Modern history


LEROY PERCY had in fact sculpted a remarkable world, an island of order and reason in a sea of entropy and chaos. Yet it was not without its own internal inconsistencies, and combined equal parts of frontier and sophistication.

At the outbreak of World War I the Delta was still the Wild West of the South. More than 60 percent of the land remained wilderness, with bears still invading cornfields and wolves devouring livestock. Like the West, and unlike the already settled South, it had few churches, few schools, much drinking (despite statewide prohibition), and violence. Violence and passion were everywhere, bred in its endlessly flat earth. Standing on cleared land one saw all sky, and a man had to stand straight and tall, had to feel his own pride intruding upon the sky, or he would sink into the mud. One did not turn the other cheek in the Delta. Neither black nor white turned the other cheek. The homicide rate in Mississippi dwarfed that of the rest of the nation, and the Delta’s dwarfed that of the rest of Mississippi. More than 75 percent of Delta blacks in the state penitentiary had been convicted of murder or attempted murder, double the percentage for black prisoners from outside the Delta. Whites also killed. Judge Percy Bell observed that before state prohibition, “Shootings were comparatively frequent around [Greenville] saloons, and few if any white men were indicted or tried.”

Incongruously, cotton had simultaneously created an elite whose sons went to Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell and traveled the world; in 1914 several Greenville planters attending the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany, were stranded by the outbreak of war. After the war, with cotton prices soaring, the best Delta land brought $1,000 an acre, making the Percy land suddenly, if only briefly, worth several hundred million of today’s dollars. Even the social elite of New Orleans considered Greenville exceptional. Leonidas Pool, a New Orleans bank president who frequently played cards with Percy at the Boston Club and occasionally hunted with him, was Rex, King of Mardi Gras, in 1925. When his daughter moved to Greenville, he told her, “You are going among the aristocrats of the earth.”

By the 1920s, Greenville had become “The Queen City of the Delta,” with twelve miles of paved streets. Its population reached 15,000 souls, all nestled close to the river. Downtown teemed with life. Barges piled with goods docked at the concrete wharf, warehouses burst with cotton, trucks and spavined mules pulled supplies. The city had one French and two Italian restaurants, twenty-four-hour coffee shops, bowling alleys and pool halls and movie theaters. The biggest entertainers, including Enrico Caruso and Al Jolson, regularly stopped at the Opera House or the even larger People’s Theater. Enough Chinese lived in Greenville that a tong war erupted. The four-story Cowan Hotel was the state’s finest. The Armour Packing Company, the largest meatpacker between Memphis and New Orleans, distributed fresh meat throughout the Delta and into the hill country. Three cotton exchanges each had a wire to Liverpool, New Orleans, New York, and Chicago. The Greenville Cotton Compress, a huge operation owned by Percy, baled cotton and sold it directly to international buyers. Fourteen trains a day arrived in Greenville at the Y&MV railroad station; six more trains arrived daily at the Columbus & Greenville station. Four oil mills, the smallest covering two city blocks, crushed cotton seed. Half a dozen sawmills worked the great masses of logs floated to them; the two largest each made 150,000 board feet of lumber a day.

The city’s most exclusive gathering place was the Swan Lake Club, a shooting club outside the city. Since anyone in the Delta acceptable for membership already belonged, no guests were allowed who lived within a hundred miles. The Greenville Country Club was new; it and the Mississippi Club were for the fine families, and unlike other cities—including nearby Greenwood—both had Jewish members. (Only the Garden Club excluded Jews.) The Elysian Club, a two-storied yellow brick building with a vast porch, held dances renowned throughout the Delta; fans were placed behind a 300-pound block of ice to blow air over it and cool the room, and a hedge in front was used to hide corn whiskey. W. C. Handy, one of the fathers of the blues, frequently played there. The Elks Club, a step down the social scale, concentrated on poker, and a Rotary club met. There were few speakeasies but plenty of liquor; men carried whiskey in brown bags and snuck away to dark corners to drink it straight or with a chaser of Coke or water. And there was one club that only Percy and a few other gentlemen patronized. On the edge of the city was the home of a beautiful, light-skinned black woman whose daughters were equally beautiful and even lighter. Elegant and charming, she often played hostess to Percy. He and others would stay deep into the night, usually playing cards.

More than half of Greenville’s population was black, and there were two black neighborhoods. If young men from one entered the other, trouble followed. Newtown lay north of downtown; there “blacks tried to be citified, uppity,” according to one black man. Southside was more working-class. Most blacks worked on the river, or in the sawmills, or as servants for whites. By 6 A.M. the streets were alive with maids and cooks and chauffeurs heading to white folks’ homes. Several black doctors and dentists had offices in two buildings on the edge of downtown. There was a black printer, a black-owned newsstand serving whites, several black funeral home operators, black shoe repairmen. A black bank was nurtured largely by money from black prostitutes who serviced white men only. Their brothels flourished just east of downtown, near Broadway and Nelson, across from the pride of the black community, Mt. Horeb Church, a small but magnificent stone structure. A block away, there were black juke joints and pool halls and gambling joints. There was liquor, and women, and the blues. And there were knives, razors, and pistols.

On Saturdays downtown was packed. From all around the county both whites and blacks poured into it to shop, or look—really just to socialize. On Saturdays a single drugstore could sell 1,400 ice-cream cones. Young men took their girls to the Kandy Kitchen for confections. Opposite it was a spot called “passion corner.”

In the 1920s, Greenville was a thriving small metropolis, and, like most ports, more cosmopolitan than neighboring communities. But what set. Greenville apart was the imprint that Percy and those few who allied themselves with him had imposed.

GREENVILLE’S SCHOOLS epitomized the difference. In 1920 the city spent $85 per white pupil, double the state’s second-most-generous locality; five Mississippi counties in the hills spent less than $5 per white child, while one spent only $2.75. The teachers and facilities were outstanding, and for its size Greenville produced an extraordinary number of writers, including LeRoy’s son William Alexander Percy and great-nephew Walker Percy,* David Cohn, Ellen Douglas, Beverly Lowry, Charles Bell, and Shelby Foote.

For blacks, Greenville schools were, relatively, even more special. The city spent $17 per black child, compared to 68 cents in another district. At the same time that many Mississippi politicians opposed teaching blacks arithmetic and reading, Greenville public schools offered blacks Latin. Lizzie Coleman, principal of the black high school, intimidated students and teachers into excelling. She made each teacher raise $150 a year for the school, and also said, “I don’t believe in the melting pot.” But she knew how to survive. During the week she bought groceries from two black men; on Saturdays she bought steaks from Will Reed, a white man, on Washington Avenue. The steak was more expensive, but that did not matter. Because of her good relationships with whites, when black teachers asked school superintendent E. E. Bass to stop calling them by their first names in front of their students, he agreed to address them in school as “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss.” Greenville was also state headquarters for several black fraternal organizations, including the Pythians and the Masons, and Percy had even sued a white fraternal organization on their behalf and won.

In addition, before settling upon whom to support for office, Percy and a few others whites routinely met with black community leaders to ask their opinions; though few Greenville blacks could vote, this process did give them some voice in the election.

If Greenville reflected Percy’s values, however, reflections are the thinnest of veneers. By the 1920s the city was growing beyond him. To a friend who had moved away, he observed, “Our town has grown some in population, and improved much in comfort and attractiveness, but there were more men and women possessing individuality, personality and charm in the dear dead days when you knew it, than there are today.”

One demographic change was the arrival of whites from the Mississippi hill country. The prosperity of the Delta brought them. The oil mills and sawmills and office supply stores and meatpacking plants brought them. The hill country was home to the whites who elected Vardaman and Bilbo. With them came different values. And with them came the Ku Klux Klan.

THE 1920S KLAN had roots that ran deep in America. It was racist, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic. Yet it represented not only bigotry, but a desire to find an anchor in a sea of change, to shrink the large world into a smaller, more understandable one. For men and women who were middle-aged in the 1920s had lived through more change than did citizens during any other period in American history.

The nation was both striding into and resisting the modern age. Robert Goddard was demonstrating the practicality of rockets; talking pictures reached movie screens; radio linked the country together for the first time; even television came into existence. So did national advertising, national brands, and national fads and chain stores—in 1923 more Mah-Jongg sets than radios were sold, while Woolworth’s had 1,500 stores.

Simultaneously, in what seemed almost another country, fundamentalists were rejecting science and trying to outlaw the teaching of evolution. National Prohibition arrived, and its passage embodied a union of the strangest bedfellows: the emerging force of moralistic and muscular Christianity lay down with the dying force of Progressives who believed in the perfectibility of man and the ability of rational human engineering to control behavior.

The tensions contained within those two nations—the one surging forward, the other clenching tight—grew out of more fundamental shifts. The nineteenth century had seen tremendous change, but it was a time of certainty and rules. Nature’s laws appeared fixed and certain. If science had begun to undermine faith in God, the theory of evolution still guaranteed a happy future. Herbert Spencer, the author of the phrase “survival of the fittest,” proclaimed, “The ultimate development of the ideal man is logically certain.”

The twentieth century would be a century without certainty. In 1905, Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity and exploded the mechanistic universe. Soon the reliability of engineering gave way to the “uncertainty principle” of physics. In 1909, Sigmund Freud came to Worcester, Massachusetts, to lecture at Clark University and show Americans that nothing was as it seemed. Meanwhile, women were winning the right to vote, entering the workforce in large numbers, and forcing a reassessment even of gender.

As the intellectual base upon which the world rested shifted, its moral pillars cracked. A new sexuality suffused the nation. In 1908 skirts touched the floor; in 1915 the word “flapper” entered the language; in 1924 skirts touched the knee. The automobile and radio altered the experience of time and distance; the automobile also created sexual opportunities. In 1919, barely 10 percent of cars were enclosed; by 1927, 82.8 percent were. Jazz music was suggestive, wild, lewd. In the nineteenth century, virtually every school in the country used McGuffey’s Readers, anthologies that taught morality as much as reading, including the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. By Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency McGuffey’s Readers were losing favor. Instead, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was selling millions of copies; it sang of seduction and youth and the infinite present. Social commentator Mark Sullivan noted, “Many an American adult in the 1920s remembered as a landmark the day he read Omar’s line, ‘I myself am Heaven and hell.’”

The essential character of America was changing as well. In 1870, America’s population was 40 million, 72 percent of whom lived in small towns or on farms. Between 1900 and 1915, 15 million immigrants flooded the United States. Mostly from eastern and southern Europe, the new immigrants were different from most Americans already here. They were truly foreign, strange in religion, darker in complexion. And 1920 marked the first time that more than half of America’s population, now 110 million, lived in cities. It was frightening, deracinating.

This was not the America in which those who were adults in the 1920s had grown up. The nation’s very identity seemed under assault, and an aching for community developed. The first organized outgrowth of this longing came in Chicago in 1905, when a group of men trying to re-create the sense of small-town community started the Rotary Club; it required members to address each other by their first names.

Then, during the World War, President Woodrow Wilson turned the desire for community into something foul by encouraging, manipulating, and exploiting the nation’s fears. His administration warned of hidden enemies undermining the nation, enemies to be found and cast out. George Creel ran Wilson’s propaganda machine and demanded “100% Americanism.” At his peak 150,000 people worked under his umbrella. (John Parker once walked into the White House and told Wilson that in the entire civilized world there was “no more arbitrary ruler.”) One newspaper editor complained, “Government conscripted public opinion as they conscripted men and women and materials…. They mobilized it. They put it in charge of drill sergeants. They goose-stepped it.”

Creel’s words created a hysteria. Beatings occurred across the nation. Near St. Louis a German-American defended Germany in an argument; a mob stripped him naked, wrapped him in an American flag, dragged him through the streets, and lynched him.

Congress, ignoring the Constitution, passed the Sedition Act, which made it illegal—punishment was twenty years in jail—to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States…or any language intended to…encourage resistance to the United States.”

Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, “the Fighting Quaker,” prosecuted more than 2,000 people for violating this and related acts. He also developed a nation of informers by helping create the American Protective League, whose 12,000 local units spied on neighbors and coworkers. Other groups, such as the National Security League and the Allied Loyalty League, also fed names to the government.

In Greenville, Mississippi, LeRoy Percy looked on with contempt. He wrote his friend Dickinson, a former secretary of war: “If this country lives through the scholarly idiocy of the present administration, Providence must certainly be watching us. If we could only swap the well-turned sentences of Wilson for the homely wisdom of Cleveland or Lincoln.” He also believed that an opportunity existed to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, which he had long supported, “at the close of the war as an expression of the kindly feeling of the nation toward the negro race.” Percy was misjudging the times.

DESPITE PEACE, 1919 opened with Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis sentencing Wisconsin Congressman Victor Berger and several others to twenty years in prison for sedition. (The House voted 309 to 1 to expel Berger; he won the special election to fill the open seat and the House refused to swear him in.) The Supreme Court upheld several earlier sedition convictions, including the ten-year prison sentence of Socialist Eugene Debs, who the next year would receive 915,000 votes for president. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the opinion calling the Sedition Act constitutional, arguing that the First Amendment did not protect speech if “the words used…create a clear and present danger.”

Then came violence. In Washington, in Chicago, in twenty-six major cities, race riots erupted. Far more blacks than whites died. In Elaine, Arkansas, north and across the Mississippi River from Greenville, black sharecroppers were being systematically cheated. They formed a union. When a deputy sheriff fired into a building where they were meeting, the blacks returned fire, killing him. A pogrom commenced, until 500 regular Army troops imposed martial law. Five whites and, officially, 11 blacks died, although the NAACP claimed 200 blacks were killed. No whites were charged, but courts sentenced 54 blacks to prison and 12 to death (the Arkansas Supreme Court blocked the executions); in none of the cases did a jury deliberate more than seven minutes.

Strikes brought violence too. Few unions had struck during the war. In 1919 strikes shook the country. Two in particular seemed dangerous, threatening America with the chaos then wracking Germany, Poland, and Italy. One was a general strike of more than 100 unions in Seattle. The other was a police strike in Boston.

Unions were castigated as un-American. The Chicago Tribune warned, “It is only a middling step from Petrograd to Seattle.” The Salt Lake City Tribune asserted, “Free speech has been carried to the point where it is an absolute menace.” The Washington Postwrote: “Silence the incendiary advocates of force…. Bring the law’s hand down…. Do it NOW!”

In New York, 400 servicemen ransacked the Socialist paper The Call and beat up everyone there. Six days later Governor Al Smith signed a bill forbidding the display of red flags.

In Indiana a jury deliberated two minutes and acquitted a man for murdering an immigrant who yelled, “To hell with the United States.”

In Weirton, West Virginia, police forced 118 immigrants, members of the International Workers of the World, the Wobblies, to kiss the American flag.

Anti-foreign feeling was so strong that it affected even supposedly international Communists: the United States had two Communist parties, one with mostly native-born members, one with a membership 90 percent immigrant.

The American Legion was formed, its constitution stated, “to maintain law and order” and “to foster and perpetuate a one hundred percent Americanism.” Within months it had 1 million members, and its commander ordered the organization to “be ready for action at any time…against these extremists who are seeking to overturn a government.”

In Centralia, Washington, the local American Legion attacked a Wobbly office. Three Legionnaires died. Others later dragged Wesley Everest, a fellow veteran but a Wobbly, from jail. They beat him, cut off his testicles, then cut off his penis. He begged: “For God’s sake, men, shoot me. Don’t let me suffer like this.” They hung him from a bridge first, then shot him. The coroner judged it suicide: “He…jumped off with a rope around his neck and then shot himself full of holes.”

The left fought back. Bombs exploded outside Attorney General Palmer’s Washington home, and at the homes of the mayor of Cleveland and several judges. In New York City, a post office employee found sixteen more bombs, addressed to J. P. Morgan, J. D. Rockefeller, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and several senators.

At a cabinet meeting President Wilson turned to his attorney general and said, “Palmer, do not let this country see Red.”

Palmer named a young J. Edgar Hoover to run a new Intelligence Division within the Justice Department. Within a few months, Hoover had a card file on 200,000 “radical” organizations. Palmer himself hoped to ride the anti-Red wave all the way to the White House, and said: “I myself am an American and I love to preach my doctrine before 100% Americans because my platform is undiluted Americanism…. Each and every [radical] is a potential murderer or a potential thief…. Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime; from their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type.”

The paroxysms ended on January 1, 1920, when the Justice Department conducted raids in 33 cities and arrested 6,000 “dangerous aliens.” Three guns and no explosives were found. Yet in Hartford, Connecticut, anyone who visited the jailed aliens was also arrested.

LATER THAT YEAR Republican Warren G. Harding won the presidency saying, “America’s present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not surgery but serenity.”

A new Congress, seeking to prevent further dilution of 100 percent Americanism, passed “emergency” laws restricting immigration. Percy, ever concerned with the labor supply, unsuccessfully urged former Senate colleagues to defeat the bill, arguing that their fears were “fancied and certainly far distant,” that the danger of Bolshevism was “not real,” that “the crippling of the manpower of this nation is the one thing which will check its prosperity, check it effectually and for an indefinite duration.”

But much of the nation wanted to smother change. The Fundamentals, a book financed by an oil millionaire and espousing a literal interpretation of the Bible, was published, and the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association was organized. Christian fundamentalism began a war against the teaching of evolution.

Perhaps at no other time in American history, even including the 1960s, did so wide a gap develop between a mainstream culture that clung to its certainties and American intellectuals. Sinclair Lewis mocked Main Street, while F. Scott Fitzgerald declared “all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”

The mainstream defended itself. The magazine of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce editorialized: “Dare to be Babbitt!…Good Rotarians live orderly lives, and save money, and go to church, and play golf, and send their children to school…. Would not the world be better with more Babbitts and fewer of those who cry, ‘Babbitt!’?”

An article in American Magazine simply attacked anything that stood out. Entitled “Why I Never Hire Brilliant Men,” it explained, “[B]usiness and life are built upon successful mediocrity.”

Normalcy reassured; sameness was comfortable; to be average meant to be secure.

When Dr. Hiram Wesley Evans, a dentist, became Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, he defined himself as “the most average man in America.”

D. W. GRIFFITH’S Birth of a Nation appeared in 1915. Its epic sweep, its driving narrative, its technical magnificence, and its length revolutionized Hollywood. Before it, movies rarely lasted more than thirty minutes and cost a nickel or less to attend (hence the name “nickelodeon”). Birth of a Nation cost $2 and ran for three hours. Yet in city after city lines stretched for blocks. By the end of World War I, nearly 25 million tickets had been sold.

Thomas Dixon had written the novel The Clansman upon which the film was based. It portrayed blacks during Reconstruction as virtual jungle beasts who stole from, brutalized, and raped whites. It portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as mythic heroes fighting for decency and honor. He explained: “The real big purpose of my film was to revolutionize northern sentiment by [our] presentation of history…. Every man who comes out of our theaters is a Southern partisan for life.”

The film had many critics and sparked many demonstrations. To counteract the criticism, Dixon showed it at the White House to his college classmate Woodrow Wilson, telling him the film marked “the launching of the mightiest engine for moulding public opinion in the history of the world.” After viewing it, Wilson, a southerner who had segregated the previously integrated federal bureaucracy, said: “It is like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

A few days before the film’s 1915 opening in Atlanta, Colonel William Joseph Simmons climbed Stone Mountain, burned a cross, and announced the rebirth of the Klan.

At the time, Simmons sold memberships in the Woodmen of the World for a living, and the Woodmen—not the military—had made him a colonel. He also belonged to eleven similar groups, and when asked his profession he replied, “I am a fraternalist.”

Simmons’ sale of memberships in his new Klan went slowly until, in 1920, he signed a contract with Edward Clarke and Mary Elizabeth Tyler, whose Southern Publicity Association had raised money for the Red Cross and the Anti-Saloon League of America. The three agreed that new Klan members would pay an initiation fee of $10. Of that, Clarke and Tyler would get $8, out of which they paid $4 to “kleagles,” full-time commission salesmen, for each recruit, and small commissions to other Klan officers. Eventually, 1,200 kleagles were on the road. Membership exploded.

The Klan’s message combined the binding forces of hyperpatriotism and moralistic Christianity with the excluding forces of disdain for elites, cities, and intellectuals. And of course the Klan preached hatred of Catholics, blacks, foreigners, and Jews. The world, the Klan said, was falling apart, but a crusading Klan would put things right. One Klansman proclaimed: “It is going to drive the bootleggers forever out of this land. It is going to bring clean moving pictures…clean literature…protect homes. It means the return of old-time Southern chivalry and deference to womanhood; it means that ‘the married man with an affinity’ has no place in our midst.”

The message struck home. By the early 1920s at least 3 million Americans belonged to the Invisible Empire; some estimates were as high as 8 million. It had 300,000 members in Ohio, 200,000 in Pennsylvania. It seized control of state governments in Colorado and Indiana, where one scholar estimates between one-quarter and one-third of all native-born white males belonged. It elected the mayors of Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine. It recalled the governor of Oklahoma, dominated parts of California, and passed a state law in Oregon requiring Catholic children to attend public schools.

There were two Americas now, one accepting and advancing into the insecurity of an uncertain age and one holding back and searching for something to grasp onto. And the two nations were growing further apart. “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” observed Willa Cather.

In 1922 the Invisible Empire entered the demesne of LeRoy Percy.

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