Find a copy of 1921’s yearbook. Open it to page 171. Here’s what you’ll see: around a dozen young men in daHoyark suits. Their ties spill out of their vests and coiffed white collars top the ensemble. Look up. A banner blares: Georgetown University. Look down. There’s the caption: Ku Klux Klan of South Carolina.
In 1921, the KKK was riding a wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic anger to a second period of national prominence. “Birth of a Nation” — the film Woodrow Wilson famously screened at the White House had romanticized the KKK and the Old South six years earlier, in 1915, sparkling the resurgence. In 1920, the KKK hired professional publicists, who grew its membership to 6 million by 1924. When the 1921 edition of “Ye Domesday Book” rolled out, the KKK was a national political force.
But the presence of the KKK at Georgetown should surprise us. As forcefully as Georgetown imagined itself a Southern school, the KKK disagreed. The KKK hated Catholics, whom it equated with outsiders — threats to an old vision of the Southern order.
The “Domesday” entry explains that vision briskly, if sympathetically. It reads:
“In days gone by there was organized in the Sunny South a Klan, which had for its purpose the removal of certain clouds which for a time obscured the light of reason and the restoration of the Southern Sun. This, in conjunction with other forces, it accomplished.”
We know now what those clouds are: Jews, blacks, immigrants and Catholics, among others. And to some extent, the way in which the KKK existed at Georgetown reflects this. A closer inspection of the page reveals that the KKK existed only at the Law Center, where students, then as now, were physically and spiritually removed from Georgetown’s Catholic core. And the Klan does not appear to have lasted. It does not appear in subsequent editions of “Ye Domesday Book” (although, the reasons for this may lie elsewhere; in the winter of 1921, the faculty considered whether future yearbooks should be censored). The only other yearbook mention of the KKK inks the page in the 1916 “Domesday Book,” praising Tennessee in a law student’s biography as the KKK’s home — “that lovely section of country which witnessed the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.”
After 1921, the KKK disappears from the archive. Nationwide, the KKK’s second wave retrenched, combatted by emerging political savvy from groups like the Anti-Defamation League toward the end of the 1920s. The KKK, by the time a third wave rose in the 1950s and ’60s, had crumbled into a fractious and regional — if still deadly — force for racial terror. It planted bombs in black churches and assassinated local civil rights leaders it deemed threatening or uppity, people like Medgar Evers.
This leaner, looser, darker KKK was encountered at Georgetown, too. As the Sixties prepared to swing in London, they began to roar in the United States. Students, usually Northerners, working with groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee travelled south to register voters, join marches and work to secure the goals of the civil rights movement. Georgetown students were no exception.
In October 1965, Bill Treanor, a recent graduate from the School of Foreign Service, went south to help black students enter newly desegregated white schools. He worked as a publicist for Martin Luther King Jr. in and around Atlanta. In Crawfordsville, Ga. Treanor was organizing voter registration when a local clerk offered 500 dollars to anyone who would beat or kill him. Five men, one wielding a hammer, took her offer. They dragged Treanor from his car and beat him into the fetal position for five minutes before police, who later declined to investigate the attack, arrived.
While staying in a Freedom House in 1965, John Reddy, then a junior in the College, was repeatedly threatened by the KKK and a local sheriff in Moultrie, Georgia, where he worked to build a voter registration program. That same summer, Walter Draude, a recent Georgetown graduate, found himself threatened by a county sheriff reported to have murdered at least four people.
These students would have known the threats against them were credible. The previous summer, three civil rights workers were famously executed by a mob of Mississippi Klansmen, who stalked the trio, executed them and buried their bodies beneath an earthen dam. The KKK often took lethal umbrage at carpetbaggers.
At Georgetown, these students were party to a vigorous social ethic helmed by the stunningly committed and deeply divisive Fr. Richard McSorley, S.J., whom we often associate with liberation theology. That theological strand, which emerged in the 1950s and ’60s, rebuilt what it meant to be Catholic at Georgetown and powerfully armed progressive Catholics in the era of Vatican II.
They also witnessed a key element of Georgetown’s history. Georgetown is built on lasting contradictions — from our foundations as a Southern slaver’s school to the punchy progressivism we absorbed from the Catholic Sixties. Even the phrase “Catholic university” has been lampooned as cut through with contradiction. For precisely that reason, Georgetown can cause confusion. Our history, when we claim the good, sits uneasily with us because of the bad. Any reader thumbing the pages of “Ye Domesday Book” should soberly expect and acknowledge both.
Matthew Quallen is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Hoya Historian appears every other Friday.
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