November 30, 2022

The White Christian Roots of Jim Crow: The National Origins Act of 1925 – And Its White Christian Resurgence Today

Listen to the Congressional Debate (above)

How Jim Crow Theology Pushed White Supremacy and White Nationalism in 1925

In response to growing public opinion against the flow of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe in the years following World War I, Congress passed first the Quota Act of 1921 then the even more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act). Initially, the 1924 law imposed a total quota on immigration of 165,000—less than 20 percent of the pre-World War I average. It based ceilings on the number of immigrants from any particular nation on the percentage of each nationality recorded in the 1890 census (a time when the percentage of U.S. citizens from southern and eastern Europe were less than that in 1924)—a blatant effort to limit immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, which mostly occurred after that date. For example, in the first decade of the 20th century, an average of 200,000 Italians had entered the United States each year. With the 1924 Act, the annual quota for Italians was set at less than 4,000. In addition, immigration from African nations other than Egypt was capped at 1,100. This table shows the annual immigration quotas under the 1924 Immigration Act.

Jim Crow Theology Demonstrated in the Congressional Debate and Vote

Although there was a minority of Congressmen who were opposed to the National Origins Act, including Representative Adolph Joachim Sabath, a Czech-born congressman from Chicago (whose spirited congressional defense of immigrants is included in the above audio clip), the prevalent juggernaut of Jim Crow Theology in 1924 undergirded the thinking of the American public and their elected representatives, and was evident in the Congressional debate and vote on the Act. Indeed, as is heard beginning at 8:47 in the above audio clip, Republican Representative Ira Hersey of Maine was quoted as saying:

“A white race, the Christian religion, one race, one country – and one destiny. The African, the Oriental, the Mongolian and all the yellow races should never have been allowed to people this great land.
Ultimately, the Act passed by a substantial margin, of 373-71 in the House of Representatives and 62-6 in the Senate.

The following speech by Senator Ellison DuRant Smith also illustrates the Congressional thinking underlying the bill. Although blatant racists like Smith were in the minority in the Senate, almost all senators supported restriction, and the Johnson-Reed bill passed with only six dissenting votes.

I think we now have sufficient population in our country for us to shut the door and to breed up a pure, unadulterated American citizenship. I recognize that there is a dangerous lack of distinction between people of a certain nationality and the breed of the dog. Who is an American? Would it be . . . the son of any of the breeds from the Orient, the son of the denizens of Africa? It is the breed of the dog in which I am interested. I would like for the Members of the Senate to read that book just recently published by Madison Grant, The Passing of a Great Race. Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon (white) stock . . . It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries . . . but . . . the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power . . . With regard to the salvation of our own, let us shut the door . . . and let us breed pure American citizens . . . We want men not like dumb, driven cattle from those nations where the progressive thought of the times has scarcely made a beginning. . . It is a question of maintaining that which has made you and me (speaking of white Americans) the beneficiaries of the greatest hope that ever burned in the human breast for the most splendid future that ever stood before (white) mankind, where the (white) boy in the gutter can look with confidence to the seat of the Presidency of the United States; where the (white) boy in the gutter can look forward to the time when, paying the price of a proper citizen, he may fill a seat in this hall; where the (white) boy to-day poverty-stricken, standing in the midst of all the splendid opportunities of America, should have and, please God, if we do our duty, will have an opportunity to enjoy the marvelous wealth that the genius and brain of our country is making possible for us all.
[Words in parentheses were added to make the speaker’s entendre, and the implications of his proposed public polies explicit.] Source: Speech by Ellison DuRant Smith, April 9, 1924, Congressional Record, 68th Congress, 1st Session (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1924), vol. 65, 5961–5962.

The National Origins Act shaped American immigration policy until the end of Jim Crow in the 1960s. With a brief break, the Jim Crow Theology that undergirded the Act has continued in the anti-immigrant sentiment at the core of the New Jim Crow Theology as expounded by its progenitors today. And sadly, the clearly racist underpinnings, rhetoric and public policies toward Central American refugees and African immigrants put in place by the Trump administration beginning in 2016 enjoy the enthusiastic support of 82 percent of conservative white evangelicals in the American church today. Accordingly, in this aspect, the New Jim Crow Theology does not differ from Jim Crow Theology of the 1870s through the early 1960s, and in this respect, the conservative white evangelical church in America has not left its unbiblical theology behind. As the Bible clearly expounds God’s character and commands concerning refugees and immigrants, the conservative white evangelical church is continuing to choose political beliefs over the theology of scripture.