How Prohibition Paved the Way for a Ku Klux Klan Resurgence in the 1920s

Topical Press Agency, Getty Images
Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

The motivation behind ratifying the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1919 was clear: Alcohol was a corruptive, corrosive lubricant, and America would be better off without it.

On the 100th anniversary of this societal shift, it’s worth noting that Prohibition had another, lesser-known consequence: It opened the door for hate groups to gain a greater foothold in America.

Making the sale and transportation of alcohol illegal was supposed to contribute to a strengthened moral fiber in the 1920s. But the sentiment behind it had roots in racism. "The Klan felt immigrants and anyone not of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) heritage was the underlying cause of America’s problems," according to Tennessee's Museum Center at 5ive Points. They argued that immigrants from Europe were importing their drinking habits and contributing to a relaxed social standard that organizations like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League dubbed a “saloon culture.” Before long, they reasoned, the U.S. would be overrun by Catholic foreigners contributing to societal decay. Bootleggers couldn’t be arrested fast enough.

That’s where the Ku Klux Klan stepped in. The organization was originally founded in 1866 to resist the Reconstruction period of a post-Civil War America. When their sentiments were drowned out by support for civil change, their numbers dwindled before being revived in the 20th century. As part of a sort of recruitment strategy, the Klan began mixing their message of discrimination against minorities with support for Prohibition. Advocacy for clean living was intermingled with the idea that immigrants were responsible for the hedonism associated with alcohol and so many of America's other wrongs.

In communities around the country, Klan representatives succeeded in creating concern by insisting that Catholics, Jewish community members, African-Americans, Hispanic people, and immigrants were feeding the continued disregard for the law. Rather than blanket towns with unfiltered hate speech, they convinced residents that minorities were responsible for illegal alcohol trafficking, speakeasies, and flagrant disobedience of the ban.

The Klan then took it a step further, convincing Prohibition supporters that they could pick up the slack left by overworked police who were struggling to stop bootleggers from flourishing. Evangelical Americans, stirred by fear over the Klan’s depiction of a bad element taking over the country, began to support their cause. If people were in favor of Prohibition, then it only made sense to be anti-immigration, too. The Klan even found federal support for its ambitions, supplying foot soldiers in attacks on Italian alcohol barons in Herrin, Illinois in 1923. Violence and planted evidence were common complaints among those targeted.

Any raids the Klan performed on bootleggers were rarely about seizing alcohol—and if they did, they typically drank it themselves. Instead, it was an excuse to terrorize Catholic neighborhoods in a display of power. Such groups, the Klan argued, were violating Prohibition and had to be stopped. As a result, Klan factions—including some for women and children—sprung up across the country. If supporters weren’t inherently racist, then they could get behind the blanket message to enforce the law.

Either way, Klan numbers grew, with an estimated 2 to 5 million members pledging their commitment to the cause between 1920 and 1925. The erupting violence during raids eroded those numbers in some communities, as people finally caught on that harassment of immigrants—not the betterment of America—was the Klan's primary goal.

The Klan’s ability to piggyback on Prohibition was lost in 1933, when the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment. The group wouldn’t be seen as a formidable force again until the rise of the civil rights movement. But for a good portion of the 1920s, they were able to grow in strength and numbers based on the promise of moral upkeep. The “noble experiment” of banning alcohol, which was intended to curb salacious behavior, would forever be associated with the malevolent intentions of the Klan.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

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Apple

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Sony

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Sony

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Martha Stewart

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Jashen

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Evachill

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Gourmia

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Townew

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Noerden

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Prices subject to change.

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Do You Remember? 12 Memorable Events That Happened on September 21—the Internet’s Favorite Day of the Year

Earth, Wind & Fire performs during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival just two weeks ahead of their favorite date: September 21st.
Earth, Wind & Fire performs during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival just two weeks ahead of their favorite date: September 21st.
George Pimentel/Getty Images

“Do you remember the 21st night of September?” Earth, Wind and Fire first asked the question back in 1978. In the years since—with many thanks owed to writer and comedian Demi Adejuyigbe’s viral videos celebrating the song and the day—September 21st has become something like the internet’s birthday or, as some have called it, “the most important day of the year.”

In honor of the ceremonious occasion, here are 12 memorable things that have happened on September 21st. After reading them, not only will you remember the 21st night of September—you’ll remember exactly what makes it worth singing about.

1. The Last Day of Summer

September 21 frequently marks the last official day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, as the Autumnal Equinox often falls on September 22 (which is the case in 2020).

2. The Ganesha Milk Miracle

Palani Mohan/Getty Images

In what has become known as the “Ganesha Milk Miracle,” India was briefly brought to a standstill on September 21, 1995, when statues of the elephant deity Ganesha appeared, when offered, to sip milk by the spoonful. Millions of people stood outside the country’s temples, hoping for a glance of this marvel, which stopped as quickly as it started. Milk prices increased by fourfold.

3. Belize Independence Day

After years of diplomacy talks, in 1981 Belize became a nation independent from the United Kingdom.

4. H.G. Wells’s Birthday

H.G. Wells was born on September 21, 1866. His work later influenced and has been referenced by author Stephen King, who was born on the very same day, 81 years later.

5. Mad Men Made Basic Cable TV History

Jon Hamm stars in Mad Men.Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

The Academy of Television of Arts and Sciences confirmed what everyone was thinking in 2008 when it named Mad Men the year’s Outstanding Drama Series, making AMC the first basic cable network to ever win the award. Bonus: Bryan Cranston also took home his first Emmy (of an eventually record-breaking four) for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Breaking Bad.

6. Benedict Arnold Became a Traitor

General Benedict Arnold committed the act that would make his name synonymous with treason and betrayal. In 1780, he met with British Major John Andre, offering to hand over his command of West Point in exchange for money and a high ranking within the British army.

7. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit Was Published

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit—which would eventually go on to sell 100 million copies, be translated into more than 50 languages, and most importantly, introduce the world to the concept of second breakfast—was published in 1937. In its honor, Tolkien Fans everywhere will celebrate Hobbit Day on September 22 (presumably with some second breakfast, amongst other felicitations).

8. Sandra Day O’Connor Confirmed as First Female Supreme Court Justice

Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn into the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Warren Burger while her husband, John O'Connor, looks on.The U.S. National Archives, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

On September 21, 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed by the U.S. Senate with a vote of 99–0 to become the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Four days later, on September 25, O'Connor was officially sworn in.

9. Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” Made its Debut

In 1968, Jimi Hendrix released his cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” While this was the first cover of the song, it became the definitive version as well.

10. NASA’s Galileo Mission Concluded

NASA, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

After becoming the first spacecraft to visit an asteroid (visiting two, actually) and successfully completing its mission to gather information about Jupiter and its moons, NASA concluded its Galileo mission in 2003. In order to avoid an unwanted crash between Galileo and the Jupiter moon of Europa—and in a poetic twist, to protect its own discovery of a possible ocean underneath Europa’s icy crust—Galileo was plunged into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

11. Perry Mason Made His Television Debut

Perry Mason premiered in 1957 and with it, we got America’s first weekly, hourlong primetime series to follow one character, which created the DNA for all of your favorite courtroom procedurals to follow (including all the Law & Orders, and then some), and a lawyer with a strikingly high success rate (yes, even for a fictional lawyer).

12. National Pecan Cookie Day

A tray of pecan cookies—just in time for Pecan Cookie Day.rojoimages/iStock via Getty Images

September 21 marks National Pecan Cookie Day, likely because pecan trees become ready to harvest in September. But really, who needs an excuse to eat a pecan cookie?