If you attend a parish blessed with a Knights of Columbus council, you have probably tasted their delicious pancakes. You may have even had a Tootsie Roll they sell to raise money for charity. But, do you think that’s all they do? Just pancakes and Tootsie Rolls?
As the title of “knight” implies, they were formed to protect. Fr. Michael J. McGivney was a young man whose father’s death led him to temporarily leave seminary to help provide for his family. Many immigrants, such as Catholic fathers, died from difficult labor and poor living conditions, causing their sons to enter into the same harsh conditions rather than finish school.
In 1882, Fr. McGivney and the men of his Connecticut parish created a way to assist families who faced such a crisis. What they created is now an insurance program for Knight of Columbus members and focuses the family security—not seeking profit.
The Knights don’t just insure each other’s families; they seek justice and peace for people, believing that all were created equal. The fraternal organization is incredibly charitable donating hundreds of millions of dollars and millions of service hours to their communities (and beyond). They provide valuable support for causes from the right for life of unborn children to disaster relief to protection of persecuted Christians halfway around the globe.
This fraternal Catholic organization also didn’t cower when they were needed, even against the notorious Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan supported nativism, which meant that anyone who is not native-born Anglo-Saxon whites—as in, Catholics, especially Irish and Italian Catholics—were not welcome.
Why were the Knights targeted? Because the Knights not only were Catholics defending Catholics but also defended Jews, all immigrants, African Americans, and other minorities that the Klan rejected.
The Klan claimed that Knights were instruments of Rome seeking control (an accusation similar to those against the only Catholic president JFK, also a Knight) and that Knights wanted to burn Protestants as heretics.
Kevin Cole writes in “The Knights Vs. The Klan”:
The introduction of a 1921 KKK pamphlet titled The Ku Klux Klan or the Knights of Columbus Klan referred to the Knights of Columbus as “the Pope’s Knights of Mob and Murder, his Militia of Christ, his pliant tools who have bound themselves together in a secret, unholy compact to destroy our free American Public School system, our Constitution and its guarantees.” It further stated, “Apparently the organization most interested in the destruction of the Ku Klux Klan is the Roman Catholic Order of the Knights of Columbus.”
The Klan grasped one grain of truth: The Knights of Columbus did indeed work to counter the Klan’s malicious ideology. Moreover, the Order’s passionate, nonviolent response to the Klan’s anti-Catholicism, racism and historical revisionism remains a model for Knights today.
Instead of bowing to the horrible lies spread about the Knights, the Knights met Klan slander with letters and lawsuits. The Knights published many works defending contributions of Jews, Africans, and Germans to America (i.e. The Gift of Black People by W.E.B. Du Bois, one of three books in the series “Knights of Columbus Racial Contributions”) and quoted politicians such as Mississippi Senator LeRoy Percy:
“I heard of the Knights of Columbus on the battlefields of France; I heard of them in the hospitals over there nursing the boys; but I did not hear anything of the Klan over there, and no masks were worn over there except gas masks. If you love your people, if you love the welfare of your community, do not be led off after this firebrand creed that is built on dissension, hatred and factional strife.”
When the Knights battled the Klan to the Supreme Court over an Oregon school law declaring Catholic school education illegal, Supreme Knights James A. Flaherty called on Knights to defend Catholic schools.
When the Klan burned down a Catholic orphanage for black children on Long Island twice, Msgr. Bernard J. Quinn, the founder and a Knight who served in World War I, rebuilt it with stone and brick.
After the kidnapping and physical abuse of their priest, Knights with shotguns guarded their church and priest from the Klan, who threatened to burn down the rectory.
The Klan burned crosses in protest of Catholic political candidates.
When the Knights spoke out against the anti-Catholic violence in Mexico, the KKK offered to assist the Mexican president with its own members.
Can you imagine your father shooting your priest on your wedding day? In Alabama of 1921, Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson, a Methodist minister whose daughter had converted and married a Puerto Rican Catholic, shot the priest Fr. James E. Coyle, who had just celebrated the marriage, in the head on the priest’s porch. Fr. Coyle was involved with the Knights and Rev. Stephenson was a KKK member.
Knights even followed Klan members to secret meetings, recorded car license plates, and publicized the Klan members’ names.
Of course the Klan wanted the Knights stopped. Knights were Catholics and, believing in the dignity of all men, fought segregation even in their own councils. The first African American Knight joined in 1890s.
As Andrew Walther, Vice President for Communications and Media at the Knights of Columbus pointed out, the Knights “took stands for racial equality in ways that were really stunning, when you think of the 1920s of the 1910s.”
During the Great War, the Knights didn’t just serve soldiers in Europe—they served all soldiers as the only integrated social service organization. Walther said, “We [the Knights] were the only ones that were opening the doors to everybody. Thirty years before the army integrated, we were integrating the army.” He speaks highly to the Catholic News Agency about the Knights’ inclusive policy that recognizes all as important members of community.
Supreme Knight John W. McDevitt learned that a New Orleans hotel intended for a Knights convention in 1964 refused to serve African American, he stated that he’d move the convention and the hotel changed its mind.
Nativist and anti-Catholic ideology permeates society today in the land of the free. Recently, American Senator Dianna Feinstein of California, among others, have been accused of the same anti-Catholic mentality. Feinstein asked judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett if she considered herself an orthodox Catholic, as if that would inhibit her ability properly perform the position. This caused a revival of the old signs from Fr. McGivney’s time—“Catholics Need Not Apply.”
People everyday struggle to continue living well without compromising their faith or who they are. Thanks to men like those in the Knights who respond to God’s call to serve and love, we as Catholics are much better-off in America than we could be. This world is still imperfect and there are clearly still anti-Catholic streams of thought pervading, but when the occasion arises, people like Knights are among us.
Though we mostly know them as the humble guys who make up breakfast on occasional Sundays, let’s all take a moment to shake a Knight’s hand and thank him for simply being a part of an organization that was formed to (and continues to) serve our communities and protect us.
Questions for Reflection:
1. Would you stand in front of your church to protect your priest from a group intent on harming him?
2. Are you confident in the groups you are a part of to actively support their mission in the face of persistent and popular slander and libel?
3. What Catholic group in your community serves the Church and its people outstandingly?
4. How do you also intend to defend all families from prejudice and help in times of need?
5. How have you prepared your family for crisis so that even if you pass away their futures’ are secure?
6. What would silence you from speaking out for your faith and family, challenging injustice in court, or defending people against prejudice?
The Knights vs. The Klan: At the Peak of the Ku Klux Klan’s Popularity, the Knights of Columbus Stood as its Most Vigorous Opponent by Kevin Coyle (Knights of Columbus)
Our Story: Founded by a Priest to Protect Catholic Families (Knights of Columbus)
Knights of Columbus Celebrate History of Breaking Down Racial Barriers by Kevin J. Jones (Catholic News Agency)
‘Catholics Needs Not Apply?’ Senators Accused of Anti-Catholic Bias at Hearing for Judicial Nominee by Mark Martin (CBN News: The Christian Perspective)
How to Respond to ‘the Last Acceptable Prejudice’: A look at recent and current examples of attacks on Christianity, in the wake of the Muslim response to a video that mocks their religion By Wayne Laugesen (National Catholic Register)