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The Black Experience in America By Norman Coombs Characters: 41073

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Racism and Democracy

Fighting Jim Crow

RAYFORD W. LOGAN, in his book The Betrayal of the Negro described the turn of the century as the low point in Afro-American history. After Emancipation, he contended, the hopes of the Negroes were betrayed. Again they were pushed down into second-class status. It appeared that democracy was for whites only. Actually, the increasing growth of racism and of segregation as well, led inevitably to the development of opposition groups bent on destroying this discrimination. Segregation promoted the creation of Negro institutions which then became the center for this counterattack.

The most prominent of these Afro-American institutions was the Negro church. Like the white church, it was fragmented into many separate denominations. There was the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, the National Baptists, and a host of denominational organizations.

However, integrated congregations within the mainly white church groups were almost nonexistent. Those blacks who did belong to such white denominations usually attended all-black congregations within the larger institutional structure. Negro colleges also sprang up throughout the South as well as an occasional one in the North. These included such well-known schools as Howard, Hampton, Tuskegee, and Fisk. The churches and colleges became training grounds for a growing middle-class and for future community leaders. Each in its own way provided a debating center in which racial problems closing in from all sides were considered.

As Negroes were frequently denied employment by whites, they began to develop businesses of their own. Because their capital was almost always small, their task was made more difficult. White-owned banks hesitated to lend money to Negroes, forcing them into developing banks of their own. By 1900 blacks had founded four banks which appealed mainly to a Negro clientele. They had a combined capital of more than $90,000. White-owned insurance companies often refused to sell insurance policies to Negroes. Standardized mortality charts showed that Negroes died at an earlier age than whites. When insurance companies did accept them as clients, they were charged higher rates than were whites. During the nineteenth century, various Negro secret societies attempted to develop insurance programs for their members. In 1898 the National Benefit Insurance Company was opened in Washington. Owned by blacks, it deliberately sought out Negro patronage. In the same year, the Mutual Benefit Insurance Company was opened in North Carolina along similar lines.

White undertakers and beauticians were reluctant to cater to Negro customers. Aside from their personal tastes, they feared that it would alienate their white patrons. A similar situation held true for dentists and doctors. This forced the Afro-American community to develop its own professionals. By 1900, Negroes had invested half a million dollars in undertaking establishments. That same year, the Afro-American community had produced 1,700 physicians, 212 dentists, 728 lawyers, 310 journalists, an several thousand college, secondary, and elementary school teachers.

Other Negro professionals, finding themselves excluded from existing official affiliations formed their own professional fraternity in 1904. Two years later, the first Greek letter society for Negroes was established to help its members in coping with the effects of social discrimination on largely white college campuses. In 1915, Carter G. Woodson established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and began publication of the Journal of Negro History.

In 1905, W. E. B. DuBois, John Hope, Monroe Trotter, Kelly Miller, and other outspoken young Negro intellectuals met in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and founded the "Niagara Movement." Unlike the other black institutions mentioned above, the "Niagara Movement" was primarily political in its objectives. On the one hand, it strove to seize the leadership of the Afro-American community, taking it away from the more conciliatory emphasis of Booker T. Washington. On the other hand, they wanted a platform from which to condemn, loudly and clearly, the white prejudice they found all about them.

The organization deliberately tried to resurrect the spirit of the angry abolitionists immediately preceding the Civil War. The meeting places of their three conventions were chosen for their symbolic value. Niagara Falls was the terminal on the underground railway, the point at which runaways had reached freedom. Harpers Ferry had been the site of John Brown's violent assault on slavery, and Oberlin, Ohio, had been well known as a center of abolitionist activity.

The growth of racism at the turn of the century, besides encouraging the development of Negro institutions, revived the interests of some whites in fighting for racial justice. Whites were particularly upset by racially motivated acts of violence. Lynchings reached a high point in American history at this time. Between 1900 and 1910, there were 846 lynchings, in which 92 victims were white and 754 Negro. Northern whites were especially perturbed as racial violence began to move into the North. Previously they had viewed it as a Southern white man's problem. When a vicious race riot occurred in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, this illusion was shattered. William English Walling, the journalist, was shocked and wrote an impassioned article, "Race War in the North," which was published in The Independent.

Walling's article, which was based on his visit to Springfield, brought several collaborators to his side. In it, he contended that Southern racists were bringing the race war into the North and that the only alternative was to revive the spirit of abolitionism and to fight for racial equality. The following year a group of concerned individuals, black and white, met in New York City and their meeting resulted in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Those attending this meeting, besides Walling, included Oswald Garrison Villard, the grandson of William Lloyd Garrison. Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago, John Dewey, the philosopher, William Dean Howells, the editor of Harper's magazine, Mary White Ovington, a New York social worker, and Dr. Henry Moskowitz. The Negro delegation consisted of W. E. B. DuBois and most of the other members of the Niagara Movement. At this meeting it was decided that the achievement of racial equality must be the major target of their attack. In order to achieve this goal it was decided that their immediate priorities should include the enfranchisement of Negroes and the enforcement of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The members also insisted that it was time to launch a concerted attack against lynching and other kinds of mob violence.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was officially established in 1910 with Moorefield Storey as its president. W. E. B. DuBois was the only black on its board and served as its director of publicity and research. Most blacks and whites at the time believed that the N.A.A.C.P. was irresponsible for including so many of the members of the Niagara Movement in its membership. Monroe Trotter and a few others, however, held that an interracial organization such as the N.A.A.C.P. could not be trusted to take a strong enough stand on important issues, and they refused to cooperate with it. The N.A.A.C.P. began publication of its own Journal, Crisis, which was a basic part of its informational program. Crisis was edited by W. E. B. DuBois.

The most important work of the Association was done by its legal department. Its lawyers attacked the legal devices used by some states to disenfranchise Negroes. In 1915, the Supreme Court declared, in Guinn v. United States, that the "grandfather clause" in the constitutions of both Maryland and Oklahoma was null and void because it contradicted the Fifteenth Amendment. Two years later, in Buchanan v. Warley, the court said that Louisville's ordinance requiring Negroes to live in specified sections of the city was unconstitutional. In 1923, the N.A.A.C.P. came to the defense of a Negro who, it believed, had not received a fair trial. In Moore v. Dempsey, the Supreme Court granted the defendant a new trial because the court which had convicted him of murder had exempted Negroes from serving on its Jury.

Branches of the N.A.A.C.P. spread all across the country. By 1921 there were more than 400 separate chapters, and the Association was still growing. Its membership, whether white or black, tended to be middle-class and educated. In this respect it bore a marked similarity to the National Urban League which came into existence at about the same time.

The National Urban League grew out of a concern for the employment problems of Negroes in New York City. George Edmund Haynes, a Negro graduate student at Columbia University, was researching the economic conditions of New York City Negroes. He was invited to present his findings to a Joint meeting of two city organizations which were probing the same problem. The Comittee for Improving Industrial Conditions of Negroes in New York as well as the National League for the Protection of Colored Women had been formed early in the century and were eager to base their efforts on scientific study rather than on mere sentimentality. Haynes's research was later published as The Negro at Work in New York City.

This meeting resulted in the establishing of the Urban League which has been concerned primarily with finding employment for Negroes and aiding them in acquiring improved job skills. Haynes and Eugene Kinckle Jones were its executive directors. One of its sponsors was Booker T. Washington, who was more sympathetic with its orientation than he had been with either the Niagara Movement or the N.A.A.C.P., both of which were more political and aggressive. The philanthropist Julius Rosenwald gave the League substantial financial aid. The Urban League soon spread into other major cities and gained increasing importance as ever-growing numbers of Negroes migrated into Northern urban areas and needed assistance in making the adjustment. Negro churches and colleges, along with interracial organizations, began to establish the foundation for the long hard struggle for racial equality which lay ahead.

Making the World Safe for Democracy

While Negroes and some whites were engaged in trying to put American ideals into practice within the country, others were reaching out to spread American democracy to more "underprivileged" peoples. American society had always contained a missionary dynamic. The Puritan Fathers came to America to escape religious oppression and to establish what they believed would be the Kingdom of God. While it appeared that all they wanted was space in which to be left alone, their conviction that they were building God's Kingdom implied a belief that their new society would prosper and spread. If it were really the Kingdom of God, it could not be expected to remain an insignificant settlement on a distant and unimportant continent. For the next two hundred years, this missionary dynamic was absorbed in spreading across the North American continent. While the Americans did not see their expansion into the West as being imperialistic, American Indians saw it otherwise.

With the disappearance of the Western frontier, missionary-minded Americans felt compelled to carry the benefits of their civilization to backward areas of the world. At the same time, European imperialism was gaining new vitality. Businessmen were looking for new markets and for new sources of raw materials. Patriots, in their turn, believed that they were being called upon to assume the "white man's burden" and to civilize and democratize the world. Both drives seemed to coincide. The Berlin Conference in 1885 divided those parts of Africa not yet annexed among the major European nations. The point of the conference was to plan national exploits in such a way as to reduce conflicts. In the course of a very few years, the rest of Africa was colonized by these nations. Africans, of course, were given no voice in the matter. China, though it was not colonized, was also divided into spheres of economic influence. The United States was quick to join in this scramble. Its influence, however, was limited largely to Asia and Latin America.

This new imperialist expansion was not interpreted by its proponents as being exploitative. Instead, they depicted it as bringing the blessing of civilization to the "underprivileged." The concept of the "white man's burden" was particularly common in Britain and America. The prevailing idea was that the white race, especially the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic branches of it, had been especially blessed by God so that it could achieve industrialization and democratization. It further taught that it was their obligation to carry the benefits to less fortunate peoples.

This new imperialism hid its domination behind paternalism, but it still presented the imperialists as superiors and the colonials as inferiors. Moreover, because in most cases the imperialists were white and the colonials colored, it meant that this imperialist drive also carried racial connotations. The American version of the "white man's burden" was most blatantly presented by Josiah Strong in his book Our Country. According to Strong, the superior Anglo-Saxon race in America would multiply rapidly, become powerful and prosperous, and then would spread the blessings of industrialization and democracy south into Mexico and into the Caribbean Islands. At the same time, American commercial interests were searching for new markets and were making increasing investments in these very areas. The merchants were looking for new markets to exploit, but the idealist rhetoric talked only in terms of benevolent paternalism.

These trends came to a head in the Spanish-American War. Conflicts had been increasing in Cuba between the Spanish authorities in control and the local citizens. Americans became interested in several abortive uprisings which occurred on the island. The brutal way in which the Spanish had suppressed them incensed the Americans. The violence in Cuba also endangered American life and property--the result of increasing American investments. The public favored intervention, proposing that their Caribbean neighbors should also share in the benefits of democracy. They viewed the Spaniards as an antidemocratic element from the Old World blocking the road to progress in the western hemisphere.

The battleship Maine was sent to the Havana harbor ostensibly on a courtesy visit. Its real object was to protect American interests. It was mysteriously blown up, and many of its crew were killed. The cause of the explosion is still unknown. American chauvinists chose to believe that the ship had been deliberately destroyed, and they demanded retaliation. Before long, American troops were sent to "liberate" the Cubans from Spanish oppression.

Although the number of Negro troops who participated in the Spanish-American War was small, they fought heroically and contributed significantly to the American victory. The Negro participants served in segregated units. These included the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry units. In the battle of San Juan Hill, the Negro cavalry opened the way for the Rough Riders' famous charge which was led by Theodore Roosevelt. Later in the day, the 24th Infantry came up from the rear to support the action.

At the end of the war, Spain gave the United States sovereignty over Puerto Rico and, for the payment of a sum of money, the U.S. also gained the Philippines. Spain gave up her sovereignty over Cuba, but its future status was not made clear. American public opinion had become so wed to the cause of democracy in Cuba that the American government felt it could not take direct control of the island. It was deemed necessary to establish a Cuban Republic, but it was obvious that America would exercise considerable influence over it. Early in the century the Platt Amendment was passed by the U. S. Congress, and Cuba was required to include it within her own constitution. This gave the United States authority to intervene in Cuban affairs in order to maintain law and order. The U. S. also obtained Guantanamo Bay as a naval base in Cuba.

In 1916 American marines landed in Santo Domingo to restore law and order there in the wake of a series of local uprisings. Again, Americans wanted to protect their business interests in the island. The American presence, however, only contributed to the total collapse of civil government, and the marines were not withdrawn until 1924. American commercial influence continued and grew even after the soldiers left. Similarly, America intervened in the internal affairs of Haiti. It began with the assumption of financial control of the Haitian government to help it achieve stability and, at the same time, to secure American investments. In an attempt to maintain law and order, American intervention spread to include taking control of the country's police force. In 1917, the U. S. established military rule in Haiti and this was not appreciated by the local citizens. The marines were compelled to shoot some two thousand Haitians in the process of restoring peace. The troops were not finally withdrawn from Haiti until 1934.

In spreading the benefits of her civilization into the Caribbean, America acquired a colored empire which only served to complicate her own racial situation. Blacks, however, played an important role in the acquisition of this territory. American ministers to Haiti were usually Negroes, and Negro soldiers played a significant part in the Spanish-American War. In their attempts to demonstrate their loyalty and patriotism, American Negroes unwittingly helped to bring more colored peoples under the sway of American racism.

America's real involvement in world politics occurred with her entrance into the First World War. The British and French had sought to give the war an ideological flavor in order both to stir up the patriotism of their own citizens and also to draw in support from other nations, especially the United States. The war was portrayed as a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. When America joined the conflict, President Wilson emphasized even further this posture of idealism. Americans viewed the war as the last war--the war which would make the world "safe for democracy."

The Afro-American community remained oblivious to the hostilities in Europe and was late in becoming aware of the imminence of war. Negroes were preoccupied with the racial harassments confronting them at home and seldom looked beyond the country's borders. Once America became involved in the fighting, however, they were eager to demonstrate that they were patriotic and loyal citizens. Even W. E. B. DuBois, who was as hostile and angry as any, came to support the war effort. In an article which he wrote in Crisis, he called for his brothers to close ranks with the rest of American society and to present a solid front against the enemy. This patriotic solidarity came in spite of the fact that segregation was creeping into the Federal Government itself. President Taft, who had tried to broaden the base of the Republican Party in the South, had made some feeble beginnings at instituting segregation in federal facilities in Washington. In 1913, Wilson the first Southern Democratic president since the Civil War, vastly expanded the process. The N.A.A.C.P. expressed shock at Jim Crowism becoming an official part of the government in the nation's capital. At the same time, the Civil Service required job applicants to file their photographs with their applications. The N.A.A.C.P. charged that this was part of the spread of discriminatory practices in Washington, but the Civil Service denied it.

When America declared war against Germany in April, 1917, only a few Negroes were members of the standing army. However, many immediately rushed to enlist, but only a few were accepted. Local enlistment officers were dubious about the ability and the loyalty of Negroes. Apparently their previous service record had been forgotten, When Congres

s passed the Selective Service Act in May, it was made to apply to all citizens alike. During the course of the war, some 367,000 Negroes were called into military service. This was 31 percent of those who had registered. Meanwhile, only 26 percent of the white registrants were called. Once the Selective Service Act went into effect, discrimination had the reverse effect from what it had produced before, Instead of keeping Negroes out of the Army, some Selective Service Boards discriminated against them in terms of the exemptions which were permitted. Throughout the war, the Navy only accepted Negroes in menial jobs, and the Marine Corps barred them altogether.

Training the Negro troops presented another problem. No community welcomed an influx of hundreds or thousands of young Negro men. The South, especially, was outraged when large numbers of "cocky" Negroes from the North descended upon some sleepy, peaceful town. Segregation and discrimination within the military itself caused further irritations and triggered violence at more than one camp. The 92nd, an all-Negro outfit, was trained at seven separate locations, and it was the only American unit never to come together before reaching the front. The 93rd, another all-Negro unit, was never consolidated. When it reached France, it served with various units of the French Army. It had been sent overseas hastily, and its troops received most of their training in Europe. Its men had largely been recruited from New York State, and they were sent to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for their training. The local citizens deliberately picked a fight with the men in order to "put them in their place." A riot was narrowly averted. When they were shipped back north for training, they found themselves sharing a camp with white troops from the South. Another incident almost occurred, and they were immediately sent overseas for training.

Besides serving in segregated units, most of the Negro troops were assigned to menial tasks. One third of the American stevedore force in Europe was Negro. Nevertheless, many of them did become involved in the fighting and distinguished themselves heroically. Besides receiving American awards, they were generously honored by the French. The 369th was the first American unit to reach the Rhine, and the French praised it highly.

Many of the Negro soldiers were surprised by the hospitality which they received in France. Several stayed behind, after the war, to study in European universities. In spite of the fact that many whites warned the French of dangers involved with associating with Negroes, especially white women with Negro men, the French were happy to have them share in the defense. Many invited them into their homes. In the meantime, rumors spread in America that Negro troops were taking unwise liberties with French women. It was also said that the crime of rape was widespread. Americans worried about what would happen when these men returned home. The rumors were so insistent that, finally, the government sent Dr. Moton, the president of Tuskegee Institute, to Europe to investigate the situation. He found that the rumors were totally unwarranted.

When the victors met at Versailles to write the treaty which ended the war, black people around the world, including Afro-Americans, hoped that they would take up the problem of the African peoples as well. The only consideration which was given to Africa, however, was the disposal of the German colonies. These were distributed among the victors. This did nothing to give Africa back to the Africans; it only changed the identity of the European masters. W. E. B. DuBois, who was looking for a way to spotlight the problem of the African peoples, called a Pan-African Congress to meet in Paris simultaneously with the meeting in Versailles. Fifty-seven delegates came, of which most were from Africa and America. While they had no authority and could do little of significance, the Congress did dramatize to the world the plight of the subject peoples of Africa.

Urban Riots

In spite of the fact that Negroes were fighting overseas to defend their country, racial tensions continued at home. In the years immediately preceding the war, racially motivated lynchings and riots, which had been largely confined to the South, began to spread into the North and Midwest.

In Statesboro, Georgia, two blacks, who had been accused and convicted of murder, were seized from the courtroom by an angry mob. After beating and burning them, the mob went on to loot and burn Negro-owned homes in the community. In 1906, a white mob raged out of control for several days in Atlanta, Georgia. In the same year, the 25th Infantry in Brownsville, Texas, became involved in a riot with the white citizens of that town, and Roosevelt dismissed the whole battalion without honor. In 1904, a riot occurred in Springfield, Ohio, much farther north than anyone would have expected. A Negro, who had been charged with killing a white police officer, was seized from jail by an angry mob. After hanging him from a telephone pole, the mob riddled his body with bullets, Then, they went on to destroy large sections of the Negro part of town.

In 1808 Springfield, Illinois, was the scene of the famous riot which helped to motivate the founding of the N.A.A.C.P. There, a white woman claimed to have been raped by a Negro. Although she admitted that she had, in fact, been assaulted by a white man, the angry mob was only further enraged. It ran out of control for several days, and the state's militia was called in to restore order. Besides looting and burning, the mob boldly and deliberately lynched two of the city's responsible Negro citizens. The leaders of the mob, as usual, went unpunished.

Although DuBois had urged the Negroes to close ranks with white America during the war, white racists did not reciprocate. An even worse race riot occurred in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917. The white community was afraid that a mass influx of Negroes from the South was about to occur. On one hand, Illinois Democrats played on racial prejudice to further their political interests. They accused Republicans of intending to colonize large numbers of Negroes from the South in order to enlarge the Republican vote.

On the other hand, labor unions feared that Negroes would be imported as strike breakers. During an attempt to organize a union at the Aluminum Ore Company which led to a strike in April 1917 this atmosphere increased racial tensions. In 1913, the company had hired no Negro workers at all. By 1916, there were two hundred Afro-American employees. Within three months at the end of 1916 and the beginning of 1917, the company fired some two hundred whites while, at the same time, hiring approximately the same number of Negroes. The city had been totally segregated, and the white citizens intended to keep it that way. The school system had been segregated in spite of a state law of 1874 which forbade segregation in education. Jim Crow was also standard in theaters, restaurants, and hotels in opposition to the 1885 law that had outlawed segregation in public accommodations. Local citizens were afraid that the rumored influx of Negroes would drastically alter the situation. Later investigation showed that the size of the migration had been vastly exaggerated.

Tension surrounding the racial and labor conflict in East St. Louis exploded into a minor riot in May. A Negro had accidentally wounded a white man during a liquor-store holdup but the story that was circulated was that an innocent young white girl had been shot and killed. The white community, especially the striking workers, became an enraged mob which roamed the streets beating any Negroes it could find. The mob also burned Negro-owned stores and homes. The next day the National Guard arrived and, with the help of the police, searched the Negro community for weapons. In spite of the fact that the mob had been white, it was the Negroes who were disarmed and arrested. East St. Louis became filled with rumors that the Negroes were preparing for revenge.

Late in the evening of July 1, a Ford sedan raced through the Negro section of East St. Louis shooting at doors and windows as it passed. The police heard that Negroes were on a shooting rampage, and they sent a car to investigate. They came in another Ford sedan, and most of the officers were wearing civilian dress. In the meantime, the Negro citizens had prepared for the return of the first car. As the police entered the poorly lit street, they were met by a barrage of bullets. Almost all the officers were either killed or wounded. The white community was outraged at what it believed to be an unprovoked attack, and it wanted revenge.

Although the Guard was called again, the riot lasted for several days. At one point, the white mob set a row of shacks on fire and waited in ambush until its residents were forced to flee the flames. Then, they took great delight in coldly and deliberately shooting them down as they fled. It was reported that some of those who were shot were thrown back into the burning buildings, and others were thrown into the river. Two children, between one and two years old, were found shot through the head. At times, the mob would not let ambulances take away the wounded and dying. For the most part, the Guard and the police stood by. According to some reports, they occasionally participated themselves.

According to official reports thirty-nine Negroes and two whites had been killed, but the police contended that, because so many bodies had been burned, thrown in the river, or buried in mass graves, the figure was really much larger. They estimated the number of dead at a hundred, and the grand jury accepted their calculation. It was also estimated that as many as 750 had been wounded. The Guard held an investigation of the riot, and it exonerated the behavior of its soldiers. However, a Congressional investigation later accused the Guard's colonel of cowardice, and it said that the Guard had exhibited extreme inefficiency. The Washington Evening Mail carried a cartoon which depicted Wilson standing before a group of Negroes reading an official document proclaiming that the world should be made safe for democracy. The caption over the cartoon read "Why not make America safe?"

When the Negro soldiers returned home from Europe, they brought new experiences and changed attitudes with them. As soldiers, they had been taught to stand up and fight like men. In Europe, they had been treated more like men than ever before. The attitude of submissiveness which had been stamped on the Afro-American community by its slave mentality and which had been reinforced by the philosophy of Booker T. Washington was undermined by this new sense of manhood. When a wave of two dozen riots swept America in the summer of 1919, Negroes fought back as they had not done in East St. Louis. Riots occurred in places as diverse as Longview, Texas, Washington, D.C., Omaha, Nebraska, and Chicago, Illinois.

The worst riot of that bloody summer occurred in Chicago. It began when a young Negro boy, swimming in Lake Michigan, crossed into a section of the water which had been traditionally reserved for whites. White youths began throwing stones at him, and he drowned. A later investigation showed that he had not been hit by any of these rocks. Nevertheless, this incident triggered the tense racial situation in Chicago into an explosion. Fighting broke out all over the city. Whites pulled Negroes from streetcars and beat them openly. The fighting raged for thirteen days. At least thirty-eight people were killed. Fifteen of these were white, and twenty-three were Negro. Also, some five hundred people were injured of which the majority were Negro. Many houses were burned, and it was estimated that one thousand families were left homeless.

The Klan Revival

While the nation went to war to make the world safe for democracy, many at home believed that it was still necessary to make America safe first. These people fell into two groups. There were those within the Afro-American community who felt that a country which systematically disenfranchised a large minority group and which also tolerated widespread discrimination, segregation, and violence against that minority was not a secure democratic state. At the same time, those who were responsible for much of this harassment and terror believed that violence was necessary precisely in order to protect democracy. They believed that true democracy sprang from the virtue of a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant civilization, and they wanted to protect it against alien subversion.

One of the main "protectors" of white American civilization was the Ku Klux Klan. The original Klan had thrived in the deep South immediately after the Civil War. In 1915, it underwent a revival. Inspired by the migration of Afro-Americans from the South into the North and West as well as by the gigantic immigration of South and East Europeans, the Klan, beginning in Georgia, rapidly spread beyond the South into a national movement. Confidently believing in the superiority of its own democratic way of life, America had thrown open its doors to the hungry and oppressed of Europe. American society took pride in being the world's great melting pot. However, many old-stock Americans did not view their society as being a cultural amalgam, and they expected that the new European immigrants, as well as the Afro-Americans, would want to be assimilated into their society as it already existed. When they promised the newcomers freedom and equality, many of these Americans were offering these benefits expecting that the immigrants would adjust and conform. They did not believe that the values and life style of foreigners were equal to their own, and therefore they did not want to grant the outsiders the freedom to "pollute" American society with alien cultures. When it became evident that American Negroes as well as many of these new immigrants were not able to be absorbed into white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant America as easily as had been expected, many ardent patriots became panic-stricken over the future of the American way of life. This sense of terror drove them to take extreme action in its defense.

The invisible empire of the Ku Klux Klan was the most militant and best organized of several defenders of this kind of American patriotism. It built its power on a series of appeals which had deep roots throughout American life. During the 1920s, anti-Semitism was widespread, and many respectable hotels and clubs were closed to Jews. Discrimination against foreign-born Americans was prevalent. Many patriotic and artistic societies were exclusively for native-born Americans. Discrimination against Afro-Americans was a national phenomenon, but in the South it was an orthodox social and political creed.

The revival of the Klan in 1915 was closely associated with the release of the famous motion picture, The Birth of a Nation. D. W. Griffith based his movie on material taken from two novels by Thomas Dixon: The Leopard's Spots and The Klansman. At first Birth of a Nation was censored in some cities in the North and West for being inflammatory because of its racial attitudes. This angered many who claimed that it was, in fact, a truthful account of the Klan. Concerned by the official opposition to the movie, Dixon contacted an old college friend who was then occupying the White House. President Woodrow Wilson consented to a special White House showing of the picture. After the White House showing, opposition throughout the North and West disintegrated, and the movie went on to become a gigantic success. It grossed eighteen million dollars. While much of this success was undoubtedly due to its appeal to common underlying racial prejudice in the American character, it must also be admitted that much of the popularity was due to the fact that it was the first full-length successful movie and that it had much entertainment value.

Colonel William J. Simmons chose the opening of the movie in Atlanta, Georgia, as the time to launch his Klan revival. His father had been a member of the original Klan. When the revival began in 1915, the Klan was primarily a fraternal, Caucasian-supremacy organization without the violence normally associated with it. But when Simmons later decided to develop it into a larger organization, he found it necessary to adopt more aggressive tactics.

At one meeting, Simmons dramatically portrayed the dynamic, hostile note that helped the organization to spread and appeal to the fears and the hatreds of people throughout the country. In the middle of a speech, he first drew a gun from one pocket and laid it on the table before him. Then, he pulled a second gun from another pocket and placed it beside the first one. Opening his jacket, he unfastened a cartridge belt and draped it ostentatiously across the table. Finally, he reached into still another pocket, pulled out a knife and plunged it into the wood between the two guns. With this flamboyant gesture, he issued a challenge to all "niggers," Catholics, Jews, and all others. He warned them that his organization and its supporters were ready to meet them and would protect themselves and the American way of life from any kind of corruption. While the Klan is normally thought of as being an anti-Negro institution, the other major themes on which it built in the 1920s were opposition to Catholicism, dope, bootlegging, gambling, roadhouses and loose sexual behavior.

For the Klan, the end justified the means. Defending the values of American society was to them so important as to condone the use of violence and murder. By 1921, Klan membership had soared to 100,000 but its real growth had only just begun, As it came under public attack, its popularity increased. Newspapers and Congressmen charged that the Klan had violated the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Thirteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The House Rules Comittee held hearings on the Klan. However, the comittee chairman found that he lost the next election. Newspapers attacked the Klan in lurid headlines which, although they helped to sell copy, only succeeded in making the Klan more attractive to potential members. By 1923 Klan membership was estimated between two and three million.

When it was at its zenith, the Klan used violence, intimidation, and parades to make its presence known in the community. Its members were prominent on police forces, sheriff departments, and various other local branches of government. In the early 1920s, Klan support was responsible for electing a handful of senators and several Congressmen. Finally, in 1924, an attempt was made to capture both political parties on the national level. Failing to get its nominee chosen as Vice President on the Republican ticket, the Klan swung its full attention to the Democratic convention in Madison Square Garden in New York. Anti-Klan forces at the convention were also strong. The convention leadership made the attempt to keep the issue in the background, but a minority report on the platform resulted in forcing the convention to condemn the Klan by name. The convention was split in two. As a result, it took the party nine days and one hundred and twenty-three ballots before it was successful in choosing its national candidates. In the following year, the Klan again tried to make its presence felt on the national scene. It held a march of its members in Washington. Forty thousand robed and hooded Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in a display of strength while thousands more cheered and watched.

The violence which, for a short time, had helped the Klan to grow, would eventually contribute to its decline. It appealed to public animosity against Catholics, Jews, and Negroes, but its own vitriolic crusade swung segments of that same public opinion in favor of its victims. The Klan revival was particularly disheartening to Negroes, who had assumed that the Klan was dead. While slavery was gone, brutality and intimidation remained. Half a century after the demise of the original Klan, it had risen again and, this time, had become a nationwide phenomenon. Jim Crow was the law in the South, and racism had become rampant in the North. Slavery had been abolished, but Negroes were aware that they still were not free.

PART THREE The Search For Equality

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