The Fight for Public Schools in Oregon


In 1920, less than 13% of the people of Oregon were immigrants, and probably less than 8% of the population were Catholics, and yet Oregon became a hotbed of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment after the War. Within two years of the end of World War I, the Oregon legislature voted to prevent non-citizens from owning land. This measure was aimed principally at Japanese and Chinese immigrants, who could not become citizens, but also disqualified Italians, Poles, Jews and other foreigners who were slow to Americanize. In the same year Oregon required all foreign language magazines to print English translations of articles, imposing added costs that would ruin most foreign language periodicals. In Oregon, as in most parts of the United States, schools soon became a focal point of the "100% American" crusade. In 1921, for example, the Oregon legislature began considering bills requiring teachers to take oaths of loyalty to the United States.

By that time the Ku Klux Klan had already appeared in Oregon. King Kleagle Luther I. Powell was from Shreveport, Louisiana but moved to California and then to Oregon in 1921 to spread the Klan gospel. By 1923, the Klan counted fifty-eight chartered "Klaverns" around the state and over 15,000 members in Portland alone. The Klan had a broad program. It claimed, for example, to stand for old time notions of morality. In LaGrange, Oregon the local Klavern turned away applicants of "questionable character and affiliations" and in cities and towns around the state the Klan actively backed enforcement of Prohibition laws and strict codes of sexual behavior. Yet the Klan's chief concern was preserving white, Protestant dominance in America from the challenges poised by foreign immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and African-, Asian- or Latino-Americans, or, as the leader of Oregon's Klan, Fred Gifford, called them, these "mongrel hordes."

For Klansmen, like many nativists, public education was the best, indeed, the critical, means of Americanizing "Un-American" foreigners. The public school, Oregon nativists claimed, was the "only sure foundation for the perpetuation of and preservation of our free institutions." Yet in the frenzy of post-war hysteria about foreigners, Oregon's Klansmen and their allies were not just concerned about whether public schools would do their duty, they began to worry about the potentially subversive poisons spread by private especially, Catholic, schools. A Klan sympathizer from Glendale, Oregon worried that "private ideas antagonistic to free institutions" might flourish in private schools and no one could prevent them from infecting the children educated there. " We cannot afford to run this risk any longer," he contended.

It was not just any ideas that the Klansmen feared; it was Catholic ideas that they deemed most dangerous. The Klan first sought to purge the public schools of any Catholic influences by eliminating Catholic teachers and principals. It "is not a question of Catholic's [sic] having the right to follow the teaching of their Dago Pope," said one nativist, "but the right of Protestants to educate their children by the best school system in the world." In LaGrange and Eugene, Oregon local Klan Klaverns mounted campaigns to push Catholic teachers out of the schools. In Eugene, they succeeded in pressuring the School Board to fire three Catholics.


In 1922 the Klan turned to the second goal in its strategy for purifying Oregon: eliminating Catholic schools. To do so, the Klan worked through a front organization, the Scottish Rite Masons, to make all of Oregon's children aged eight to sixteen years old attend only public schools. They labeled the bill simply and deceptively, "The Compulsory Education Law." Rather than try to push such a controversial bill through the legislature, the Klan and its allies decided to submit their bill directly in a ballot Initiative. This was possible because Oregon was the first state in the nation to adopt the Initiative and Referendum, hallmarks of reform in the Progressive era. These two reforms permitted citizens to circumvent the legislature and pass laws themselves through their votes in general elections.

Hailed as a triumph over boss and party rule, the "Oregon System" of Initiative and Referendum won widespread notoriety for providing opportunities for "Direct Democracy." Exploiting this legacy of progressive reform to advance their own cause of racial and religious purity in the tribal twenties, the Klan and Scottish Rite Masons launched a well organized statewide campaign for their Compulsory Education bill. Brimming with confidence, the Klan also managed to nominate one of its own, Walter Pierce, as the Democratic Party's candidate for Governor in the same autumn elections.

Oregon's Catholics did not sit idly by and watch the Klan eliminate their schools. They organized a Catholic Civil Rights Association and enlisted the help of Lutherans and other religious groups, who ran their own schools. Catholics also set up committees in every parish in the state to rally voters against the Initiative and distributed 50,000 copies of a pamphlet, "Twenty Four Reasons," condemning the bill. Catholics and their allies in Michigan had easily beaten back a similar initiative. Yet Catholics were less numerous and powerful in Oregon than in Michigan and by the summer of 1922 - months before the Initiative vote - they were running out of money.

Though the Catholic counterattack lost momentum by the fall, most observers believed that the Initiative would fail. The editors of the Oregonian, the state's biggest newspaper, gave 10 to 7 odds against it. They were wrong. On November 1922, 115,506 citizens of Oregon went to the polls and voted for the Initiative; 103,685 voted against it. The Initiative never mentioned private schools, but because it required all elementary and secondary school age children in Oregon to attend public schools, it effectively eliminated all private and parochial schools in the state. Catholic education was dead in Oregon; it had been outlawed by the government.