The "True Americans" (T.A.s) were an anti-immigration, racist, and strenuously anti-Catholic political organization which came to prominence in association with the Guardians of Liberty in the late 1910s in the Southern United States, most strongly in Birmingham, where "nativists", as they came to be called, virtually controlled local elections.
In Birmingham the group was led by First Baptist Church of Birmingham pastor A. J. Dickinson. Its membership, however, was kept secret and likely folded itself into the Ku Klux Klan, which was riding a tide of protectionist sentiment across the United States in the 1920s. The groundswell was motivated by decades of massive in-migration of European Catholics and by President Woodrow Wilson's support for the League of Nations, perceived as a threat to the sovereignty of the United States or even as a conspiracy to place the Vatican at the head of a world government.
In Birmingham the True Americans solicited members through a widely-circulated pamphlet bearing the likeness of former President Abraham Lincoln and containing a passage, misattributed to Lincoln, railing against the extension of political freedom to those loyal to the Pope. The pamphlet further explained that all American presidents assassinated were killed by Catholics. Though the pamphlet bore the name of no organization, the back page included an enrollment form. The agenda of the True Americans was also supported in the city's numerous fraternal clubs and societies, including the Masons, Knights of Pythias, Woodmen of the World, Odd Fellows and others.
The True American's influence in Birmingham's local politics was bolstered by the Greater Birmingham legislation of 1910 which brought large segments of conservative Protestant whites into the city's electoral rolls. It was those voters, who had already helped pass county-wide prohibition in a 1907 special election, and they were mobilized in the election of nativists to the Jefferson County Commission in 1916.
Fires at two Birmingham City Schools in 1916 were widely rumored to have been retaliatory strikes by the area's Catholics, avenging the burning of a church and parochial school in Pratt City two years earlier. Warned by Federal agents of planned violence, the Catholic churches employed armed guards who drove away midnight visitors on more than one occasion1.
"Vigilance committees" visited places of business to inquire whether Catholics were employed there. Under penalty of boycotts or the threat of violence, employers dismissed Catholics and anyone bold enough to express sympathy with them. Reportedly Jewish merchants were least likely to comply with the T.A.'s demands. Outside observers argued for the complicity of the Birmingham Age-Herald and Birmingham News in legitimizing the anti-Catholic agenda through biased reporting and editorial silence.
Through these extortionist tactics and manipulations of public sentiment through rumor and suppression of reason, the T.A.'s made it a virtual necessity for political candidates to voice their opposition to Catholic interests in advance of any election.
1917 Commission election
The group exerted a clear influence in the 1917 election for Birmingham City Commission president, where former East Lake mayor Nathaniel Barrett defeated incumbent George Ward on a platform based on keeping movie theaters closed on Sundays. He labelled Ward, an Episcoplian, as a "tool of the Catholics". Ward struck back by calling the T.A.s' "false Americans" whose bigotry had no place in a progressive metropolis. Though he lost the race he did poll strongly in downtown boxes and succeeded in splitting the powerful "Moral Element" lobby.
Barrett's first act as mayor was to dismiss Catholic police chief Martin Eagan and install Thomas Shirley, a Klan member, in his place. All other Catholics in City employ were similarly removed, except for two patrol officers. His record on issues of concern to the Moral Element, namely his failure to visibly reduce prostitution and other crimes of vice, weakened him in the 1921 Birmingham City Commission election. By then his rhetoric was more clearly associated with violence and terrorism perpetrated by the Klan.
As the True American's political influence faded, their harshly xenophobic views continued to flourish in the area's public institutions. Later in 1921 Edwin Stephenson, a Methodist minister whose daughter had married a Puerto Rican boy against his wishes, shot and killed St Paul's Cathedral pastor James Coyle in broad daylight. He was acquitted by an all-White jury in a trial marked by race-baiting remarks from defense attorney Hugo Black and reports of signals being exchanged between Black, Judge William Fort (both Klan members), and the jury.
The platform used by the True Americans in the 1917 election was as follows:
- complete separation of church and state
- the public school, no appropriations of public funds or land for any sectarian purposes whatsoever
- inspection of all public and private institutions
- civic righteousness
- the Bible in every school
- restriction of immigration
- the election to office of patriots only - men imbued with true American ideals
- free speech and free press
- appointment of those men and women only as public school teachers or principals whose Americanism is unquestioned
- respect for Old Glory as the highest emblem of authority in the land 2.
- Sweeney, Charles P. (November 24, 1920) "Leo Frank and Bigotry in the South" The Nation
- Harris, Carl V. (1977) Political Power in Birmingham, 1871-1921. Twentieth-Century America Series. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 087049211X
- Breedlove, Michael A. (July 1980) "Progressivism and Nativism: The Race for the Presidency of the City Commission of Birmingham, Alabama in 1917". Journal of the Birmingham Historical Society. Vol. 6, Nos. 6 & 7, reprinted in James L. Baggett, ed. (2000) The Journal of the Birmingham Historical Society: An Anthology Honoring Marvin Yeomans Whiting. Birmingham: Birmingham Public Library and Birmingham Historical Society. ISBN 0942301250
- Hamburger, Philip (2002) "An American Constitutional Right". Chapter 14 of Separation of Church and State. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674007344