1920s Essay, Research Paper
Was America really a free society in the 1920’s?
Freedom covers many aspects of life : human rights, religious freedom, economic freedom, freedom of expression and political freedom. In America in the 1920’s there was an illusion of freedom – but some people were more free than others and this depended on race, social class and political belief.
There was a big divide between rich and poor and this was further exagerrated by the divide between the urban and rural populations.
The smaller farmers suffered from low income. The government did nothing to help, as it was Republican and believed in not interfering with American peoples lives. This ties in with the idea of economic freedom – the rural poor were not free because they could not afford to buy what they wanted. They barely had the money to survive, let alone the opportunity to earn the extra money to buy the things that they needed.
The mining story was much the same. As the demand for coal dropped, the wages were lowered and the hours for miners were longer. A non-union policy was set up in many mines, which prevented any worker from joining a trade union. This meant that they could pay lower wages and charge less for coal and get a bigger percentage of the market, (65 percent in 1926.) So the freedom to join a trade union was taken away.
As a citizen of the United States of America, you had the right to vote, that is if you were classed as a citizen. Citizenship excluded blacks and Indians in most states, and even communists in one. This exclusion was more prominent in the Deep South where racism was still a bitter fact of every day life. The Jim Crow laws prevented black people from voting, getting a good education and even riding on buses in the seat they wanted to sit in. (Despite this fact, many black people rose to the top and got good jobs such as lawyers). The majority of blacks though, were employed in low paid, dirty jobs, such as bin men and toilet cleaners. A lot of industries had an all white hiring policy, making it even harder for black people to get jobs.
The justice system was also very biased. If someone even suspected that a black man had committed a crime, he would be put to trial (if he was lucky) and most likely hanged. Sometimes if, he was sent to prison, or awaiting trial, lynch mobs would take them away, beat them and kill them.
The Ku Klux Klan were an active, and very vicious organisation ,a hater of all that was not White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. They were mostly behind the lynchings, and killed many blacks.
The authorities did not do any thing about it, because many of them were members of the Klan them selves.
There were also questions of freedom according to gender. Again, this was not clear cut. Women in the rural areas were still very dominated by their husbands and played a traditional role in the home. Tasks like milking the cows, making the food and bringing up the family were what women were thought to be for. The country folk saw the ‘the liberated, free women of the city’ to be corrupt and immoral.
The women in the city were not as free as many thought though. Their clothing was restricted (in Chicago, one piece bathing suits were banned), and even though they got the vote in 1920, and started in employment, they still got lower wages and were exploited as a result.
Political freedom was also in serious question. Communism was banned in some states, but the fear of it was exagerated compared to the real threat. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia had led to an immense phobia of any thing Soviet, especially communism – and anything that hinted at radical left politics . The fear of anarchists was also as great. One example of this fear was the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Sacco and Vanzetti were men who were executed on political grounds. The fact that they were both anarchists and immigrants, were the reasons for their arrest and execution. The evidence was inconclusive (and some say fixed), the defense clearly out weighed the prosecution, yet they were still found guilty of murder and armed robbery. They were put to death by electric chair on the 24th of August, 1927.The authorities were looking for someone to blame, and unfortunately it was them.
The real guilty party here, were the WASPs. Anything that threatened WASP supremacy – even the slightest thing – would be instantly crushed, even if it meant ignoring the bill of rights, or the policies of the country. The ‘Red Scare’ was devised by the capitalist WASPs, to protect their interests and money, and it impinged on the freedom of many sections of American society.
The new immigrants moved into ghettos in the big cities, which made the place look ugly, and was also thought to be a health risk. Irrational fears about immigrants began to take hold. The government decided to set up an immigration policy. At the root of this was the idea of not “polluting” the WASP communities. The red scare was also a major factor. If enough communists and left wing radicals were allowed in, it would be a threat the WASPs.
By this time ,the open door policy was losing popularity as the new immigrants were blamed for rising crime and violence, and problems in the cities.
The quota act was set up. This only allowed in 3 percent of immigrants of the same nationality that were there in 1910. This was gradually reduced until 1929 when a new quota was brought , stating that only 150,000 immigrants were allowed in per year. There were to be no Asians at all, and northern and western Europeans were allocated 85% of the space.
Religious beliefs were a cornerstone of American life. Christianity was the only religion, and any one not found practicing it would be out cast. Native Americans were looked down on the most. Even though in 1926, Indians were declared full citizens of the USA, white authorities tried to destroy their traditional way of life and culture.
Indian children were made to go to boarding school, and while they were there they were ‘reeducated’. All their traditional values were outlawed, and they were put on reservations and made to convert to Christianity.
The epicentre of religious controversy was the monkey trial.
A man called John Scopes taught the theory of evolution in a school in Tennessee (where the fundamentalists had it outlawed calling it blasphemy). He was brought to court, and fined $100. He was pleased with the outcome, because he knew that he had shown there was an alternative to following the bible word for word, and that science was sometimes the answer to life’s big questions.
But the trail did illustrate the reluctance of American society to accept Darwinism – or a different interpretation of the Bible – and therefore underlined a reluctance to accept freedom of thought.
So although America was portrayed by the politicians as the land of opportunity and liberty, this was only so for a privileged minority. The idea of freedom had a hollow ring for many sectors of American society.