Tag Archives: nationalism

“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.

and

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 “100 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 “100 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.”

Notes

[1] United States House of Representatives, “Historical Highlights: The Immigration Act of 1924,” History, Art & Archives, https://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1901-1950/The-Immigration-Act-of-1924/.
[2]  American Social History Project at City University of New York and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University “Who Was Shut Out? Immigration Quotas, 1925-1927,” History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/expansion.html.
[3] James Madison, “Flappers and Klansmen Challenge Traditions: The 1920s,” in Hoosiers (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press and Indiana Historical Society Press, 2014), 234-253; James Madison, “Who’s an American? The Rise and Fall of the Klan in the Midwest,” Plenary Address, Fifth Annual Midwestern History Conference, Grand Valley State University, May 31, 2019. In his 2019 address, Madison clearly stated that the 1920s Klan was a mainstream movement at the center, not margins, of the nation’s history.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7]PBS, “Eugenics Movement Reaches Its Height,” A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/dh23eu.html.
[8] Indiana Historical Bureau, “1907 Indiana Eugenics Law,” State Historical Marker Text and Notes, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/524.htm. The pseudo-science of eugenics led to mass sterilization in Indiana and elsewhere before it was determined to be a violation of human rights by state and federal courts [
[9] University of Missouri, “Harry Laughlin: Workhorse of the American Eugenics Movement,” Controlling Heredity: The American Eugenics Crusade: 1870-1940, University of Missouri Special Collections and Rare Books, https://library.missouri.edu/exhibits/eugenics/laughlin.htm; Andrea Den Hoed, “The Forgotten Lessons of the American Eugenics Movement,” New Yorker, April 27, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-forgotten-lessons-of-the-american-eugenics-movement.
Laughlin’s influence was lasting. He later praised Hitler for understanding that the “central mission of all politics is race hygiene.” The Reichstag modeled their eugenics laws after Laughlin’s model and the American eugenicist continued to give support for the Third Reich throughout his life.
[10] American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, “Indiana Jewish History,” Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/indiana-jewish-history.
[11] Stephen A. Vincent, “History,” Roberts Settlement, http://www.robertssettlement.org/history.html.
[12] Indiana Historical Bureau, “Saint Theodora Guerin,” Indiana State Historical Marker Text and Notes, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4330.htm.
[13] Indiana Historical Bureau, “Little Syria on the Wabash,” Indiana State Historical Marker Text and Notes, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4404.htm.
[14] Madison, Plenary Address, 2019.
[15] Madison, Hoosiers, 247.
[16] Jill Weiss Simins, “Complicity in Neutrality? Samuel Ralston Denies Klan Affiliation, Hoosier State Chronicles Blog, July 17, 2018, https://blog.history.in.gov/samuel-ralston-denies-klan-affiliation/
[16] Jill Weiss Simins, “History Unfolded Part 7: Child Refugees, Hoosier Resistance,” Hoosier State Chronicles Blog, January 25, 2019, https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/tag/immigration-quotas/.
[17] Madison, Hoosiers, 253.
[18] Simins, “Complicity in Neutrality? 2018.
[19] Senate Vote #126 in 1924 (68th Congress) “To Agree to Report of Conference Committee on H.R. 7995 . . .  A Bill to Limit the Immigration of Aliens into the United States, https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/68-1/s126.
[20] House Vote #90 in 1924 (68th Congress) “To Agree to the Report of Conference Committee on H.R. 7995, to Limit the Immigration of Aliens into the United States,” https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/68-1/h90.
[21] University of Virginia, “Harding, Coolidge, and Immigration,” July 6, 2016, Miller Center, https://millercenter.org/issues-policy/us-domestic-policy/harding-coolidge-and-immigration.
[22] Jill Weiss Simins, “History Unfolded Part 7: Child Refugees, Hoosier Resistance,” Hoosier State Chronicles Blog, January 25, 2019, https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/tag/we-remember/.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Madison, Hoosiers, 238.