How the ban on alcohol fueled the revival of the Ku Klux Klan
Two children wearing Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods stand on either side of Dr. Samuel Green, Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon, at an initiation ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia. July 24, 1948. Image via Creative Commons.

The federal shutdown over funding for President Donald Trump's border wall continues into its 25th day. Proponents of the wall claim that it will protect Americans from immigrants and dangerous, illicit drugs.


It's not the first time in American history that racism and nativism have been linked to drug use.

In an article in The New York Times Wednesday, Harvard historian Lisa McGirr outlines how alcohol prohibition in the 1920s was driven by anti-immigrant and racist sentiment and in turn fueled the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

It's fairly well known that the nationwide campaign to ban alcohol, cemented with the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, was driven by fears of unruly, dangerous immigrants. Prohibitionists ranted about a “foreign invasion of undeveloped races” that threatened the sober, White Protestant way of life.

But Prohibition was difficult to enforce, and soon violent black markets emerged to meet the demand for alcohol. Speakeasies and underground music and dance spots proliferated.

Under threat, anti-liquor crusaders made their motives even more clear by partnering with a re-emergent Ku Klux Klan.

"Other forms of postwar social conflict aided the growth of the Klan, but nothing did more than the 18th Amendment to turn it into a dynamic social movement," McGirr writes.

"The Klan and its female affiliate, the Women of the Ku Klux Klan, recruited heavily from the nation’s white Protestant Prohibition organizations, promising militant action to ensure the law’s enforcement," she continues.

"Not surprisingly, the Klan targeted the drinking of those they identified as enemies of “100 percent Americanism” — Catholics, foreigners and African-Americans — and often gained a foothold in white Protestant evangelical communities with its promise to put bootleggers and moonshiners out of business."

In cities around the country, the Klan organized vigilante groups to violently shutdown speakeasies and production facilities. Clashes in one Illinois town left 14 dead.

Eventually, overreach by anti-liquor crusaders and state authorities would spark a backlash that led to the overturning of Prohibition, with major ramifications for political life in America.

"The era’s heightened nativism had not cowed Americans immigrants, their children or their allies," McGirr writes.

"Instead they reached out for a fuller place in national political life to forge a more pluralist, tolerant, equitable country. The tyranny of Billy Sunday and his ilk proved short-lived."