How Prohibition Fueled the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan

How Prohibition Fueled the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan

If you only read F. Scott Fitzgerald, you might get the impression that everyone during the 1920s flouted Prohibition and got away with it. But while it’s true that a small portion of white, middle- and upper-class urbanites lived that way, the Roaring Twenties was also the decade in which the newly revived Ku Klux Klan expanded across the country under the guise of enforcing Prohibition.

The Klan’s main targets were immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially Catholic ones. Prohibition advocates had already linked them with drinking and criminality, and for these people, the era was a time of raids, violence and terror.

From the beginning, Prohibition was tied up in anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bias. Many of its advocates were white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants who thought only people like them could be “real Americans.” They believed the country was under siege by Catholic immigrants from countries like Italy, and that these people threatened the U.S. with their foreign drinking habits and saloons.

“It was really a battle for cultural supremacy in a country that was changing,” says Thomas R. Pegram, a history professor at Loyola University Maryland and the author of One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. “Prohibition became a way in which that could be enforced in local communities.”

The two major organizations that lobbied for national Prohibition—the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and men’s Anti-Saloon League—blamed Catholic immigrants in the 1910s for the “saloon culture” they felt was plaguing the nation. The League even argued that the U.S. needed to pass a national ban before its demographics changed too much.

READ MORE: 'Ku Klux Kiddies': The KKK's Little-Known Youth Movement

“They believed that if they didn’t push for a constitutional prohibition before the 1920 census, and before congressional districts were reapportioned based on population increase, that they wouldn’t be able to get prohibition because there’d be too many acculturated new citizens who had been immigrants in the previous two decades who would prevent that,” Pegram says.

And indeed, the U.S. did pass it before then. The states ratified the 18th Amendment on January 16th, 1919, and it took effect in 1920. During that decade, the criminal justice system expanded as police disproportionately arrested people who were immigrants, black, poor and working-class. But there were also plenty of Prohibition-supporting white Protestants who thought the law wasn’t doing enough to stop the bootleggers they read about in the tabloids.

That’s where the KKK stepped in. It sold itself to those people as a law enforcement organization that could do what the government couldn’t—put a stop to the Catholic immigrants supposedly violating the law.

“The reason that the Klan was able to basically bring millions of Protestant white evangelical Americans to its ranks in the 1920s is definitely related to the passage of Prohibition and the 18th Amendment,” says Lisa McGirr, a history professor at Harvard University and author of The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State.

“Prohibition provided the Klan essentially a kind of new mandate for its anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, white Protestant nationalist mission,” she says. “The Klan often gained a foothold in local communities in the 1920s by arguing that it would clean up communities, it would get rid of bootleggers and moonshiners.”

READ MORE: How Prohibition Put the ‘Organized’ in Organized Crime

The Klan began raiding Catholic immigrants’ homes, burning down their businesses and planting evidence to use against them. The Klan wasn’t necessarily trying to put these people behind bars—though many immigrants did end up in jail—but rather to terrorize these communities. The fact that Klansmen sometimes seized alcohol only to drink it themselves was a clear sign that their raids weren’t just about enforcing Prohibition.

The Klan at this time was actually in its second incarnation. The original version of the Klan died during Reconstruction because the government shut it down. In 1915, it experienced a resurgence with the film The Birth of a Nation, which romanticized and popularized the terrorist organization. During the ‘20s, the Klan—along with its auxiliary “Women of the Ku Klux Klan” and three KKK youth groups—spread across the north and south by arguing that Catholics and immigrants were breaking Prohibition, and only a vigilante police group like the Klan could put a stop to it.

“I would say the Klan of the 1920s was unusual in that its primary focus was on Catholics and eastern and southern European immigrants,” Pegram says. “That’s partly because African Americans had already been segregated and deprived of the vote, and in official life kind of marginalized in the United States.” Even so, the Klan did target black Americans and their nightclubs in the name of “Prohibition enforcement” (government police targeted them too).

Between 1920 and 1925, the Klan’s membership grew to some two to five million, and there was a lot of overlap between these new members and those who’d supported Prohibition. “The WCTU [Women’s Christian Temperance Union], the Anti-Saloon League and the Klan were definitely not one in the same but there was a lot of overlap in their goals, there was a lot of overlap in their ideology, and there was a tremendous amount of overlap in terms of their support for their activities in the 1920s,” McGirr says.

“Remember that those men and women who had worked so hard to pass the amendment were deeply disconcerted by the continued overwhelming violations,” she says. “One of the primary ways that women came into the Klan in a place like Indiana, where the Klan had a lot of power, was through the WCTU.” In Williamson County, Illinois, one pastor “admitted that while he had ‘been accustomed to working through the Anti-Saloon League,’ now the hooded order provided a more militant vehicle,’” McGirr writes in her book.

READ MORE: How the Misery of the Great Depression Helped Vanquish Prohibition

Prohibition lasted less than 15 years, but it left behind a large legacy. When it ended in 1933, the U.S. government had a more powerful FBI and a lot more prisons. As for the Klan, the upheaval and chaos that it created during the 1920s eroded its support in the ‘30s. Yet the organization’s history didn’t end there.

The Klan experienced its third resurgence during the civil rights movement, and saw an uptick in activity and increased national attention after the 2016 presidential election. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the Klan, a century after Prohibition, has between 5,000 and 8,000 members.


How Prohibition Paved the Way for a Ku Klux Klan Resurgence in the 1920s

The motivation behind ratifying the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1919 was clear: Alcohol was a corruptive, corrosive lubricant, and America would be better off without it.

On the 100th anniversary of this societal shift, it’s worth noting that Prohibition had another, lesser-known consequence: It opened the door for hate groups to gain a greater foothold in America.

Making the sale and transportation of alcohol illegal was supposed to contribute to a strengthened moral fiber in the 1920s. But the sentiment behind it had roots in racism. "The Klan felt immigrants and anyone not of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) heritage was the underlying cause of America’s problems," according to Tennessee's Museum Center at 5ive Points. They argued that immigrants from Europe were importing their drinking habits and contributing to a relaxed social standard that organizations like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League dubbed a “saloon culture.” Before long, they reasoned, the U.S. would be overrun by Catholic foreigners contributing to societal decay. Bootleggers couldn’t be arrested fast enough.

That’s where the Ku Klux Klan stepped in. The organization was originally founded in 1866 to resist the Reconstruction period of a post-Civil War America. When their sentiments were drowned out by support for civil change, their numbers dwindled before being revived in the 20th century. As part of a sort of recruitment strategy, the Klan began mixing their message of discrimination against minorities with support for Prohibition. Advocacy for clean living was intermingled with the idea that immigrants were responsible for the hedonism associated with alcohol and so many of America's other wrongs.

In communities around the country, Klan representatives succeeded in creating concern by insisting that Catholics, Jewish community members, African-Americans, Hispanic people, and immigrants were feeding the continued disregard for the law. Rather than blanket towns with unfiltered hate speech, they convinced residents that minorities were responsible for illegal alcohol trafficking, speakeasies, and flagrant disobedience of the ban.

The Klan then took it a step further, convincing Prohibition supporters that they could pick up the slack left by overworked police who were struggling to stop bootleggers from flourishing. Evangelical Americans, stirred by fear over the Klan’s depiction of a bad element taking over the country, began to support their cause. If people were in favor of Prohibition, then it only made sense to be anti-immigration, too. The Klan even found federal support for its ambitions, supplying foot soldiers in attacks on Italian alcohol barons in Herrin, Illinois in 1923. Violence and planted evidence were common complaints among those targeted.

Any raids the Klan performed on bootleggers were rarely about seizing alcohol—and if they did, they typically drank it themselves. Instead, it was an excuse to terrorize Catholic neighborhoods in a display of power. Such groups, the Klan argued, were violating Prohibition and had to be stopped. As a result, Klan factions—including some for women and children—sprung up across the country. If supporters weren’t inherently racist, then they could get behind the blanket message to enforce the law.

Either way, Klan numbers grew, with an estimated 2 to 5 million members pledging their commitment to the cause between 1920 and 1925. The erupting violence during raids eroded those numbers in some communities, as people finally caught on that harassment of immigrants—not the betterment of America—was the Klan's primary goal.

The Klan’s ability to piggyback on Prohibition was lost in 1933, when the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment. The group wouldn’t be seen as a formidable force again until the rise of the civil rights movement. But for a good portion of the 1920s, they were able to grow in strength and numbers based on the promise of moral upkeep. The “noble experiment” of banning alcohol, which was intended to curb salacious behavior, would forever be associated with the malevolent intentions of the Klan.


20th century: TheBirth of a Nation (and rebirth of the Klan)

In the 20th century, the advent of motion pictures helped to propel the popularity of the Klan in both the U.S. and Canada, specifically with the film The Birth of a Nation.

Directed by D. W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation chronicled the chaotic period following the Civil War and glorified the role of the Klan in establishing social order, Bartley said.

It was released in the U.S. in early 1915 and then later that year in Canada, finding immense success in both countries, including in cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

"All the major cities and any town [in Canada] that had a theatre showed The Birth of a Nation not once, not twice, not three times — sometimes it was shown half a dozen times over the course of the years from 1915 to 1920, and in some places, every year after that," Bartley said. "It had a huge following, a huge attraction, and it created this image of the Ku Klux Klan."


On mapping with imperfect data

The chronological spread of the Klan across the country depicted here is not perfectly chronological. That requires an explanation.

We do not know when each Klavern was formed or exactly when it disbanded or died. If we did, the map would show local Klans winking on and winking off.

“Mapping the Klan” is based on documentary evidence. Thus, the date when a Klan appears on the map comes from the date of that evidence, not necessarily when that Klan actually first began to function.

Records have survived for only a small number of Klans. Klan publications and other media outlets carried numerous short reports of Klan activities across the nation. Some of the reports were vague accounts of local enthusiasm for the Klan, while others were specific. The map is based on those specific reports that also gave the identifying number of the Klan involved. As was the case with other fraternal orders, each Klan received an identifying number in order of its organizing within a state.

For that reason, “Mapping the Second Ku Klux Klan” does not provide an exact chronology of the Klan’s spread. Rather it displays a rough (but evidence-based) chronology of the Klan’s near-universal expansion in the United States between its founding in 1915 and its demise in the 1940s.

Each dot on the map is keyed to a documentary source. Each dot on the map also represents a community where the Ku Klux Klan existed. For the majority of those communities, there is a history of that local Klan yet to be researched and revealed.

The creators of the map hope that future researchers will be able to use the data in their projects. We also hope that errors will be pointed out, and additional information might be added.


When Watchmen were Klansmen

This exchange between Laurie Blake, former costumed vigilante turned FBI agent, and Angela Abar, masked Tulsa police detective, lays out a conundrum at the heart of HBO’s 2019 series Watchmen. Theirs is an America where police, costumed vigilantes, and hate groups all wear masks to protect their “secret identities,” where anonymity leads to the corruption of power, and where those identities become dangerously blurred. The show is an “extrapolation” based on the groundbreaking comic series created in 1986 by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins, in which the introduction of masked vigilantes— real-life “superheroes”—in 1938 creates an alternate history. The series sees that history play out in strange and uncomfortably familiar ways.

In a scene from the HBO series, Tulsa’s masked police force prepares for a raid. Detective Wade Tillman (known as “Looking Glass”) is played by Tim Blake Nelson. Detective Angela Abar (known as “Sister Night”) is played by Regina King (Mark Hill/HBO).

HBO’s Watchmen has drawn critical acclaim, particularly for its grounding in the historical reality of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, a violent racial pogrom against that city’s prosperous black enclave of Greenwood. This jarring and brutal real-life tragedy leads directly to the alternate timeline of Watchmen, and it underpins its examination of the lines between law enforcement and vigilantism, the threat of white supremacy, and the danger of “justice” that wears a mask (or a hood).

Police forces both past and present are shown to be infiltrated by the Ku Klux Klan and its fictional successor, the Seventh Kavalry. And while Watchmen is a work of fantastical fiction, only a century ago, in the period of the Tulsa Massacre, America faced a similar but true dilemma. Our own history includes some law enforcement organizations in the early 1900s that were aligned with, and even controlled by, the Klan.

William J. Simmons, who founded the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915, seated at table during a House of Representatives committee investigation of Klan activity, October 1921 (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

William J. Simmons, a former minister and promoter of fraternal societies, founded the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia in 1915. His organization grew slowly, but by the 1920s, Simmons began coordinating with a public relations firm, in part to chip away at the (accurate) perception that the Klan was an outlaw group involved in extralegal violence. Membership in the Klan exploded over the next few years. As part of this PR campaign, Simmons gave an interview to the Atlanta Journal newspaper in January 1921. While explicitly advocating white supremacy, Simmons played up his group’s commitment to law and order, promoted their enforcement of Prohibition, and even boasted of his own police credentials. He claimed members at every level of law enforcement belonged to his organization, and that the local sheriff was often one of the first to join when the Klan came to a town. Ominously, Simmons declared that “[t]he sheriff of Fulton County knows where he can get 200 members of the Klan at a moment’s call to suppress anything in the way of lawlessness.”

Copy of an “Application for Citizenship in the Invisible Empire” and membership in the Ku Klux Klan, early 1920s. At its height in the mid-1920s, the Klan claimed some four million members nationwide. (Business Americana Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History)

Across the country, the Ku Klux Klan sometimes claimed it was protecting the public when the police could not. However, its leaders also often sought to legitimize the organization by working in cooperation with police—a strategy that has echoes in the Watchmen series. Writing on the early 1900s revival of the Klan, historian Linda Gordon recounts numerous collaborations between police and the Klan in the 1920s. In Portland, Oregon, the Klan formally allied itself with the police department, and city’s mayor augmented the 150-man police force with a vigilante auxiliary selected by the Klan, giving them police powers and guns but keeping their names secret. In Anaheim, California, the Klan-dominated city council allowed police officers who held membership to patrol in full Ku Klux Klan regalia. And in Indiana, the Klan exploited a decades-old legal loophole to gain a legitimacy that only a badge could bring.

Official letterhead of the Marion County Klan Number 3. The elaborate design links the years 1866, the beginning of the original Ku Klux Klan, and 1915, the founding of the second organization. The letterhead includes the “sign of the Cyclops,” which is mirrored in HBO’s Watchmen. (Business Americana Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History)

Indiana had a long and established tradition of sanctioned vigilante organizations, dating back to the 1840s. In the second half of the 1800s, the state established laws allowing citizens to form chapters of the Horse Thief Detective Association (HTDA) that, once approved by their county, were commissioned to protect property. Members were provided legal authority to investigate crimes and arrest suspects. With the advent of the automobile in the first decades of the 1900s, membership in these groups declined. However, by the 1920s, their numbers rebounded and grew—with new chapters arising, sometimes four or five in a single county. Estimates put peak HTDA membership at around 20,000 throughout the state.

Newspaper clipping from the early 1920s highlighting the exploits of the Berry brothers, “six husky farmers” and HTDA members from Franklin Township in Marion County, Indiana. (Business Americana Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History)

The odd revival of the Horse Thief Detective Association, in a period when horses had been supplanted by cars and trucks, was no mystery at the time—the system had been co-opted by the KKK, and the two groups became closely entwined. Historian Thomas Pegram has noted that HTDA chapters would give activity reports at Klan meetings and Klan funds were used to support HTDA activities. Indeed, the Indiana Klan held out honorary memberships to any commissioned member of the HTDA, offering reduced dues as an incentive. As sworn members of HTDA chapters, Klansmen in the state essentially formed an armed, officially sanctioned force that would allow them to enact their agenda under the guise of legitimate law enforcement.

Booklet of bylaws for the Tremont Horse Thief Detective Association, No. 349. The first qualification for membership was the assurance that the applicant was “one hundred percent AMERICAN WHITE MALE.”

In his work on the Klan in Indiana, historian Leonard J. Moore details membership records from 1925 that show over 20 percent of the state’s eligible population—white, Protestant, native-born males—belonged to the organization. In some counties, that number exceeded 33 percent. In Marion County, which included the city of Indianapolis, over a quarter of eligible men belonged to the Ku Klux Klan—some 25,000 members in total, many of whom held dual membership in their local HDTA chapter. One such member was William Beckham Smith, who joined the Tremont Horse Thief Detective Association of Marion County, Indiana, in April 1924. His HTDA badge and membership material are held in the museum collections, and the museum’s Archives Center has items related to his membership in Marion County Klan Number 3.

W. Beckham Smith’s dues receipt for his membership in Marion County Klan No. 3 and a portion of his commission into the Tremont Horse Thief Detective Association, No. 349. Both were organized as fraternal societies, another incentive for overlapping membership. (Business Americana Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History)

As Horse Thief Detectives, the Indiana Klan came down on bootleggers, organized labor, immigrants, and African American populations. In one incident, related in Elliot Jaspin’s book Buried in the Bitter Waters, they helped to expel black citizens from the mining town of Blandford in western Indiana. On January 18, 1923, a young girl from Blandford reported she had been abducted and assaulted by an African American man. Within 48 hours, several hundred white townsfolk met and demanded that all black residents leave, beginning with unmarried men, who were to be outside town limits by that evening. Within a week, all black residents of Blandford—approximately 50 people—had fled. That exodus was overseen by Harry Newland, the sheriff of Vermillion County and himself a Klansman, along with members of the Dana HTDA and the Helt Township HTDA, two of the four chapters in the area. The Helt Township chapter alone included over a dozen members of the Klan, including its captain. African American citizens, both in Blandford and the surrounding county, felt forced to comply and departed en masse. As Jaspin notes, the 1920 census recorded well over 200 black residents in Vermillion County—in 1930, that number was less than 70. Such racial cleansings were not always as savagely violent as the Tulsa Massacre, less than two years prior, but could be just as devastating in the long run.

Smith’s badge as a member of Tremont Horse Thief Detective Association, No. 349. Members were granted power to investigate and arrest, and even the ability to pursue lawbreakers across state lines.

In HBO’s Watchmen, high-tech plots by Klansmen both past and present are eventually thwarted by the intervention of masked vigilantes. In our history, the Klan of the 1920s essentially thwarted itself. In Indiana and elsewhere, the Klan was riven with numerous abuses and political, criminal, and sexual scandals among the group’s leadership. Public opinion soured and membership plummeted, though not until after a decade of virulent rhetoric, racial terrorism, and violence. Without the Klan’s participation, HTDAs faded by the 1930s. Of course, bigotry and religious intolerance did not disappear along with this second version of the Klan—a third iteration would take hold in the postwar civil rights period, and strains of organized white supremacy continue to operate and network, using the internet to preserve anonymity as hoods and masks once did. In offering its own strange alternative history, Watchmen invites us to examine our own past and present and answer for ourselves another crucial question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes—“Who watches the watchmen?”

Tim Winkle is a curator in the Division of Cultural and Community Life.

The documents and objects in this blog post come from the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana in our Archives Center and the Division of Cultural and Community Life.

If you’d like to read more about the rise and fall of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1900s, some of the sources cited in this blog include:

Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America by Elliot Jaspin (Basic Books, 2007)

Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921–1928 by Leonard J. Moore (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1997)

One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s by Thomas R. Pegram (Ivan R. Dee, 2011)

The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition by Linda Gordon (Liveright Publishing Corp., 2017)


Through an examination of the topics involving the rise and fall of the Ku Klux Klan, Prohibition and organised crime and the issue of Immigration and intolerance, we are to construct our own inquiry question relating to the dark side of the US boom of the 1920s. - History bibliographies - in Harvard style

These are the sources and citations used to research Through an examination of the topics involving the rise and fall of the Ku Klux Klan, Prohibition and organised crime and the issue of Immigration and intolerance, we are to construct our own inquiry question relating to the dark side of the US boom of the 1920s.. This bibliography was generated on Cite This For Me on Wednesday, March 23, 2016

BBC - GCSE Bitesize: Prohibition summary

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Your Bibliography: Bbc.co.uk. 2016. BBC - GCSE Bitesize: Prohibition summary. [online] Available at: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/history/mwh/usa/prohibitionrev1.shtml> [Accessed 23 March 2016].

The KKK and racial problems - History Learning Site

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How Prohibition Fueled the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan - HISTORY

Like many nativist organizations opposed to immigration, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan responded to cultural changes brought about not only by immigration, but also by changes in the American economy and society after the First World War. Rapid technological, economic, demographic, social, and cultural changes understandably created confusion and cultural tension in the early 1920s. Mass production, mass consumption, mass communications, and mass culture undermined the familiar cultural codes and traditional morals and values. The Ku Klux Klan attempted to resist challenges to traditional morality by enlisting native, white, Protestant Americans who exhibited character, morality, Christian values, and "pure Americanism."

Most Americans today imagine the average Klansman as a bigoted, intolerant, ignorant, southern redneck who burned crosses, terrorized black Americans, and intimidated opponents while hiding behind white sheets and a conical hood. While many of these images are based in fact, the Klan of the 1920s had little in common with the Klan of the 1860s or of the 1960s. The second of five distinct Klan eras, the Klansmen of the 1920s resembled fraternal, temperance, and progressive reform organizations, albeit with a coercive (and sometimes downright terrorist) edge. In their effort to preserve an idealized "golden age" of American life, most Klan activities focused on defending white, Christian civilization, promoting community activities, enforcing morality, and combating corruption and concentrated economic power. Most of the Klan's political activity was local, non-partisan, and aimed at enforcing morality and sobriety. One of the Klan's most important moral campaigns was for the restoration of law and order as exemplified by adherence to the 18th Amendment.


Local History: How Catholics came to defeat the Ku Klux Klan on L.I.

Long Island’s South Shore communities are facing turbulent times due to the rapid change of traditional demographics. The people here are dealing with a rising fear of foreign threats, political divides, false news reports, contested elections, and a re-inspired Ku Klux Klan.

These events might be reminiscent of the past few months, but we’re taking you back to Suffolk County in the 1920s — and the lead-up to June 24, 1923, in Bay Shore, a remarkable day captured in the photograph above.

In 1920, Suffolk County’s population was 110,000, up from 96,000 in 1910, a 15 percent jump in a decade. The immigrant population within the county had increased from 14,650 to 23,888. Within these population shifts, Catholicism became the fastest-growing religion.

This growth faced an onslaught of fears from many local Protestants.

Rumors circulated across Long Island communities that the Catholic-affiliated organization Knights of Columbus swore oaths that waged war against American values.

Klan-inspired newspapers, such as the Rail-Splitter, printed articles that claimed Catholics accumulated weapons in the columns of their churches and were conspiring to commit random acts of terrorism. These false news reports fueled membership of local Ku Klux Klan chapters across the South Shore. Suffolk Klan membership swelled to one in seven residents within the county.

In Bay Shore, community recruitment for potential Klan members faced stiff opposition from local Catholics and affiliated groups. On Nov. 7, 1922, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Imperial Klokard G.A. Mahoney of the Ku Klux Klan Atlanta Georgia chapter was to give a lecture in the Odd Fellow hall on recruitment.

Then on Nov. 9, thousands of protesters stormed the hall and threatened the Klan members. In response to the demonstrations, state troopers shut the meeting down to prevent violence. Some local store owners who were against the anti-Klan protest hung signs that read TWAK (Trade only with a Klansman) to demonstrate solidarity to the Klan members.

The Catholic and Klan tensions spilled over into Islip Town politics as well. Catholic groups started to endorse and hold public forums for town and county candidates. Democratic town supervisor James Richardson became favored by Father Donovan of St. Patrick’s Parish of Bay Shore. In response to the relationship the Catholics had with Richardson, Republican challenger, Frank Rogers, was endorsed by Klan leaders.

On June 24, 1923, the Holy Name Society held a rally in Bay Shore to bring awareness against the threat of intolerance toward Catholics. The demonstration against the Klan attracted an estimated 40,000 people. At the rally, Father Donovan introduced town supervisor James Richardson as a supporter of the community.

However inspiring, the rally yielded short-term negative results it served as the extra push the Klan needed to build a political coalition. That November, Rogers defeated Richardson by four votes, and Klan-backed candidates took control of all town offices.

On Nov. 9, 1923, the Ku Klux Klan had a victory parade in Bay Shore to celebrate the election results.

An estimated 350 members marched in full Klan uniform while holding a giant cross illuminating with battery operated lights. Fear gripped the Catholic community.

But that fear would give way.

There’s strength in numbers, and an ever-expanding Catholic population prevented any anti-Catholic sentiment from becoming actual, restrictive law. In the early 30s, the continuing demographic shift pushed the Klan back into the shadows as embarrassing relics of intolerance.

Sources: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Klokards, Kleagles, Kludds, and Kluxers: The Ku Klux Klan in Suffolk County, 1915-1928, Part One, By Jane S. Gombieski, Fall 1993 Volume 6 * Number 1 copyright 1993 by the Long Island Historical Journal


“America First:” The Ku Klux Klan Influence on Immigration Policy in the 1920s

United States immigration laws reflect a long history of debate over who should be included and excluded in differing visions of American identity. In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act or the Immigration Act of 1924, “a measure which was a legislative expression of the xenophobia, particularly towards eastern and southern European immigrants, that swept America in the decade of the 1920s.”[1] This legislation drastically limited immigration to the United States through a quota system that targeted specific groups for exclusion. While the annual quota for German immigrants was set at over 51,000 people, the quota for Syrian immigrants, for example, was 100 people.[2] Thus, U.S. policy officially distinguished between races and backgrounds of people included or excluded as future Americans. The Ku Klux Klan was crucial to the passage of this legislation, which had dire consequences for those seeking asylum in the U.S. over the following decades in which the quota system remained in place.

Fiery Cross, April 25, 1924, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the 1920s, the Klan spread across the United States and especially thrived in Indiana. Historian James Madison explains that the Klan was especially successful at recruiting Hoosiers. As many as one in four white Protestant men born in the state were Klan members by one estimate. And some of these men were in positions of political power. In considering past debates over immigration, it’s worth re-examining the Klan’s stance on the subject. Why? Because the Klan of the 1920s was an influential mainstream movement. And those Hoosiers who put on robes and lit up the night with their fiery crosses were representative of the feelings of much of the population of the state.[3]

The first Klan, which emerged after the Civil War was a Southern terrorist organization led by former Confederate soldiers aimed at suppressing African Americans with intimidation and violence. The Klan that reemerged in the 1920s purposefully evoked the imagery of the Reconstruction Era Klan to instill fear in its “enemies,” but was much different. It was not a band of rogue vigilantes, but a nationwide organization composed of average white, Protestant Americans. It included farmers, bankers, railroad workers, suffragists, ministers, mayors, and governors. The second Klan also largely abandoned violence for civic action. They dressed their anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, antisemitic message in patriotism and Christian righteousness. Wearing their white robes and masks, they held picnics and parades, attended church and funerals. For many white Protestant Americans, the Ku Klux Klan was a respectable pastime for the whole family. [4]

Fiery Cross, December 21, 1923, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Because the Klan published their newspaper, the Fiery Cross, for several years in Indianapolis, we know a lot about who joined, what exactly they believed and feared about immigration and race, and what they did to prevent people from certain countries from becoming Americans. The Fiery Cross served both as an official mouthpiece of the national organization and as a source for local Klan news. The Indiana State Library also has a large collection of Klan documents. In conversation, these sources paint a clear picture of Klan beliefs and influence on both Indiana and national policy.

Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Kloran, 1916, United Klans of America Collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, Indiana State Library. Also accessible digitally at Archive.org.

In an early KKK handbook, called the Kloran, the national organization suggested ten questions that must be answered satisfactorily before “naturalizing” a new member. Most of them asked about the potential member’s allegiance to the U.S. government and Christian principles with questions such as:

Do you esteem the United States of America and its institutions above any other government, civil, political or ecclesiastical, in the whole world?

The “ecclesiastical” reference in this question is to the Roman Catholic Church. The Klan claimed that Catholic immigrants to the U.S. served the Pope who headed a conspiracy to undermine American values. Thus they were not loyal American citizens. This anti-Catholic sentiment and rhetoric was especially strong in the Midwestern Klan, as seen in the pages of the Fiery Cross. However, not all of the membership questions veiled their hateful message. One question asked potential members bluntly:

Do you believe in and will you faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of white supremacy?

In their minds, the white supremacy the Klan valued so dearly was presently under attack. Like the earlier Reconstruction Klan, the 1920s Klan viewed African Americans as members of an inferior race. In Indiana, members worried about the mixing of white and black races, especially as young Hoosiers gained access to cars, jazz clubs, and Hollywood movies. [5] In 1922, the Fiery Cross blamed jazz for “inflaming the animal passions of romance-seeking youth.” And in 1924, the newspaper declared, “At this time the whole civilized structure is being threatened by the mixing of the white and black races.” It continued:

It is God’s purpose that the white man should preserve purity of blood and white supremacy in this country. Those who would have it otherwise or show leniency toward the mixing of white and colored races do not deserve the respect of anyone, much less of those who are trying to preserve American institutions, ideals and principles. A mongrel race and a mongrel civilization mean decay and ruin.

Fiery Cross, May 16, 1923, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Thus, throughout Klan literature, any reference to Christian virtue or Protestant values, should be understood as being imbued with white supremacy. The Klan believed that God valued people of Anglo-Saxon, German, and Scandinavian decent more than people of other backgrounds. And they believed that it was their sacred duty to protect white domination of the U.S. For the Midwestern Klan, the main obstacle to this goal was not African Americans. Many Indiana towns had small numbers of Black residents, and there were plenty of institutionalized practices and laws in place by the 1920s to suppress African Americans. The Klan helped to keep these as standard practice. However, they saw immigrants, mainly Catholics but also Jews, as the main threat to a white, Protestant America. [6]

Fiery Cross, September 21, 1923, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

D. C. Stephenson, the recently appointed Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan, clearly laid out the organization’s stance on immigration in a September 1923 speech to Hoosier coal miners. The Fiery Cross printed Stephenson’s address in its entirety under the headline “Immigration is Periling America.” First, he distinguished between “old” and “new” immigrants. The old immigrants were the Anglo-Saxon, German, and Scandinavian “progenitors of the Republic of America” who brought their strong work ethic and “social, moral, and civic ideals” to the new land. Omitting any mention of native peoples or the contributions of the many other immigrant groups who helped found the United States, Stephenson continued to provide the history of an imagined past created solely by and for white people.

William Arthur Swift, “Ku Klux Klan Gathering of Muncie Klan No. 4,” photograph, 1922, W. A. Swift Photographs Collection, Ball State University Libraries, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/swift/id/700

Second, Stephenson plainly identified the enemy of white Protestant America as the “new” immigrants who were arriving in “greater in numbers” than the “old” immigrants. These “new” immigrants were “from the races of southern and eastern Europe.”

Third, he cited the various ways that the “new immigrant has been shown to be much inferior to the older type and to the native American stock.” By “native American,” Stephenson meant white European people who immigrated in previous generations, not the native Indian peoples who originally called North America home. Using examples based in the (later discredited) pseudo-science of eugenics, Stephenson furthered his argument about the inherent inferiority of the “new” immigrants.[7] Eugenicists assumed that some traits like mental illness or poverty could be prevented by limiting reproduction of people demonstrating such traits in order to breed a better race of humans.[8]

For Klan leaders, however, the language of eugenics gave them “scientific facts” to present as evidence for the need for blocking immigration. In his speech, Stephenson presented reports from eugenicists claiming that the “new” immigrants were less intelligent and more prone to mental disorders and criminal tendencies. Stephenson cited a report by influential eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin, who was essential in shaping both eugenics legislation and immigration restriction. [9] Stephenson used Laughlin’s “elaborate statistics” throughout his speech, claiming:

In reference to feeblemindedness, insanity, crime, epilepsy, tuberculosis and deformity, the older immigrant stocks are vastly sounder than the recent.

The countries which ran lowest in crime are those which have contributed most to the elementary foundation of the population of the United States – such as Great Britain, Scandinavia, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands . . . Those immigrant groups that run high in crime are from the countries of southern and eastern Europe’

The conclusion he intended his listeners to draw from such reports was that these people must be excluded from the country. Stephenson stated:

My friends, the significance of authoritative statements like these can hardly be overestimated. Unrestricted immigration would appear to result in a gradual contraction of our native American stock.

Fourth, Stephenson claimed that English, German, and Scandinavian “old immigrants” spread out across the country, establishing farming communities. On the other hand, the “new” immigrants settled only in already congested cities and refused to assimilate. And finally, Stephenson claimed, in these cities, the immigrant was to blame for a decreased standard of living and reduction in wages. He continued:

There is no assimilation to American standards and ideals, in the case of the great majority of the newer immigrants. Masses of human beings of inferior races, ignorant of all the ideals which Americans hold dear, are poured into our factories as so much raw material – and they are not ‘digested.’ The new immigrant comes here as a foreigner and he remains a foreigner – a citizen of a lower class, who, just as the negro, is a constant menace to the standards of civilization which Americans hold dear.

The solution was clear. The powerful Klan, with its millions of members, demanded in 1923 that “the next Congress must adopt a permanent immigration law.” Stephenson concluded his speech to the Indiana coal miners:

So the unchecked importation now of hordes of southern Europeans will bring its inevitable harvest in fearfully deteriorating the character of the American nation of the future. The immigration policy which we adopt today will not produce its vital effects at once these will come a generation or two later, and the American citizenship, American standards of living and American qualities of manhood and womanhood of that time will be largely dependent upon the character of the racial stock that today we permit to become the percentage of the nation.

William Arthur Swift, “Ku Klux Klan Women’s Auxiliary Rally in New Castle, Indiana,” photograph, 1923, W. A. Swift Photographs Collection, Ball State University Archives and Special Collections, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/swift/id/622.

Hoosier Klan members were on board with this message, despite the fact that Indiana’s own immigration history proved the racist claims false at every turn. For example, Jews like John Jacob Hays, an Indiana agent for the U.S. government, were among the first of European descent to settle in the Northwest Territory. Jewish Hoosier Samuel Judah settled in Vincennes in 1818 began the first of his five terms in the state legislature in 1827.[10] Black Hoosiers were also among the first to clear and farm Indiana land in communities across the state, building thriving communities like Roberts Settlement by the 1830s.[11] Catholic immigrants to Indiana like Saint Theodora Guerin in 1840 braved the wilderness and prejudice to establish schools and orphanages.[12] And at the same time the Fiery Cross claimed that immigrants were responsible for draining the economy, Terre Haute newspapers praised the Syrian immigrants to their community on the Wabash River for stimulating the local economy.[13] The examples of immigrant contributions to the Hoosier state are endless. But despite the local lessons to be learned, many Hoosiers held on to their prejudices. And the Indiana Klan gave them an outlet.

William Arthur Swift, “Ku Klux Klan Initiation and Cross Burning,” photograph, 1922, W. A. Swift Photographic Collection, Ball State University and Special Collections, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/swift/id/724

How do we know that the average Hoosier who joined the Klan, actually supported this message of white supremacy? One way Indiana Klan members made their support public and highly visible was through large and elaborate parades. In September 1923, the Fiery Cross reported that between 1,200 and 1,500 Klansmen marched in a “huge parade” through the main streets of Terre Haute. They were led by the Terre Haute No. 7 Klan band. Signs on floats read “Uphold the Constitution” and “America First.” Local police helped handle traffic and a traction company provided “special cars” to transport Klansmen and women to “the Klan grounds, north of the city.” Here there were speakers and new member initiation ceremonies for “several hundred candidates.” While these new Hoosier Klan members took their oaths of allegiance, “a fiery cross was lighted.”

Fiery Cross, May 23, 1924, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In July 1923, the Fiery Cross reported on a huge Ku Klux Klan gathering in Kokomo. The city hosted “a throng in excess of any ever before entertained by an Indiana city, not excepting Indianapolis on Speedway day,” with Klan members coming from surrounding states as well. At this meeting Klan leaders announced “the establishment of a stated organization for the Hoosiers” and “charters granted to each and ever county in Indiana” for local Klan “klaverns.” The Fiery Cross continued:

Americanism has engulfed the Hoosier state and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana has been as a tidal wave.

In October 1923, the Fiery Cross claimed 10,000 people turned out for a Klan parade in Bloomington organized by the Monroe County Klan and the Women of the Ku Klux Klan. In November, Klan members held a similar event in Fort Wayne. And the Fiery Cross estimated that 100,000 would attend the night parade of Klansmen in May 1924 in Indianapolis, marching from the State Fairgrounds, to Monument Circle, led by Klan bands and drum corp.

Fiery Cross, June 27, 1924, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Klan grew their membership in other ways too. Donning robes and masks, they marched into churches and made donations to grateful ministers. They held picnics and social events. They showed Klan propaganda movies.[14] Klan bands recorded albums and Indianapolis even had a KKK record store, the American Record Shop. Members advocated for prohibition of alcohol and supported prayer in school, issues that especially interested women. Thus, the number of women’s Klan groups increased across the state as well.

Fiery Cross, September 21, 1923, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Not all Klan members hid behind costumes. Many felt comfortable taking off their hoods in pictures or running an ad for their business in the Fiery Cross. While some business owners advertised in order to avoid boycott, others proudly proclaimed that their business was � per cent American” or incorporated the letters “KKK” into the ad.

Fiery Cross, December 21, 1923, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles Fiery Cross, February 23, 1923, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Some mainstream newspapers, such as the Indianapolis Times, were harsh critics of the Klan. But others ran ads for Klan gatherings or speakers on “the principles of 100 per cent Americanism.” Some mainstream newspapers may have even ran more subtle versions of the � Per Cent” ads for businesses sympathetic to the Klan that ran regularly in the Fiery Cross.

Greencastle Herald, September 21 [left] and November 17, 1923 [right], Hoosier State Chronicles. These efforts to build membership, influence, and solidarity were successful in Indiana and across much of the country. By 1924, the Klan was a powerful force. They gave white Protestants an organization dedicated to defending the perceived threat to their political and cultural dominance. The more enthusiastic Klansmen used intimidation techniques such as burning crosses on front lawns or stopping cars to search for illegal alcohol.[15] However, they mainly focused their intimidation into written and verbal attacks on immigrants using stereotyping, dehumanizing language, and eugenic pseudo-science. Cloaking their hateful message in patriotism and virtue made it palatable to many.

Cartoon from Denver Post reprinted in Fiery Cross, May 9, 1924, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Klan’s championing of white supremacist principles had real world consequences. To many Indiana politicians, the people had spoken. The Indiana Republican Party was the most sympathetic, but there were Democratic supporters as well. Most politicians were complicit in their failure to denounce the Klan for fear of losing votes, as opposed to any direct participation in the organization. But the Klan did influence Indiana elections. Stephenson openly revealed that the Klan would distribute sample ballots to members with candidates who were favorable to the organization clearly marked.[16] Several candidates won seats directly because the Klan proclaimed their support. Others sympathetic to the Klan won offices perhaps because the Klan had disseminated so much propaganda that voters did not know what to believe. As the Klan accused opposing candidates of various indiscretions, voters may have become confused and apathetic.[17] Regardless of how it was gained, directly or indirectly, their influence prevailed for some time. In fact, Stephenson released the names of several politicians who were Klansmen themselves, including John L. Duvall, the Mayor of Indianapolis, and Ed Jackson, the Governor of the State of Indiana.

Indiana’s congressmen who neither joined nor denounced the Klan still furthered the organization’s “America first” agenda. For example, as governor, Samuel Ralston proved to be a fairly progressive-minded democrat, advocating for women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and workman’s compensation. When he was elected to the U. S. Senate in 1922, he tried to avoid talking about the Klan altogether. Like most moderate Hoosier politicians Ralston was not a Klan member, but he also he never publicly denounced the organization.[18] However, when the Senate voted on the Immigration Act of 1924, Ralston voted in favor of restriction as did his counterpart James Watson.[19] All of Indiana’s representatives had also voted in favor of the bill.[20] President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill into law May 24, 1924. The President told Congress, “America must be kept American.”[21]

The Immigration Act of 1924 and its quota system remained in effect until 1952. The legislation had dire consequences in the 1930s for the hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution who applied to the United States for immigration visas. Jews were specifically targeted in the legislation as undesirable candidates for refuge and only a handful were admitted. As newspapers reported on the escalating violence and injustices perpetrated by the Nazis, some Americans called for a loosening of the restrictions. However, while the Klan may have disappeared by the 1930s, the nativist and xenophobic attitude of many Americans remained the same as it had been when they wore masks and robes. Fortune magazine took a large poll in 1938 and found that only 5% of Americans wanted to allow “political refugees to come into the United States.”[22] Even a bill requesting a temporary easing of the quotas to rescue child refugees of Nazi terror failed in the Senate. The persecuted Jews of Europe would not find refuge in the United States. Many of those denied entry were murdered in the Holocaust.[23]

With each new shift in demographics throughout American history, certain groups have feared losses of power or wealth. However, those groups who rally around nativism and hate, as powerful as they might grow for a time, lose out to the more powerful vision of America as a leader in justice and democracy. Eventually, eugenics was discounted and its practice outlawed, the quota system overturned, and the Klan was made a laughing stock. Even so, the Klan’s vision of white supremacy and exclusion still simmers beneath the surface of American politics. Vigilant Hoosiers are needed to make sure that never again will we “fear difference and demand a conformity that contradict[s] . . . the state’s best traditions.”[24] According to UCLA’s Re-Imagining Migration project, we live in an age of mass migration and immigration. When we understand that migration is “a shared condition of our past, present, and future” we can “develop the knowledge, empathy and mindsets that sustain inclusive and welcoming communities.”


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