Cultural Conflicts

from Who Built America?

American cultural diversity emerged as a crazy quilt of conflicts in the 1920s and met with resistance of many kinds. Ethnic enclaves in large cities continued to preserve old traditions and respect for family obligations. Tens of millions of Americans were raised in homes where English was not spoken except by the children, who went to religious schools that fostered Old World traditions. As late as 1940, New York had 237 foreign-language periodicals. But although their parents bought radios to listen to the foreign-language programs, the children changed the stations and sneaked off to the movies.

High-brow culture, too, was centered in the large cities. Many of the best-known writers of the 1920s, including Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and H. L. Mencken, portrayed people who lived in small towns as narrow, hypocritical, and spiritually impoverished. Babbitt, the title of Lewis's satirical novel about a small-town businessman, entered the language as a synonym for a narrow and self-satisfied conformist.

Cities permitted behaviors and institutions unacceptable in small towns. Major cities like New York became the center of an increasingly visible homosexual subculture that could be found in certain bars, tearooms, rooming houses, bathhouses, restaurants, and cafeterias, as well as in particular neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and Harlem. Prohibition pushed gay and lesbian life further out in the open. By criminalizing drinking behavior that even many middle-class people sanctioned, Prohibition undercut conventional moral authority and fostered a set of institutions ("speakeasies") and an amusement district (Times Square) where gay men and lesbians could flaunt social convention. By the late 1920s, New York was in the throes of a "pansy craze," with drag balls that attracted thousands of spectators and Broadway plays that featured gay themes. Gladys Bentley, an openly lesbian performer, began her own Harlem nightclub and married her white girlfriend in a very public ceremony.

Not surprisingly, such transgressions against sexual and gender conventions brought a backlash.   In 1927, New York police raided plays like The Captive and Sex and arrested their casts, including the flamboyant Mae Vest. The New York state legislature quickly followed with a ban on plays depicting or dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy, or sex perversion." Four years earlier the legislature had lashed out against gay bars and cruising" by defining homosexual solicitation as a form of disorderly conduct -a statute often interpreted to mean that all gay and lesbian gathering places were "disorderly." By the 1930, continued legal harassment and police raids had erased gay life from public view.

Culturally conservative Americans saw the growing visibility of urban gay culture as one of many signs that cities were the source of sin, depravity, and irreligion. Many of these Americans were part of a Protestant fundamentalist movement that had been gaining strength since the late nineteenth century. The movement was a reaction against modern urban life, modern science, and liberal Protestants who tolerated both challenges to traditional religion. The fundamentalist came into use in 1909, after publication of a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals, which denounced as corrupt modern scientific theories such as evolution and modern life pastimes such as dancing. Intellectuals and urban Americans in the 1920s (as now) saw fundamentalism as a sign of rural backwardness and opposition to change. H. L. Mencken relentlessly mocked "the forlorn pastors who belabor half-wits in the galvanized iron tabernacles behind the railroad yards." Yet fundamentalist and evangelical Christians had a strong presence in the cities, and readily adopted modern means of communication in their proselytizing. The evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, for example, may have started out preaching at revival meetings in tents, but by the mid- 1920s she was presiding over the spectacular Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, where tens of thousands heard her sermons, which were also broadcast over the radio. McPherson's success flowed not just from her message and effective use of the new technology (and her legendary beauty), but from the incredible growth of the city of Los Angeles, which added 1.3 million new residents in the 1920s. '

But if adherents of fundamentalism could be found in cities all over the country, the decade's most famous confrontation over the truth of the Bible erupted in the small Southern town of Dayton, Tennessee, in 192 S. There, fundamentalists, hostile to any idea that ran Counter to a literal reading of the Bible, rallied against the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory that human beings shared an evolutionary link with other primates, They had persuaded the Tennessee legislature to pass a law prohibiting teaching that "man has descended from a lower order of animals." When the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chose Dayton high school teacher John T Scopes to defy the law intentionally as a test of its constitutionality, fundamentalists were outraged. They enlisted former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan to aid the prosecution. Clarence Darrow, a prominent liberal lawyer who had defended many political and criminal celebrities, headed Scopes's defense team. The trial was a carnival of journalists and onlookers; on the street outside, vendors sold Bibles and toy monkeys. It was the first jury trial to be broadcast live on the radio.

The most famous moment in the Scopes trial came when the defense - prohibited by the judge from calling scientists to defend evolution-put Bryan on the stand as an expert on the Bible. Darrow ridiculed him before the court and the nation, forcing Bryan to admit that some biblical passages could not be interpreted literally But Bryan's testimony had no real bearing on the case, and it exaggerated the differences between Darrow and Bryan, both of whom actually shared a commitment to social justice. In fact, Bryan's fundamentalism was linked to his populism. He had long opposed social Darwinism, or the application of Darwin's principle of "survival of the fittest" to human society- to struggling farmers, laborers, and small businessmen.

Both fundamentalists and scientists emerged from the trial as losers. In the face of the scorn heaped on them by intellectuals, fundamentalists retreated from political life, and did not fully reenter politics until the 1980s. Scopes was convicted (although his sentence was later thrown out on a technicality), and Tennessee's antievolution law remained on the books until the 1960s. A few other states passed antievolution laws, and publishers meekly complied by removing discussions of evolution from biology textbooks sold across the nation.

Like fundamentalists, the Ku Klux Klan is also often associated with southern rural life. Yet in the 1920s, the Klan, too, had a major following in the cities. In its heyday in the early 1920s, roughly half of the Klan's three million members lived in metropolitan areas. And although it had considerable support in the South, the Klan was strongest in the Midwest and the Southwest. Founded in 1915 and inspired by the Reconstruction-era organization of the same name, the Klan shared with its nineteenth- century namesake a deep racism, a fascination with mystical regalia, and a willingness to use violence to silence its foes. Unlike its predecessor, it professed anti- Catholicism and anti-Semitism as strongly as it affirmed racism.

The intolerance and vigilantism that was prevalent during World War I had paved the way for the Klan's rise. Farmers going through hard times, underpaid workers facing competition from immigrants and African Americans, small businessmen who were losing out to national manufacturers and chain stores all lashed out through the Klan against

those they believed were threatening their economic well-being. Country dwellers resented the diminishing importance of rural virtues; city dwellers associated foreigners with gangs and crime. Old-stock urban Protestants felt displaced by Catholics and Jews, and those who remembered the Red scare were left with the suspicion that immigrants were inherently subversive.

Riding on fears of immigrants, communists, labor unions, African Americans moving north, and Jews and Catholics rising in the economic and social order, the Klan staged parades and cross-burning rallies across the country. Klan leaders gained strong influence over state governments in Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Louisiana, Kansas, and especially Indiana. Within a few years, however, a series of sexual, financial, and political scandals had tainted the Klan, and political leaders in several states moved against it.

Although the Klan retreated, the cultural antagonisms that supported it remained strong and surfaced in conflicts over Prohibition. In 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution -was ratified, making it illegal to manufacture, sell, transport, import, or export drinking alcohol. Ratification, however, did not reflect a national consensus on drinking. Although the law was not openly flaunted at first, liquor flowed into the country across U.S. borders. Bootlegging and the production of alcohol for medical and religious purposes added to the supply. AIcohol consumption did decline, perhaps by as much as half, but tens of millions of normally law -abiding Americans either broke the law or abetted those who did. Even President Harding had a favorite bootlegger. It became apparent that enforcing Prohibition would require huge police forces.

Opponents of Prohibition argued that because the law could not be enforced, it bred crime, corruption, and a disregard for the rule of law in general. Indeed, the vast profits to be made from illegal liquor fed gangsters who were involved in prostitution and high-interest loans. With profits rolling in, these types of organized crime provided poor Italians, Jews, Poles, and Irish with a means of upward mobility' Gangster organizations grew in size, sophistication, and power, fighting to establish regional fiefdoms using the latest technology, from fast automobiles to submachine guns. Politicians and police were bought off, wholesale.   In some cities, gangs became an integral part of local politics. Al Capone and other flamboyant gangsters became celebrities: Their latest exploits -and their elaborate funerals -received detailed newspaper coverage. Capone, who turned crime into a big business, was said to have grossed more than $100 million from bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, and other rackets

"The very fact that the law is difficult to enforce," an official of the Anti-Saloon League commented in 1926 ' "is the clearest proof of the need of its existence." But by then the failure of Prohibition was obvious, especially in urban areas. Organized opposition, once confined to the unions and the liquor interests, began to mount. Of nine state referenda held in an attempt to modify the law, the wets" (opponents of Prohibition) won seven. Public opinion polls showed that especially in the large industrial states, wets predominated, In the new urban culture, influenced by the automobile, the radio, and the movies, the protection of the Victorian home and family was no longer a central issue; individualism, personal freedom, and consumerism were the dominant values.

American Indians defended another front in the cultural wars of the 1920s. Backed by Christian missionaries, Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior in the mid- 1920s, attacked Indian culture and religion, especially the peyote cult, in which worshippers ingested a hallucinogen during a holy rite, Work charged that "gross immorality . . . accompanies native dances." Others lashed out at "Indian paganism" and what they described as "horrible, sadistic, and obscene" heathen practices. Defenders of Indian culture, including both Indians and white supporters, argued for reform of federal Indian policy, based on the Wilsonian principle of self-determination. Conservative critics of Indian culture labeled these defenders "Red Progressives," "anti-American, and subversive . . . agents of Moscow." Over the course of the 1920s, however, Indians won some modest concessions from government officials and a Congress that was often hostile to Indian interests. In 1924, for example, Congress finally passed a law conferring citizenship on all Indians born in the United States. But many states continued to prevent Indians from voting. More far-reaching reform of the nation's Indian policy would not come until the next decade.