During Black History Month, the Knights of Columbus are noting the Catholic organization's "forward-thinking" attitudes towards racial equality long before they were popular.

Andrew Walther, Vice President for Communications and Media at the Knights of Columbus, told CNA the Catholic fraternal organization "took stands for racial equality in ways that were really stunning, when you think of the 1920s or the 1910s."

The Knights of Columbus' first African-American member joined the Order in Massachusetts in the 1890s, less than two decades after its founding.

Walther attributed this openness to the organization's understanding that everyone could contribute as "important members of society."

"The policy in the Knights of Columbus from the top-down was always in favor of racial harmony and inclusion," Walther said. "I think the Knights of Columbus was far ahead of its time."

During World War I, the Knights of Columbus hosted racially integrated rest and recreation facilities for troops in Europe, when no other social service organizations were integrated.

"We were the only ones that were opening the doors to everybody," Walther noted. "Thirty years before the army integrated, we were integrating the army."

In 1924, decades before the Civil Rights Movement, the Knights of Columbus published the African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois' book "The Gift of Black Folk," which focused on black contributions to American life from the time of the earliest colonial settlements.

The book was part of a series that included "The Jews in the Making of America" by George Cohen and "The Germans in the Making of America" by Frederick Schrader.

"Those groups were also often overlooked or looked down upon," he said.

The Knights of Columbus was founded in New Haven, Conn. in 1882 as a Catholic fraternal and charitable organization during a time when Catholics faced suspicion and hostility.

"There was a fear of Catholics, both in terms of their religion, in terms of the immigrant aspect," Walther recounted. "The Knights of Columbus grew up helping people on the margins of society, helping industrial factory workers to protect their faith and protect their community and the financial viability of their families."

The nativist, racist Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence in the 1920s, targeting Catholics along with blacks and Jews. The Klan burned crosses to protest the presidential run of Catholic – and Knight of Columbus – Al Smith and passed an Oregon school law that banned Catholic education in the state of Oregon, though the law was later ruled unconstitutional in a Supreme Court case funded by the Knights of Columbus.

"With that kind of a backdrop, it wasn't a great leap to wanting to make sure the country understood the importance of the various groups that have helped to make this country great," Walther said.

The knights took strong action for racial integration under John W. McDevitt, its Supreme Knight from 1964-1977. When he learned that the New Orleans hotel hosting the knights' 1964 Supreme Convention did not allow African Americans, he threatened to move the convention to another venue. The hotel changed its policy.

McDevitt also played a role in ensuring that local councils were not racially exclusive.

"When it became apparent that some councils were not following the national policy on integration, John McDevitt really forced the issue and made it very clear that this was not going to be tolerated," Walther said.

Knights of Columbus are involved in communities of all ethnic and racial backgrounds in the country, with African-Americans in local, state and national leadership positions.

The Order republished W.E.B. Du Bois' "The Gift of Black Folk" in 2009 to mark the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons. The new edition has a forward by present Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, a former member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Walther attributed the knights' work towards racial equality to their understanding of "the fact that all men are created equal" and to their belief that "nobody should be left behind."

The Knights of Columbus website is www.kofc.org.