Ku Klux Klan was surprisingly active in Washington state
Those prickly topics, though, came up during George Herman Ruth Jr.'s first appearance in Seattle. It was Oct. 19, 1924. According to HistoryLink, an online encyclopedia of state history, the "Babe" hit three home runs in an exhibition game at Dugdale Park in Seattle's Rainier Valley.
The phenomenal New York Yankee not only thrilled fans at the Seattle ballgame, he spoke out against Initiative 49.
Ever heard of it?
With the Christian observance of Holy Week and the start of Major League Baseball season coinciding this week, I chanced upon the little-known ballot measure. Initiative 49 was also known as the anti-Catholic school initiative, according to documents compiled by the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington.
Initiative 49, sponsored by a Washington state chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, would have had the effect of making private schools, particularly Catholic schools, illegal. Had it passed, it would have required all Washington children to attend public schools.
Although all three of my kids have gone to Catholic schools, I had never heard of I-49. I found the subject by accident while looking into another column. It was surprising to learn how active the racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic KKK was around here in the 1920s.
On June 26, 1926, the Klan held a big rally at Hanson's Park on Silver Lake, said David Dilgard, a historian at the Everett Public Library. Klan gatherings lasted two days in and around Everett that June, according to a 1997 Herald article. Crosses were burned at Silver Lake and at the intersection of Everett's Hewitt and Colby avenues.
"Bands played. A young woman in a Statue of Liberty costume rode on a parade float. Klansmen, steeped in notions of white supremacy, hatred for Jews and distrust of Catholics, wore their trademark flowing white robes," said the article by Herald writer Scott North and former Herald writer Bob Wodnik.
The Klan cut a wide swath across Western Washington. A 1999 HistoryLink essay, citing The Issaquah Press, said that a KKK rally on July 26, 1924, drew as many as 13,000 "onlookers." The Issaquah paper reported that viewers were "entertained" by "stirring, patriotic music" and speeches on "Americanism."
Trevor Griffey, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Washington, studied the KKK extensively as coordinator of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.
"The Klan at this time was anti-Catholic in addition to white supremacist. They were deeply suspicious of Catholicism because supposedly Catholics deferred to outside authority. It made you a bad citizen of the nation. The pope could do nefarious things," said Griffey, adding that some people held fast to those notions until the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, the country's first Catholic president.
And Babe Ruth?
Among online documents in the labor history project is a clipping from the Catholic Northwest Progress newspaper reporting on Ruth's Seattle visit. He reportedly said he owed his knowledge of baseball to Catholic brothers who taught at St. Mary's Catholic Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore, where he was raised. Making no mention of the Klan, Ruth called the measure un-American.
It's hard to imagine a KKK-sponsored initiative making the ballot today. After all, 1924 was long ago -- or not so very long. My parents were alive in 1924. My mom would soon start school at Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane.
Griffey was amazed at how little controversy was reported in 1920s accounts of Klan rallies.
"It was all about the spectacle. They'd go into a small town and put on an elaborate fireworks display," he said. "The spectacle was used to make palatable a pretty hateful message."
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, email@example.com.
Learn more online
Find out about the University of Washington-based Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, which covers Ku Klux Klan activity. Go to http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/kkk_intro.htm.
For more about the 1924 anti-Catholic school Initiative 49, go to http://tinyurl.com/dl92ko.
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