The Twenties

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Conventional wisdom enshrines the 1920s as the decade that roared — a time in which Americans kicked up their heels and went for one long joyride before the Wall Street crash of 1929. Bill Moyers and his guests reveal that while those things did happen, so did poverty, racial segregation and political scandals.


BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. The 1920s have long been a puzzle to me. I was born in 1934, and in the movies I saw growing up and in the popular literature I read, the 1920s was the decade not to have missed. Charming, crazy days, people said. The good old days, lamented people, looking back from the pit of the Depression.

We Americans are prone to create our legends too quickly. And we did so with the 1920s. Because the cardinal sins of that era which so captivated the myth makers were only part of the story.

BILL MOYERS: In our popular collective memory, the 1920s was the decade that brought America into the automobile age. When everyone, it seemed, drove a Model T Ford. It was a decade for heroes and celebrities in sports, in the movies, and in personal accomplishments that caused us to respond with admiration and awe.

It was a time of prohibition, speakeasies, and gangsters, and of high fashion. The roaring ’20s, they were called. And the decade did roar. But it was also a time of hard work for millions. And of prejudice against radicals, labor, and blacks.

BILL MOYERS: It was this other side of the ’20s, the unromantic side, they didn’t square in my mind with the popular images. I knew from the recollections of my own parents that for many Americans the 1920s were time more of heavy squalls than of rainbows. My mother and father were married in 1926 in a farming community in southeastern Oklahoma. It no longer exists except for the little frame house into which they moved as a young couple. When they married, the nearest doctor lived some 50 miles away and my parents had neither Model T nor horse and buggy to reach him. Nor the money to pay them if they got there. Twin girls died for lack of prenatal care and pneumonia almost claimed their first son. So the popular memory of the ’20s has to be reconciled with these kinds of personal experiences. This program is part of that effort. We’ll revisit the ’20s through some film of the time and through the memories of men and women who recall the old days, both bad and good.

HENRY WATTS: The ’20s, to me, were a delightful time because there was no real responsibilities. And it seemed as if the world was going to run like this for a long while.

RUTH GORDON: I just characterize the ’20s as the dream period of all time. Everything seemed to go great. And everybody seemed to look beautiful.

JENNIE SILVERMAN: It was decadence, I think, is the best way I could put it in one word.

OTTO LUENING: Everybody seemed to be rushing around, hoping for riches and fame. They didn’t care much how they got it.

FRED THOMPSON: We were working so hard for so little that eventually, after 10 years of that, we produced a depression.

BILL MOYERS: Looking back to day, the 1920s present us with two familiar faces. And we remember both as we would old friends from our youth. One friend was Devil May Care, always ready for a good time, always in step with the latest fashions. The decade of flappers, free love, bootleg hooch, and rum runners.

The other friend was more old shoe, someone to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon. For all their hard times, my parents still talk about those simple joys they shared after the long days in the fields, when the pinto beans stopped boiling on the old home comfort cook stove and friends and kinfolk gathered to play dominoes. On Saturday nights, they’d take turns at different houses, moving out of one room all the furniture except the oil lamp and then singing and dancing to midnight to tunes like “Skip to My Lou, My Darling.” Many Americans who lived through the ’20s remember the simple pleasures of life.

MARY MORAN: We had just very small pleasures. Going to the movies. Going, maybe, on a Saturday night a trip up the Hudson on the moonlight sail.

LOUISE MUMM: We had the Victrola.Records galore.

JOSEPH NORRICK: People had nothing to do but visit and talk and loaf at the store, the cracker, around these pot belly stoves in the winter time and out in the shade in the summertime.

HELEN EDMONSTON: We went to Gray’s Drugstore and went downstairs and got cheap theatre tickets and sat up in the peanut gallery and saw a show. And after the show was over, we’d go into Schrafft’s, have a soda, and then we’d walk home. You know, New York was so small town at that time that you never had any fear that you couldn’t walk.

BILL MOYERS: What gave the ’20s their excitement, however, was novelty the hot spice to life’s casserole. Americans, even as they enjoyed the old pleasures, eagerly embraced the new. For the first time in our history, women’s bodies came into public view. The Miss America Pageant began as a resort promotion at Atlantic City in 1921. Soon, any excuse sufficed for a beauty contest, like this Chiropractors’ Perfect Back Contest. Under the fluff, a message — Victorianism was dead. Americans went wild over races too.

OTTO LUENING: It was a decade of over activity. There was an enormous amount of just getting from one place to another. It was mostly action. A great deal of action.

BILL MOYERS: Sometimes the action didn’t require speed, but stamina.

JENNIE SILVERMAN: The marathon dancing was the craze. It really was. It was kind of crazy.

BILL MOYERS: Marathon dancing was blamed for some deaths by overexertion before its own collapse. But the symbolic dance of the decade was pure energy, a whirlwind of flying arms and legs — the Charleston.

WALTER SIMMONS: She danced the Charleston, which is still think is one of the best dances ever originated.

BILL MOYERS: And then there was the ultimate Charleston, 1,000 feet high, going nowhere at 90 miles an hour. It was a decade of hijinks everywhere. Everyone seemed to be clowning around. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on a golf course. And Babe Ruth in a gymnasium. Fashion is a frivolous but accurate mirror of social change too. During the decade, America saw more and more of a new woman — literally — as necklines plunged and hemlines climbed. By 1927, the female badges of freedom were exposed knees and a cigarette in hand. Or a cocktail. Legend gives a name to these women of the ’20s — flappers. F. Scott Fitzgerald once described an ideal flapper as lovely, inexpensive, and about 19. And there are other definitions as well.

WALTER SIMMONS: She was somebody who are strapped in her bosom and who made herself, as much or she can look like she grew straight up and down.

ETTA BARNETT: The very short dress and long beads. It was a sort of a style that was called flapper.

OTTO LUENING: The shorter the skirt, the flappier the flapper.

MARIA VALIANI: A flapper. A girl that went out with all the men.

EARL DICKERSON: Who sought to bring men to their bedrooms by — for funds and things of that sort.

HENRY WATTS: Some people may have thought that she came from the ancient profession. But that is not true at all. She was just a gay kid who liked to dance and would go to the parties.

HELEN EDMONSTON: The girls that were flappers, of course everybody looked up to them. Because they were the perfect thing, you know.

BILL MOYERS: One fuel for all that restless motion was alcohol. Prohibition, begun in 1920, made drinking a crime and did cut average consumption of alcohol by 1/3. Yet Prohibition also turned millions of ordinary Americans into lawbreakers.

RUTH GORDON: Some nasty, wicked eyes would peer out. And you would say I am Ruth Gordon. And he’d say, never heard of you. Boom.

WILLIAM VALLELY: The man would come to the door and he’d say, who? In other words, who sent you? And you’d say George or Benny or whoever.

RUTH GORDON: And we’d go to Sardi’s and dear Mr. Sardi — not Vincent, but his pa. Dear Mr. Sardi, you’d say. I think I’ll have a — a — And he’d say, ah? And I’d say, ah…Yeah…Mmhmm. And then he’d bring a cup — a coffee cup — with a brandy and soda. Or whisky and soda. And the great thing, everybody made gin in their bathtub.

OTTO LUENING: Well, some people made needle beer, they called it. They’d brew it in kegs and inject it with ether. Then you had all sorts of home brew that was made. And this is a great big thing.

MARIA VALIANI: He used to make rum. He used to buy all kinds of stuff. And he used to make it in the basement. And we used it. That was for our own use.

GENTOKU SHIMOMOTO: My dad has bought some homemade sakes, which is rice wine. And which we consume at our home. It’s very easy to make, I understand. So most of the Japanese family did make a gallon or two, occasionally.

BILL MOYERS: With Prohibition came another development.

BENJAMIN BUTTENWEISER: That was almost the beginning of gangsterism in this country. Because the stakes were so huge that rum running and speakeasies and bootlegging and all sorts of things like that did go on.

EARL DICKERSON: The gangsters were everywhere in Chicago in the ’20s. We used to pass a hotel on 22nd and Michigan, I think it was. Big hotel there where everybody knew — what’s his name? Capone. That was his headquarters.

BILL MOYERS: The new notorious Al Capone, who killed off his rivals. Federal agents conducted regular raids on bootleg operations. On the high seas and on land. But federal forces were undermanned and corruption was common. Despite all the rage, there was liquor to be had in the ’20s. Plenty of it. But that disguises another side to life that was anything but glamorous. In the country, farmers, even with machine help, still struggled with the soil. In the cities, recent immigrants and our own native poor still live shoulder to shoulder in tenements.

JENNIE SILVERMAN: We lived six people in four small rooms. I slept on a cot in the kitchen.

BILL MOYERS: And work, for most Americans, was hard and tedious.

MARY MORAN: You really worked for the time that you were at your desk. The supervisors were sort of strict. We obeyed them. And there was no answering back.

MARIA VALIANI: When we worked in the 1920s, it was 10 hours a day. No overtime pay. And we worked hard.

GEORGE MCCLENDON: We’d kill cattle and hogs. We’d have 600 or 700 hogs a day, 150 to 200 cattle a day. I had to learn to break legs with a knife.

BILL MOYERS: My own father can still describe vividly what it’s like to chop cotton from sunup to sundown or to sleep on the wagon all night at the cotton gin in order to be the first in line to have the cotton weighed early in the morning.

BILL MOYERS: Recently, I went back with him to Oklahoma to where one of the cotton gins stood. And he talked about the time he got his hand caught in the machinery and lost part of two fingers. He was back in the fields the next day. Like most people, he puts aside the painful memories to cherish the happy ones. For a while, that’s what the country did with the ’20s. The new mass medium, the movies, emerged to provide us with the images of that era which ignored the routine and ordinary for the novel and colorful.

BILL MOYERS: If any medium can be credited with changing how we Americans saw ourselves and our world, it was the movies. We went to the movies a couple of times, twice a week. For sure, Saturdays. That was the show. That was the nickel show at those days.

WALTER SIMMONS: I can remember Douglas Fairbanks. Whenever a Douglas Fairbanks movie came out, we turned out.

BILL MOYERS: The movies turned actors and actresses into national celebrities. Mary Pickford, lovable and innocent, became America’s sweetheart. And win, in real life, she shed her curls, that was major news. Not all our stars traded on sweetness. Some traded on their sexuality. And here is the male love god and sex symbol, Rudolph Valentino, the Sheik of Araby, who became the fantasy lover of millions of American women.

MARIA VALIANI: We went to see Rudolph Valentino. And he danced in person with his wife. And when he got through, Rudolph Valentino and his wife, the ladies were throwing diamonds on the stage. Notes. Anything they could have they could thrown up there, they loved him so much. And he was grand.

BILL MOYERS: The advent of sound gave motion pictures a new dimension, one that fascinated all Americans from this Chicago garment worker.

MARIA VALIANI: We wanted to be one of the first to see him, to hear it. That was to see somebody talk in the movies. That was a lot of fun.

BILL MOYERS: To the president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge.

CALVIN COOLIDGE: So let me admit, that in helping to make the amazing record which is to be produced this scene, I have only the most general idea of what it is, mechanically and scientifically, that is being done. But I am sure that a photo film of this scene is to be produced, combining a record both for the eye and the ear. A record that may be described as a speaking, moving picture.

BILL MOYERS: Motion pictures also revolutionized news coverage. These scenes from Universal Newspaper newsreels of the ’20s could just as easily be seen today. From this mass demonstration of Japanese schoolchildren, to the polar bears who took a dip in frosty Lake Michigan at two below. Then, as now, stunts made news. This fellow planned to roll a hoop from Texas to New York City. And here is the Goliath of Argentina, a boxer of Italian heritage. The caption and the pictures reinforced an ethnic stereotype that, fortunately, wouldn’t pass an editor today. We’ve made some progress after all. As for our own sports figures, the nation paid homage to those men and women who played games superbly.

WALTER SIMMONS: Babe Ruth appealed to all of us kids because he could hit that baseball farther than we could. He also did it left-handed, which seemed to make it more difficult and interesting.

BILL MOYERS: In our adulation of athletes, they assumed mythic proportions. In golf, there was the great Bobby Jones. In tennis, there was Helen Wills. Boxing gave us two giants of the ring — heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, who defeated him. Football gave us Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost, and Knute Rockne out of Notre Dame. Johnny Weissmuller was making swimming history. As was Gertrude Ederle, who became the first woman to swim the English Channel. On reaching shore she said, I just knew if it could be done, it had to be done. And I did it. But it says something positive about America that its highest adoration went not to an athlete, but to an aviator — Charles Lindbergh, whose solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 was a triumph of spirit and science.

MARIA VALLIANI: We thought, a bird going over the ocean. Oh, how did he do it? How much pep that man has to take a chance of going over the ocean.

BERTHA AINE: I remember sitting at home just glued to the radio and following the news. And just ecstatic when we learned that he had landed safely.

BILL MOYERS: Lindbergh was mobbed in Paris. And when he arrived back in the United States, he was welcomed home by equally enthusiastic crowds and honored by President Coolidge. Lindbergh said the French had a message of affection for America and had given him this instruction.

CHARLES LINDBERGH: When you return to your country, take back with you this message from France and Europe to the United States of America. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

BILL MOYERS: In Charles Lindbergh, America in the ’20s found its ultimate hero. His daring celebrated the rugged individualism of the past, and his technological skill promised a wonderful future in which that incredible machine would reign supreme. The Great War just ended had spurred the advance of machines, and it would spur the economy too. The prophets of key industries during that slaughter in Europe meant huge sums for new investment when the war ended. So things were ripe to boom. And boom they did.

BILL MOYERS: We became a consumer society. And the visible evidence of this could be found in our homes, with telephones, mix masters, the electric toaster, and the lightweight electric iron. And, of course, on our streets and highways with the automobile. When Henry Ford declared that machinery is the new Messiah, you could hear in the hum of the multitude in his factories a mighty chorus of hallelujahs.

Henry Ford introduced his Model T in 1908 and his assembly line in 1910. But it was in the ’20s that his assembly lines swung into high gear. By 1925, a Model T was rolling off the line every 10 seconds. Ford sought standardization above all things. The customer can have a Ford any color he wants, so long as it’s black.

BILL MOYERS: But Americans soon wanted colors other than black and different models, and got them from General Motors and other manufacturers. By 1929, American automakers were turning out close to 5 million cars a year. There were 26 million automobiles and trucks on the road, roughly one car per family. Even working people found a way to buy a car.

GENTOKU SHIMOMOTO: As a tenant farmer, we are not wealthy. We are very poor. But we did have an automobile. We did have automobile.

MARIA VALLIANI: There was a stutz, no limit. We could go as fast as we wanted. And we went fast.

BILL MOYERS: In the ’20s, too, electric light and power came to all but rural areas. For Americans, it meant the first appearance of appliances we now take for granted. These appliances were designed for women. Not much talk then of men sharing the drudgery of housework. Promotional films promised that women’s would be easier once she got electricity. With electricity, came the telephone. Before the end of the decade, more than 10 million phones were in use.

LOUISE MUMM: Of course, we had no dialing whatever. We took up the receiver and held it until we had a lovely female voice ask, number please?

BILL MOYERS: And there was another electrical miracle to send the human voice across the miles — radio.

BERTHA AINE: Our friends in the immediate neighborhood would come in in the evening and be entertained. It was a wonderful innovation. We loved it.

BILL MOYERS: The mass consumer society had indeed arrived. With it came, for many, a period of freewheeling, high living prosperity.

RUTH GORDON: It isn’t as though I just want money. I just want to be extravagant. I didn’t care about a 5 or a 10 or a 100 dollar bill. And that epitomized the ’20s.

OTTO LUENING: I finally got making about $100 a week. That was terrific. You see, I never went any place. I wouldn’t cross the street without getting a Checker cab, you know.

RUTH GORDON: Everybody had one, two, three, four, five. And if you were terrific, you had right up to there. And they were just beautiful. Not just junky old diamond bracelets, but beautiful ones.

BILL MOYERS: The great bull market, the most frantic boom yet, hit its full stride in 1927. The old American gospel said work hard and get rich. The new gospel said, pick those apples off those trees.

RUTH GORDON: Everybody who’d go out and play bridge, you’d say, I had two no trumps. Oh, by the way, did you buy any Kennecott Copper? No, I must buy some Kennecott Copper. Now, three of hearts.

HENRY WATTS: I was a $2 broker, which means that, a member of the stock exchange, I went on the floor as an agent. One of the main reasons why the market was participated in by most anybody was that they had very low margin rules.

RUTH GORDON: If you $6,000 worth of stock, you had to put up $600 worth.

HENRY WATTS: This seemed like a pretty good thing when everything was going up all the time. They always said that you were getting six tips from your taxi driver. Every time you got into a cab, he’d tell you what to buy. And nobody seemed to much care what it was, just so they have a name.

RUTH GORDON: I didn’t know what I was buying. There was one called “Idekin Shilt”, I don’t know to this day what “Idekin Shilt” was…

OTTO LUENING: Then they would go haywire on margin and really maybe clean up $25,000. Somebody who’d never had anything. This made them think that they were speculative geniuses.

RUTH GORDON: And then when it went down, you see, you had to cover, cover, cover. And when you couldn’t cover, cover, cover and your jewels went to the pawn shop and then you still couldn’t cover, cover. It was all gone.

BILL MOYERS: It was gone, as we all know, in the crash of ’29. But let’s not forget, once again, how memory and fact can diverge. Less than half of 1% of the population ever traded on margin. Most Americans wrestled with more mundane economics.

FRED THOMPSON: I couldn’t make enough money. On most jobs I was making only about $0.25 an hour, $0.30 an hour. And it cost about $0.25 for a rather greasy meal in a greasy spoon restaurant.

STERLING BROWN: I wore patched pants. But so did the little white boy around the corner whose father owned the pharmacy.

HELEN EDMONSTON: I think we were probably poor. Otherwise, why would I go to work for $10 a week out of just a year and a half of high school?

BILL MOYERS: You will find economists today who believe that what brought on the Great Depression was a spectacular fall in consumer spending as the ’20s ended. For those who had shared in it, the boom was going bust. And even with the new prosperity, half the country still lived in poverty. In one of the letters I treasure from my mother, there is this paragraph. “In those days we didn’t even have radio, only the weekend newspaper. We heard that banks were going broke and our parents were always scared to death the one that supported them would be the next. And once it was.”

When the bank foreclosed on my grandparents’ farm, my grandfather took a job in the cotton gin. My parents had been working the farm with them, so they had to leave too. Dad went to work on a crew helping to build a highway to Oklahoma City. He earned $1.50 a day and felt lucky at that. The national economy was in serious trouble.

BILL MOYERS: Coal mining, to name just one industry, was depressed. Average unemployment for the decade was 30%. New England’s textile and shoe factory started to shut down. The region stay depressed through the decade. It was also a bad time for farmers, once our economic backbone. In 1921, farmers suffered a net loss of $6 billion and they never really recovered. So millions of Americans, regardless of where they lived or at what they worked, did not fully share in the new consumer society.

GENTOKU SHIMOMOTO: We don’t have electricity. We relied upon the kerosene.

MARY MORAN: We had gas light. So we didn’t have any electrical fixtures or lights or anything like that.

JOSEPH NORRICK: We had ice box. When on the iceman did drive through there, we got ice. Otherwise we went and got it.

MARY MORAN: The iceman brought up a piece of ice every second day or so.

WALTER SIMMONS: The only appliance that we had in our house was an automatic washing machine. And was automatic because I was the guy that turned it.

BILL MOYERS: But it’s a curious thing. Even those shut out of affluence remember a general air of contentment.

BERTHA AINE: People’s standards and demands were not as high as they are today.

ETTA BARNETT: Does one ever know when your poor? Except it’s fashionable now. But with me, we didn’t consider ourselves poor.

WALTER SIMMONS: We were not well to do. It was years later before I made the staggering discovery that we’re pretty poor people.

MARY MORAN: We always had plenty to eat and a few pleasures. And we seemed very contented with what we had.

BILL MOYERS: $1 would bring a dozen eggs, the pound of butter, a quart of milk, and a loaf of bread. And you got change.

MARIA VALIANI: We could buy our essential. And I had a pretty nice clothes. And we were happy with that. We were happy.

BILL MOYERS: Maybe what supported our people then was hope, hope born of the expectation that things could and would get better. Born, too, of a new form of financing, the installment plan. If you didn’t have money to buy what you wanted now, you could buy and pay for it later.

BILL MOYERS: The presidents of that time were optimists, Republican down to the cut of their suits. If they could keep wages and farm prices low, industry would prosper. For them, the business of America was business.

BILL MOYERS: In 1920, the Republicans nominated Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge to run against Democrats James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been a popular Assistant Secretary to the Navy. Harding, who looked like a president should, spoke in platitudes, calling for a return to normalcy. He won by a two to one margin. But Harding was a man of many limitations. He once commented of himself, I can’t hope to be the best president this country ever had, but I’d like to be the best loved.

As a young man, his father once told him, it’s a good thing you weren’t born a girl. You’d be in the family way all the time. You can’t say no. As president, Harding couldn’t say no either. He much preferred poker to statecraft. And he preferred a friendly private drink and a chaw of tobacco or the company of a woman not his wife to the duties of office.

RUTH GORDON: He was a handsome fellow. And pretty wicked.

ETTA BARNETT: I was very, very much impressed by the fact that Warren G. Harding was such a handsome man. And such inept man.

JOSEPH NORRICK: In the Harding administration, the belief was that they stole and sold the White House, furniture and all.

FRED THOMPSON I figured he was a grafter like most of them.

BILL MOYERS: Harding’s administration reeked of scandal. The best known, Teapot Dome, saw his Interior Secretary, Albert Fall, lease government oil reserves to private companies for large cash gifts. Fall was subsequently sent to jail for bribery. The burdens of the presidency proved too much for Warren Harding.

WALTER SIMMONS I remember being wakened in the middle of the night by boys crying, extra, extra, President Harding dead. So we get up and rushed out of the house and bought a copy of the extra. President Harding had indeed died.

BILL MOYERS: On Harding’s death, Calvin Coolidge took the presidential oath from his father, a justice of the peace, at the family home in Vermont. Unlike the fun-loving Harding, Coolidge was taciturn, unsmiling, dour. Of him was said, he must have been weened on a pickle. Of him was written, he aspired to become the least president the country has ever had and he attained his desire.

WILLIAM VALLELY: He was very quiet. A do nothing.

BERTHA AINE: He was a tight mouthed one. We called them Silent Cal, he was called during those days.

ETTA BARNETT: Yet, Coolidge’s silence was calculated. He knew that the nation liked the image of a prudent Yankee squire at the head of the table.

WALTER SIMMONS: We felt pretty good about his quiet hand being on the tiller of the ship of state.

BILL MOYERS: He thought Washington should interfere with business as little as possible. With his Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, he considered that the rich were the creators of prosperity. He once said, a man who builds the factory builds a temple. The country reelected Silent Cal, who served four more years and could have had another term. But he sprang a surprise.

JOSEPH NORRICK: And then he said, I don’t choose to run again. He didn’t want it anymore.

BILL MOYERS: Instead, Coolidge went fishing, often wearing high, stiff collars. He let others bait the hook and unhook the fish. All he did was hold the rod.

Few presidents entered office with a more awesome reputation than did Herbert Hoover. He was a self-made millionaire engineer. In the First World War, he served as Food Administrator. Later, he headed the American Relief Administration. In 1921, he dispatched nearly a million tons of food to the Soviet Union, which was on the verge of famine. In the 1928 campaign, Hoover ran as an Iowa farm boy made good opponent. His opponent, Governor Al Smith of New York. Smith’s mannerisms offended rural America. His ambivalence on Prohibition offended the dries. And, most crucial, his Catholicism offended much of Protestant America. One leading Protestant minister warned, no governor can kiss the papal ring and get within gunshot of the White House.

Hoover swamped Smith. Within less than a year, however, his presidency was engulfed by the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression. Hoover, the great engineer, stood by helpless during our worst economic calamity.

BILL MOYERS: Hard times, ugly times. America was fouled by bad feelings. The campaign of 1928 was marked by anti-Catholic bias and its smears against Smith’s urban background reflected intolerance of foreigners, impatience with dissent, and hatred rooted in religion and race. I came of age with the melody of “Old Time Religion” ringing in my ears. There was much in it generous and redeeming. And my parents, although they came from a culture soaked with the evangelist Billy Sunday’s diatribes against sinners, science, and liberals, were gentle folk, from whom I never heard a contemptuous word toward strangers. Relatives, maybe. But not strangers.

BILL MOYERS: Still, it was the Bible Belt. And some of the strictures of fundamentalism my father embraced as revealed wisdom. We heard so many sermons on demon rum that it was only a few years ago I was finally able to persuade him, that if he were going to take the scriptures literally, he would have to honor that passage in the Bible which enjoins the faithful to use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake. He did and does.

I was lucky. There was in the ’20s a nasty side of fundamentalism, which infected America for time to come. Mixed with fears of the Communist revolution in Russia, it inspired a rebirth of American nativism. Bigots and super patriots turned the melting pot into a boiling kettle of racial and religious antagonisms. Jews, Catholics, and blacks were its chief victims, but vigilantes might threaten anyone — student, professor, editor, writer, artist — anyone suspected of harboring subversive ideas.

BILL MOYERS: What’s hardest to remember is that the 1920s arose out of bitter disillusionment. Our troops returned home after World War I, hoping to rebuild their lives. Instead, they faced unemployment and economic depression and labor unrest. A general strike shut down Seattle for days. Even the police struck in Boston. A huge walk out of steel workers was broken by police and private security guards in 50 cities across 10 states. And coal strikes were led by John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers. The coal companies won out. The union’s membership dropped 1/2 million in 1920 to 75,000 in 1928.

FRED THOMPSON: In the ’20s, the union movement practically collapsed. Most of the union activity in the ’20s was formed groups that were left of center, like the IWW.

BILL MOYERS: Radical labor groups, like the Industrial Workers of the World, were blamed for the unrest. Many of its organizers were jailed.

FRED THOMPSON: I joined the IWW on general principles in San Francisco in October 1922. And I got arrested when I came down from there and sent over to San Quentin for three years and four months for being an organizer.

BILL MOYERS: It was in the treatment of foreign radicals that America showed its most reactionary face. A Red Scare erupted in 1919 and 1920. Attorney General Palmer conducted huge raids to deport Bolsheviks, anarchists, and communists. The effects of the Red Scare lasted through the decade, epitomized by the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants and anarchists charged with robbery and murder in 1920. They received the death sentence. The establishment said they were fairly tried. But others claim they were railroaded for their beliefs. The case became an international issue.

JENNIE SILVERMAN: We were picketing. We were demonstrating. And for a long time, there was the hope that perhaps we could really save them.

BILL MOYERS: But after six years of appeals, both men died in the electric chair.

JENNIE SILVERMAN: It was a great, great tragedy when they were executed. And then we had demonstrations to protest and vigils. It was are very sad period.

BILL MOYERS: The case remains one of the most controversial in our history.

MARY HAYES MORAN: I guess we all didn’t feel too sure that they were guilty. It seemed like just being radical seemed to smear them as much as anything else.

MARIA VALIANA: We didn’t think that they were murderers, as they were pictured. But they get killed. They both got killed.

BILL MOYERS: Looking back, it’s almost a relief to turn from Sacco and Vanzetti to another, still echoing, legal skirmish. Here’s John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, charged in Tennessee with teaching evolution. In 1925, state law made that a crime. In a packed courtroom, under the gaze of the media, Clarence Darrow defended Scopes. William Jennings Bryan, four time presidential candidate, led the prosecution and defended fundamentalism.

FRED THOMPSON: I think most of the people that were left of center enjoyed it for its putting bigotry on display. It was a fight between the years gone by and the years to come.

BILL MOYERS: So packed was the courtroom that the trial was moved on to the lawn. There Darrow questioned Bryan as an expert witness on the Bible. Darrow exposed Bryan’s ignorance of science and challenged his religious beliefs. Eventually, the jury returned its verdict. Guilty. Bryan had won his courtroom case. But he had lost in the court of public opinion. Exhausted and humiliated, he died less than a week later.

BILL MOYERS: You could tell the story of this decade in terms of victories won that were part illusion, part triumph. Consider the new woman. She could vote, but was still a second class citizen. And if she marched off to work, as millions did, she marched when day’s work was done right back into the kitchen, still considered her natural place in life. In matters more intimate, well, Freud and free love entered the vocabulary. And F. Scott Fitzgerald could write that none of the Victorian mothers had any idea how casually their daughters were accustomed to being kissed. So kissing, and anything else — especially the unmentionable anything else — was not to be flaunted.

ETTA MOTEN BARNETT: The morality as I knew it in the ’20s was nothing like free love.

OTTO LUENING: The liberated woman of that time liberated herself privately, if you get my meaning. It was not advertised much. And often didn’t let when she went back to Dubuque, Iowa, that she was liberated when she was in Chicago.

STERLING A. BROWN: We didn’t hear about virginity. We didn’t know the word. But had she done it? It was that kind of thing. And if she had done it, she was looked down on.

ETTA MOTEN BARNETT: Whatever you did, you didn’t have this, quote, honesty, that you have now, where you do what you want do and didn’t care who knew it. This wasn’t the case. People might have been doing the very same thing. But it was a time of discretion.

BILL MOYERS: Discretion in relations between the sexes. As for relation between the races, half a century after emancipation there still was little contact between blacks and whites, even among people of goodwill.

WALTER SIMMONS: I was never conscious of a black person until I got into high school.

LOUISE MUMM: We had an almost exclusively white community where I lived in Scranton.

BERTHA AINE: The only association we did have with blacks, as I say, as far as employing them for household work. That was my only contact.

HELEN M. EDMONSTON: We didn’t have very many blacks in New York at that time. At least I wasn’t so conscious of them.

MARY HAYES MORAN: We had no race relation problem. We didn’t know them. That was it.

BILL MOYERS: When there was contact between the races, it was often hostile.

GEORGE MCCLENDON: A section of the city of Chicago, they didn’t allow blacks in their neighborhood. And we didn’t allow the whites in our neighborhood.

EARL DICKERSON: The relationships between blacks and whites were on a basis of master and servant, for example. Most of the blacks who were around were in service positions, like janitors, like porters, like chauffeurs, like valets, like waiters. And flunkers around in the saloons and so forth and so on.

STERLING BROWN: We were completely segregated. No place to you eat except at Union Station. And none of use could afford the Union Station.

EARL DICKERSON: There was no place in Chicago in the ’20s, and later than that, where blacks could go and be accepted as white were accepted.

BILL MOYERS: Despite obstacles, there were blacks who forged better lives for themselves.

WESLEY WILLIAMS: I was appointed January 10th in 1919 as it first black fireman in the New York Fire Department. The captain of the company retired forthwith. Because he didn’t want the stigma of having the first black man in his company. And by them ostracizing me, not having anything to do with me, not speaking to me as if I was an animal, it only made me stay by myself. Because nobody would have anything to do with me. And I took the books and the rules and regulations and read up on them.

BILL MOYERS: Eventually, Wesley Williams became the first black fire chief in New York City, serving until 1952 with distinction. Nothing tells us more about the confusing, hurtful ’20s than the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. Founded in the bitterness of defeat in the South of 1866, it rose again in 1915. The Klan posed as the protector of old stock America, and had 1 million members in 1921, almost half a million in Indiana alone, were it controlled elections.

JOSEPH NORRICK: There’s counties in Indiana where they had all the adults, every male adult — maybe one or two or three — would join the Klan because they terrorized them.

BILL MOYERS: I am the law in Indiana, said the head of the Indiana Klan. That was before he went to jail for raping and torturing a white woman. That was the beginning of the end for the Klan. Even a mass march through our nation’s capital could not halt its decline. But the tail of the snake still wiggled, and racism worked its will through the use of rope, gun, fire, and law.

ETTA BARNETT: You would watch the paper to see who had been lynched and where was the lynching this morning. It was not good. In the South, it was very bad.

BILL MOYERS: Throughout the decade, 281 blacks were lynched. Each lynching, different. Each, in its evil way, the same. Poet Sterling Brown captured the terror and tragedy of a lynching in his poem, “Old Lem”

I had a buddy. Six foot of man,
muscled up perfect. Game to the heart.
They don’t come by ones. Outworked and outfought, any man or two men,
they don’t come by twos.
He spoke out of turn at the commissary.
They gave him a day to get out the county.
He didn’t take it. He said, come and get me.
They came and got him. And they came by tens.
He stayed in the county, He lays there dead.
They don’t come by ones. They don’t come by twos.
But they come by tens.

BILL MOYERS: So the ’20s had not two, but countless faces, some of them ugly and hateful. It’s healthy to recognize the errors of our forebears, but also to realize that some people managed to do the best of things in the worst of times. And there were many acts of conscience by individuals who fought back against the repression of the time and kept strong the idea of decency and freedom. There were also those personal commitments which bonded men and women to one another and to their children. I’m the beneficiary of such vials, and so are many of you. No better evidence of how one age bequeaths to another its share of our collective history can be found than in those people who helped guide us through the ’20s. And to whom we now give our special thanks.

BERTHA AINE: Office Worker.




HELEN M. EDMONSTON: Merchandise advertiser.

RUTH GORDON: Actress and author.


GEORGE MCCLENDON: Packing house butcher.

MARY HAYES MORAN: Telephone company worker.

LOUISE MUMM: Social worker.

JOSEPH W. NORRICK: Coal miner.


HENNIE SILVERMAN: Garment worker.

WALTER SIMMONS: Newspaperman.


WILLIAM VALLELY: Elevator installer.

MARIA VALIANI: Garment worker.

HENRY WATTS: Stockbroker.


BILL MOYERS: And finally, from their golden anniversary in 1976, my parents. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on April 14, 2015.

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