The rise of reactionaries in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic in Washington

The rise of reactionaries in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic in Washington

Emergent movements, including a resurgence of the KKK, led to more anti-immigration policy, eugenics laws, religious fundamentalism and conservative leadership.

By Knute Berger, Crosscut

Published: July 10, 2022,

The end of the 1918 influenza pandemic in the early 1920s ushered in a rough, reactionary period in America. People were frustrated by war, inflation, and pandemic restrictions. Pent-up resentments with a rapidly changing society let loose as flu masks flew off and quarantines ended.

The Jazz Age was flourishing, thanks in part to new Prohibition laws. In Seattle, the so-called Jackson Street nightclub and speakeasy scene took off, spreading from Pioneer Square to the Central District and eventually birthing more than a generation of great music and musicians. But while the races exuberantly mixed in the after-midnight hours at clubs like the Black and Tan, nationally — and locally — reactionary racial politics took hold. By day, the segregating redlines in the city were steadfast and racist covenants spread.

Politically, the white middle class yearned for “normalcy,” which brought a sequence of conservative Republican presidents, including Calvin Coolidge, Warren G. Harding and Herbert Hoover, all of whom carried Washington state. But “normalcy” for many people meant a return to aggressive white supremacy. In some cases, Washington led the way.

The Ku Klux Klan revived in the ’20s. Once mostly limited to the South, it found new enthusiasts in the white middle class of the far West and Midwest. The KKK took over towns and state houses, including for a time Oregon’s. Anti-Black, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-modernity, the Klan became a powerful force that paraded openly in the streets and rallied tens of thousands of people to witness late-night cross-burnings in places like Issaquah, Yakima and Renton. Some events attracted 30,000 or more people.

This article appears in its entirety at The Columbian news paper website. It can be read here.

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