Racism and the rise of the KKK was a deeply divisive issue during the 1920s. The Klan was able to alienate not only blacks as it had previously, but also Jews, immigrants, and Catholics. To add to the tension, widespread racism led to multiple riots throughout the decade.

The Rise of the KKK will_simmons.jpg
Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Ku Klux Klan was re-born in the 1920s following the close of World War I. This new Klan led by Imperial Wizard William J. Simmons targeted not only African Americans but also Jews, foreigners/immigrants and Catholics, as well as bootleggers and divorcees.
Major Factors that Led to the Ku Klux Klan’s Revival:

1. The agricultural depression that followed World War I
· The KKK was a white supremacist group that allowed poor farmers to feel superior in a time when they were experiencing hardships. It helped them to be able to pin all of their troubles on other groups rather than to blame themselves.
2. The Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North.

· The northerners had never before had a great amount of exposure to blacks and racial diversity, and this increased diversity lead to racial tension. Blacks posed a threat to workers’ jobs, so many northerners joined groups such as the KKK who opposed blacks.
3. Increased nativism and religious bigotism that came as a result of World War.

· The nationalism that led to World War I did not stop when the treaty of Versailles was signed. This nationalism soon turned to nativism as people began to look at European immigrants as the “enemy” and inferior. The U.S. had a large death toll in World War I, though not as great as the European nations did, and this led many to blame foreigners for their sorrow and their struggles following the war. The Klan was not just white supremacist, but also nativist, which helped it recruit many people who saw the European immigrants in this bad light.
Minor Factors: kkk_wwquote_the_birth_of_a_nation.jpg
· The film The Birth of a Nation, which was directed in 1915 by D. W. Griffith, was also a contributing factor to the revival of the Klan in the 1920s. This film was explicitly racist, and it portrayed the formation of the KKK as a result of black’s abuse of whites through their legislative power. On Election Day it was shown that blacks were stuffing the boxes with their votes while turning whites away. In the film, a black man, named Gus, wanted to marry a white girl, named Flora, and ended up chasing her into the woods where she met her untimely death after leaping off of a cliff in her final attempt to escape from her follower. The KKK then hunted down and killed Gus to avenge Flora’s death, a deed for which they were then hunted themselves by the black militia. After a long struggle, the Klan emerged victorious having disenfranchised the blacks and taken away their arms.

leo_frank_2.jpgLeoFrank_1.jpg· Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager from Atlanta, was tried for the rape and murder of one of his female employees, Mary Phagan. The jury was intimidated by a mob which surrounded the coutroom every day for the duration of the trial, and found him guilty of all charges. Frank was convicted to life in prison, but soon after he was kidnapped by members of the mob, who called themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, and was lynched. Thomas E. Watson, a politician from Georgia, used this trial to gain support of the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and worked with William J. Simmons to organize a meeting on the top of Stone Mountain, where a new Klan was born.

Characteristics of the Ku Klux Klan:
  • Targeted blacks, Jews, immigrants, Catholics, bootleggers and divorcees.
  • Did not support Unions and the Labor Movement, which allowed upper mobility for lower class immigrants.
  • More prominent in cities than in rural areas where the old Klan had dominated.
  • Mostly white middle class citizens who opposed immigrants who competed for their jobs
  • Established the symbol of the burning cross for intimidation; this was not used by the earlier Klan, as is common misconception attributed to films such as “The Birth of a Nation”
  • Led movements for prohibition, better public schools, expanded road construction, women’s rights, and other progressive reforms.
The Official Purpose of the Ku Klux Klan as Stated in its Manual Written in 1925:
"To unite white male persons, native-born, Gentile citizens of the United States of America, who owe no allegiance of any nature or degree to any foreign government, nation, institution, sect, ruler, person, or people; whose morals are good; whose reputations and vocations are respectable; whose habits are exemplary; who are of sound minds and eighteen years or more of age, under a common oath into a brotherhood of strict regulations."

stephenson_mugg_shot.jpgDavid Curtis Stephenson was The Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan, which had gained over 250,000 members as a result of his skilled oratory. Stephenson at one point during his political career stated, “I am the law in Indiana.” His speeches promoting prohibition and womanhood created a great appeal to new members, even though in his private life he was a heavy drinker and had little respect for women. At the inaugural ball for Governor Ed Jackson, he met Madge Oberholtzer, and later abducted her and sexually assaulted her. Madge Oberholtzer died a month later, and Stephenson was tried and found guilty for both kidnapping and assualt. He had hoped that Governor Jackson would be able to pardon him, but Jackson refused, and Stephenson remained in jail. David Curtis Stephenson then retaliated by betraying the identities of every major political figure who had supported him in his rise to the title of “Grand Dragon”. But eventually, his imprisonment led to the downfall of the Klan in Indiana, and it was virtually non-existent by 1930.

Racism/Race Riots:
"Jim Crow Corners":external image 90000968.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=77BFBA49EF878921CC759DF4EBAC47D064DAEAE1B3382D89F6E41F5D12705DD9CC209AF26420FED0
Black War Veterans who were returning home were surprised and outraged by the increased segregation. Wilson, who had run on a platform of “New Freedom”, now established “Jim Crow Corners” in previously integrated federal buildings such as post offices and the treasury. These “Jim Crow Corners” established “colored only” washrooms and lunch rooms.

Night Riders in the South:
In 1920 a group that called themselves the Night Riders left notes to farmers telling them not to produce or sell any more cotton. They would leave a box of matches behind on their porches to make their message was clear: should the farmers disobey their orders, the night riders would burn the farms down. The Riders did this so that cotton would not be produced until the price was raised to 40 cents per pound. Farmers had grown their cotton and paid expenses that year on the promise of the 40 cent price, but prices were not rising. The Night Riders declared this to be unjust, and thus tried to force the prices up with a “strike” of their own. Many blacks in the South blamed the Klan for this because it hurt the black community economically, and the Night Riders dressed very similarly to the Klan members. The Imperial Wizard, William J. Simmons, denied any connection and declared it the KKK’s mission to stop these Night Riders. This incident only increased racial division in the South.

“The Red Summer”:
external image event_omaha_courthouse_lynching.jpgDuring the summer of 1919, over 20 riots took place, the largest being in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Omaha, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Charleston, South Carolina. The Washington riot was the most significant and historically ground-breaking of any of the riots. Washington newspapers had published headlines during the month of July about sex crimes against white women committed by an unknown black perpetrator. The NAACP appealed directly to the papers to stop the printing of the articles because they were likely to begin violent race riots. Within a couple of days of their appeal, a riot began. 400 whites began rioting against blacks in Washington for the crimes committed by the so-called “Negro Fiend”. At first there was very little black resistance, but when police came to break it up, they arrested more blacks than whites. The violence didn’t stop then, however, but it continued for four days, and resulted in the death of 9 people from street beatings and the death of 30 others from fatal wounds. During the four day riot, over 150 people were clubbed, beaten, or shot by mobs of both races. This particular riot is significant because never before had there been such a large retaliatory group of armed blacks. This foreshadowed events to come in the Civil Rights Movement.

The Tulsa Riot:
The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 has been called "one of the most vicious and intense race riots in American history,” and it was all started by one woman: Sarah Page. Sarah Page reported that while she was in an elevator in the Drexel Building in Tulsa, Oklahoma she was assaulted by a 19-year-old black man named Dick Rowland. Nobody questioned the accusation, and the story was published by the Tulsa Tribune on June 1st, the following day. After the article was published there was widespread talk among the whites of lynching Rowland that night. The colored community, fearing for Rowland’s safety, went to the jail 75 strong armed and ready to fight off a white mob. The Sheriff came to the jail and told the crowd that Rowland would be safe and protected. Just as the blacks were about to leave, a white man tried to disarm one of them, and a shot was fired. After this, as the Sheriff later reported, “All hell broke loose.” The fighting continued until midnight when the blacks were forced back to their section of town. Twelve men were found to be dead, ten white, two black. The next day, a mob of 10,000 whites attacked the colored community using bombs, machines guns, and even airplanes. The mob brought in oil and set aflame the houses of the black community, while the blacks fought in vain for their survival. After the riot subsided, the death toll was 50 whites and 150 to 200 blacks. It was later found that Rowland was completely innocent; he had actually stepped on Sarah Page’s foot by mistake. Nobody considered why he would assault her in a public elevator in a public building within calling distance of many other white people, but instead they turned straight to violence.

Connections to Today:

Today the KKK is not composed of one group with one leader, but rather it is composed of various groups that function independently. There are estimated to be about 180 chapters consisting in a total of 5,000 members. Two thirds of these chapters are located in the South, and the other third is mainly in the Mid-West. The figures are not exact because the division of the group in recent years has made its activity much harder to track. Their main means of influence today have shifted from using their own power to utilizing the power of the US courts. They have tried to influence many juries on their decisions no longer regarding racial issues, but more frequently immigration issues and same-sex marriage.

Racism did not end with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s, but it still continues today. Racial profiling is prominent in America, and is mostly directed towards Blacks, Latinos, and those of Middle Eastern descent. To fight the “War on Drugs” police officers often pull over people on highways whom they suspect of transporting illegal drugs. They tend to pull over more African Americans and Latinos than Whites, but statistics show that 17% of the whites they searched had drugs, while in relation only 8% of African Americans had drugs, and Latinos even fewer than that. The US Customs Service did a study and found that when police stopped profiling based on race and started profiling based on behavior, the amount of illegal drugs which they intercepted increased by more than 300%.