If you think President Trump is the first American politician to call for building a border wall to keep migrants from entering the country illegally – you would be off by about 77 years.
Consider North Carolina Sen. Robert Reynolds, who in a speech on the Senate floor on June 5, 1941, sounded down right Trumpish.
“I wish to say – and I say it without the slightest hesitation – that if I had my way about it at this hour, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it,” Reynolds said. (Hat tip to Sarah Wildman of Vox, an Internet news website devoted to explanatory journalism.)
I have written about Reynolds and the deep vein of xenophobia that runs through North Carolina and American politics before. But it is worth reviewing it again, as Trump rallied his political base this past election by sending U.S. troops to the border to defend against an “invasion” by Central American refugees.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
The president is also threatening to shut down the federal government if Congress does not provide enough money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. It also comes at a time when there has been an increase in anti-Semitic behavior.
There is, of course, room for legitimate debate about who should be allowed into the country, and under what circumstances. But the issue has also been demagogued by politicians and groups who seek to exploit people’s fears about foreign immigrants.
Nobody could demagogue like Reynolds, an Asheville resident, and Democrat, who represented North Carolina in the Senate from December 1932 to January 1945, including a stint as chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee.
Reynolds, an admirer of such fascist dictators as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, was a leading critic of Jewish immigration. He argued that Jews were “systematically building a Jewish empire in this country.” He was nicknamed “The Tar Heel Fuhrer” by colleagues, according to a column by Drew Pearson.
He distributed his views through a publication he founded called the Vindicator, which was published from March 29, 1939 to December 1942. The newspaper with a circulation of 118,000 carried menacing headlines such as “Rabbi Seeks Admission of One Million War Refugees.”
Reynolds wanted his followers to develop seven-member groups of Vindicators in their neighborhoods known as the Circle of Seven that would meet monthly – Jews excluded. Vindicators were to create their own “Border Patrol” for young people between the ages of 10 to 18, who would wear badges, collecting $20 for every “alien crook” they caught, according to Julian Pleasants’ biography, “Buncombe Bob.”
The senator was photographed in his office by Life magazine, aiming a slingshot which he called an Alien Eradicator.
Reynolds was mining a deep vein of suspicion of foreigners that goes back to colonial times. A Gallup poll in 1939, found that 61 percent of the nation opposed admitting 10,000 Jewish refugee children fleeing from Germany and seeking the safety of American homes, Vox reported.
Reynolds denied he was anti-Semitic. “I want all our fine boys and lovely girls to have all the jobs in this wonderful country,” he told Life magazine, according to Vox.
But if Reynolds denied fascist leanings, he could look to his hometown to find the real thing.
One day after Hitler took power in Germany, the Silver Shirts, an anti-Semitic fascist organization patterned after Hitler’s Brownshirts, was formed in Asheville in 1933. It claimed 100,000 members with chapters in 22 states — with an estimated 15,000 members. William Dudley Pelley, the group’s leader, said he wanted to save America from the Jews just as “Mussolini and his Black Shirts saved Italy and as Hitler and his Brown Shirts saved Germany.”
He ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1936, garnering only 1,600 votes.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, federal officials shut the Silver Shirts down. Pelley was convicted on 11 counts of sedition in 1942 and was released from prison in 1950.
Reynolds, known as Buncombe Bob, was a clown who was more likely to draw snickers from his colleagues rather than respect.
The same could not be said for Sen. Furnifold Simmons, a Democrat from the New Bern area, who was the state’s political boss.
He persuaded Congress in 1917 to adopt legislation requiring immigrants over age 16 to read 30 to 40 words in their own language. This was a cousin to the literacy test that Simmons pushed for black North Carolinians at the beginning of the century. His target this time were immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe – mainly Jews and Italians.
“They know nothing about our institutions: they do not seek, after they come here, to learn anything about them,” Simmons said. “They segregate themselves from our people; they do not acquire our habits; they do not learn our language; they live upon what an Americans would starve on.”
Xenophobia, of course, is not a North Carolina thing.
In 1913, the California legislature passed a law barring “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning agricultural lands in the state. The move was aimed at discouraging immigration from Japan and to make it inhospitable for immigrants already working in California.
Japan lodged a strong protest with Washington, but President Woodrow Wilson rejected the note, and tempers flared and sabers were rattled.
Several Wilson advisers as well as military leaders urged the administration to move three American war ships from China to the Philippines, where they could transport U.S. troops if necessary.
But Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels – the editor/owner of The News and Observer – and his close friend, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, strongly opposed taking any warlike actions and the president agreed. An international incident, or even war, was avoided.
The California law was invalidated by the California Supreme Court in 1952, but not before eight other states had passed similar land-ownership bans.
Immigrants have been political targets by politicians through much of our history.
As former President Harry Truman once said: “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”