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The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s organized massive marches to advance its white supremacist and anti-immigrant agenda.

July 1, 2015   View Discussion

1924: When the Effort to Destroy the Ku Klux Klan Was Defeated by One Vote

Patrick Young, Esq.

by Patrick Young, Esq. - Blogger

The Charleston church massacre has stimulated the once shrinking Ku Klux Klan back into action. I have written about the new recruitment efforts of the Klan elsewhere, but I want to look back to an effort to destroy the Klan in the 1920s that was defeated by the leadership of the Democratic Party.

The Ku Klux Klan was first organized right after the Civil War by Confederate veterans intent on asserting white dominance after the end of slavery. The group used terrorism and intimidation to prevent blacks from voting, attending school, and asserting communal power. Black churches were a particular target, as were whites who formed coalitions with the African American community.

The Klan was largely suppressed by counterterrorism campaigns carried out during the Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.  It revived again during World War I and it enjoyed rapid growth as it embraced a platform calling for the subordination of blacks, immigrants, Jews, and Catholics.  Advocating the dominance of Pure White Protestantism, the Klan gained as many as four million members and became a major force throughout the South and Border States, as well as in some Northern states like Indiana. Historian Mike D’Incenso has estimated that as many as one-in-seven white Protestant men on Long Island were members.

The Klan was welcomed with open arms in many parts of the South. This picture was taken in 1928 in Bristol, Tennessee.

During the 1920s, the Klan, having already succeeded in politically marginalizing African Americans, turned its efforts to cutting off immigration from all but a few White Protestant countries like England and Sweden. It was so powerful that it succeeded in winning the support of politicians from both major political parties. Even local socialist parties sometimes entered into alliances with the clandestine group. At least one Supreme Court Justice and one future President were members of the organization. The Klan’s immigration restrictionist policies would become the law of the land in the mid-1920s.

There was a serious effort to defeat the Klan by the presidential campaign of New York Governor Al Smith. At the 1924 Democratic National Convention, held in New York, Smith’s allies introduced a proposed plank for its platform denouncing political terrorism and specifically naming the Klan as a group that was not welcome in the Democratic Party.

The non—delegates who were at the Convention were firmly against the Klan. Jews, Catholics, and liberals packed the galleries of Madison Square Garden to cheer on the effort to condemn the Klan by name. They were opposed, however, by a powerful combination. The former Democratic nominee for president, William Jennings Bryan and the son-in—law of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson used all their power to defeat the anti-Klan forces. When Bryan, among the most popular orators of his day, spoke in defense of the Klan, he had all of his “old-time fire and enthusiasm,” according to the report in the New York Times.

The Klan, shown here in its massive 1925 march on Washington, stressed its championing of White Protestant Christianity.

Unfortunately for Bryan, “the galleries happened to be passionately” against the Klan reported the Times.  Bryan “was hissed and booed again and again. Once the chorus of hoots became so loud that Senator Thomas J. Walsh, Chairman of the convention, threatened to have them cleared if the offense were repeated.”

The fight over the Klan went on for hours, but in the end the anti—Klan delegates were defeated by only one vote.

To understand the mindset of the pro—Klan politicians it is useful to read how one of them described the fight over the anti—Klan plank. James Thomas Heflin was the Democratic senator from Alabama at the time of the great floor fight over the Klan. He served in the House and the Senate for 26 years.

Here is an extended excerpt from Heflin’s account:

What did I see in the [1924 Democratic] convention at New York? I saw Roman Catholic delegates in the corridors of the hotels noisily demanding that the Ku-Klux-Klan be denounced by the Democratic convention. I talked to a number of them. I said, “Gentlemen, that question has got no business in this convention; you may not like the Klan, but you have got no business trying to get a National Democratic Convention to denounce it. It is a Protestant order and Protestants generally think that you want it denounced because you are Catholics. What would you think if it sought to denounce the Knights of Columbus by the convention? Nobody but Catholics can join that order.” “No,“ they replied,” we want the convention to denounce it.“ I said, ”If you do, you will tear the Democratic Party to pieces,“ and a number of them replied, ”To hell with the party if it will not denounce the Klan.” So I tell you Senators again that they put Roman Catholic government above everything, above the Democratic Party, and above their country. That is plain talk, but it is the plain truth.

What happened? They proceeded with their fight. In the committee room [former Democratic presidential candidate] William Jennings Bryan—peace to his ashes, God rest his soul—struggled to keep that issue out of the convention. He and his friends defeated [it] in the committee on platform and resolutions, and then they came out on the convention floor with it, and Roman Catholics who are prominent in their party demanded that the convention put their denunciation in the Democratic platform. Five thousand lawless hoodlums, Roman Catholics from Tammany [the New York City Democratic political organization] stood in the rear of the hall, and when one Roman Catholic official, a Senator, was speaking in favor of denouncing the Klan they cheered him to the echo.

Then, when Mr. Bryan came out to try to prevent this threatened split in the party, to try to calm the element that sought to kill the hope of party success, what did they do? This bunch of Tammanyites hissed him and heckled him, and it was nearly 30 minutes before he could say a word. I, with others, putting our hands up to our mouths in this fashion (illustrating), hollered to them to desist; . . . . [Then,] an officious Roman Catholic official of some sort on the platform of the convention came up and put his hand on my shoulder and told me if I did not stop that noise he would have to put me out. Well, I wish Senators could have seen the situation. I told him, “If you do not get back where you belong, I will knock you off this platform.” And he got back. That is the situation that we found there, when they were doing what? When as Roman Catholics—not as Americans, not as Democrats—they were demanding that a Democratic convention that had nothing on earth to do with the Ku Klux fraternity, or any other fraternity, should damn it and denounce it in convention.




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