan’s animus was the University of Dayton (which until 1920 had been known as St. Mary College). As the Klan saw it, UD served as the headquarters of Catholic subversion in Ohio, with a ROTC program that had been established for the purpose of training a Catholic army to fight religious wars against American Protestants.

As elsewhere in the Midwest, the primary means of intimidation at UD was the burning of crosses. In the early 1920s it was a ritual: Klansmen came onto campus (or into the cemetery across the street) and lit one or more crosses, shouts went up in the dorms or in the classrooms, and students ran out and chased them away. On at least one occasion it was the UD football team that chased off the intruders. But the burning crosses kept coming.

And it was not just cross burnings. There were also the large KKK rallies at the fairgrounds just down the road from Dayton’s Catholic university. Perhaps the largest such gathering took place on September 21, 1923. After an afternoon of speeches by Klan leaders imploring America to remain a Christian nation governed by 100% Americans, the 15,000 Klansmen headed out of the Fairgrounds for a three mile march through the city (the route lined by enthusiastically vociferous supporters). When they returned to the fairgrounds, they gathered around 7,000 kneeling KKK initiates (see photo), who took an oath affirming that they were white Protestants.  Then it was time to celebrate, with fireworks and burning crosses (including one that was 100 feet tall). A KKK airplane circled above the joyous scene, a red cross illuminated on the bottom of its fuselage.

Of course staff and students on campus two blocks away could hear and see what was happening at the Fairgrounds. Of course they all knew that this was a menacing message aimed at them. Three months later, the Klan sent an even more direct message. From my American Catholic Studies article on the KKK and Catholic universities in the 1920s:

Wednesday, December 19, 1923 was the first day of Christmas break at the University of Dayton. By the time evening had arrived, fewer than forty students remained on campus. It looked to be a very quiet night.

At 10:30 the calm was shattered by a series of explosions. Students leaped out of their beds and ran out into the night. Outside, they were relieved to discover that it was not a scene of devastation: as would be learned later, twelve bombs had been exploded throughout campus, but all at some distance from university buildings. No one sustained serious injuries and the property damage was minimal; it could have been much worse, given that at least one bomb went off near campus buildings that stored guns and ammunition for the university’s ROTC program. But what caught the eyes of the frightened students shivering in the cold was a blazing eight-foot, burlap-wrapped, oil-soaked cross on the west edge of campus, which had been lit “simultaneous [to] the exploding of the first bomb.” As the UD students ran toward the cross in order to tear it down, they discovered the perpetrators waiting for them. As reported by the Dayton Daily News, several hundred Klansmen had filled 40-50 cars, which they very slowly drove in single file “past the blazing emblem,” all the while issuing “a volley of threats” to the badly outnumbered students (1-2).

Fortunately for the students, angry neighborhood residents – many or most who were Catholic themselves – poured out of their homes and chased the Klansmen off campus. Fortunately for UD, the KKK (in Ohio and in the U.S.) suffered a precipitous decline in the late 1920s, in good part because of a series of scandals. But as with the first KKK during Reconstruction, they achieved long-lasting victories, including the Immigration Quota Act of 1924, which was on the books until the 1960s, and which established very tight restrictions on immigration from southern and eastern Europe (Catholic and Jewish Europe). One effect of this law came in the 1930s and 1940s: as Nazi Germany established its control over much of southern and eastern Europe, it became difficult for Jewish refugees to get into the U.S., thus facilitating their eventual execution in Nazi death camps.

In US history, we have had an ongoing conflict over what it means to be an American. On the one hand we have those who argue that anyone can become an American: along with being able to speak basic English and having a rudimentary understanding of American history and government, one simply needs to affirm his/her loyalty to the ideas and ideals articulated in the Constitution. On the other hand, we have those (now including some Catholics) who argue that to be truly and fully American one needs to be the right race, the right ethnicity, the right religion. The 1920s Ku Klux Klan – the folks who bombed UD – held to the latter position. A century later, it is not clear whether they were on the winning or losing side of the argument over what it means to be an American.