We recently had a local schoolteacher come in to discuss the issues of immigration, bigotry and segregation in Denver. His hope was to gather historical materials that would convey to his students the seriousness and long-term impacts of the issue. Naturally, we included the Klan Collection in our research. For those who are unaware, the Ku Klux Klan was a massive presence in Denver in the 1920s to the point of being openly embraced by many civic leaders. While their history and views came as no surprise, their 1924 pamphlet on immigration was quite startling, not for its bigotry, but for the seemingly contemporary nature of its language.
With the rise in physical and rhetorical attacks against immigrants, Jews and other minorities by extremists in recent years, we have a substantial body of language to compare to similar ideological movements of the past. History is supposed to rhyme, but the nearly identical nature of the language, narrative and prescriptions in this 1924 pamphlet and in modern anti-immigrant rhetoric is quite astounding.
Something that appears to be common in all such movements is an acknowledgement of our immigrant past, but a sense that immigration itself must remain in the past. At the same time there is a strong nostalgia for a mythologized history. In 2018, the 1950s have been deeply romanticized. In the case of the 1920s Klan, they hold fast to a very similar spread of years. They claim that 50 years ago was a great time when the U.S. was bringing in the right people. Oddly, the klan has the same fixation as modern racists with Scandinavians.
"Scandinavian types of fifty years ago, in search of home, God and freedom, and whose sons and daughters are today loyal and patriotic Americans..."
And, while immigration was fine in the past, the same racist movements in 1924, as in 2018, emphasize that the country is now full and further immigration will only serve to deny "real Americans" of jobs and opportunities.
One notable difference between then and now is, predictably, the groups targeted. While African Americans, Jews and Catholics are always popular targets, the reactionaries of 1924 also seem to hate Finns, all central Europeans (including Germans) and Mediterraneans. Granted, they still leave space in their verbiage for Latinos, which they claim are a dangerous "alien horde" waiting to cross the Rio Grande and destroy the U.S. labor market. It's as if that headline and its accompanying logical fallacies have been recycling themselves for centuries. While the targets aren't always consistent, they adhere to the same repeated tropes of the immigrant masses being "low class" and "non-assimilable" and simply, "extremely hard for this country to absorb." Not only does history rhyme, but it sometimes quotes itself.
So, is there something to be learned from all this? Just as we look to history to avoid the failures of Versailles and the ever-resonant cataclysm of WWII, we must also learn to recognize the organizations and arguments that constantly inject themselves into political life in order to divide us. The past cannot be changed, but history is also not static. It is about direction and momentum and that does not simply end with each passing of the second hand.
We preserve history so we can see what was set in motion and judge which movements occurring in our own time are accelerating us towards the dream of a future — and which are aimed squarely at the precipice. We can't know everything, but a healthy study of history can be a great defense against darkness and ignorance.