How Notre Dame Students Battled The Klan 100 Years Ago

A flurry of fists and potatoes flung through the windows of the local Klan headquarters were just part of the climactic fight that helped earn ”The Fighting Irish” their nickname.
A landscape black and white photo of Notre Dame University's campus.
Photo courtesy Indiana Historical Society

When you hear the phrase “The Fighting Irish,” you no doubt think about the University of Notre Dame and its storied football program. What you may not know is how hundreds of Notre Dame students lived up to that once-derogatory moniker in a decisive and history-making way.

One hundred years ago this week, The Fighting Irish (then known as the Ramblers) scored perhaps their biggest victory ever. It didn’t take place on the football field but on the streets of downtown South Bend, where students waged a three-day brawl with the Ku Klux Klan.

Tim Sexton, associate vice president of public affairs at Notre Dame, calls it “a pivotal moment in Indiana and Notre Dame history, with Notre Dame students joined by community members to defend religious freedom and reject hate.”

Half a dozen people stand examining elements of the Resist! exhibit.
Photo courtesy Indiana Historical Society

Those three days are the focus of RESIST!, a new exhibit at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center. It recounts the events of May 17–19, 1924, through photos, documents, artifacts, and an immersive video. The Klan, which had a headquarters in South Bend, planned a parade and rally to reassert its presence and stronghold in Northern Indiana. When Notre Dame students got wind of those plans, many made plans of their own and hoofed it downtown. That’s despite being urged by then university president Rev. Matthew Walsh to seek a peaceful solution and let things play out through lawful means.

Jody Blakenship, president and CEO of the Indiana Historical Society, says the exhibit tells the story of “how students and Hoosiers pushed back against hatred and discrimination. They weren’t going to sit there and take it. … It was chaos in the streets.”

A Notre Dame student poses wearing a captured Klan robe and hood, his face exposed and smiling.
A Notre Dame student poses wearing a captured Klan robe and hood.
Photo courtesy Indiana Historical Society

The uprising included chasing down Klansmen and ripping off their hoods and white robes, all-out fistfights, and launching potatoes to destroy an illuminated cross hanging from the Klan’s third floor window. When the incident came to a halt, the students were bruised and scuffed up, but, amazingly, no one was seriously hurt.

Mike Murphy, a 1979 graduate of Notre Dame and trustee of the Indiana Historical Society, says what the students did was heroic. “Those Notre Dame students who converged downtown were not the Notre Dame students of today. By and large, they were ethnic, blue-collar kids, often the first in their family to go to college,” Murphy says. “They fought not for what was in it for them but what they believed in.”

A newspaper clipping headlined "Students Rout Klansmen" with a photo underneath of a pair in Klan robes walking down a street.
Photo courtesy Indiana Historical Society

While the Klan began as a violent hate group in response to the emancipation of slaves, it faded somewhat by the early 1900s. But it saw a resurgence in the 1920s, with Catholics and Jewish people (then a large segment of South Bend’s population) added to the list of undesirables, along with immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Blankenship says, “You heard a lot of the same rhetoric you hear today: ‘You need to speak English, you need to fit in,’ and, of course, there’s an adjustment period.”

A large photo on the wall of the Resist! exhibit shows a dozen Klansmen marching through a city street.
Photography by Mary Milz/Indianapolis Monthly

At the time of the ruckus, Indiana was a hotbed of Klan activity, with one in three Hoosiers affiliated with the hate group. That included Governor Edward L. Jackson and several other high-ranking statewide officials. But Blankenship says after that three-day fracas in May of 1924, the tide began to turn.

He says the Klan began to “face resistance from everyday folks” after their leadership got into legal trouble and Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson was convicted of the brutal rape and murder of a young woman, Madge Oberholtzer.

“People saw the corruption, and many who were part of that movement began to flee,” Blankenship says.

Adults stand gathered around the immersive screen displaying video at the Resist! exhibit.
Photo courtesy Indiana Historical Society

While the exhibit describes events that took place a century ago, Sexton stresses the exhibit isn’t just about the past. He says, “It’s also about the present and future we’re trying to create. It’s a reminder that the struggle for justice and equality is ongoing, and each of us has a role to play in shaping our world.”

Notably, in 1927, three years after Notre Dame students stood up to the Klan, Rev. Walsh officially signed off on “The Fighting Irish” as the university’s official nickname. It was no longer a dig or insult but a source of pride and a symbol of their unrelenting grit and determination, on and off the field.

RESIST! is presented by Notre Dame, the Herbert Simon Family Foundation with support from the Ruth Lilly Philanthropic Foundation, and the Ackerman Foundation. It runs through August 2, 2025, at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick History Center in Indianapolis. A sister exhibit runs May 17 through October 13 at the St. Joe Library in South Bend.