Was America a country of religious and racial intolerance during this period?
The black people of America and racial minorities
At the beginning of the twentieth century there was more racial prejudice and animosity towards those who were not considered 'real' Americans.
- In 1900 there were 12 million black people living in the USA and 75 per cent of them lived in the south.
- There was discrimination against them and only a few had the right to vote.
- The Jim Crow Laws [Jim Crow Laws: The names of the laws that introduced segregation in the south (the laws which kept black and white people apart). ] were the laws that introduced Segregation [Segregation: Laws separating black and white people in public places in society. ] in the south.
- The majority of black Americans were not able to profit from the flourishing economy of the 1920s and early 1930s. This was especially true in the southern states where the economy was based on agriculture and crop prices fell throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.
- Black people were always worse off than white people.
Migration to the north and west
Industrial development had created a demand for manufactured goods and jobs were created in the industrial cities of the north. As a result, black people from the south started to migrate north and west to look for work. Most of them moved to cities such as New York, Chicago and Detroit. The relationship between black and white people deteriorated as people moved into the cities of the north. Black areas developed within these cities which were called ghettos, such as Harlem in New York. This was one of the factors that sparked the increase in the membership of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
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The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s
The Ku Klux clan is a white supremastist movement that originated in the southern states of america. At times in it’s history the Ku Klux Klan has been associated with extreme violence and other examples of intolerance. The 1920’s saw members of the Ku Klux Klan being involved in extreme racially motivated violence, such as lynchings.
There were many Americans who did not like the changes that were taking place in the 1920s. Some of these people wanted to purify the USA and return it to some imaginary American ideal. They formed themselves into two groups. One was called W.A.S.P.s, which stood for White Anglo Saxon Protestant and campaigned legally to stop immigrants coming into the USA who were not white, Protestant or from Western Europe. They were able to successfully reduce immigration into the USA from Eastern Europe and China by getting Congress to pass a series of Quota Laws. The other group was called the Ku Klux Klan who physically tried to get rid of people who they considered to be a threat to the USA.
The Ku Klux Klan
Membership of the Ku Klux Klan rose to around 5 million during the 1920’s. Joseph Simmons, leader of the Klan, described the organisations views as:
“We exclude Jews because they do not believe in Christian religion. We exclude Catholics because they owe allegiance to an institution that is foreign to the Government of the United States. To assure the supremacy of the white race we believe in the exclusion of the yellow race and the disenfranchisement (Take away the right to vote) of the Negro (Black People). By some scheme of Providence (God) the Negro was created a serf (slave).” J Simmons, 1923.
The membership of the Ku Klux Klan was largest in the South of the USA. Many poor farmers and labourers thought that their wages would increase if they drove the Black people out of their state. Black people were cheaper to employ as they were forced to work for lower wages than white people.
The Klan put their beliefs into practice by terrorising those people they disliked. They used to parade through the streets where Black people lived carrying blazing torches and crosses. Flogging (whipping) and tarring and feathering were common punishments for both black people, Jews, Catholics and even white people who mixed with them! The Ku Klux Klan was a secret organisation and because many of their actions were illegal the always hid their identities. Many Policemen, Judges and politicians were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan.
When a Black man broke the law, or was even suspected, he could expect no mercy. In Georgia alone there were 135 cases of lynching (illegal hangings) in two years! In 1921 the newspaper the Washington Eagle reported the fate of a black man convicted of murdering a white girl:
“He was chained to the stump and asked if he had anything to say. Castrated, and in indescribable torture, the Negro asked for a cigarette, lit it, and blew the smoke in the face of his tormentors. The fire was lit and a hundred men and women, old and young, grandmothers among them joined hands and danced while the Negro burned. A big dance was held that evening to celebrate the burning.” Washington Eagle, 1921.
Also see our page on the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960’s
The Ku Klux Klan and Racial Problems. From the historylearningsite.