How the Klan Fueled ProhibitionRoundup
tags: racism, immigration, Prohibition, Ku Klux Klan
Lisa McGirr is a professor of history at Harvard and the author of “The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State.”
On Jan. 16, 1919, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the manufacture, sale, import or transportation of intoxicating liquors. The Prohibition era had begun.
Prohibition looms large in the national imagination even today as the era of gangsters and gin joints. Less often do we reflect on what motivated the country to adopt it and maintain it for 14 years. While the country faced a real problem of excessive drinking, powerful anti-immigrant hostility is what drove this monumental act of constitutional overreach.
Today, as we find ourselves in the midst of another fight over immigration, it is worth revisiting the role that nativism played in driving, and later enforcing, Prohibition. The consequences of that battle reverberated for decades to come. It sparked a vast expansion of the repressive capacities of the federal government and a rise of right-wing extremism, led by a revived Ku Klux Klan. It also forged a new political coalition that would bring ethnic working-class voters into the Democratic Party, where they would remain for much of the century.
Temperance and Prohibition had been popular causes throughout the 19th century, but supporters didn’t reach a critical mass until the era of mass immigration at the turn of the century. With more than a million men and women coming to the United States in 1907 alone, anti-liquor crusaders railed against a “foreign invasion of undeveloped races.” The boisterous drinking culture of the ubiquitous working-class saloon, dominated by immigrant men, seemed to make manifest the dangers mass immigration posed to a white native Protestant American way of life.
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