Social issues of the 1920s in the United States

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The 1920s was the rise of a variety of social issues amidst a rapidly changing world. Conflicts arose concerning what was considered acceptable and respectable and what ought to be proscribed or made illegal. The conflict quickly coalesced into one largely between the liberal urban areas against the conservative rural areas.

Prohibition of alcohol[edit]

During the 1920s, the population in cities rapidly grew. Crime and political corruption became common and acceptable. Following a relatively conservative period following the First World War, a liberalism began to spread throughout urban areas during the years following 1925. Urban areas began to hold increasingly liberal views of sex, alcohol, drugs, and homosexuality. The view that women and minorities were entitled to equality became increasingly prevalent in urban areas, especially among the educated. For example, the actor William Haines, who was regularly named in newspapers and magazines as the #1 male box-office draw, openly lived in a gay relationship with his lover Jimmie Shields. Many people in rural areas became increasingly shocked at all the changes they saw occurring and many responded by becoming reactionary. The Volstead Act, a law meant to uphold the Eighteenth Amendment, was difficult due to lack of funding, short staffing and a disregard and disdain for a law that was deemed ridiculous. The fact that members of congress became drunk from toasts after passing the Eighteenth Amendment[citation needed] reveals that even those who were supposed to be setting an example did not take the law seriously. This lack of respect for the law enforcement eventually spread to other areas of culture, and many conservative members of the United States Congress criticized this lack of order as stemming from the rampant use of alcohol.

Disputes over human origin and the Scopes trial[edit]

It made for great oratory between eminent rivals, and it put the debate over teaching evolution on front pages across the country. But one thing the Scopes "monkey trial" of 1925 did not do was settle the contentious issue of evolution in the schools, which continues to incite strong passions and court actions to this day.

The trial was about challenging a newly passed Tennessee state law against teaching evolution or any other theory denying the biblical account of the creation of man. Broadly, the case reflected a collision of traditional views and values with more modern ones: It was a time of evangelism by figures such as Aimee Semple McPherson and Billy Sunday against forces, including jazz, sexual permissiveness, and racy Hollywood movies, which they thought were undermining the authority of the Bible and Christian morals in society.

John Scopes, the 24-year-old defendant, taught in the public high school in Dayton, Tenn., and included evolution in his curriculum. He agreed to be the focus of a test case attacking the new law, and was arrested for teaching evolution and tried with the American Civil Liberties Union backing his defense. His lawyer was the legendary Clarence Darrow, who, besides being a renowned defense attorney for labor and radical figures, was an avowed agnostic in religious matters.

The state's attorney was William Jennings Bryan, a Christian, pacifist, and former candidate for the U.S. presidency. He agreed to take the case because he believed that evolution theory led to dangerous social movements. And he believed the Bible should be interpreted literally.

The weather was stiflingly hot and the rhetoric equally heated in this "trial of the century" attended by hundreds of reporters and others who crowded the Rhea County Courthouse in July 1925. Rather than the validity of the law under which Scopes was being charged, the authority of the Bible versus the soundness of Darwin's theory became the focus of the arguments.

"Millions of guesses strung together," is how Bryan characterized evolutionary theory, adding that the theory made man "indistinguishable among the mammals." Darrow, in his attacks, tried to poke holes in the Genesis story according to modern thinking, calling them "fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes."

The jury found Scopes guilty of violating the law and fined him. Bryan and the anti-evolutionists claimed victory, and the Tennessee law would stand for another 42 years. But Clarence Darrow and the ACLU had succeeded in publicizing scientific evidence for evolution, and the press reported that though Bryan had won the case, he had lost the argument. The verdict did have a chilling effect on teaching evolution in the classroom, however, and not until the 1960s did it reappear in schoolbooks.

Isolationism, immigration, and communism[edit]

America's isolationist philosophy after World War I gave rise to a xenophobic feeling across the nation. This was concentrated in rural areas and especially in the Southern United States and Indiana, where the Ku Klux Klan gained widespread support and sought to persecute immigrants and minorities in the 1920s. At the same time, communism was still a new philosophy in government, and much of the general American public held a hostile view toward it, especially after the 1919 United States anarchist bombings. The beginning of the 1920s saw the height and fall of First Red Scare as exemplified in the trials of Sacco and Vanzetti. This opposition to Communism was caused by the bloody terror of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Ku Klux Klan[edit]

Rising nativism and illiberality also found expression after World War I in the reemergence and phenomenal growth of the Ku Klux Klan. Unlike the original Reconstruction-era Klan which was purely a southern phenomenon intent on holding the freed slave in a position of inferiority, the modern Klan formed active chapters in every region of the country and temporarily gained both respectability and political power.

The time was ripe for a secret and seemingly all-powerful organization committed to reasserting traditional American values by force and intimidation if necessary. Such was the effect of World War I and the paranoia of the Red Scare. To millions of Americans in the postwar era, the country seemed beset with problems and on the verge of ruin. "The white, native-born Protestant American, as a member of the religious and racial majority, was usually incapable of doubting his native institutions. The blame for the maladies of his world must rest elsewhere. And so he looked to alien influences - Roman Catholics who supposedly challenged Protestant hegemony and the separation of church and state. Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish immigrants crowding onto American shores, Negroes seeking more equitable treatment, American Jews who kept living costs up while wages went down, and numerous other elements of frustration before which he felt helpless. Then the Klan entered his community and offered him a way to fight back." Now was the time to fight back, to reassert traditional values, or lose forever those qualities which had made America great.

It's not surprising that the Klan's strongest supporters were residents of the rural and isolated countryside and city dwellers who had just recently arrived from the farm who were shocked by the lifestyles they witnessed in the big city. The drastic changes of the preceding half century had largely passed them by and lessened their influence in the country they felt they had once dominated. Now resentment of city and city people and nativism came together in the form of the Ku Klux Klan.

Using violence, intimidation, and organized political activity, the Klan lashed out at those groups which seemingly were defiling America with strange customs, strange religions, and strange morals. The Klan supported the deportations crusade of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer at the height of the Red Scare. The Klan pressured Congress to limit immigration into the country. Such limitations would also stem the flow of Roman Catholics and Jews into what had always been primarily a Protestant country.

Perhaps their strongest efforts, at least in Texas and other southwestern states, was to impose middle-class Protestant morality on all members of society no matter where they lived. According to Charles C. Alexander in his study The Klan in the Southwest : "There was also in the Klan a definite strain of moral bigotry. Especially in the Southwest this zeal found expression in direct, often violent, attempts to force conformity. Hence the southwestern Klansmanís conception of reform encompassed efforts to preserve premarital chastity, marital fidelity, and respect for parental authority; to compel obedience to state and national prohibition laws; to fight the postwar crime wave; and to rid state and local governments of dishonest politicians." Individuals in Texas thus were threatened, beaten, or tarred-and-feathered for practicing the "new morality," cheating on their spouses, beating their spouses or children, looking at women in a lewd manner, imbibing alcohol, etc.

The Klan began to participate in politics in order to cleanse this arena of corruption and to legislate their idea of moral behavior. Because it attracted, at least in the beginning, "respectable" members of society, the Klan quickly gained significant political power at the state and local levels of government. In Texas for instance the Klan was able to elect a number of local officials in Austin, Houston, and Dallas. Historians feel that members of the Klan probably constituted a majority of the Texas legislature between 1922 and 1924. The Texas Klan even had one of its own, Earl B. Mayfield of Austin, elected to the U. S. Senate at the height of its power. The Klan grew so powerful on the national scene by 1924 that opponents were unable to convince the Democratic party's convention that year to censure the Klan for its intolerance and violent methods.

It was widely recognized at the time that the Klan's most powerful chapter in the nation was that in Indiana.[1] In 1923, the membership of the Indiana Klan exploded when local recruiter David Curtiss Stephenson became the organization's Grand Wizard. By late 1923, Stephenson led the Indiana Klan in breaking away from the national organization and forming a rival group.[2] The Indiana Klan stressed more social issues than racism, as it promised to uphold moral standards, help enforce Prohibition, and end political corruption. The Klan also publicly attacked adulterers, gamblers, and undisciplined youths.[3] Stephenson gained the support of many ministers and church congregations for these appeals to populist issues, and the Klan grew rapidly in Indiana.[2]

At the height of its power the Klan had over 250,000 members, which was over 30% of state's white male population. The highest concentration was around the central part of the state.[2] Though it counted a high number of members statewide, its importance peaked in the 1924 election of Edward L. Jackson for governor.[1] Switching from the Democrat to the more popular Republican Party, Stephenson sought to cement control over Indiana's political scene. During the 1924 November elections in Indiana, Jackson and several other elected Republican officials in the state were handpicked by Stephenson after they signed pledges affirming support for him. Following the election, Stephenson was then regarded as "the law in Indiana."[4]

Yet just when the Klan seemed to wield such power and influence, it was actually on the verge of collapse. In the mid-twenties the Klan was beset by a series of internal struggles and scandals that resulted in political losses. The fall of Klan's power in Indiana would have a devastating impact on the organization's influence nationwide.

The Indiana Klan's influence was diminished in 1925 after Stephenson kidnapped and raped local educator Madge Oberholtzer, who died soon afterwards in large part due to a staph infection she obtained as a result of the injuries Stephenson inflicted on her during this ordeal. Though it was acknowledged that Oberholtzer's decision to attempt suicide by swallowing mercuric chloride tablets contributed to her kidney failure, it was determined through an autopsy that the injuries Stephenson inflicted on her were also sufficient enough to kill her because the staph infection which resulted from them had reached both her lungs and kidneys.[5] The autopsy also determined that Oberholtzer also might have been saved if Stephenson had not refused to take her to a hospital while he took her hostage;[5] in her dying declaration, Oberholtzer claimed that she recanted her decision to allow herself to die and asked Stephenson to take her to a hospital,[6] but he refused to do so because she would not agree to marry him.[6] In November of 1925, Stephenson was convicted of second degree murder and was given a life sentence. In addition to the rape and murder, evidence released during his trial gravely weakened the Indiana Klan's propaganda when it was revealed that Stephenson, who had often defended Protestant womanhood and Prohibition in public,[4] was in private a womanizer and an alcoholic.[4] With the Stephenson affair damaging the Klan's image as upholders of law and morality, their influence on American society was severely crippled by 1926.[1]

In 1927, Stephenson would retaliate to Jackson's refusal to pardon him by having his aids release the documented pledges which proved that several Indiana politicians, including Jackson, had accepted bribes and other illegal favors from the Indiana Klan in exchange for their support. The state filed indictments against Governor Jackson; George V. "Cap" Coffin, chairman of the Marion County Republican Party; and attorney Robert I. Marsh, charging them with conspiring to bribe former Governor Warren McCray. The mayor of Indianapolis, John Duvall, was convicted and sentenced to jail for 30 days (and barred from political service for four years). Some Republican commissioners of Marion County resigned from their posts after being charged with accepting bribes from the Klan and Stephenson.[7]

The nativism of the postwar era peaked and began to recede with the passage of the National Origins Act and with it the appeal of the Klan lost its luster. Furthermore, the "respectable" members of the Klan, shocked by its violent tendencies, began to drop out and by the end of the decade the Klan was once again viewed by most Americans as part of the extremist lunatic fringe.

Immigration and the National Origins Act[edit]

Support for immigration restrictions, which began at the turn of the century and had built steadily for twenty years, led to congressional passage of the National Origins Act. This legislation severely restricted the total number of foreigners who would be allowed to enter the United States legally in any given year. It also instituted a quota system intentionally designed to hit Asia and eastern and southern Europe the hardest. The impact was to shut the doors of the country to Asians altogether and slow the flood of Italians, Poles, and Russians to a bare trickle of what it had been.

Immigration curtailment was unquestionably part of the rural counterattack of the 1920s. The countryside was the most Anglo-Saxon, the most Protestant, the most traditional area of the nation and the region that felt most threatened by continued immigration. The fact that rural residents were most supportive of immigration restrictions is clearly borne out by the fact that not a single congressman from south of the Mason-Dixon line or west of the Mississippi River voted against the National Origins Act. Only in the urban Northeast was there opposition. With the number of immigrants thus limited, many felt perhaps America could be saved.

The 1928 US Presidential Election and Revival of Extreme Nativism[edit]

The urban-rural confrontation of the 1920s seems neatly symbolized by the presidential election of 1928 and the defection of many traditional Democrats to the Republican candidate because of their shock at the nomination of Al Smith by their own party.

The Republican party was riding the crest of national popularity in 1928, basking in the glow of the economic boom which Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge had seemingly engineered. Herbert Hoover, its presidential nominee in 1928, would probably have won the election of that year on the strength of the economy alone. His election became inevitable, however, when many lifelong Democrats in the South and Southwest rejected their party's nominee. Rural Democrats simply could not stomach Al Smith because he seemed to represent everything that threatened their America. He was a resident of the largest and that most evil of cities - New York City. He was a practicing Roman Catholic in a decade of virulent anti-Catholicism. He opposed national prohibition and openly flaunted the law during the election campaign. Furthermore, he was suspect because of his links to the worst of all urban political machines - Tammany Hall of New York City.

In contrast, Hoover, while a member of the Republican party which had long been discredited in the South and Southwest because of the Reconstruction experience, was a native of Iowa, one of the most rural states in the union. He was a Protestant who openly and forcefully supported Prohibition. Unlike Smith, he was untainted by any association with machine politics. Rather, his character and reputation seemed sterling. He had saved Europe from starvation in the aftermath of World War I by leading a volunteer relief campaign, he was a self-made millionaire, and as Secretary of Commerce from 1921 to 1928 had helped produce the current economic boom. J. Frank Norris, a leading fundamentalist pastor in Texas, campaigned across the state on behalf of Hoover saying that the only real issue in the campaign was Smith's Catholicism. Norris and others painted dire pictures of the future should Smith be victorious. The Pope would actually be running the country and very quickly separation of church and state and freedom of religion would be relics of America's distant past.

The strength of the urban-rural confrontation in the election can be seen in the fact that Texas - rural, Protestant, and solidly Democratic in its historic party affiliation - ended up in the Republican party column for the first time in its history. Nor was she alone. Hoover also carried the old Confederate states of Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. Such was the strength of rural disaffection with an increasingly urban, industrial, and culturally diverse America

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Ku Klux Klan in Indiana Accessed November 30, 2013
  2. ^ a b c "Indiana History Chapter Seven". Northern Indiana Center for History. Archived from the original on 2008-04-11. Retrieved 2013-11-30. 
  3. ^ Madison, James H (1990). The Indiana Way. p. 292. 
  4. ^ a b c Lutholtz, M. William (1991). Grand Dragon: D. C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press. ISBN 1-55753-046-7. 
  5. ^ a b Daniel O. Linder, "D.C. Stephenson", Testimony, Famous Trials, hosted at University of Missouri Law School, Kansas City
  6. ^ a b The Dying Declaration Of Madge Oberholtzer: The Key Evidence In The 1925 Trial Of D. C. Stephenson, From My Indiana by Irving Liebowitz (1964) (pp.195-203)
  7. ^ "Indiana and the Ku Klux Klan" Archived 2015-05-07 at the Wayback Machine., Center for History