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The decade of the 1920s saw older, traditional values of American society challenged by the rapidly changing Modern Age. Elements of the nation reacted to such change with fear. Develop an understanding of the reborn Ku Klux Klan, the eugenics movement and nativist sentiments of the 1920s.

Reactions to Modern America

At the start of the 1920s, many Americans came to feel as though the promise of the reforms of the Progressive Era had been a waste of time. There had been a devastating war and a period of instability in its aftermath.

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Strikes, riots and flu epidemics had convinced many Americans that the nation had entered a frightening era of change. The older traditions of America seemed threatened in many ways. New, big American cities seemed to be teeming with immigrants and perceived foreign and dangerous ideas. In turn, many reacted to this change in a wave of American nationalism that combined nativism, Anglo-Saxon racism and militant Protestantism.

Foreign Ideas on Trial

The fact that many of the post-war radicals, who were striking and even sending bombs in the mail to prominent Americans, were from lands outside the U.S., only worked to deepen resentment many Americans had towards the foreign born.

The most celebrated court case of the time highlighted this hostility perfectly. It involved two Italian born anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. In May 1920, they were arrested for robbery and murder in a town just outside Boston. Issues surrounding the guilt of the two men are still the subject of debate today, and many still argue that they were found guilty and sentenced for their political ideas more than for the evidence of their alleged crimes.Many intellectuals and liberals of the day took up the cause of Sacco and Vanzetti, demonstrating on their behalf. The two were sentenced to death, and despite appeals and demonstrations, in August of 1923, they were executed.

The story was inspiring and important to intellectuals and artists of the 1920s. American Artist Ben Shahn painted a famous series of paintings based on the trial and the death of the two immigrants.

The Science of Race

The trial highlighted an upsurge in nativism, or a fear of foreign peoples and foreign ideas. This fear was legitimized by the scientifically racist ideas of men like Madison Grant, an anthropologist who wrote in his famous book, The Passing of the Great Race, published in 1916, that Anglo-Saxon and Nordic peoples were superior to the ‘lower races,’ which he argued were Jews and other ethnic groups. Grant based these assertions on a new science, and it was labeled eugenics.The eugenics movement argued that attributes of intellect and ability are directly related to the genetics of the various races.

Grant went so far as to argue that non-white races actually threatened the Anglo-Saxon-based countries of the world, including the U.S. The rebirth of such nativism led directly to immigration restrictions during the 1920s. In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Immigration Act. It restricted new arrivals each year to three percent of the foreign born of any nationality as shown in the census carried out decades earlier. A new quota law in 1924 would lower that number to two percent and completely restrict immigrants from Asia.

Invisible Empire

The surge of nativist hostility during the 1920s fed and helped give new life to the Ku Klux Klan.

William Simmons had actually reorganized the Klan in 1915 in Georgia, but the Klan of the 1920s would not be the small, unorganized, fraternal organization that Simmons had imagined. It was also quite different than the original Klan organized during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. The original Klan served as a political terrorist organization, bent on intimidating Southern Republicans, blacks and Northern Republicans, which were called carpetbaggers. They came to the South following the Civil War.The Klan of the 1920s emerged not to defend the South and her political institutions, but to protect America from itself. It claimed to protect the nation from the changing morals of the modern Jazz Age.

Many white Protestants felt under attack. They felt as though they were held up in smaller communities battling alien forces that ranged from political radicals, Italian mobsters and even car-crazy young people. Such fears allowed the Klan to flourish during the 1920s.The Klan of the 1920s also embraced the business and advertising culture of the time in order to grow its ranks. The Klan advertised itself, encouraging Americans who wanted to hold on to traditional values to join the group. The Klan became a traditional nativist crusade, assailing Jews, as well as blacks, but during the decade most of the Klan’s venom was saved for Catholics.The Klan quickly spread across the Midwest and Northwest.

In fact, during the 1920s, states, such as Indiana, had the largest number of members in the nation. The Klan sponsored picnics, and even organized a massive march on Washington D.C. in 1925.

The Klan of the 1920s assailed and attacked all peoples they feared could not to fit into American traditional values. Hiram Wesley Evans, who took over leadership of the Klan after Simmons, often commented that alien hordes were destroying America. He also took credit for the immigration reform of the decade.

By 1924, there were millions of members. Most estimates claim the Klan membership to be somewhere between two to five million.Despite the large connection the group made with segments of America, the Klan would not survive the decade. Scandal and leadership problems destroyed it. What is certain is that the Klan had been a mass movement, a true reaction to the modern decade of the 1920s. It does still exist today, but not as the mass movement of the 1920s.

It is now diffuse, small and even connected to neo-Nazi elements.

Lesson Summary

At the start of the 1920s, most Americans recognized that the nation and the world had entered an era of sweeping change and upheaval. While some embraced the coming of modernity, with its new science, jazz, urban culture and changing morals, many Americans felt insecure and unprepared for such change. In turn, a fear of foreign ideas and people, or nativism, re-emerged. Foreign ideas were targeted as were foreign peoples. The science of the eugenics movement and mass organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, highlight the point that the America of the 1920s was fraught with contradictory impulses and tension.

Learning Outcome

After this lesson, you should be able to identify the factors that contributed to nativism and racism in the 1920s.


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