Modern history

Culture Wars

Attacks on traditional cultural and racial values did not go uncontested. During this era when technological innovations overturned traditional economic values, when modes of social behavior were in a state of flux, and when white supremacy came under assault, it is not surprising that many segments of the population resisted these changes. Rallying around ethnic and racial purity, Protestant fundamentalism, and family values, defenders of an older America attempted to roll back the tide of modernity.

Nativists versus immigrants

The 1920s experienced a surge in nativist (anti-immigrant) and racist thinking that in many ways reflected long-standing fears. The end of World War I brought a new wave of Catholic and Jewish emigration from eastern and southern Europe, triggering religious prejudice among Protestants. Just as immigrants had been linked to socialism and anarchism in the 1880s and 1890s, old-stock Americans associated these immigrants with immoral behavior and political radicalism and saw them as a threat to their traditional culture and values. Moreover, as in the late nineteenth century, native-born workers saw immigrants as a source of cheap labor that threatened their jobs and wages.

The Sacco and Vanzetti case provides the most dramatic evidence of this nativ- ism. In 1920 a botched robbery at a shoe company in South Braintree, Massachusetts, resulted in the murder of the bookkeeper and guard. Police arrested Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish peddler, and charged them with the crime. These two Italian immigrants shared radical political views as anarchists and World War I draft evaders. The subsequent trial revolved around their foreign birth and ideology more than the facts pertaining to their guilt or innocence. The presiding judge at the trial referred to the accused as “anarchistic bastards” and “damned dagos” (a derogatory term for “Italians”). Convicted and sentenced to death, Sacco and Vanzetti lost their appeals for a new trial. Criticism of the verdict came from all over the world. Workers in Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, France, and Morocco organized vigils and held rallies in solidarity with the condemned men. The American minister to Venezuela reported that “practically all the lower classes regarded them as martyrs.” Despite support from influential lawyers such as Harvard’s Felix Frankfurter, the two men were executed in the electric chair in 1927.

The Sacco and Vanzetti case provides an extreme example of 1920s nativism, but the anti-immigrant views that contributed to the two men’s conviction and execution were commonplace during the period and shared by Americans across the social spectrum. Many Americans, including Henry Ford, saw immigrants as a threat to cherished traditions. In his commitment to “One-Hundred Percent Americanism,” Ford tried to preserve traditional values. He strongly supported prohibition and denounced the frenetic sounds and sexual overtones of Jazz Age music and dancing. Ford felt that immigrants were the cause of a decline in American morality. He contended that aliens did not understand “the principles which have made our [native] civilization,” and he blamed the influx of foreigners for society’s “marked deterioration” during the 1920s. He stirred up anti-immigrant prejudices mainly by targeting Jews. Believing that an international Jewish conspiracy was attempting to subvert non-Jewish societies, Ford serialized in his company newspaper the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic tract concocted in czarist Russia to justify pogroms against Jews. Ford continued to publish it even after the document was proven a fake in 1921.

Ford joined other nativists in supporting legislation to restrict immigration. In 1924 Congress passed the National Origins Act, a quota system on future immigration. The measure limited entry by any foreign group to 2 percent of the number of people of that nationality who resided in the United States in 1890. The statute’s authors were interested primarily in curbing immigration from eastern and southern Europe. They chose 1890 as the benchmark for immigration because most newcomers from those two regions entered the United States after that year. Quotas established for northern Europe, about 70 percent of the total, went unfilled, while those for southern and eastern Europe could not accommodate the vast number of people who sought admission. The law continued to bar East Asian immigration altogether.

With immigration of those considered “undesirable” severely if not completely curtailed, some nativist reformers shifted their attention to Americanization, which developed into one of the largest social and political movements in American history. Speaking about immigrants, educator E. P. Cubberly said, “Our task is to break up their groups and settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people as a part of our American race, to implant in their children the northern-European conception of righteousness, law and order, and popular government.” Business corporations conducted Americanization and naturalization classes on factory floors. Schools, patriotic societies, fraternal organizations, women’s groups, and labor unions launched citizenship classes. Even the U.S. Catholic hierarchy joined the effort by prohibiting the creation of new parishes based on nationality and increasingly requiring the use of English for confessions and sermons.

In the Southwest and on the West Coast, whites aimed their Americanization efforts at the growing population of Mexican Americans. Subject to segregated education, Mexican Americans were expected to speak English in their classes. “The opening of school,” an Arizona teacher’s journal noted, “will provide an opportunity for all the Mexican children . . . to study under separate tutelage until they have acquired a thorough mastery of the English language.” Anglo school administrators and teachers generally believed that Mexican Americans were suited for farmwork and manual trades. For Mexican Americans, therefore, Americanization meant vocational training and preparation for low-status, low-wage jobs.

Despite attempts at Americanization, ethnic groups did not dissolve into a melting pot and lose their cultural identities. First-generation Americans—the children of immigrants—learned English, enjoyed American popular culture, and dressed in fashions of the day. Yet in cities around the country where immigrants had settled, ethnic enclaves remained intact and preserved the religious practices and social customs of their residents. Americanization may have watered down the “vegetable soup” of American diversity, but it did not completely eliminate the variety and distinctiveness of its flavors.

Resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan

Nativism received its most spectacular boost from the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Originally an organization dedicated to terrorizing emancipated African Americans and their white Republican allies in the South during Reconstruction, the KKK branched out during the 1920s to the North and West. In addition to blacks, the new Klan targeted Catholics and Jews, as well as anyone who was alleged to have violated community moral values. The organization consisted of a cross section of native-born Protestants primarily from the middle and working classes who sought to reverse a perceived decline in their social and economic power. Revived by W. J. Simmons, a former Methodist minister, the new Klan celebrated its founding at Stone Mountain, Georgia, near Atlanta. There, Klansmen bowed to the twin symbols of their cause, the American flag and a burning cross that represented their fiery determination to stand up for Christian morality and against all those considered “un-American.” People flocked to the new KKK. By the mid-1920s, Klan membership totaled more than three million men and women. Tens of thousands of members outfitted in white sheets and pointed hoods openly paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., the route of presidential inaugurations. Not confined to rural areas, the revived Klan counted a significant following in D. C. Stephenson’s Indianapolis and Ossian Sweet’s Detroit, as well as in Chicago, Denver, Portland, and Seattle. Rural dwellers who had moved into cities with large numbers of black migrants and recent immigrants found solace in Klan vows to preserve “Native, white, Protestant supremacy.”

The phenomenal growth of the KKK in the 1920s probably resulted more from the desire to reestablish traditional values than from sheer hostility toward blacks. In the face of challenges to traditional values, a changing sexual morality, and the flaunting of prohibition, wives joined their husbands as devoted followers. Protestant women appreciated the Klan’s message condemning abusive husbands and fathers and the group’s affirmation of the status of white Protestant women as the embodiment of virtue. In the post-suffrage era, the Klan also provided its female members with an incentive to vote by encouraging them to counteract the influence of newly enfranchised Catholic, Jewish, Latina, and African American women.

Like the original Klan, its successor resorted to terror tactics. Acting under cover of darkness and concealed in robes and hoods, Klansmen burned crosses to scare their victims, many of whom they beat, kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. To gain greater legitimacy and to appeal to a wider audience, the Klan also participated in electoral politics. The KKK succeeded in electing governors in Georgia and Oregon, a U.S. senator from Texas, numerous state legislators, and other officials in California, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Oklahoma. Politicians routinely joined the Klan to advance their careers, whether they shared its views or not. For example, Hugo Black, a Klansman from Alabama, won election as U.S. senator and was appointed to the Supreme Court, where he accumulated a distinguished record as a progressive jurist.

Fundamentalism versus Modernism

Protestant fundamentalists also fought to uphold traditional values against modern-day incursions. Around 1910, two wealthy Los Angeles churchgoers had subsidized and distributed a series of booklets called The Fundamentals, incorporating many statements about the literal truth of the Bible. With three million copies in circulation nationwide, the booklets informed readers that the Bible offered a true account of the genesis and development of humankind and the world and that its words had to be taken literally. After 1920, believers of this approach to interpreting the Bible became known as “fundamentalists.” Their preachers spread the message of old-time religion through carnivallike revivals, and preachers used the new medium of radio to broadcast their sermons.

Fundamentalism divided many Protestant denominations, but its appeal was strongest in the Midwest and the South—the so-called Bible belt—where residents felt deeply threatened by the secular aspects of modern life that left their conventional religious teachings open to skepticism and scorn.

Nothing bothered fundamentalist Protestants as much as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin replaced the biblical story of creation with a scientific theory of the emergence and development of life that centered on evolution and natural selection. Fundamentalists rejected this explanation and repudiated the views of fellow Protestants who attempted to reconcile Darwinian evolution with God’s Word by reading the Bible as a symbolic representation of what might have happened. Few people had actually read Darwin, and fundamentalists derided him by emphasizing the popular misconception that he had written that human beings had descended directly from apes (in fact, he maintained that simians and humans had a common ancestor). To combat any other interpretation but the biblical one, in 1925 lawmakers in Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee made it illegal to teach in public schools and colleges “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.”

Shortly after the anti-evolution law passed, the town of Dayton, Tennessee, decided to take advantage of it. Local business people and town boosters wanted to put their town on the map and attract new investment to the area. They recruited John Scopes, a general science high school teacher and part-time football coach. Scopes defied the law by lecturing from a biology textbook that presented Darwin’s theory. At the same time, the interests of the town boosters converged with those of the ACLU, which wanted to challenge the restrictive state statute on the grounds of free speech and academic freedom and attract new members to the organization. Together, these two very different groups succeeded in turning an ordinary judicial hearing into the “trial of the century.”

The resulting trial brought Dayton more fame, much of it negative, than the planners had bargained for. When court convened in July 1925, millions of people listened over the radio to the first trial ever broadcast. Reporters from all over the country descended on Dayton to keep their readers informed of the proceedings, while cynical journalists such as H. L. Mencken ridiculed Dayton and its residents.

Inside the courtroom, a monumental confrontation took place. Clarence Darrow headed the defense team. A controversial and colorful criminal lawyer from Chicago, who in a few months would defend Ossian Sweet, Darrow doubted the existence of God. On the other side, William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for president and secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, assisted the prosecution. As a Protestant fundamentalist, Bryan believed that accepting scientific evolution would undermine the moral basis of politics and that communities should have the right to determine their children’s school curriculum. A Seventh-Day Adventist minister summed up what the fundamentalists considered to be at stake: “[Darwin’s theory] breeds corruption, lust, immorality, greed, and such acts of criminal depravity as drug addiction, war, and atrocious acts of genocide.”

The presiding judge, John T. Raulston, set the tone for the trial by beginning each session with a prayer. He ruled that scientists could not take the stand to defend evolution because he considered their testimony “hearsay,” given that they had not been present at the creation. The defense nearly collapsed until Darrow called the willing Bryan to the stand as “an expert on the Bible.” The clash of these two titans provided excellent theater but changed few minds. The jury took only eight minutes to declare Scopes guilty. Two weeks after the trial, Bryan died in his sleep, still convinced that his views had prevailed. Scopes’s conviction was overturned by an appeals court on a technicality. Yet fundamentalists remained as certain as ever in their beliefs, and antievolution laws stayed in force until the 1970s. The trial had not “settled” anything. Rather, it served to highlight a cultural division over the place of religion in American society that persists to the present day.


• What was the connection between anti-immigrant sentiment and the defense of tradition during the 1920s?

• Who challenged the new morality associated with modernization? Why?

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