"Why do we want all these people from 'shithole countries' coming here?"
Donald Trump, January 12, 2018
My great-great grandfather came from a shithole country.
It was the 1840s. There was a famine. At least one million people died in that famine. He and about 1.5 million other Irish men, women, and children did what they felt they had to do to survive. They came to America. They weren’t welcome. They encountered signs telling them “Irish and dogs not welcome here.” He eventually settled in Chicago, fought for the Union in the Civil War, married and had children, some of whom settled in Missouri’s Lead Belt—probably taking jobs there as miners.
When our president made the statement about shithole countries I was reading Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, and I was amazed at how President Trump’s sentiments echoed those of Klan members in the 1920s.
The 1920s have always intrigued me. I majored in history and did several papers on the social, cultural, and economic issues people faced during that decade. I must confess my previous understanding of the Ku Klux Klan of that era was off according to Ms. Gordon.
I always thought Klan members were probably rural know-nothings. That would make me wrong. It seems many were urban (including a large membership in New York City and on Long Island). The 1920s Klan had most of its members in the Midwest and west, and this was before much of the Great Migration of African Americans from the south to the urban centers of the North had taken place, so in the areas where the Klan had most of its members, there weren’t enough blacks to be perceived as a threat, so the 1920s Klan focused more on immigrants, Catholics, and Jews. In the west the focus was also on people of Mexican and Asian heritage. It was kind of an anti-(fill-in-the-blank) organization.
The Klan, in other words, was flexible. In some areas, for example, German Jews were OK, but the Jews coming from shithole countries in Eastern Europe and Russia were beyond the Pale (pun intended). In other areas, some Catholics were acceptable and even joined the Klan. In the South, of course, blacks were the primary focus of Klan activity.
Immigrants from shithole countries—especially Catholic and Orthodox shithole countries (Italy, Greece, and the like) were Klan targets.
Dealing with Klan targets was also flexible. In some communities economic boycotts were successful; in other communities, homes and businesses were burned. In extreme cases targets were killed.
In some areas, the Klan served as a moral police force—outing and shaming those who committed sexual offenses (sleeping around, having affairs with others’ spouses, etc.) or drank alcohol, which had been outlawed by Prohibition.
The Klan’s reasons for targeting immigrants sounds like they were snatched out of today’s conservative political talking points: crime, stealing jobs from “true” Americans, etc., which were probably as dubious then as now.
Another of the many things I didn’t know about the Klan is it was a financial pyramid scheme. There was a great deal of emphasis on recruiting members at least in part because dues were subject to commissions on the way to the national organization. In addition to dues, members were required to buy their uniforms, which were quite pricy. Somehow all these expenses made reminded me of Amway.
The Klan became a powerful political force. Many state and local offices (especially in Oregon and Indiana) were close to 100% Klan members. The Klan even influenced the nomination of the 1924 Democratic presidential candidate. The Klan also became a powerful social and economic force. In many communities businesspeople almost had to join in order to stay in business. Once they joined, they got a sign to put in their windows advertising that they were “one of us.”
In 1924 congressmen who were Klan members were instrumental in passing immigration “reform.” Immigration quotas were assigned based on the ethnic makeup of the country at that time. Seventy percent of immigrants could come from the UK, Germany, and the shithole country my great-great grandfather came from, Ireland. Jews from eastern Europe and Russia were radically restricted, and Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians were excluded. These quotas stayed in effect until 1965.
The Klan may well have remained a force to be reckoned with had it not been a pyramid scheme. People on the lower end of the pyramid got fed up with the financial arrangements. Since there was an awful lot of money involved, there was also a lot of embezzlement. But the straw that broke the camel’s back turned out to involve one of the most powerful members of the Klan, Indiana Grand Dragon David Stephenson. Stephenson was known to be a sexual predator whose powerful position always kept him from being prosecuted, but he went too far. He kidnapped, raped, and injured his secretary who, believing herself “ruined,” committed suicide. Stephenson was convicted of murder. The 1920s were a decade of sensationalist newspaper reporting. The publicity decimated membership and dues.
President Trump’s outburst and this book caused me to do some thinking about immigration. We’re a nation of immigrants. If we go back far enough into history, we are all immigrants. Even Native Americans came here from somewhere else—most likely Asia.
Most of our ancestors came here because things were so bad where they were living they were willing to take a chance on a new country. I’d think few people who were happy and prospering where they were would leave. So, in some respects, all our ancestors came from shithole countries or at least shithole situations. They left their shithole countries in search of a better life, and they didn’t go back.
I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to see much of the world. What I’ve seen has been interesting, but never tempting. I’m glad my ancestors left their shithole countries, how about you?
I’m not going to pretend that I have any answers on immigration, but I will say it’s not, as some people would like to say, as simple as “illegal is illegal.”
If things were that simple, we’d all be in jail for speeding.
Just as I was about to post this, I came across a CNN article that emphasizes how we—including some modern-day immigration hawks—are all descendants of people who came here from shithole countries.
Here’s the link:
© 2018 Larry Roth