Source D: Memphis Annie, Blues singer, 1925
When voting time came round the Ku Klux Klan would be waiting outside the voting place. No coloured folk would try to vote.
he Ku Klux Klan demonstrated the dark side of life in America. The Klan had been founded as a terrorist organisation of Southerners in the 1860s and was determined to prevent the newly freed slaves from gaining equal rights with other Americans. In the 1920s there was a resurgence of the Klan. It used violence and terror to intimidate any American, Black or White, who advocated a policy of equal rights. The Klan was not only hostile to Blacks but also to Catholics, Jews and new immigrants. Most Klansmen supported religious fundamentalism. By 1925 the Klan had 3 million members, including police officers, judges and politicians. The Klan was a powerful influence in several states.
In 1923 Hiram Wesley Evans became the Klan’s leader. He was known as the Imperial Wizard. He said, “The history of the world is the fight for survival of the White race. Either we win or we die. The Klan will not die.”
Nobody knew for sure just how strong the Klan was because it was a secret organisation but what was certain was that many powerful people were members and that the Klan could make others do what it wanted by threats, blackmail and bribery.
Any Black person who was believed to have committed a crime against a White person, or even a Black person who was regarded as ‘an uppity nigger’ – a person who was doing well or spoke up for his or herself – could be beaten, tortured and lynched. Lynching often meant being hanged in front of a white crowd with no trial and no defence.
Lynching did not always mean a hanging. Here is a description from the Washington Eagle in 1920.
The Negro was taken to a clearing in the woods. More than 500 people had each placed a piece of wood against a tree stump that made a pile nearly 6 feet high. The Negro was chained to the tree stump, beaten and then castrated. The fire was lit and a hundred men and women, young and old, joined hands and danced around the burning Negro. That night a big party was held in a nearby barn.
The Klan often attracted poor and uneducated people so some people laughed at them. For many black people living in the Southern states the Klan was no joke. Black people in the Southern states of the USA did not have much education. Many were superstitious and lived in lonely farm shacks. When men in white robes appeared outside their homes with guns, ropes and torches it did not need much imagination for them to believe that white ghosts had come to kill them.
In many cases the local police failed to protect the victim and sometimes even played a part in the killing. Those responsible were rarely brought to justice and Klan members knew that their ‘friends’ in the courts would not convict them. Many of the victims were probably innocent of any crime but many have been thought of as Black troublemakers. In fact the real purpose of the lynchings was to remind Blacks forcibly that the Whites were firmly in control.
Source G: Adapted from A History of the Klan
In Colorado the Klan elected a Governor of the State, several judges and even the Denver chief of police. In one county of Alabama the Klan controlled judges, sheriffs and lawyers.
Source H: Robert Coughlan, a Catholic boy in 1924
Half the town belonged to the Klan when I was a boy. Most of the police were members. On nights when the Klan had its meetings there were no policemen around but instead Klansmen worked as traffic patrolmen.
The Federal Government in Washington was loathed to confront the Southern politicians who argued strongly for ‘states rights’ in opposition to federal interference and regulation. The complex relationship of the state and federal laws made direct intervention against segregation or even law enforcement difficult and national politicians feared losing White votes. Campaigning for re-election in 1924, an Indiana Congressman said, “I was told to join the Klan, or else.” Politicians hoped that the nation’s prosperity would seep down to every level and gradually eradicate inequality.
In the early 1920s many people in the big cities treated the Klan as a joke. But the mood changed. A march through Washington showed that the Klan was a powerful organisation.
Source I: A man interviewed after the Klan marched through Washington in 1925
“Hundreds of people in the big cities had never seen a Klansman and they thought the KKK could be ignored or treated as a few nuts who dressed up. But once we saw 40,000 of the Klan marching through our capital, well, nobody laughed anymore.”
The Great Migration – Why move north?
Black people were kept in poorly paid, unskilled jobs with few trade union rights. The South was becoming far too inhospitable. For those who dreamed of equality of opportunity the South was now a lost cause; their only hope lay in a move to the North. The great exodus from the South to the North East had started. They moved to the cities in search of a better life. The Klan had lost its influence by the late 1920s after a scandal involving a leader of the Klan. Although the Klan had lost its influence it did not die out and race hatred and race murder still continued. To escape poverty and race violence, many people moved north.
The movement of Blacks from the South began in 1915-1916 when the war industries were desperate for workers. Black people filled the gaps. In the period 1910-1920 the South lost 5% of its native Black population; by 1930 a further 8% had moved north. By 1940 it was 22%. May Black people believed the North was a land of opportunity where they could find the American dream.
Consequently the Northern industrial cities saw a remarkable increase in Black populations. By 1920:
New York was home to 152,000 Blacks – an increase of 66.3%
Philadelphia was home to 134,000 – up 58.9%
Chicago was home to 109,000 Blacks – up 148.2%
Throughout the 1920s, Blacks continued their movement to the North, taking jobs in the expanding industrial sector. Between 1920 and 1930, 824,000 Blacks moved north but even in 1930 over 50% of the country’s Black population remained in the rural south.