...in 1924, the largest gathering of the Ku Klux Klan ever held in New England took place at the Agricultural Fairgrounds in Worcester. Klansmen in sheets and hoods, new Knights awaiting a mass induction ceremony, and supporters swelled the crowd to 15,000. The KKK had hired more than 400 "husky guards," but when the rally ended around midnight, a riot broke out. Klansmen's cars were stoned, burned, and windows smashed. KKK members were pulled from their cars and beaten. Klansmen called for police protection, but the situation raged out of control for most of the night. The violence after the "Klanvocation" had the desired effect. Membership fell off, and no further public Klan meetings were held in Worcester.
In the early 1920s, Klan meetings and cross-burnings began to occur with some regularity in small towns in eastern and central Massachusetts. Both secret and public Klan meetings were held in Worcester County towns, including Berlin, Holden, Shrewsbury, Marlborough, Upton, Paxton, Charlton, West Brookfield, and Spencer.
The city of Worcester became a center of Klan activity. In 1923 the Klan launched a major recruiting drive there. At one rally at Mechanic's Hall, the city's largest public venue, speakers inflamed the audience with claims that Catholics were overtaking the city's government and police force and that the majority of public school teachers were Catholics. "When Worcester folks see 20,000 to 30,000 Klansmen in uniform parading the streets of Worcester, and this time isn't far off, " one speaker predicted, "then we will definitely be ready for action."
Founded in the nineteenth-century South, the KKK attracted new adherents in the early 1900s, as increasing numbers of immigrants brought their own ethnic and religious traditions to the nation's cities and towns. At Klan rallies, speakers warned that "real" Americans were losing control of the country. Newcomers were taking over local government, the police, and the schools. The Klan claimed that foreigners, especially Catholics and Jews, would soon outnumber white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Something, the Klan insisted, had to be done about it.
Many New Englanders were receptive to this message. Workers in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont resented the influx of French Canadians, who were not only Catholic but also willing to accept lower wages than native-born workers. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, anti-Irish prejudice reappeared as Irish Americans gained political power. Anti-Italian sentiment was also prevalent throughout southern New England.
The Klan rally in Worcester in the fall of 1924 and the reaction to it were part of a national struggle over who could be considered truly American. Many native-born people were fearful about what they viewed as a decline in traditional American values, rooted in the Protestant religion and Anglo-Saxon culture. They were largely ignorant and resentful of "foreign" institutions and ideas. The anti-Klan forces were determined to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. The result was intimidation and violence on both sides.
Once Told Tales of Worcester County, by Albert B. Southwick (Worcester Telegram and Gazette, 1985).
"The KKK in the 1920s," Assumption College website