They were one of the first American fraternal societies not to prohibit black membership in their constitution. During World War I, with the slogan “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free” atop their doors, they managed the only racially integrated facilities available to American troops, three decades before the U.S. military integrated its ranks. And they were described by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s as “the organization most interested” in the Klan’s destruction. I write of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal society named after a long-dead European whom many woke activists now call, erroneously and often maliciously, a “racist murderer.”
Now is an appropriate time to reflect on the historical and contemporary impact of the Knights of Columbus. Its founder, Father Michael McGivney, is scheduled to be beatified on October 31, according to a July 20 announcement by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Perhaps a reminder of the Knights’ identity and mission, an explanation of why they chose Christopher Columbus as their namesake, and a consideration of their many accomplishments in American history can blunt the tempers of woke activists who call for his erasure from public honor.
Father McGivney, a young Irish priest in New Haven, Connecticut, founded the Knights in 1881 to bolster the piety of the male laity and generate financial relief for families suffering from the death or illness of their breadwinner. At the time, fraternal groups, which usually barred Catholics, also served as the most common source of life insurance. In a time of widespread anti-Catholic sentiment, naming the society after a devout Italian Catholic explorer honored by Protestant Americans sought to “bind Catholicism and Americanism together,” according to the Knights’ website. “Father McGivney… understood that using Columbus as their order’s namesake asserted an important truth: that not only was there a place for Catholics and immigrants within American society, but that such a person had already played a part in creating the young, free world around them.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Moreover—and contrary to historically erroneous caricatures like those found in Howard Zinn’s now discredited A People’s History of the United States—Columbus did not come to the New World to enslave Native Americans and enrich himself. According to Stanford cultural anthropologist Carol Delaney, Columbus aimed to fund a crusade to fight the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which fifty years prior to his sailing to the New World had conquered Christendom’s greatest city, Constantinople. Muslim pirates in Columbus’s day raided Christian villages across the Mediterranean, murdering and brutally enslaving hundreds of thousands of Europeans.
After encountering indigenous persons in the New World, Columbus sought to evangelize them, requesting the pope send priests to the Caribbean, and even leaving money in his will for this express purpose. He never personally enslaved natives. “His relations with the natives tended to be benign. He liked the natives and found them to be very intelligent,” explains Delaney. “Columbus strictly told the crew not to do things like maraud, or rape, and instead to treat the native people with respect. There are many examples in his writings where he gave instructions to this effect. Most of the time when injustices occurred, Columbus wasn’t even there.”
The Knights continued this focus on evangelization, service, and honoring human dignity in their earliest years. The Knights possessed black members in their ranks fifteen years before the NAACP was founded. After World War I, the order ran extensive educational programs for veterans, benefiting hundreds of black soldiers. In the 1920s, while the KKK’s national ranks swelled to eight million, the Knights established their own Historical Commission to combat prejudice, publishing books honoring the contributions of maligned minority groups. They commissioned W.E.B. Du Bois, co-founder of the NAACP, to write The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America. They also funded black education programs in Maryland and Virginia.
The Knights funded the Catholic clergy’s attendance at the August 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1964, the Knights amended their bylaws in order to end the practice of some Knights councils that had prevented black men from joining, in order to “remove forever the opportunity of prejudice.” A year later, it co-sponsored a conference at Yale to discuss “the unending struggle for interracial justice and charity.” The order funded programs for interracial justice, distributed social justice literature, and established scholarships for black students who pursued a Catholic education.
Proper knowledge of history proves the Knights were ahead of their time when it comes to racial justice, just as Columbus, now unfairly maligned as responsible for all later injustices committed against indigenous persons, was a man, admittedly flawed, who exemplified faith and courage. Moreover, a proper knowledge of the Knights’ current work exposes the absurdity of opinions like those espoused by Democratic Senators Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris who, during a December 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, referred to the Knights as an “extreme” society, citing the Knights’ opposition to abortion and support for traditional marriage.
Yet the Knights are primarily a charitable, fraternal organization. In 2018 alone, they donated more than $185 million to charity and volunteered over 76 million hours of hands-on service, including for the Special Olympics and food drives. They’ve raised millions of dollars for Christian survivors of the ISIS genocide.
Monuments to Columbus are being defaced or razed across the nation, while many jurisdictions have ended the celebration of Columbus Day. In late July, Chicago removed multiple Columbus statues. One still stands in the city’s south side. “I’m looking to take it down as soon as possible,” said Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza, who argued that it should be replaced by one of someone who “contributed to society.” This demonstrates historical ignorance. Perhaps they could replace Columbus with a statue of Father McGivney, though I wouldn’t hold my breath.
America suffers from historical amnesia, driven by a progressivist academia that downplays or ignores data that fails to conform to its anti-patriarchal (those evil, “all-male” societies!), anti-Catholic agenda. Such is the case with Columbus, who is being judged by a fallacious presentist paradigm that amounts to what C. S. Lewis labeled “chronological snobbery.” And such is the case with the Knights of Columbus, who heroically, humbly, and without fanfare have done incalculable good for American society for almost 150 years. Not for their sake alone, but for the sake of the many millions who have benefited from their service, their stories must be told.
Photo credit: Rob Kim/Getty Images Entertainment