There is a long history of Town and Gown troubles. Riots between university students and townspeople took place in the Middle Ages and they continue to this day. One difference, though, is that the combatants, for the most part, are students and police officers. There are outside agitators that are attracted to the fights. Anarchists travel to Portland from Seattle, and anarchists who reside in Portland travel to Seattle for away games.
On February 10 1355, Walter de Springheuse, Roger de Chesterfield and their companions from Oxford University walked into the Swindlestock Tavern. A disagreement over the quality of the wine resulted in an argument. The university men angered by the “stubborn and saucy language” of the wine-seller, threw the wine and its container at his head. The wine-seller expressed his anger to his friends and family, who armed themselves with bows and arrows and shot at the scholars and the chancellor who arrived to calm the situation down.
As we reflect on our own contentious troubles between town and gown, and those who seek to profit from the troubles — journalists and politicians — we should remember that we have been down this road before. This is the story of Notre Dame students that fought against members of the Ku Klux Klan, a fight that lasted for about three days in South Bend, IN.
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation, led to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan that was not confined to the South.
But what made Indiana unique was that one man, D.C. Stephenson, engineered the Klan’s revival in the state. He was not a true believer or a racist ideologue, but he was a talented salesman and opportunistic huckster who saw a chance to exploit people’s fear and nationalism for profit in 1921.
Instead of a secret society dedicated to nighttime violence, Stephenson sold this gentler Klan as an all-American social fraternity that gathered for picnics and parades, complete with high school bands and free barbecue. The speeches and newsletters focused on patriotism and virtue.
In less than three years, Stephenson grew the Indiana membership to more than 425,000 people, more than that of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia combined. As Grand Dragon, his cut of the $10 Klan membership fee made him rich, and he used his money and contacts to gain political power.
Free barbecue, picnics, parades, and high school bands became political power in Indiana in the year 1924. Ed Jackson, who did not hide his affiliation with the Klan, became the Governor of Indiana. Klan members were elected to office throughout Indiana, to include the Mayor and City Council of Indianapolis.
Another institution in Indiana was starting to gain some national attention in the 1920s. A small private school in South Bend was making a name for itself on the football field.
During the 1910s and 1920s, stereotypes and ethnic slurs were openly expressed against immigrants, Catholics and the Irish. The press often referred to Notre Dame teams as the Catholics — or worse, the Papists or Dirty Irish — because the school was largely populated by ethnic Catholic immigrants, many of them Irish. University leaders bristled at such descriptions, and school publications called the team the Gold and Blue or the Notre Damers.
This was also the Knute Rockne era, when the Notre Dame football team first put the small private school on the national map. Rockne’s teams were often called the Rovers or the Ramblers because they traveled far and wide, an uncommon practice before the advent of commercial airplanes. These names were also an insult to the school, meant to suggest it was more focused on football than academics.
Black, Jews, and Catholics are the rhetorical targets, and in some cases physical targets for the Klan. Indiana did not have a large Black or Jewish population in the ’20s. South Bend had the largest Catholic population in the State. Notre Dame had a student body, a majority of whom were the sons of ethnic Catholic immigrants. The Klan decided to pay a visit to South Bend in May 1924 to remind the residents of South Bend, Notre Dame students, and faculty of their proper place in Indiana. The rumors made up by the Klan included arms being stored in the sewers on the Notre Dame campus to start a Catholic uprising in Indiana.
Rumors that spread on both sides of the battle for South Bend made it an ugly fight. Fortunately, no one lost their life.
No one was seriously hurt and only eight arrests were made, six of them students, including two for using profane language. Father Walsh was disappointed that news reports portrayed the students as brawling rioters, living up to a stereotype that would hurt the school’s reputation.
Lane was even more upset about reports of lawlessness in his city. He vowed not to let it happen again, while the county sheriff deputized about 30 Klansmen. They did not have to wait long for their opportunity.
On Monday night, a phone call to Freshman Hall said that the Klan had one student and was beating him mercilessly. Again, about 500 students rushed to town — and into an ambush. Near the Klan office, the students encountered a group that included prepared Klansmen, the police and the sheriff’s deputies.
Bottles and rocks flew through the air. Bats and police clubs cracked down on skulls and backs. The students fought back, throwing punches and organizing into flying wedges like the football team. Bloody and bruised, many of them retreated to regroup at the county courthouse a few blocks away.
Notre Dame made the decision not to discipline the students involved in the fight. Father Walsh decided that it was time to build more dormitories, and a dining hall to keep students on campus.
The Klan tried to organize a second rally to seek a rematch, but it did not come to pass. Scandals concerning Klan members, as well as the residents of Indiana becoming disenchanted with the Ku Klux Klan led to the demise of Klan influence in Indiana politics.