Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy

By Samuel Walker | Go to book overview

2
Origins of the Hate Speech Issue, 1920-1931

A Decade of Intolerance

The 1920s are remembered as a decade of intolerance. Bigotry was as much a symbol of the period as Prohibition, flappers, the stock market boom, and Calvin Coolidge. It was the only time when the Ku Klux Klan paraded en masse through the nation's capital. In 1921 Congress restricted immigration for the first time in American history, drastically reducing the influx of Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe, and the nation's leading universities adopted admission quotas to restrict the number of Jewish students. The Sacco and Vanzetti case, in which two Italian American anarchists were executed for robbery and murder in a highly questionable prosecution, has always been one of the symbols of the anti-immigrant tenor of the period.1

Yet the twenties were hardly the most bigoted period in American history -- regrettably, there is considerable competition for that dubious honor. The scar of racism runs through the whole course of American history, and religious prejudice has an equally long legacy. The New England Puritans sought religious freedom for themselves and did not hesitate to suppress those who dissented from their version of orthodoxy. The arrival of large numbers of Catholic immigrants in the 1830s and 1840s aroused an ugly anti-Catholic prejudice that still lingers. As recently as 1960, John F. Kennedy found that fear of his Catholicism was the major obstacle to his presidential candidacy. Racial, religious,and ethnic prejudice was probably most intense in the 1890s, when the immigration

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