URBAN VS. RURAL: THE GREAT DIVIDE OF THE 1920s
As stated previously, the 1920s was the decade that the United States, population-wise, became an urban country. Tremendous resentment existed in rural and small-town America against the growing urban mindset that was increasingly permeating America, Many citizens who did not live in America’s cities felt that the values associated with urban life needed to be opposed. From these sentiments came many of the great cultural battles that were at the center of American life in the 1920s.
Many in the North and the South shared resentment against black Americans in the years immediately after World War I. A number of blacks had come North during the war to take factory jobs in urban centers; now that the war was over, many Northerners saw them as competitors for prime industrial employment. In 1919 large race riots took place in Washington, DC, and in many other Northern cities; anti-black riots in Chicago lasted nearly two weeks. Press reports of these riots oftentimes noted the participation of white veterans.
During the postwar years violence against blacks intensified in the South as well. Lynchings increased dramatically in the postwar years; over 70 blacks were lynched in 1919 alone. The response by some blacks was to think of leaving the United States altogether; beginning in 1920 sign-ups began for the Universal Negro Improvement Association, headed by Marcus Garvey. Garvey called on blacks to come with him to Africa to create a new empire (with him on the throne). By 1925 nearly half a million people had expressed interest in Garvey’s scheme. In the end the Garvey program was a failure, since few blacks actually went to Africa, and many of those that did go ended up returning to the United States. Garvey was later arrested and jailed for fraud, but the fact that his plan attracted so many black supporters demonstrated the plight of black Americans.
The Ku Klux Klan grew tremendously during the early 1920s; by 1925 the Klan’s membership was over 5 million. Unlike the Klan of the Reconstruction era, membership in the Klan was not entirely from the South, although it was almost entirely from rural and small-town America (Indiana was a huge hotbed of Klan activity in the 1920s). Blacks continued to be a target of the Klan, as were other groups who appeared to be “enemies” of the rural way of life, such as Catholics and immigrants. The Klan had tremendous political power in several states, although terror tactics such as lynchings and cross burnings remained a dominant part of Klan activity.
The Klan began to lose its popularity in 1925 with revelations of scandals involving Klan members, including the murder conviction of the leader of the Klan in Indiana. Many historians see the popularity of the Klan in the 1920s as a symbol of the intolerance prominent in much of American society; several see it as an American version of totalitarianism, which took control in Germany, the Soviet Union, and Italy during this period.
Many Americans in the years following World War I were also terrified of Bolshevism. America, to no avail, gave military aid and actual manpower to forces attempting to overthrow Lenin and Bolsheviks in the years immediately following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Much about Bolshevism (soon to he called communism) was in opposition to mainstream American thought. Communism taught that capitalism was evil, and that worker’s revolutions would soon break out in highly industrialized countries like the United States. As a result, a Red Scare developed in America in 1919. Many historians maintain that Americans were not just opposed to the ideas of communism, but that many Americans began to see everything wrong in American society as a creation of the “Reds.”
Beginning in November of 1919 Attorney General Mitchell Palmer carried out raids on the homes and places of employment of suspected radicals. As a result of the Palmer Raids. Thousands of Americans were arrested, in many cases for no other crime than the fact that they were not born in the United States. Hundreds of former immigrants were sent back to their countries of origin, even though it was never proven (or even in most cases even charged) that they were political radicals. The Red Scare demonstrated the nativism present in American during the period. This was also one of the worst examples in American history of the trampling of the constitutional rights of American citizens.
Nativism probably also accounts for the results of the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. Both were Italian immigrants, and were charged with the murdering of two employees of a shoe company in Massachusetts in 1920. Although there was little evidence against them, they were convicted and finally executed in 1927.
American nativism also was displayed in immigration legislation that was passed in the early 1920s. Many in small-town America blamed the problems of America on the continued inflow of immigrants to the country; pseudoscientific texts published in the first part of the decade claimed that the white Americans were naturally superior to Southern and Eastern Europeans as well as blacks, but warned that these groups had to be carefully controlled to prevent them from attempting to dominate the country.
The Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which limited immigration to 3 percent of the number of persons each country had living in the United States in 1910. This act limited the immigration of Eastern and Southern Europeans, and cut immigration in 1922 to roughly 40 percent of its 1921 totals. A real blow to immigration was the National Origins Act of 1924. This legislation took that number of immigrants from each foreign country living in the United States in 1890, and stated that immigration to the United States from these countries could now be no more than 2 percent of that; the bill also stated that no more than 150,000 new immigrants could come from outside the Western Hemisphere. In addition, all immigration from Asia was halted. The intent and the effect of this legislation was obvious. Immigration from countries such as Italy and Poland was virtually halted.
Another area where urban and rural/small town interests clashed was over the issue of Prohibition. Statistics from 1924 stated that in Kansas 95 percent of citizens were obeying the Prohibition law, while in New York state the number obeying was close to 5 percent. For many small-town observers, alcohol, immigrants, and urban life were viewed together as one giant evil. Many small-town preachers spoke of alcohol as an “instrument of the devil” and were outraged that the law was not enforced in places like New York City.
However, the enforcement of Prohibition in a city like New York would have been virtually impossible. Neither the citizenry nor elected officials favored enforcement (it was reported that Warren Harding had a large collection of bootlegged alcohol that he served to guests). Speakeasies were frequented by police officers and city officials in many locations; “bathtub gin,” some of it good and some of it absolutely atrocious, was also consumed by thousands eager for some form of alcohol during the Prohibition era. Bootlegging of alcohol allowed many famous gangsters of the 1930s to get their feet wet in the world of organized crime; Al Capone in Chicago became the king of the bootleggers, with judges, newspapers, and elected government officials all eventually under his control.
The final area where urban and rural/small-town mind-sets drastically differed was over religion and evolution. Many in small-town America felt vaguely threatened by the changes that science had brought about, and clung to the literal interpretation of the Bible as a defense. William Jennings Bryan and others led the charge against the teachings of Darwin in the postwar years. In 1925, Bryan assisted a group in Tennessee in drafting a bill that would outlaw the teaching of evolution in the state. The American Civil Liberties Union offered to assist any teacher who would challenge this law, and John Scopes of Dayton, Tennessee, volunteered. For several weeks in 1925, the Scopes Trial (or “monkey trial”) riveted the nation.
One of America’s finest lawyers, Clarence Darrow, assisted Scopes, while Bryan was retained to work with prosecutors who wanted to convict Scopes. Scopes was found guilty and fined (this was later overturned on a technicality), hut the real drama of the trial was when Darrow questioned Bryan, who took the stand as an “expert on the Bible,” Bryan seriously discredited the entire cause of creationism when he admitted on the stand that he personally did not take every fact found in the Bible literally.