Thursday, July 07, 2011

Consequences of Powerlessness: Whiteness as Class Politics, Part III

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001." To mark the fifth anniversary of that publication, I am serializing "White Metropolis" at this blog site. Here, I describe the response of the Dallas Jewish community to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the nature of opposition to the KKK within the city.

Responses of the Jewish community to the the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Dallas varied, with Rabbi David Lefkowitz of Temple Emanu-El mounting a highly public campaign against the Klan. The most important Jewish merchants in the city, Alex Sanger, Charles Sanger, Herbert Marcus, Leon Harris and Arthur Kramer leant substantial support to the anti-Klan Dallas Citizens League. The Jewish-owned Schepps Bakery, however, paid the KKK membership dues for 50 employees. Julius Schepps later said he did this in order to monitor Klan activity, his employees serving as a source of inside information.

One Jewish firm bought $400 worth of advertising in the Klan's "The Texas 100 Per Cent American newspaper," perhaps to avoid a crippling business boycott. The Young Men's Hebrew Association helped raise funds for the Klan's Hope Cottage, with Alex Sanger appearing alongside Grand Titan Z.E. Marvin at its opening ceremonies. Three Jews — Charles L. Sanger, Harry Sigel, and Lawrence Kahn — sat on the board of Klansman R.L. Thornton's Dallas County State Bank, a firm that advertised as a "KKK Business Firm 100%." Such Jewish collaboration with the Klan led Jim Ferguson, the previously-impeached Texas governor and anti-Klan leader who was himself an anti-Semite, to charge that a conspiracy existed in which "the Ku Klux are to get the big offices and the Big Jews are to get the big business."

Southern Jews often sharply split from their Northern peers on civil rights for African Americans. Northern Jews, many of them recent immigrants from Eastern Europe where they had suffered harsh persecution at the hands of the Russian Czar, participated in and actively supported groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Southern Jewish communities felt more vulnerable. "Southern Jews," as author Mark Bauman notes, "were aware that in times of crisis, they served as convenient scapegoats." Some Southern Jews actively embraced Southern racism. Others opposed black oppression on strictly moral grounds, but did not believe in racial equality.

Another segment of the Jewish population supported black civil rights and opposed white supremacist ideology, but most in this faction preferred to work behind-the-scenes for fear of making their community a target of violence. Relatively few Southern Jews actively campaigned against Jim Crow or lynching. Where this did happen, generally a Northern-born rabbi not emotionally tied to the racial order in Dixie led the resistance. Such would be the case in Dallas. Most Southern Jews, however, resented the civil rights activism of Northern Jews who would not be around to suffer the consequences of Southern Gentile backlash.

Dallas Jews probably felt outnumbered by potentially hostile Gentile neighbors while internal ethnic divisions further weakened resistance to the Klan. A sharp line divided Jews of Western European and German origin — many of whom had immigrated before the twentieth century — and later immigrants of Eastern European heritage. German Jews were more integrated into the Dallas economic power structure, more assimilationist in philosophy and more Reform in theology. Eastern European Jews were less prosperous and more likely to be union activists.

"Intermarriage" to the Jewish community less often referred to the union of Jews and Gentiles and more often to marriage between German and Eastern European Jews. One Jewish woman recalled her father's anger when she dated a Russian tailor's son, whom he saw as a social inferior. "If you plant potatoes, you don't get apples," he said. Divisions within the community probably made insecure Jews less likely to confront the Klan

Privately, this accommodation strategy distressed Rabbi Lefkowitz. Lefkowitz, born in Austria-Hungary in 1875, lost his father at an early age and grew up in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City, where teachers fired his interest in the Hebrew language, Jewish history, and the Talmud. Lefkowitz entered rabbinical studies at the liberal Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and was appointed rabbi by a Dayton, Ohio congregation upon graduation, a position he held for 20 years. Lefkowitz then accepted the leadership of Dallas' Temple Emanu-El in 1920. Lefkowitz's experiences inspired a commitment to social justice and a faith in the ultimate goodness of American society. Evil could be defeated, or at least mitigated, by living an exemplary life and through moral, rational persuasion. Lefkowitz's response to the Klan was passionate, but gentle.

Answering a friend concerned about Alex Sanger's appearance at the opening of Hope Cottage, Lefkowitz emphasized the need to keep the small Jewish community unified. "I can't answer your question concerning brother Alex Sanger sitting on the platform at the Hope Cottage dedication," Lefkowitz wrote. " . . . [D]on't get too blue about it and don't let the Klan situation worry you too much. It is bad enough, to be sure, but we mustn't let it reduce our own power by worrying us and making us sick. We need the best we have to fight it to a finish."

In a 1934 letter to a Christian minister, Lefkowitz recalled that a Klan member ran in an election for the principle office in the Scottish Rite. The non-Klan opponent won by one vote. Lefkowitz was asked to address fellow Masons following the election. Reminding the audience of sacrifices made by Jewish servicemen and clergy during World War I, Lefkowitz asked his audience if those Jewish men should be considered "100% American."

Regarding the Klan, Lefkowitz asked, "what would Christ do?" The response from Gentiles, Lefkowitz said, was instant. "The end of my address was marked by applause of Klansmen as well as non-Klansmen . . . Masonry was on its way to kicking the Klan members totally out of its membership," Lefkowitz said. Working around the reticence of fellow Jews, and not confronting the Klan's anti-black racism, Lefkowitz relied on Gentile iconography in persuading Christians to reject the KKK.

Both Jewish and Gentile opponents of the Klan portrayed it as a mob movement rooted in the lower classes. By attacking the Klan as the madness of the dysfunctional lower-classes, Jews, Gentile liberals and elites could prevent middle-class men like Hiram Evans and Z.E. Marvin from forming a new Dallas ruling bloc. The Little Theater of Dallas openly critiqued the hypocrisies of white racism during the height of Klan activism in the 1920s, winning national recognition and drawing enthusiastic crowds in the process.

The theater's attacks on racial violence, however, supported class hierarchy. Many participants in the Little Theater were targets of Klan hostility. Prominent Jews such as Eli Sanger and Louis Lipsitz served on the board of directors while the Little Theater's acting troupe included newspaper writer John Rosenfield. The irrational, unpredictable poor white served as the primary bête noir in the imagination of the Little Theater company. Alarmed by its potential radicalism, elites such as those who ran the Little Theater now indirectly condemned the 1920s Klan for causing public disorder.

In its debut 1923-1924 season, the Little Theater portrayed poor "white trash" as the authors of injustice, violence and racial discord. The theater staged "Judge Lynch," a one-act play written by Dallas Times Herald entertainment editor John William Rogers, Jr., concerning an innocent black man unjustly hanged by a mob after being accused of committing murder during the theft of a watch.

As the play opens, two major characters, Mrs. Joplin and Ella, discuss the shocking death of a hot-tempered man called Squire Tatum, who was fatally struck on the head with an axe-handle. The black suspect (referred to only as that "Jacks nigger") is described as "a hard-workin' hand, and perlite and respectful as a body could want. Kinder timid-like too." Ella and Mrs. Joplin have a hard time picturing the black man committing the crime, yet decide that he must be guilty because he has already been judged and sentenced by the local mob. "It does look like niggers would learn, but I reckon they wouldn't be niggers if they did," Mrs. Joplin says."

A mysterious white stranger arrives who seems unduly curious about the Tatum murder. The stranger nervously asks if the killer has been caught. In a most unheroic description of lynch law, Ed says that the Jacks nigger was struck by the mob as a man taunted him screaming, "Confess you black baboon, or we'll burn you alive." The lynch mob begins to chant, "Burn him — build a fire." It looked like the black victim would be immolated when a member of the mob makes a "generous" offer: "If he'll confess we'll only hang him. If he don't — Well, boys, we'll give him a minute to make up his mind how he's going to die before we start gathering the wood."

Facing the prospect of being burned at the stake, the accused man breaks down and makes a confession. The stranger, who has been listening with rapt attention to this account, gasps with shock, "He's confessed!" Mrs. Joplin reacts with a shrug of the shoulders to this rite of human sacrifice and gives an ironic lecture on the difference between white civilization and African primitiveness:

"Something that belongs to the wilderness — that ain't got no place in a white man's land, and never will. Niggers has got used to Christian clothes, they don't put rings in their noses no more, and some of them's ironed most of the kink out of their hair. But they ain't never got rid of that other thing . . . Mostly it's asleep now, but you can never tell when its going to wake up — when it's going to lie waiting for you like one of those African animals they has in cages at the circus would . . . That's why no white woman dares go down a lonely road, or cross a field after dark."

The description of the lynching leaves the stranger agitated. Squire Tatum had a foul temper, the stranger insists, and maybe "got what was coming to him." After the others leave the stranger alone on stage, he reaches into his pocket and drops an object onto the woodpile that turns out to be Squire Tatum's watch. "That nigger was here this afternoon," Ella says upon discovering the watch. "I told you Ed ought not to leave us alone."

Judge Lynch was both a critical and popular success, winning a prize in a national competition. Performed at the Majestic Theater, Judge Lynch drew more than 23,000 to ten sell-out performances. Strikingly, this one-act script directly challenged many of the mythologies upon which white supremacy was based. Whites hypocritically proclaim their moral superiority to "niggers" while committing the savage murder of an innocent black man. The characters' bigotry blinded them to the guilt of a white stranger.

The play also represented a more subtle discourse on class. With their substandard English, Ella, Mrs. Joplin and Ed are coded as poor white trash, the undermen always responsible for racial violence. Lynch law, Rogers asserts, springs from ignorance, not raw power politics. As a Dallas journalist, Rogers undoubtedly knew that the Klan, the chief instigators of racial violence in his time, numbered policemen, lawyers, and even a one-time editor of his own newspaper among its members. Yet, white trash are portrayed as truly "something that belongs to the wilderness — that ain't got no place in a white man's land, and never will."

Elite attacks on the Klan only enhanced its popularity with the working class. The anti-Klan Dallas County Citizen's League, made up of men like former state attorney general Martin M. Crane and merchant Alex Sanger, proved ineffective. Four days after the formation of Citizen's League, 2,342 new Klansmen enrolled in a mass meeting. The Citizens Association, dominated by bankers and real estate interests, opposed the Klan in the 1923 municipal elections, pledging to rule Dallas "without regard to color, race, religious or other affiliations." The Klan-backed slate won the April 3 election in a landslide, capturing every race, the first shutout of the Citizens Association municipal slate since its formation 18 years earlier. The Klan-backed mayoral candidate, Louis Blaylock, won more than 73 percent of the vote.

The fall of the Klan in Dallas, however, came swiftly following the victory of Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, wife of the previously impeached governor James Ferguson, in the 1924 Democratic gubernatorial primary over pro-Klan candidate Felix D. Robertson. The Morning News reluctant support of Ferguson notwithstanding, Robertson carried Dallas County 2-1 in the primary, but lost to Ferguson in the statewide runoff. Yet the Klan no longer appeared as politically omnipotent as it had just a few months earlier.

"After Robertson was beaten the prominent men left the Klan," a former member later recalled. Klan leadership became primarily a realm of "low-level, white collar workers and civil servants, who kept the secret organization alive . . ." The Klan was devastated in 1925 when one of its national leaders, David Stephenson, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment for the abduction and sexual assault of a secretary who later committed suicide. In the wake of this scandal, state membership declined from a peak of 97,000 to 18,000 in 1926. Dallas membership dropped from 13,000 to 1,200 that same year. The KKK remained marginalized, playing an insignificant role when the final crisis over legal segregation in Dallas arrived in the 1960s.

Nevertheless, the 1920s Klan profoundly shaped Dallas racial beliefs for decades to come. Jews, to some degree, discovered common interests with African Americans, and many future leaders such as Rabbi Levi Olan bravely battled the city's racial conventions, but the community never completely abandoned accommodation. The Klan and the on-going phenomena of racial violence politicized many Texas women who saw an intimate relationship between racial and gender oppression. In 1924, Dallasite Jessie Daniel Ames, the college-educated, widowed wife of an army surgeon, became the director of the Texas council of the Atlanta-based Commission on Interracial Cooperation. In 1929, she moved to Atlanta to become director of the CIC's Women's Committee.

While there, she founded the CIC-financed Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. Ames fought to shatter the sexual and racial mythologies reinforcing lynch law. "Lynching . . . far from offering a shield against sexual assault, served as a weapon of both racial and sexual terror, planting fear in women's minds and dependency in their hearts," historian Jacquelyn Hall notes, summarizing Ames' critique of lynching. "It thrusts them into the role of personal property or sexual objects, ever threatened by black men's lust, ever in need of white men's protection."

Not consigned to the margins like earlier Socialists and Populists, Lefkowitz, Ames and progressives like them believed in capitalism and American democracy. Insinuating themselves into elite circles, they believed that changing Dallas was a matter of appealing to reason and hoping that consensus for reform would follow. Dallas liberals in the 1950s and 1960s would follow the Ames/Lefkowitz model, implementing incremental changes on the margins but never directly critiquing the role capitalism played in generating racial and gender oppression.

Already by the 1930s, Dallas was more complex and more diverse than much of the South, making the battles for human justice more difficult to pick and victories harder to calculate. The next chapter examines how African Americans responded to the pressure of whiteness. Segregation exposed Dallas' black population to poverty and disease, but within those confines African Americans created a viable, separate community with institutions that reinforced positive notions of blackness.

Rather than equating democracy with anarchy, African Americans sought to make Dallas city fathers live according to the egalitarian ideals embedded in the Constitution. With millennial expectations of redemption, and their perception of blacks as a chosen people, African American leaders charged for the courtroom and the voting booth to assert a higher status.

African Americans, however, could expect only inconsistent support from those groups deemed marginally white. Responding to a post-Nazi anti-racism backlash, convulsive economic changes, the pressure of a national civil rights movement and the collapse of a once reliably segregationist Democratic Party, whites fragmented into myriad political mini-factions. This multiplication of political divisions prevented the implementation of massive resistance to segregation prevailing in the more unified white communities in states such as Mississippi and Alabama, but also blocked the consensus needed to create a more just and equitable society.

African Americans could not help but notice that the disappearance of the Klan did not bring a freer or more just racial climate. Dallas racism and extremism simply no longer drew the national press or generated sensationalistic headlines. By the late 1930s, the phenomena of lynching had virtually disappeared. A quieter regime of racial violence reigned, one not under the glare of the burning cross.

Dallas elites had used lynching as a form of institutional violence to control dissent before the Civil War and during Reconstruction, and to suppress black assertion in the early twentieth century. This proved a risky strategy as violence often spun out of control and passed from elite to lower class hands. The Jim Crow system that fully developed in Dallas after the 1920s represented a more subtle and effective form of establishment dominance. Lynching had oppressed both black men and white women. Segregation served a similar function, representing a symbolic form of establishment violence.

The draconian edicts of all-white juries, the ramshackle condition of Jim Crow schools, and the inferior or non-existent medical care offered to sick blacks undercut African American resistance and underscored to Anglo workers, Jews, Catholics and Mexicans the dangers of losing whiteness. In the coming decades, segregation became lynching by other means.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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