Sundown Towns, the KKK, and the Ever-Present Threat of White Violence
Hate Segregates the Nation
White supremacy and violence helped sustain segregation in American neighborhoods.
In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan became a major force in upholding white domination and enforcing sundown practices. During this time the KKK was at its most powerful. The Klan drew millions of members not only from the South, but from the North and West. Nearly 45% of Klansmen lived in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio alone.
The new KKK did not just target Black people. Klan leaders hired public relations experts to help broaden their reach. They sold tailored messages to different areas, rallying Klan members and their families against Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and other minorities.
These rebranding efforts were a success. Police officers, judges, and elected officials openly flocked to its ranks, giving the group a veneer of respectability and lawfulness.
Sundown towns were another key example of white supremacist tactics. Beginning in the late-nineteenth century, these all-White communities excluded Black people and other minority groups by custom or through laws and threats of violence.
The name comes from the practice of allowing people of color to work in a community as household staff, day laborers, or as hired hands in factories or agriculture. Despite being allowed to work in the town by day, they were forced to leave by sundown.
Some towns had warning sirens or signs posted at their borders, telling people of color to leave by sundown. Often, the rules were unspoken but widely known. Most sundown towns had no official signs or ordinances on the books, but all knew who was welcome…and who was not.
During the Great Migration and periods of increased immigration, many White communities in the North and West rallied with the KKK to preserve their neighborhoods against the perceived threat of racial minorities.
They organized neighborhood associations, targeting Black newcomers and others they deemed unacceptable with tactics ranging from subtle social pressures to outright mob violence.
Between 1917 and 1921, at least fifty-eight Black-owned properties in Chicago were firebombed.
In 1951, a mob of thousands attacked the home of a single Black family in an all-White Chicago suburb, Cicero. They threw lit torches through windows and smashed their furniture to pieces, causing $20,000 of property damage.
But Black people did not simply accept white supremacist violence and attacks on their homes. They attempted to defend their families and homes, and in rare cases were successful in court.
In 1925, Dr. Ossian and Gladys Sweet realized their dream of homeownership and purchased a home in an all-White neighborhood in Detroit.
When a white mob attacked the building, shots were fired from inside, and a man was killed. Sweet and his friends were charged with murder.
When the case went to trial, the NAACP and well-known lawyer Clarence Darrow defended Dr. Sweet—and won.
For many Black Americans, the Sweet case proved that Black people also had the right to defend their lives and their property.
It was just one example of countless acts of resistance to white supremacy, violence, and hatred.
Have you ever felt afraid in your own neighborhood? What caused your fear?
Have you ever been afraid in someone else’s neighborhood?
Have you ever decided not to go somewhere to protect your own safety?
Violence reinforced segregation. For Americans of color up through the early 1900s, violent acts and the threat of violence kept behavior under tight control and limited the freedom to move.
Anti-Asian violence drove Chinese people out of many towns in the West. In 1885, an armed mob of White miners attacked a Chinese neighborhood in Rock Springs, Wyoming. The rioters killed 35 people, wounded 15, and drove more than 700 others from town before burning their buildings. Continuing violence and persecution eventually drove most remaining Chinese people from the state. In 1870, Chinese Americans made up one third of Idaho’s population. By 1910, that number was near zero.
In the summer of 1919, violence broke out across America. In what became known as the Red Summer, White mobs attacked Black communities in dozens of cities and rural towns. Chicago saw one of the worst outbursts with simmering tensions over housing, jobs, and policing igniting into five days of violence —leading to the deaths of twenty-three Black residents and fifteen White residents.
In 1921, a White mob looted the Greenwood District in Tulsa. They destroyed thirty-five square blocks, including a thriving business area known as Black Wall Street, and killing about 300 people. Residents of the area filed almost 200 lawsuits against the city and insurance companies but were unsuccessful in getting compensation for damages.
Some White communities reached for an old tool from the Reconstruction era:Reconstruction era: Immediately following the Civil War, Reconstruction (1865-1877) was the United States’ effort to reincorporate federally occupied southern states and integrate four million newly emancipated Black Americans into civic life. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments (known collectively as the Reconstruction Amendments) abolished slavery, granted equal protection, and the right to vote to Black men. Southern governments responded with Black Codes and many whites embraced white supremacist violence against newly freed people. After Reconstruction removed federal oversight, many states instituted Jim Crow laws and segregation. an organization known as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Once a loosely affiliated paramilitary group, the KKK conducted raids on Black communities until 1871, when the government deemed it a terrorist organization. This effectively ended Klan activities through federal force. But in the 1920s, a revived and rebranded KKK and Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK) brought up to five million men and half a million women into their ranks. Most were native-born White mainstream Protestants. The KKK reached far beyond the South; almost 45 percent of members lived in Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana. The Klan actively courted membership from police officers, judges, ministers, and elected officials, linking its brutal and murderous acts with the power of law. They presented themselves as patriotic friends to the White community with folksy, familiar activities like potluck dinners, parades, and gifts to the poor.
The new KKK and WKKK expanded the targets of their hate to include Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and others they considered enemies. They used a range of tactics, from assault and lynchingLynching: The act of lynching is a mob of people murdering a person outside the boundaries of the law and always in a violent way such as hanging. Lynching is most commonly associated with the killing of Black people by White people in the United States especially in, but not limited to, the Jim Crow South. to cross burnings, intimidation, rumor, and slander. High-visibility rallies brought hundreds of White residents out for shows of force. In the 1920s and 30s, Klan rallies in Washington State incited mobs to evict Filipino and Japanese farmers who had skirted the state’s alien land lawsAlien land laws: Alien land laws refers to the practice of western states to limit ownership and later the leasing of agricultural land to Japanese immigrants. Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming all had laws or state constitutional amendments that restricted land ownership in this way. The laws were prominent from 1913 to 1952 when the US Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. by buying farmland from the Yakama Nation Reservation. Mobs terrorized the farmers with beatings, arson, and dynamite, destroying their cars and buildings.
Sundown townsSundown Towns: All-white communities or counties that purposefully maintained their status through harassment, discriminatory laws and ordinances, and violence or threat of violence. The name comes from posted and verbal warnings that Black people and other people of color would receive upon entry. Sometimes this status was codified in law and signaled with signs, sirens, or other warnings. Often, laborers such as household, farm or factory help could work in a community during daylight hours and had to leave town by sundown. Frequently, it was maintained by practice and custom of local people and law enforcement. Sundown towns appeared in many areas of the nation between 1890 and the 1970s with some still maintaining their all-White status. were another tactic for maintaining White dominance. A sundown town made it clear that any Blacks and other people of color needed to leave town every day before dark or face dire consequences. Residents could rely on the labor of minority workers during the day but prevent them from moving in and gaining political power.
By the late 1800s, sundown towns across the North and West targeted Blacks and sometimes Latino, Native American, Asian, Jewish, and other groups. Some sundown towns signaled their status with threatening signs at the town line or a loud siren at sunset. More often, sundown policies were unwritten and unspoken, but keenly understood. The threat of violence was always present.
Neighborhood defenseNeighborhood Defense: Organizations founded by residents of all-White neighborhoods or communities designed to maintain segregation in their community. They used tactics ranging from intimidation of potential new residents to mob action and physical violence to people attempting to integrate neighborhoods and firebombing of homes. organizations also used the threat of violence to keep Black people out. Organized by White communities to fight integration, these groups used tactics ranging from social pressure to terrorism.Terrorism: The use of violence, particularly against civilians, to achieve a political goal. Between 1917 and 1921, white supremacists in Chicago firebombed the homes of at least fifty-eight Black families, bankers, and real estate agents. In 1951, a White building owner in Cicero (a suburb of Chicago) rented an apartment to a Black World War II veteran and his family, ignoring the objections of local White racists. On the night the family moved in, a mob of more than 4,000 White people laid siege to the building. They threw bricks, rocks, and burning wood through the windows, tossed the family’s furniture into the street, and pulled sinks from the walls. Fighting spread through the streets. The governor of Illinois declared martial law, but it took the National Guard three days to bring the violence under control.
Black Americans organized defenses of their own homes, often in the face of intense backlash. In 1925, a White mob surrounded the Detroit home of Dr. Ossian and Gladys Sweet. Along with nine other friends and family members, they remained there for two nights as the mob threw rocks into the home. Shots were fired from the second story by an unidentified person, killing one attacker and injuring another. All eleven people in the home were charged with murder. When the case went to trial, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hired famous lawyer Clarence Darrow to defend Dr. Sweet—and won. This rare verdict affirmed that Black people, too, had the right to defend their lives and their property. But the victory did not stop the violence. Between 1945 and 1965 alone, White mobs protested and vandalized the homes of more than 200 Black households who had moved into the Sweet’s neighborhood.
A short documentary produced by Michigan Humanities about Detroit and the Sweet trials.
The threat of violence was ever-present. Even when it did not flare up into attacks, it had a chilling effect on behavior that prevented people from testing the boundaries of segregation.Segregation: The act of separating people based on race, class, or ethnicity enforced through legal means or customary practice.
But violence was not the only tactic used to control where people lived. Laws and policies could do the same job with less bloodshed. Increasingly, White communities used legal strategies and discriminatory practices to achieve the same goals. These legal tactics were often more effective at maintaining segregation than the threat of violence.
A short documentary produced by Michigan Humanities about Detroit and the Sweet trials.