A piece of Notre Dame history, revisited


“On May 17, 1924, thousands of hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan converged on South Bend, Indiana, to terrorize the students of Notre Dame.  A weekend of rioting ensued, with the ‘fighting Irish’ prevailing in the streets.”

Thus begins Notre Dame vs. The Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan by Todd Tucker, a Notre Dame alumnus and Navy officer.  The 2004 book details the story of the long and violent relationship between Notre Dame and the Klan, a narrative that seems to have been lost over the course of several generations of Domers.  Tucker captures the atmosphere on campus, the thought processes of the students, and the difficult decisions facing the administration in 229 pages of accessible narrative.

The story begins in 1893 with the introduction of Father Matthew Walsh, the president of Notre Dame from 1922-1928.  The book continues through time following Walsh, D.C. Stephenson (a Klan activist), and Bill Foohey (a “composite character” representing the student body).  The tension building up to May 1924 increased as the Klan moved into Indiana and began to propagate its anti-Catholic oath.  The local newspaper printed a list of Klansmen in town, naming some of Notre Dame’s Board of Lay Trustees.  When the Klan declared that they would hold a parade in South Bend, the Notre Dame students rose up in arms, despite Fr.  Walsh’s attempts to prevent any violence or protests.

The following week was tormented by cross burnings, riots, and counter riots.  Police, Klansmen, and Notre Dame students found themselves in a political and sometimes physical triangle of tension.  The riots finally ended with Notre Dame the seeming victor.  The Klan fell soon after.

The Rover took a trip to the University Archives to follow the paper trail that provided some of the research for this book.  According to student publications, Notre Dame students considered the Klan a threat to the Notre Dame community, especially due to the Catholic nature of the school.  The student magazine, Scholastic, reported in October 1921, “It is the duty of the press and people to ridicule the Klan out of existence” and in January of 1923 simply states, “The Ku Klux Klan must go.”  Issue after issue comments on the Catholic nature of Notre Dame as antithetical to the Klan’s philosophy.

In February 1923, Scholastic sent out a battle cry: “If the vicinity of Notre Dame and South Bend were to become the battleground of the Klan, we see no reason why the Klan could not be met here as effectively as elsewhere.  The men who founded Notre Dame … were the friends of truth.  They were not bigots, nor are those who have followed them bigots.  Truth can meet error anywhere beneath the blue skies.  It can meet it in northern Indiana.”

Scholastic reported in March 1957 that the Notre Dame students successfully stopped the planned parade and ended a Klan meeting before Fr.  Walsh was able to calm them, pleading with them to return to campus.  The students returned and stood guard over the campus every remaining night of the school year as the tension dissipated.

Critics have praised Tucker for portraying these events so rivetingly and descriptively.  The late Father Hesburgh, CSC, wrote of the book, “The story is an exciting one, and the author has told it in an exciting and attractive way.”

Sal Cilella of the Indiana Historical Society agreed, calling the book “well researched and presented in an accessible manner for a general audience.”

Others caution that the book makes too much of Notre Dame’s victory over the Klan.  As one Amazon review notes, “linking the Notre Dame incident and the Klan’s demise is more than a bit of a stretch.”

If one overlooks the reach—or overreach—of Tucker’s book regarding history outside the university, the book presents a thorough story of striking events which remain fairly unknown on campus today.

Abigail Bartels is a junior in Badin Hall.  She found the book Notre Dame vs. the Klan at a used bookstore in Baltimore and learned a lot from it.  Ergo, this article.  Contact her at abartel2@nd.edu.