Last month, retired philanthropist Rex Sinquefield ignited a storm of controversy by claiming that the public school system was a creation driven at least partly by the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan. Sinquefield cited an op-ed in an obscure Missouri publication for support of this claim, but wound up apologizing for his statement. And that is where the debate ended.
It is unfortunate that no one has thought to consider this subject further. That is because there is documented history of the involvement of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations in the evolution of American public education and the National Education Association. Consider this excerpt from a review of Doug Lawson’s book “The Department of Education Battle, 1918-1932: Public Schools, Catholic Schools, and the Social Order“:
The efforts of the educational trust were supported by a number of organizations that fostered civic progressivism, including two organizations not usually associated with reform: the Southern Jurisdiction of Scottish Rite Masonry and the Ku Klux Klan. Both of these groups advocated a federal department of education, a national university, and compulsory public schooling. Although the NEA never went on record as favoring compulsory public education, its close association with the Southern Scottish Rite and its failure to distance itself from the KKK convinced Catholics that the NEA intended to use a department of education to drive parochial schools out of existence. The church countered the NEA’s efforts through intense political lobbying by the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC). Douglas J. Slawson’s fascinating look at a relatively unexplored episode in American history recounts fourteen years of maneuvering and counter-maneuvering by the NEA and NCWC over attempts to establish a federal department of education and compulsory public schooling.
The movement for compulsory public education in the United States began in the early 1920s. It started as a disorganized Catholic opposition to the Smith-Towner bill, a bill that would eventually establish the National Education Association and provide federal funds to public schools. Eventually, it became the movement to mandate public schooling and dissolve parochial and other private schools. The movement focused on the public’s fear of immigrants and the need to Americanize; it had anti-Catholic overtones and found support from groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
The Oregon School Bill aimed to close private Catholic schools in Oregon and have the children sent to the public school system. Since public schools taught state-mandated curricula, the Klan saw this measure as a way to “Americanize” Catholic children and limit the amount of “non-Protestant” instruction they received. Oregonians who supported the Compulsory Education Bill, including the Oregon Klan, made the argument that private and parochial schools were often controlled by non-American organizations that emphasized foreign ideologies over traditional American values.
This “second” Klan was organized in 1915 in Atlanta . In 1920, the southern group began a national publicity campaign, and the first Indiana chapter opened in Evansville in the fall of that year. A few people joined, but then a huge membership drive led by D. C. Stephenson from 1922-1924 brought in 118,000 members across the state (see document 6). Stephenson moved to Indianapolis and started a newspaper,The Fiery Cross, which ran from December 1922 to February 1925. In 1924, Klan numbers overwhelmed the state’s Republican Party and elected the governor (Ed Jackson), a majority in both houses of the legislature, and nearly all of the state’s thirteen congressmen.
The Klan’s legislative program for 1925—directed against parochial schools and Catholic influence in public schools—was a complete failure. But other problems proved more pressing. D. C. Stephenson, the leader (Grand Dragon) of the Klan in the state since 1923, was a charming personality and powerful orator; he was also arrogant, cunning, evil, and hedonistic. Early in 1925, he assaulted, raped, and held captive his young secretary Madge Oberholtzer, who took poison and died one month later. Stephenson was indicted, and when Governor Jackson (who had now distanced himself from the Klan) refused to pardon him, Stephenson leaked information that to Jackson ‘s trial for bribery (the governor was acquitted on a technicality).