Marching as to war

Grace Darin

April 10, 1992|By Grace Darin

ONWARD, Christian Soldiers" was the marching hymn for the Ku Klux Klan as the Klan straggled down my Minnesota Main Street in the 1920s. Nearly 70 years later that tune still strikes a fearful note in my heart.

In my hometown we had only a handful of blacks and not too many more Jews -- too few to make up an acceptable scapegoat class. So the Klan's free-floating hate had to zero in on more numerical targets: Roman Catholics and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

We didn't have too many parades, so everyone went to see the Klan march, even though we knew we were their targets. One dotty old woman persisted in calling Klan members "the Klangs."

"Here come the Klangs!" she would call out along the curbstone as the wobbly line of sheets headed our way.

The Klansmen I see on television these days wear well-tailored robes with well-designed insignia. Our "Klangs" of the 1920s had to make do with sheets draped to form a makeshift mask with holes cut for facial features.

I don't know why they bothered with the masks; everyone knew who they were. This was no lunatic fringe. Our Klan had quite a respectable, even elitist, membership. Two Klansmen lived in our block: friendly, amiable neighbors. Some even acted as pallbearers at Catholic funerals, worried, perhaps, about the heavy artillery they believed was stored in the choir loft in preparation for a papal takeover.

What bothered me was the thought that Catherine's daddy marched along under one of those sheets. Catherine lived across the street, and she was my best friend. Her father, a single parent, devoted lots of time to entertaining us. He'd push us on our swings and take us to the playground and buy us ice cream cones. I thought he liked me, so it was a bit disconcerting to be one of the enemy toward whom he was "marching as to war."

The Klan parades and rallies were harmless enough, but the cross-burning was a frightening episode. It happened on Christmas Eve as the town's Catholics gathered for midnight Mass. No one could fail to identify the target.

The Klan burned the cross on the lawn of the convent, home of the sisters who taught in the parochial school. It was really traumatic for the nuns. I don't know if the culprit was ever tracked down; I doubt if anyone really tried.

About that same time the Baltimore area also had its "Christian soldiers" in sheets. James P. Connolly, a star writer for The Evening Sun of that period, a great raconteur, told a story of crashing a Klan rally in a field somewhere near the city. Connolly and another Sun reporter followed a crowd of Klansmen to a gate where sheets were being issued to the faithful.

Each Klansman whispered his name to the gatekeeper as he was given his costume. Jim Connolly didn't whisper; he shouted: "James Patrick Connolly!" and his name echoed over the countryside.

Silence. Consternation. Then a shout: "Watch the gates, men! They're getting through!"

These are the memories brought by the flickering TV images of white robes, masked faces, blazing crosses, fearful nights.

Grace Darin is a retired copy editor of The Evening Sun.

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