My grandfather, Joseph Reger, told me that the Klan showed up one night in front of St. Mary’s Catholic church in Dayton, Ohio. They planted a burning cross on the front lawn. The church’s pastor had been forced to join the clergy. He didn’t take the nonviolence, love-your-neighbor part of Christ’s teachings seriously, and, as a German-American, hadn’t been raised in a tradition that valued meekness. The hooded men didn’t know any of this, and the priest surprised them by firing a shotgun just over their heads. When he lowered his aim and sighted a few targets in the mob, the Klan scattered and ran.
Grandpa also told me that he’d personally fought Klansmen while on a visit to a little farm town north of Dayton near the Indiana border. A lot of Catholics lived there, and thugs from across the state line troubled and intimidated the “fish eaters”. One night, a relative asked Grandpa if he wanted to get in on some fun. The townsmen had received intelligence that the Klan were coming. My grandpa went downtown with his cousin and hid in an alley. A number of Catholic men waited all around in the shadows.
The Klan rode in on pick up trucks and circled the Union monument in the center of Main St. They whooped and yelled, but the deserted sidewalks and closed stores afforded no targets. They fell silent and looked around. Someone yelled, “Now!” The Catholic men swarmed from all sides, pulled the Klan off their trucks, carried them to the Wabash River, and “baptized” them over and over again until they were half-drowned. My grandfather added, “We kicked their sorry butts back to Indiana and told them to never come back.”
I assumed from reading a bit of history and Grandpa’s stories that the Klan’s base of operations was in Indiana. I discovered recently that grandfather’s fellow Daytonians were a source of anti-Catholic persecution. I read in the alumni magazine from the University of Dayton (a Catholic University) that the Klan was a powerful force in the 1920s in Dayton, Ohio. A local Klan newspaper ran ads for prominent businesses in town. The rag printed editorials declaring that immigrants, Catholics, Blacks and Jews threatened the existence of decent (white Protestant) society. During Christmas break, Klansmen beat up stray male students staying in the dorms over the holidays. They didn’t bother to harass anyone when the full student body returned in January, however. They only attacked when the odds skewed heavily in their favor.
When Judy and I lived in State College, PA, we heard that a town about fifty miles south was a Klan/Neo-Nazi hotbed. We’re German Americans, but still avoided traveling there as we had no desire to associate with creeps. But some of our neighbors belonged to the fellowship of hateful stupidity. One day, a middle-aged woman approached as I pushed a baby stroller. She lived on the street behind us, one house down. She looked in and sweetly commented on my son’s tan. I said, “We get him out in the fresh air every day. And Judy and I both have fairly dark skin, so it’s not a big surprise.” The woman grinned triumphantly as if she’d caught me out: I had revealed a dark stain on our genetic heritage; and she’d brought my family’s campaign to pass as white people to an end.