NEW YORK – A presidential candidate who banked on support from the Ku Klux Klan. Blunt demands to ban certain religions and races from playing a full role in society. Violence and disorder at campaign rallies.
And a political party that tore itself apart not only over whom it would nominate for president, but also whether religious and racial bigotry would be visible in its fabric.
Welcome to the 1924 Democratic National Convention, held at Madison Square Garden in New York, when the most powerful bloc in the Democratic Party was the Klan, fiercely opposed by the city’s Tammany Hall Democrats. It was the longest political convention in U.S. history, going 16 days and requiring 103 ballots before a compromise candidate was selected.
The convulsions of the Democrats in 1924 are, in broad movements, mirrored in the rived and bedraggled pilgrimage of the Republicans in 2016 as they stagger toward their convention behind Donald Trump and his rivals.
In 1924, there were fistfights in the aisles and roosters released in the galleries; the police were called to break up the rumbles. Tammany backed the candidacy of Gov. Alfred E. Smith of New York, a Catholic, reviled by the Klan for his religion and his stature as a champion of the newest Americans, and by “dry” Democrats for his opposition to Prohibition.
The candidate of the Klan, and many other Democrats, was a California lawyer, William G. McAdoo, the son-in-law of former President Woodrow Wilson.
During the convention, 20,000 Klansmen attended a rally in New Jersey to denounce Smith. “They beat an effigy of him into a pulp,” Robert A. Slayton wrote in his biography, “Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith.”
An existential battle was at hand, Slayton wrote: “As the Democratic convention unwittingly set out to fight over the meaning of America, McAdoo served as the perfect opponent for Al Smith.”
Without air-conditioning, the Garden in July 1924 was a steaming, stifling caldron. The Tammany operatives hoped to wear down the opposition by dragging the proceedings on and driving up hotel bills. To keep the Southern delegates from abandoning the city – and to make sure Smith did not win the nomination – the publisher William Randolph Hearst picked up some tabs for lodgings.
The galleries were packed with raucous crowds. A pigeon, styled as a “Dove of Peace,” was released into the arena and its presence in the rafters “caused nervous glances to be cast heavenward by the assembled delegates,” Robert K. Murray wrote in “The 103rd Ballot: Democrats and the Disaster in Madison Square Garden.”
“This gathering heard more speeches, listened to more spoken words, experienced more fistfights, spent more time in committee and witnessed more demonstrations than any other such assemblage in history,” Murray wrote.
Passions crested when some delegates proposed that the platform include the words, “We pledge the Democratic Party to oppose any effort on the part of the Ku Klux Klan or any organization to interfere with the religious liberty or political freedom of any citizen, or to limit the civic rights of any citizen or body of citizens because of religion, birthplace or racial origin.”
The proceedings of the convention, which ran to 1,315 pages, report: “Resounding cheers, applause, rising demonstrations, delegates standing on chairs waving hats, the chairman vainly rapping his gavel for order; disorder in the galleries; cries of ‘Get out,’ ‘Say it again.’ ”
Sen. Oscar Underwood of Alabama, who supported the anti-Klan plank, was denounced by the Klan as “ ‘the Jew, jug and Jesuit candidate’ – the ‘jug’ reference meant to disparage Underwood’s opposition to Prohibition,” Terry Golway wrote in “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics.”
The fight went on for hours, and ultimately, the Klan and its allies prevailed in the platform fight as a resolution to condemn them by name lost by less than one vote – 543 3/20 votes to 542 7/20 votes. (Some delegates could cast fractional votes.)
Neither Smith nor McAdoo came close to getting two-thirds of the delegates needed for the nomination. The compromise candidate, John W. Davis, got only 29 percent of the vote when he ran in the general election against President Calvin Coolidge.
Four years later, Smith won the Democratic nomination, but the Klan awaited him as he crossed the country, burning crosses and spreading lies.
“The Grand Dragon of the Realm of Arkansas, writing to a citizen of that state, urges my defeat because I am a Catholic,” he said in a speech. “During all of our national life, we have prided ourselves throughout the world on the declaration of the fundamental American truth that all men are created equal.”
He lost to Herbert Hoover.