Home > 1896-1928 Campaigns, 1928 Campaign > 1928–Anti-Smith Flier–Teddy Powers

1928–Anti-Smith Flier–Teddy Powers

The controversy of a Catholic becoming president is currently mostly strongly identified with President John F. Kennedy, but he was not the first to try. In 1928, Al Smith, the Irish-Catholic anti-prohibition New Yorker, was strongly scorned for his religion. This hatred was most evident from the Ku Klux Klan.

This flyer from the KKK is a good representation of the battle they waged against Smith. The largest text, “Why Desert?,” tells readers that they would betray their duties as American citizens if they voted for Smith. Americans are “Duty Bound” to reject Catholicism. The quote from the “New York Herald Tribune of Wednesday, June 6, 1928” is then used to evoke fear that Smith would “take his orders from Rome” if elected president. This was a very ripe fear in 1928, just as it was when Kennedy was elected in 1960. In The Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi: A History, Michael Newton notes that a KKK pamphlet said Smith would “no doubt fill every key position in the Republic with Roman Catholics… and no doubt leave the Army and the Navy in the hands of Rome” (95). This type of hyperbole is likely characteristic of attacks ads in all eras, but it was especially prevalent in this election.

Below the newspaper quote, the pamphlet advertises for a rally on “The Unfitness of the Al Smith” at fairgrounds in Kewanee, Illinois. These anti-Smith KKK rallies were not rare in the 1928 campaign. They were not only common but frequent, as evidenced by this description of one in Birmingham, Alabama in Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush by Paul F. Boller, Jr.: “They began by dragging in an effigy of Al Smith. ‘What shall we do with him?’ asked the presiding officer. ‘Lynch him!’ yelled the citizens. A man with a knife at once fell on the dummy’s throat, gashed it open, and spattered a red fluid (mercurochrome) around the wound. Then, with howls of joy, people began firing revolver shots into the ‘corpse,’ kicking it and spitting at it” (229). Maybe this should not be surprising in light of the fact that the KKK is infamous for real lynchings.

These rallies were part of a very heated effort by the KKK to make sure that Smith did not become president. According to thestrangedeathofliberalamerica.com, they issued a “Klarion Kall for a Krusade” against him. They started their push when he was running for the Democratic nomination. When they failed to stop him from being nominated, they turned their attention to stopping his running mate, Joseph Robinson, from being nominated. Robinson, from Arkansas, represented everything the KKK valued in a candidate—he was a southern, Protestant, prohibitionist. And that was why he was such a threat to them—because he could help balance the ticket and get Smith elected. This effort failed as well, so the Klan shifted their focus to ensuring the ticket’s defeat in the general election.

Representative of the mood of the KKK in general, Amos G. Duncan, the Grand Dragon of the Realm of North Carolina, drummed up a fund of $8,000 to defeat Smith in his state. He said that his office would be solely dedicated to his defeat around the clock until election day. Although ostensibly the KKK was angry that Smith was running, his candidacy ended up helping the Klan by galvanizing their supporters around a common enemy. According to history-world.org, “Stressing white Protestant supremacy, the Klan enjoyed a spurt of growth in 1928 as a reaction to the Democrats’ nomination for president of Alfred E. Smith, a Roman Catholic.”

While the KKK was very overt about their anti-Catholic prejudices against Smith, that forthrightness was not common throughout American society. According to Time Magazine, “Since American traditions tended to inhibit direct assaults on religion, hostility to Smith’s Catholicism was often expressed in denunciations of him as a servant of the Demon Rum.” This veil gave Americans an excuse to implicitly hate his religious beliefs while casting their feelings as moral leanings. This might be similar to a racist voter in the 2008 election saying that he or she would not vote for Senator Obama because he is pro-choice.

Whether they were expressed implicitly or explicitly aside, Al Smith was of course not happy with the emphasis on his religion. According to Time he said, “Let the people of this country decide this election upon the great and real issues of the campaign and upon nothing else.” His dream probably did not come true, as he lost the Electoral College vote 444 to 87. 

The flyer itself: http://www.authentichistory.com/1921-1929/01-historical/4-

1928election/1928_KKK_anti-Al_Smith_Flyer.html

Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: from George Washington to George W. Bush. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.

Newton, Michael. The Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi: a History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2010. Print. 

http://thestrangedeathofliberalamerica.com/al-smith-anything-unamerican-cannot-live-in-the-sunlight.html

http://history-world.org/ku_klux_klan.htm

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,874025-3,00.html

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,874025-3,00.html

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