Remembering an America where fear, hatred and bigotry were mainstream

Julie Grant’s oral history of the “blood libel” incident in Massena in 1928, which aired this week on NCPR, is a must-listen for anyone interested in the cultural history of the North Country — or the United States, for that matter.

She spent weeks tracking down authors, historians, local residents and some of the people directly involved in the painful case of a little girl who went missing, sparking dark suspicions about the town’s Jewish community.

Some locals feared that the lost child might have been sacrificed as part of a secret Jewish blood-rite.

If this sounds like ancient history, the kind of bigoted thing that you find in dusty history books, it might surprise you that Grant was actually able to track down Barbara Klemens, the missing child who was at the center of the story.

She’s now 87 years old and her memories of the incident have dimmed with time.  But this is, as they say, living history.

Grant explores, richly and complexly, the ways that perception of this story have changed over the years.

She makes clear that many locals — including some local Jewish families — think the “blood libel” incident has been overblown.

So for the moment, let’s set aside the particulars of the Massena case and consider the bigger context.  When the incident in Massena occurred, America was a very different society.  An uglier society.

Just a decade earlier, the starkly racist propaganda film “Birth of A Nation” was released, celebrating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.  The movie was praised by President Woodrow Wilson.

Through the the 1920s and 30s, anti-Semitism was mainstream in America.  Towering figures like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were openly hostile to the Jewish community.

In 1939, before the US entered the Second World War, the Nazi-sympathizing “Bund” organization held a rally in New York City that drew 20,000 people.

Massena wasn’t the only North Country community infected by this culture of fear and ignorance.

In her story, Grant quotes author Amy Godine, who has written extensively about ethnic groups in the North Country.  She points out that Jews were regularly denied entrance to some of the Adirondacks’ most posh resorts.

“[T]here’s a kind of acceptance of bigotry as part of the American way of life that’s taking shape during the 20s, thanks to fear of immigrants,” Godine concludes.

It appears that Jewish leaders in America actually publicized Massena’s blood libel case to help raise awareness about the dangers of anti-Semitism.

National push-back following the incident was part of a long campaign for equal rights and tolerance that was only beginning to reshape American society.

In his 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America” Phillip Roth explored what might have happened if America had continued down that dark road.  What if anti-Semitism prevailed here, as it did in so much of Europe?

What if we had allowed ourselves to be convinced that Jews were really so evil and malignant that they would sacrifice Christian children?

And it’s not just Jews, obviously, who were the subject of this institutional bigotry.  What if our society had continued down the path of Jim Crow-style racial apartheid?

What if we had continued forcing Native American children into boarding schools? What if gays and lesbians still faced imprisonment or a diagnosis of mental illness?

What if we continued to put Japanese in internment camps, or limited Chinese immigration because of the “yellow peril”?  What if Roman Catholics were still ostracized as anti-American “Papists”?

Grant’s story is a stark reminder of our very recent past and it points to the debt of gratitude we owe to the Americans who fought for vital reforms.

Too often the last half-century is lampooned as a period of ‘political correctness’ or ‘hyper-sensitivity.’ The 1960s have been remade into a caricature, because we forget what so much of the rebellion and turmoil was about.

The simple truth is that not so long ago, America was a place where neighbors openly feared and reviled their neighbors because of the color of their skin, and because of their faith, or because of their sexual orientation.

I’m glad that all those decades ago Barbara Klemens was found alive and well.   And I’m grateful that the incident in Massena helped, at least in a small way, to set our country on a better, more hopeful and moral path.

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34 Comments on “Remembering an America where fear, hatred and bigotry were mainstream”

  1. wj says:


    But it’s so disheartening to see political candidates revive exactly this kind of fear and hate to get publicity – and maybe even elected.

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  2. BRFVolpe says:

    Thanks to the “leftist radicals” leaning on the silent majority, our society is free of many of the institutional and legislative prejudices that Brian’s essay spells out. So yes, in these cases of bigotry and disenfranchisement, extremism in the cause of liberty can be a proud measure of American values.

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  3. Peter Hahn says:

    its the default human condition, and easily exploited by demagogues. Even today we have the “illegal alien” peril.

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  4. Pete Klein says:

    Not only do we have ads on TV complaining about the peril of “illegal aliens.” There is now one on TV complaining legal aliens are taking jobs away from Americans.
    The beat goes on!

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  5. Fear, hatred and bigotry are still more mainstream than they should be — just ask gays, Muslims and Hispanics – but at least there’s a certain degree of social reprobation to such hatemongering.

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  6. Dave NY USA says:

    Wow, it is almost as if Eric Holder and Barrack Soweto wrote that article!

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  7. Peter Hahn says:

    Eric Holder and Barrack Soweto???? speak of the devil

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  8. Frankie J. says:

    Very good job by Brian Mann covering the program that aired on NCPR with Julie Grant and her revealing and telling history of local bigotry.

    May I recommend to you the following article

    “At Home With the Bigot” By Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News,
    14 February 12

    What he reveals about the current state of bigotry in America is also very revealing and telling.

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  9. oa says:

    Dave NY USA, once conducted an interview on this topic:
    DAVE: “Remember an America where fear, hatred and bigotry were mainstream? (pause) That was awesome.”

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  10. Walker says:

    Here’s a link for Frankie J.’s article:

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  11. Mervel says:

    Yet people still really really wanted to come here in that whole time period and they kept coming even with the racism and xenophobia. I think that is the difference, we will know that we are totally screwed when no one wants to come here anymore.

    It’s why we are different from France or China or Japan etc. In the end we may sound ugly but we do assimilate people, the good outweighs the bad for the majority of immigrants who still want to come here. These other countries may sound a lot better than we do, they may be more politically correct; but in the end they maintained their racial and ethnic homogeneity and to this day can’t really get around the fact that they don’t want anyone who does not look like them in their countries or in their culture. As Mr. LaPen used to say “France for the French”! Everyone knew what he meant, he didn’t have to explain what it meant to be “French”, and it did not include Arabs or Africans, even today they live in France are citizens of the country; but they are not “French”.

    Anyway we are moving toward 30% of this country being Hispanic by 2050, and we will pull it of and it is a good thing!

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  12. JDM says:

    Bigot (urban dictionary) One who is narrrowly or intolerantly devoted to his or her opinions and prejudices.

    the first line from the “At Home With the Bigot” By Stephen Eric Bronner says, “Republicans and their conservative allies insist that racism is a thing of the past. But their party still serves as the bastion of anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-black, and anti-feminist activism. ”

    Sounds like Stephen Eric Bronner has a bigoted predisposition toward Republicans and conservatives.

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  13. tootightmike says:

    Ignore him…

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  14. Peter Hahn says:

    Mervel has a good point. It is (and has been) far worse everywhere else. In NYC 20K people may have turned out for a right-wing rally, but in Europe in 1939, they were actively marching millions off to concentration camps. Even as recently as the
    Bosnian war, there was ethnic cleansing in Europe. And that is just the West. in Africa, Asia and South/Central America there have been horrible events.

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  15. Peter Hahn says:

    Seems to me that in a bunch of the communist countries they even “ethnically cleansed” JDM’s conservatives.

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  16. JDM says:

    I’m surprised Peter Hahn isn’t demanding proof for this statement:

    “Republicans and their conservative allies insist that racism is a thing of the past. But their party still serves as the bastion of anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-black, and anti-feminist activism.”

    How can anyone make such a generalization without proof?

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  17. JDM says:

    ignore tootightmike…

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  18. JDM says:

    My point is the bigotry did exist and does exist as a part of fallen man.

    To say that one group of people is immune from it because they are liberal or conservative, is, itself, a bigoted statement.

    To say one group is prone to it because they of their political view, is also bigoted (and pretty naive).

    It is wrong everywhere it exists.

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  19. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Oh God! “fallen man”

    Using religious terms to justify what religion has often wrought.

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  20. Peter Hahn says:

    JDM – its your statement (or at least you brought it up)- if you want to prove it – go for it ;)

    Presumably – the author of that statement had some data or logic for that statement which, if you look at it carefully, might be faulty.

    I must admit that I personally believe there to be some truth to it, but I’ve never seen any actual numbers – how many racists vote Republican vs Democrat (for example). Remember the Willy Horton campaign. That was a conscious decision to appeal to racism to go after Dukakis. Certainly the pre-60’s Democrats in the south included many serious racists, but most of them now vote Republican.

    The problem is that if you ask people if they are racists (or other types of bigots) in order to find out who they vote for, they probably wont admit their bigotry.

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  21. JDM says:

    Peter Hahn:”The problem is that if you ask people if they are racists (or other types of bigots) in order to find out who they vote for, they probably wont admit their bigotry.”

    I agree.

    khl: Sorry about the religious term. It was brought up in the article that Republicans and conservatives were “fallen”. I suppose you add other groups, like liberals and Democrats. Then you include Americans and Russians. Pretty soon, it’s easier just to include all of mankind.

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  22. mervel says:

    Japan actually has as a written government immigration goal; to maintain racial homogeneity. Can you imagine? I mean nice people, nice place to visit, but not exactly a place that welcomes new citizens that are not racially acceptable.

    Look at Saudi, they import servants from around the world to do their work, yet how many of those servants get to become Saudi citizens to join Saudi society and culture and government?

    I think the amazing thing is that given the natural human tendency toward tribalism; how incredibly different the US has historically been in overcoming fear of the new person and the different person, it is our true strength if we lose it I think we have a problem. Here you become an American, you don’t become an Arab or a Chinese, who happens to live in the US.

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  23. Pete Klein says:

    I don’t see “man” so much as fallen as rising. To not see any progress is to be blind to history.
    Just on the radio today, I heard where there is more and more intermarriages and those marriages are becoming more and more acceptable.
    It’s hard to believe that as recently as 1968, there were still some states (not NY) where it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry each other. Then in 1968, the Supreme Court made it legal throughout the USA.

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  24. Two Cents says:

    Not true, here you become a hyphenated American. We are not a melting pot, we are a tossed salad.

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  25. Frankie J. says:

    As a former swimmer in the cesspool of “severely Conservative” political circles in the great state of North Carolina back in the 70’s, I can attest that racial and religious bigotry was rampant. Jesse Helms was saying “hell no” to North Carolina celebrating Dr. Kings birthday as a federal holiday.

    We have been treated to quite a bit of racist paranoia and bating by the leading lights of the current Republican/Conservative line-up for Prez. Newt Leroy Gingrich is especially gifted at using race to motivate the base.

    Then on Conservative talk radio, the right is represented by the likes of Hannity, Beck and Limbaugh who are not above using race to motivate the base. FOX and their “opinionists” like Palin and Huckabee (and several others) often take a swim in the cesspool of racial politics as well.

    The point is, Mr. Bronner is simply pointing out these facts. And his letter squares with the very racial/religious issues of 1920’s Massena. We have progressed as a nation. I know of many good Conservatives who do not dwell in racial nonsense. Yet, there is still in existence a minority of die-hard right wing bigots who own the microphone of the media and they give a bad name to Conservatism and the GOP as a whole.

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  26. oa says:

    Mervel said: “As Mr. LaPen used to say “France for the French”! Everyone knew what he meant, he didn’t have to explain what it meant to be “French”, and it did not include Arabs or Africans, even today they live in France are citizens of the country; but they are not “French”….”

    Mervel, I think you’re tarring France with too broad a brush here, and it’s completely unfair to put the French on the same shelf as Japan.
    Using Le Pen is like using David Duke as an example. Yes, Duke won some votes 20 years ago, too, but he didn’t win the culture war. France has bigots and racism. So do we. But France is more diverse and tolerant than any nation in Europe, save for possibly the UK. And the French stack up quite well next to us.
    They are snobby about food, though.

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  27. mervel says:

    You might be right; I like France. What I meant by the LaPen comment was not that he and now his daughter have majority support; but the fact that when he said “France for the French” French people disagreed with him, but everyone in France knew what he meant by French. You can’t say America for the Americans and make any real sense.

    I don’t think they stack up well compared to us as far as assimilating and welcoming new immigrants. Their immigration numbers are very small compared to the millions of new people that come into the US every year and they keep them isolated and outside of French culture. I think they stack up okay with us on racism and so forth, but then again you have the whole problem of anti-semetism and what happened in WWII in France.

    Europe compared to the US is very un-diverse as a whole. If you consider that we are now at a point in our largest states where we do not have one majority ethnicity or race, I mean these European countries are freaking out over 5-8% non-native’s.

    But anyway I like Europe I just think that we have a different model and I like ours.

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  28. mervel says:

    I tell you what though; the interesting thing is what is happening in Texas. Texas will be majority Hispanic by 2020, will they maintain as a bastion of red state status? They are already politically trying to fight this change and their election maps are going to be thrown out.

    You look at Obama and his victory you look at our major states some very conservative who are home to millions of new immigrants, and I don’t know we say a lot of ignorant things, but in the end our actions and outcomes usually strengthen Liberty and sometimes our ideals.

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  29. Bob Falesch says:

    “…strengthen liberty…” I know what you mean, but in practice, the focus of that anthemic term “liberty” changes throughout history, and can even change decade-by-decade (c.f., 1960-1970-1980). As for what bugs me about our present liberty or lack thereof: So long as we live in a country where just one of its school districts can get away with teaching some “alternative” to evolution, we have no liberty — especially for our children. Simply calling evolution a “theory” reveals an anti-science nature that worries me to no end, as does calling homosexuality a “lifestyle.” Choice is not a factor in being homosexual (my gay friends might disagree, but I suppose closeting oneself is, however, a choice people make). Neither should choice be a factor in whether or not we teach science in science class. Knowing the truth is liberating.

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  30. Robin McClellan says:

    When I was growing up in the 60’s, I took gay bashing for granted. I even was as misguided as to give soldiers dirty looks, blaming them somehow for the Vietnam War. I look back in shame on those feelings. I wonder what I will look back in shame about in 20 years? What am I doing now that I will find reprehensible later? Eating meat? Burning wood? While values can be relatively constant, our application of them–our morality– is not.

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  31. Mervel says:

    Bob I think when we have some schools graduating 50% of their kids and we have a national dropout rate of 25% we have bigger liberty issues in education than these minor issues about evolution. If you can’t read or do basic math, it does not really matter what side of that divide you are on.

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  32. Mervel says:

    The biggest school system in the US, the NYS public school system only graduates some 55% of their kids, and they are no where close to being burdened by Christian fundamentalist thinking. So you basically blow off a whole generation of kids because of who the are; yes that IS a liberty issue.

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  33. Bob Falesch says:

    Mervel, I agree about the dropout rate and liberty. Those numbers are frightening. Isn’t it bitterly ironic that our top universities are still considered the best in the world, but the primary education system struggles. The “99:1″ ratio again? The distribution of wealth and the distribution of higher education appear mutually proportional. It’s time to whip up the great, languishing middle class.

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  34. Mervel says:

    I agree Bob.

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