Tag Archives: Jimmy Walker

Jimmy Walker vs. the Ku Klux Klan

Jimmy Walker, the man who would become the mayor of New York during one of its most prosperous periods, was famously cavalier about politics. [Listen to our podcast on Mr. Walker for more information.] But in the years before he became mayor, he actually spearheaded two laws that would change New York City and the state of New York forever.

The first brought one of America’s great pastimes back into vogue: boxing. The sport was technically illegal for much of the 19th century — which didn’t stop New York from becoming the boxing capital of the United States — until a 1911 law briefly brought back.

Reformers banned it again in 1917 only to be met head-on by a powerful and well-connected member of the New York state senate who also just happened to be a boxing enthusiast — Jimmy Walker. The 1920’s Walker Law would bring back the sport for good.

His second great legislative contribution would set the stage for civil rights laws across the country.

Below: Funeral procession for a Ku Klux Klan member, held in Cold Spring, Putnam County, New York, 1920s.

Courtesy NYPL

The Ku Klux Klan, a racist vigilante organization formed in the Reconstruction South, gained new prominence in the mid-1910s thanks to the popularity of the film The Birth of a Nation. Feeding off anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant fervor, the newly reinvigorated organization rose to power in the early 1920s in many big American cities. By 1922 there were 21 distinct klaverns in New York City alone.

But in a city full of powerful Catholics, immigrant groups of all types, and an empowered African-American population rising in Harlem, one might have expected a reactionary force like the KKK to be even bigger in New York City. That’s where Walker comes in.

Walker, born an Irish Catholic, was closely associated with Al Smith, the new governor of New York who was also Catholic. Both were Democrats and also aligned with the needs of the city’s Irish community. (Not to mention Tammany Hall, the political organization whose power had diminished since its Gilded Age glory days.)

A rising swell of anti-KKK sentiment in New York City came in 1921 with the publication of a series of damning articles in the New York World, effectively neutralizing the klan’s influence in denser portions of the city. Mayor John Hylan “launched an all-out war” on the KKK, throwing them out of Manhattan wherever possible.

Below: Advertisements for the newspaper series ran in competing newspapers. From the September 5, 1921, New York Tribune:

The Klan hit back with full page ads like the one below:


In no uncertain terms, Hylan declared, “Do not leave a stone unturned to ferret out these despicable, disloyal persons who are attempting to organize a society the aims and purposes of which are of such a character that were they to prevail, the foundation of our country would be destroyed.”

Below: A 1928 anti-Catholic cartoon published in the book Heroes of the Fiery Cross by the Pillar of Fire Church in Zarephath, New Jersey

But targeting the KKK was not merely a moral mission for Walker, the future mayor of New York City. Nationally the KKK were a rising political power within the Democratic party of the 1920s. In fact the the 1924 Democratic National Convention, held at Madison Square Garden to select a presidential candidate, was almost derailed by their inclusion.

Smith, Walker’s ally, was planning on running for president in 1924. (He was overlooked that year but eventually became the party’s candidate in 1928). Limiting a hate group like the Ku Klux Klan — a hate group with rising power — within the state would certainly lessen their impact within the party.

By early 1923, Walker was the state senate leader and introduced a bill into the chamber, placing limits on ‘oath-based associations’ that would require them to file a list of their membership with the state. The Klan were essentially being unmasked; the names of their members would become public record.

From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

*The bill exempted labor unions and, “officially chartered benevolent orders” like the Elks Lodge.

The bill swept through the state senate, (barely) made it through the assembly, before landing on Governor Smith’s desk for a swift passage.

Even with the ‘anti-masking’ law in place, the klan found receptive crowds in the region.  Thousands of Klan members marched in protests immediately following the law’s implementation. “The demonstrations by tens of thousands of Ku Kux Klansmen on Long Island, in New Jersey and in various parts of New York State yesterday and Saturday were staged as a spectacular defiance of the Klan’s enemies.” [Eagle, 5/28/1923]

Below: A scene from Long Island, 1925. “Four women kneeling in front of strouded Klansman reading from a book; other Klansmen stand behind them on the platform; spectators watch initiation.”
Library of Congress

The spirit of the law was more powerful than its specifics. The Ku Klux Klan was effectively turned into an illegal organization that day. Many states would use Walker’s tactics in crafting their own anti-Klan laws.

The Klan attempted to overturn Walker’s law, taking it all the way to the Supreme Court. On November 20, 1928, the court upheld the law, specifically marking the klan as a terrorist group, “its members disguised by hoods and gowns and doing things calculated to strike terror into the minds of the people.

Once the Great Depression arrived, the organized KKK was all but gone in the New York region, retreating to “a shadowy existence in the South.”


Jimmy Walker, Mayor of the Jazz Age (NYC and the Roaring ’20s Part One)

PODCAST For the first part in our New York City in the Roaring Twenties summer mini-series, we’re hitting the town with “Beau James,” New York’s lively and fun-loving mayor Jimmy Walker.

The 1920s were a transformational decade for New York, evolving from a Gilded Age capital to the ideal of the modern international city. Art deco skyscrapers reinvented the skyline, reorienting the center of gravity from downtown to a newly invigorated Midtown Manhattan. Cultural influences, projected to the world via radio and the silent screen, helped create a new American style.

And the king of it all was Jimmy Walker, elected mayor of New York City just as its prospects were at their highest. The Tin Pan Alley songwriter-turned-Tammany Hall politician was always known more for his grace and style than his accomplishments. His wit and character embodied the spirit (and the spirits) of the Roaring ’20s.

Join us for an after-midnight romp with the Night Mayor of New York as he ascends to the most powerful seat in the city and spends his first term in the lap of luxury. What could possibly go wrong?

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

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Or listen to it straight from here:


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Walker having his morning coffee at his home on 6 St. Lukes Place (pictured below)

Courtesy MCNY

Jimmy Walker with Charles Lindbergh in 1927, in the midst of a ticker tape parade after his non-stop ride from Long Island to Paris.

Courtesy New York Social Diary


Walker so enjoyed throwing public events for famous people that he was frequently parodied for it. In 1932 Vanity Fair pictured him giving a lavish welcome — to himself.

Conde Nast

Harry McDonough with The Elysian Singers from 1905, singing Walker’s big hit “Will You Love Me In December As You Do In May.”

The dashing fashion plate, pictured here most certainly on his way to yet another vacation…..

….perhaps his European vacation! He’s pictured here in 1927, strolling the streets of Venice with a few hundred people behind him.

A picture of Jimmy, actually at work! He’s swearing in the new fire commissioner James J. Dorman in 1926.

Mayor Jimmy Walker with British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald at yet another welcoming ceremony, broadcast on the radio.


Another British visit, this time from Mrs Foster Welch, Mayor of Southampton.

In another Pathe video, Jimmy Walker visits Ireland and the former home of his father.

During Walker’s extraordinary rise, New York was becoming an entirely new city in the 1920s with construction projects on virtually on every block. Even in front of the Hotel Commodore (pictured here in 1927), which was, for a time, the home of Jimmy Walker.

Park Avenue (at 50th Street) in 1922.


Park Avenue at 61st Street in 1922. The rich flocked to this newly developed street of apartment complexes, making it the new center of wealth.

And now, for a little glamour, a few shots of Yvonne Shelton, then Betty Compton, Walker’s two most famous girlfriends (who he wooed while married to wife Janet).

Courtesy Historial Ziegfeld
Photographs above by Alfred Cheney Johnston.


She most famously starred in 1927’s Broadway production of Oh Kay! starring Gertrude Lawrence. Here’s Lawrence singing a famous song from that show:


IN TWO WEEKS: Chapter Two of our series on the Roaring ’20s, rewinding back to the beginning of the decade and introducing you to another icon of the Jazz Age. Who will it be?