Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Enduring Power of Nativism

Nativist rhetoric in the United States, culled from a
vocabulary of hatred, fear, intimidation, and exclusion, reverberates in weird echoes across the centuries.

“We do not accept Jews, because they reject Christ!” the fictionalized character Clayton Townley ranted in Alan Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning. “We do not accept Papists, because they bow to a Roman dictator! We do not accept Turks, Mongrels, Tartars, Orientals nor Negroes because we are here to protect Anglo-Saxon democracy and the American way!”

Parker’s film dramatized the deaths of the three Civil Rights workers killed in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on the night of June 21, 1964. The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner remained undiscovered until early August 1964. Their efforts to register African Americans as voters during “Freedom Summer” led to their murders.

Eighty-seven years before to the day, on June 21, 1877, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania hanged the first eleven of an eventual twenty-one Irish Catholic men for alleged “Molly Maguire” crimes. Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) officer Patrick Hester died on the gallows in March 1878.

Before his arrest Hester, a grandfather and former school director, township supervisor, tax collector, and overseer of the poor, had worked for the naturalization and enfranchisement of Irish Catholic mineworkers. An editor, horrified at Hester’s efforts toward suffrage at the local courthouse, described Hester as “one of the acknowledged leaders of what is called the Democratic party in the Coal region, who with a number of his countrymen … just arrived from the temple of Justice, where they had been invested with the rights of citizenship …”

The editor warned: “Let native and Protestant American citizens ponder before they surrender their dearest rights to the rule of the Pope, or to the aggressions of the agents of foreign potentates.”

In Mississippi in 1964, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan drove the murders of Civil Rights workers. During the “Molly” trials in the mid-1870s, nativist lodges honeycombed Pennsylvania’s hard coal region. They went under cover of patriotic-sounding names.

A few weeks after the June 21 executions, a correspondent from Mahanoy City, a heavily Irish area, wrote to the Boston Pilot: “… we have got the ‘Junior Sons of America,’ ‘Mechanics,’ and many other secret societies, calling themselves Young Americans. The ‘Junior’ boys tell their fathers that they have not the same right here as [their sons] have, because they were not born in this country.”

Two Pinkerton agents who drove the “Molly” caseload, James McParlan and Robert Linden, took up residence in towns that housed prominent nativist factions. McParlan lodged in Shenandoah, home to Washington Camp No. 112 of the Patriotic Order Sons of America. The year after McParlan entered the region, Shenandoah formed a secret society under this disturbing name: “Sons of America, Shenandoah Commandery No. 14, Master Americans.”

Linden, McParlan’s supervisor, lodged in Ashland, home to Ashland Camp No. 84 of the Patriotic Order Sons of America. The Ashland division housed a subdivision with another troubling name: the “White Degree council.” The possible influence of McParlan and Linden with these groups has never been investigated.

At the issuance of the “Molly” death warrants in May 1877, the Shenandoah Herald published a column under the jocular heading “Girardville Giblets.” It carried a bald nativist taunt: “All our peace and order loving citizens were made happy this evening on the appearance of the Herald, containing the information that a beginning was to be made at disposing of the ‘Mollie’ murderers. All were happy to know that Governor Hartranft had determined to enforce the law, and that in the future, as at the present, ‘Mollieism’ has got to take a back seat, while white men say what shall be done.”

A half-decade before, the editor who so feared the enfranchisement of regional Irish Catholics had urged: “Every opponent of the Irish supremacy in this county should make it a point to examine the list and see if he is registered. … If the full vote is brought out the result will be a complete overthrow of that faction which is attempting to bind our county hand and foot to the Irish power.”

Within eight years of that publication, nativist rhetoric had helped destroy the power of “that faction.” The AOH in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region was broken. Its leaders had died on gallows in five counties, sat serving long prison sentences, or had long since fled the region.

To further explore the history of Pennsylvania’s Hibernians prosecuted as “Molly Maguires,” visit www.kehoefoundation.org.