Racism in the 1920s – The Rise of the KKK and Anti-Immigration

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Amidst the high-flying feeling of the Roaring Twenties lurked deep rooted hatred, expressed through individual racism and governmental policies.

The Resurgence of the KKK

The original Ku Klux Klan was started in the 1870s in the South as a reaction against Reconstruction. It only lasted for a short time.

In the 1920s William Simmons created a new Klan, seizing on Americans’ fears of immigrants, Communism, and anything “un-American.” He saw it as a money-making opportunity where he could sell memberships, costumes, and life insurance. He hired an aggressive, commissions-based sales force who generated over 2 million members by 1924.

Hatred Expands to Catholics, Jews, and Immigrants

Simmons marketed the Klan not only as a white supremacy group, but also a “100% American” organization. He expanded the original Klan’s anti-African American position to include Roman Catholics, Jews, and immigrants of all backgrounds.

Parochial schools were often singled out by the KKK, because the students were being taken out of mainstream American public schools and instructed to “take orders from a foreign leader,” who was, of course, the Pope.

The new Klan saw themselves as protecting the “American family.” They spoke out against violating prohibition, labor union membership, Sabbath breaking, immodest dress, bobbed hair, and all forms of unconventional sexuality. They became champions of vigilante justice against bootleggers, wife-beaters, and adulterers.

KKK Leaders Lose Credibility

Eventually their scare tactics and violence caused their membership to decline. Several KKK members who had been elected to office failed to produce any results. They simply could not stop the revolution of morals and manners that was sweeping the nation. After a series of scandals, membership began to dwindle.

Anti-Immigration Policies

Before World War I, more than 1 million immigrants had come to the United States, bringing their foreign languages, customs, and traditions with them. New arrivals often clustered together in neighborhoods within bigger cities, where they could continue to participate in their own cultural activities.

In response to “old stock” Americans’ worries about the influx of new immigrants and their “strange ways,” Congress passed legislation that set quotas for various ethnic groups who wanted to come to this country.

This marked the first time immigration was restricted in over 300 years of an open door policy on newcomers to America.

The National Origins Act

The 1921 National Origins Act limited immigration in any year to 3% of the number of foreign-born members of a nationality group as shown in the 1910 census.

After receiving complaints that the 1921 act still let in too many Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Poles, and Jews, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 reduced quotas to just 2% of 1890 census, which was of course a much smaller number.

Sources:

  1. Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig
  2. The 1920s by Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber
  3. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s by Frederick Lewis Allen