In spite of the work of Howard Zinn and James Lowen, and in spite of the way Leo Tolstoy argued that “kings and generals are history’s slaves,” history almost always focuses on great men. It’s not difficult to understand why. Drama is an organizing principle. It puts a human face on dry facts and statistics. The Battle of Gettysburg will make a better movie than a lecture on the economic causes of the United States Civil War. Occasionally, however, a historical event so colorful and dramatic it just cries out for a big budget Hollywood movie will just slip through the cracks. It will get left out of the popular history. It will get left out of the local history. It simply disappears.
The Battle of Perth Amboy is such an event. In August of 1923, in spite of all of the efforts of the local police, then the state police, to ram the Ku Klux Klan down their throats, the citizens of Perth Amboy said “no. There’s no place for racism and bigotry in our city.” In one decisive battle, a multicultural army of 6000 whites, blacks, Jews, Catholics and Protestants destroyed the power of the Ku Klux Klan in Northern New Jersey, forever. Make no mistake. Non-violent protest had nothing to do with it. 500 klansmen were lucky to get out of town with their lives. The police and firemen who tried to protect them — the armed power of the state mobilized in the defence of white supremacy — were simply brushed aside. It was not a riot. It wasn’t a mob. It was a well-organized popular army that rose up over the Summer, used exactly the amount of force needed to drive the Klan out of town, then disbanded after the threat had passed.
I will not attempt to describe the Battle of Perth Amboy in detail. Instead, I will direct you to an article in the New York Times. Sadly, the archived edition of the article has no byline, but the reporter is a gifted writer. It costs $3.95 to read. But it’s worth every penny.
There’s a basic summary of the New York Times account in the Chicago Tribune. It’s free.
There’s also an excellent description of the anti-Klan resistance in Perth Amboy from this book of local history online.
The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was not the Ku Klux Klan of today, and it wasn’t the same Ku Klux Klan that restored white supremacy to the south in the 1870s. Founded in 1915 at Stone Mountain, Georgia, the Second Ku Klux Klan was more like the Tea Party than the violent, but largely marginal organization that tried to stop desegregation in the 1950s. At its peak in the mid-1920s, the Second Ku Klux Klan claimed to have over 5 million members. It was a national, not regional organization, with strong chapters in Detroit, Southern California, the Pacific Northwest, and New England. Until 1925, the year that Indiana Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson raped and murdered Madge Oberholtzer, the Second Ku Klux Klan flat out controlled the government of the state of Indiana. They had a strong presence in New Jersey. They were, of course, anti-black and anti-Jewish, but, in contrast to the First Ku Klux Klan, they were also anti-immigrant, and anti-Catholic. When the Second Ku Klux Klan made their move on Perth Amboy in the Summer of 1923, they were a mass right-wing organization well on their way to becoming an American version of Mussolini’s Black Shirts or Hitler’s Brown Shirts.
So why did the Klan make their move on Perth Amboy in 1923?
There’s a short interview with Anton Massopust, a local historian.
Another Local New Jersey historian, John Dyke, has an excellent documentary on what he calls the “Ku Klux Klan Riots” of 1923. I can’t embed the video because of Vimeo’s security settings but click on the following link and go to Vimeo’s site itself.
As Dyke makes clear, Perth Amboy was the very last place the KKK should have been trying to recruit in 1923. Perth Amboy wasn’t a boom town like Detroit, a backwater suddenly swamped with massive numbers of new immigrants. Its history goes all the way back to the 17th century. While large numbers of Southern and Eastern European immigrants did migrate to Perth Amboy, it was a diverse, culturally sophisticated old city that assimilated them easily. New Jersey, moreover, is not New England. Puritanism was never the state religion. New Jersey was a Dutch, not an English colony. It’s been culturally and religiously diverse since the very beginning. While the Klan could exploit the differences between old stock Protestants and Irish Catholic immigrants in Worcester, Massachusetts, it couldn’t do the same thing in Middlesex, County New Jersey.
Make no mistake. New Jersey is not a bastion of liberalism, but it is a place where Protestants and Catholics have always gotten along fairly well. There was, it’s true, a very large German American Bund in the late 1930s. New Jersey has a nasty history of antisemitism, but the flip side of that is that New Jersey also has a lot of Jews. The local Jewish organizations, as Dyke makes clear, were instrumental, along with the Knights of Columbus, in organizing the resistance to the Klan. What’s more, Perth Amboy in 1923 did have a tradition of liberalism, including a progressive school where Henry David Thoreau gave lectures in the 1850s. Nobody in Perth Amboy in 1923 wanted the KKK in their city, certainly not blacks or Jews, and certainly not Catholics, but not Protestants either.
The only people willing to defend the presence of the Klan in Perth Amboy in 1923 were the cops.
In other words, the people of Perth Amboy were defending themselves against the state. The local police and the New Jersey State Police denied being sympathetic to the KKK. They claimed only to be “doing their jobs,” to be protecting the First Amendment. But since when have the police anywhere, anytime, been interested in defending the First Amendment? Needless to say, the Governor of New Jersey, at least in 1923, certainly wouldn’t have mobilized the State Police to protect labor organizers. The Klan, in effect, was acting as an advance guard of the authoritarian state against civil society, against democracy. We tend to remember the 1920s as “The Jazz Age,” the time of F. Scott Fitzgerald and flappers. But the 1920s were a deeply reactionary period in American history. J. Edgar Hoover had been put in charge of the FBI, which had been founded a few years earlier as a political gestapo to suppress radicals and labor organizers. The Wilson administration had not only smashed the left in 1917, it had used a sophisticated propaganda campaign to railroad the American people into the war in Europe. Income inequality was as bad in the 1920s as it is in the age of Bush and Obama.
Most important of all was Prohibition. The stated goal of the Ku Klux Klan for coming to Perth Amboy in 1923 was to help enforce the Eighteenth Amendment. It’s easy to forget now, but Prohibition was largely a movement of old, Anglo Saxon Americans against the recent surge of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, and it wasn’t only about alcohol. Rather, it was about mobilizing the state against the grassroots radicalism of the working class, against Southern European anarchists like Sacco and Vanzetti. The Ku Klux Klan, like Hitler’s brownshirts, was the popular army of reaction, the shock troops of the ruling class against the people. When the KKK tried to organize in Perth Amboy, it was more than an attempt to enforce Prohibition, their stated goal. It was part of an ongoing process of what, for lack of a better term, could be called “coercive assimilation.” I don’t think any right-wing, WASP American in 1923 was under the illusion that he could send all the Poles back to Poland and all the Southern Italians back to Southern Italy. But he did want to preserve the fundamentally Anglo Saxon, Protestant nature of the country. Those Eastern and Southern Europeans that remained would be “100% Americans” (Sarah Palin’s “real Americans”) whether they liked it or not.
In 1924, the President signed into law a harsh bill that kept immigration from Northwestern Europe open, and all but ended immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. It’s so openly racist it’s breathtaking. It also deserves to be studied by anybody who wants to prevent something like it from every happening again.
If we’ve forgotten the victory the people of Perth Amboy won in 1923 over the Ku Klux Klan and the police, then it’s largely because, while the Klan lost the battle, old Anglo Saxon America won the war. The New Deal would, indeed, bring Eastern and Southern European immigrants into the mainstream, but not on their own terms. Southern Italians, for example, would largely disavow their tradition of anarchism and radicalism. If we remember Southern European immigration at all, it’s largely in the context of the history of organized crime. Michael Corleone isn’t an anarchist. He’s a mobster living out the American Dream of amoral greed. Go to the typical, upscale suburb in New Jersey today. You won’t find many WASPs. But you will find a lot of Poles, Italians, Germans, Irish, and Portuguese pretending to be WASPs. Yes, cities like Linden, Perth Amboy and Elizabeth still have large populations of Polish and Hispanic immigrants, but those cities are all seen as weigh stations on the way to Summit or Bernardsville, to the inevitable assimilation into the WASP elite, to jobs on Wall Street and in for profit healthcare. Indeed, Perth Amboy wouldn’t see another riot until 1988. That was the year a Polish American Mayor named George Otlowski won a disputed election against a Hispanic candidate. In 1990, he faced a recall election and was forced to step down. The very Eastern Europeans who rioted against the KKK in 1923 were now the white establishment.
Nevertheless, if many of the grandchildren of the 6000 people who chased the Klan out of Perth Amboy in 1923 would eventually become 100% Americans, racists who moved to all white suburbs, Tea Partiers, and anti-immigrant bigots in their own right, we need to remember what happened in Perth Amboy in 1923. The historians tell us that the United States did not become a fascist country in the 1930s because Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal saved capitalism. But that’s simply not the case. The New Deal was not a gift from the ruling class. Rather it was a bone the ruling class threw the American people to head off a more radical alternative. The uprising against the Klan in Perth Amboy was a glimpse of the more democratic, more progressive turn the United States would take in the 1930s. The same kinds of people who broke through those police lines in August of 1923 would organize the sit down strikes in Flint, join the Communist Party, organize the Bonus Army in 1932, and, eventually, go to Europe to fight fascism. Those 6000 citizens of Perth Amboy who were willing to use violence against the state to protect their community were heroes and deserve to be remembered as such.
In the Summer of 1923, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, democracy fought the law, and democracy won.