The Dark Side of the Roaring Twenties
The Roaring Twenties, most of the things we hear about the twenties are of good, happy times and of advances in technology and medicine. When we picture the twenties, we picture people dancing, listening to jazz and driving Model Ts. Also, in the twenties, the pretty was quite prosperous.
But, there was a dark side to the Roaring Twenties. Those years there were some troubling trends and events, which many forget when thinking of that decade; prohibition, organized crime, nativism and the return of the Ku Klux Klan.
Ironically, the twenties are often thought of as a time with careless drinking, when actually, it was illegal in that decade to sell or consume alcohol. On January 16th, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. A ban on the manufacturing and distribution on alcohol was written into the United States Constitution. This ban was called Prohibition. People held mock funerals the day before the amendment came to pass. Some people and businesses even spent the weeks prior to the amend. ent stockpiling liquor.
Prohibition came to be due to almost a century of effort that started with the temperance movement in the early nineteenth century. After the years of the American Revolution, there was a huge increase in drinking and alcohol consumption. Saloons began to pop up everywhere as hard working men tended to escape loneliness and exhaustion by drinking. Saloons also provided settings for other illegal activities such as prostitution and gambling. A number of people noticed the effects of alcohol consumption and began to try and stop it.
First, they encouraged people to just limit their intake of alcohol; however, they eventually began to encourage complete abstinence. As time went on, these reformers went to political action and government intervention. Also, medical research began to show evidence on how alcohol consumption affected people’s health. Concern also arose about how much power breweries wielded as they pursued high profits. More groups, such as the Methodist Church, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League and the Prohibition Party began to join the movement against alcohol.
All of these forces came together to help the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. Prohibition caused a huge division in the people and citizens in the United States. One side supported the law, who were later identified as “Drys”, while the other side wanted to put an end to prohibition, identified as “Wets”. It was also very much disliked in areas with high immigrant populations. This resentment towards prohibition was due to the fact that it banned a practice that was acceptable in their own cultures. However, despite the law, people continued to drink.
Some, who were too poor to afford liquor from bootleggers, resorted to brewing their own at home. The places where people would drink illegally were called speakeasies. There were also places called blind pigs, which were businesses that were designed to look legitimate, but housed a bar in a back room. To access these blind pigs and speakeasies, a password was typically required in order to ensure one wasn’t with, or associated, to law enforcement. Prohibition also led to a rise in organized crime. Organized crime did exist before prohibition, but gangs and mobsters saw another great area of profit with prohibition.
By providing people who were willing to break the law with illegal liquor, they could make a fortune. But then, as more gangs began to compete, violence also increased. This is the time when the infamous gang leader, Al Capone, made his name. Eventually the atmosphere of lawlessness, violence and suspicion the prohibition created made people more and more uncomfortable. People then began to find the cost of prohibition too high and most did not see drinking, at least in moderation, as sinful. Prohibition finally ended in 1933 with the Twenty-first Amendment.
Another issue that arose in the twenties was nativism. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigrants were welcomed into the United States because the country was growing and industrializing. Due to this, laborers were needed. Also, the United States was always proud of being a refuge for people fleeing hardship or mistreatment in their own countries, or looking for new opportunities for themselves and their children. Before 1890, most of the immigrants had come from the same countries as those who first settled in America.
So they typically shared the same values as the original settlers. In the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the immigrants came from southern and eastern European countries. Some also came from Puerto Rico, the West Indies and Mexico. In contrast to the Protestant majority, these newer immigrants tended to be Catholics or Jews, and had different morals and values. By World War I, immigrants were pouring into the United States, and the majority of those immigrants were of this new variety. This alarmed the citizens on the United States.
They felt their ways of life were threatened by the ways and beliefs of the newcomers. It was not just that the immigrants were economic competitors, or that their strange cultural practices threatened traditional values. It was also that they were thought to be harvesting dangerous and radical ideas about politics and social order. It was said they believed in socialism and anarchy. But most of the immigrants were too preoccupied by survival to worry about politics. They faced things such as poverty, mistreatment and struggled with learning a new language and fitting into a new foreign society.
Nativism sentiment led to an event known as the Red Scare. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer became the leading figure in a movement promoting “one-hundred percent Americanism”. Palmer led a campaign against communists and other radicals and others who were thought to have the wrong ideas of America. Federal agents arrested more than four thousand suspects who were threatened with deportation, of which two hundred and forty-nine were sent back to Russia. Nativism also led to the rebirth and return of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the previous century, the Klan was a group of white southerners who wreaked havoc on African Americans in an attempt to keep whites in control of the South after the Civil War. This time around though, they widened their focus to not only non-whites, but to non-Protestants as well. They also didn’t just stay in the southeastern states anymore, they spread all over the United States. Depending on where Klan members were located, they had different focuses. For example, members in New York primarily focused on Jews; in California, Japanese were targeted, while Mexicans were the victims in Texas.
The Klan ran a campaign to recruit members and grew to about five million members, These members performed many of the same acts as the Klan did in the previous century such as; beatings, lynching and acts of intimidation (the most known being the burning of crosses on lawns). These acts spurred an investigation of the Klan in 1921, which, in turn, ended up giving publicity to the Klan and gaining them more members. The Ku Klux Klan gained more influence as some politicians began to support their cause. In 1924, however, the Klan’s numbers dwindled and their influence declined and they lost their legitimacy.
All of these factors are not so widely thought about when thinking of the Roaring Twenties. But they brought much darkness to the decade and led to many events and trials that also contribute to the darkness. The twenties are masked by visions of dancing and driving cars. But the care-free and fun-loving thoughts of the twenties just disguise the dirty and grimy parts of them. From the lawlessness and organized crime provoked by prohibition to the hate crimes brought upon by nativism, there is no doubt that there was indeed a dark side to the Roaring Twenties.