Saturday, April 21, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 21: The first Ku Klux Klan and white Christian terrorism

The Thomas Nast cartoon above, titled "The Union as it Was", first appeared in Harper's Weekly of 10/24/1874 as a comment on the white Christian terrorist groups that former Confederates had organized in the South to deprive newly-enfranched black men of the vote and both black men and women of their civil rights.

The most famous of those groups was the Ku Klux Klan, though it was only one among a number of such groups. The "White League" pictured in Nast's cartoon was another name used by these anti-democracy Christian terrorist groups. The generic name "Ku Klux Klan" became a common shorthand for such groups generally. The KKK as such was largely suppressed at the time, though other groups continued to use violence and coercion to overthrown the democratic Reconstruction governments by terrorizing Republican voters (both black and white) and by massive "voter fraud" (to use the current phrase, only then it was very real) and corruption. The Klan of this era is now referred to as the "first Klan", because the later groups that went by that name were not directly connected to the earlier versions. The 1920s were actually the peak of political influence for the KKK nationally.

Kenneth Stammp described the activities of the KKK and related Christian terrorist groups in The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (1966):

Organized terrorism was popularly associated with the Ku Klux Klan, formed in Tennessee in 1866, but the Klan was only one of many such organizations, which included the Knights of the White Camelia, the White Brotherhood, the Pale Faces, and the '76 Association. These societies drew their membership chiefly, but by no means exclusively, from the poor whites and yeoman farmers, who apparently found their rituals and organizational terminology, as well as their purposes, irresistible. The local Klan units were called dens; these were organized into provinces, the provinces into dominions, the dominions into realms, and the whole into an empire, "The Invisible Empire of the South." At the head was a grand wizard and ten genii; subordinate to them were grand dragons, furies, hydras, titans, and night-hawks. Members of the dens were called ghouls, and the den master was a Cyclops. "This is an institution of Chivalry, Humanity, Mercy, and Patriotism," declared the Klan's prescript, "embodying in its genius and its principles all that is chivalric in conduct, noble in sentiment, generous in manhood, and patriotic in purpose." Its purposes were, among others, to "protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless" and to "protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Presumably in pursuit of these goals candidates for membership had to affirm that they were "opposed to negro equality, both social and political," and "in favor of a white man's government." (my emphasis)
Nathan Bedford Forrest, early Ku Klux Klan leader and general whose troops massacred black Union prisoners of war at Fort Pillow

The Confederate cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of the main leaders of the early Klan and is considered to be one of its founders, possibly also the first "grand dragon" who presided over the first convention of the Invisible Empire of the South held in Nashville in 1867. Forrest was notorious for what was known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, in which soldiers under his command murdered black Union prisoners of war.

The Lost Cause view romanticized the Klan terrorists of this period. In the Gone With the Wind movie, we see Scarlett O'Hara (Scarlett Kennedy at the time) attacked by men who tried to pull her out of her wagon as she rode near their encampment. She's saved by a former family slave. After that, her husband Frank Kennedy goes out with a group of white men to raze the black emcampment. Rhett Butler goes out and saves some of them from a Federal soldiers' ambush, though Frank doesn't make it back. Scarlett is far more concerned about her beloved Ashley Wilkes, who is wounded but Rhett cons the soldiers who show up at the mansion into thinking Ashley is just drunk. No particular organization is mentioned in connection with that incident in the movie.

In Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel, she is more explicit. Describing the scene of the women at the mansion waiting for the men to return, she writes:

"Where is Ashley? What has happened to him, Melly?" cried Scarlett.

"Where's your husband? Aren't you interested in him?" India's pale eyes blazed with insane malice as she crumpled and straightened the torn towel she had been mending.

"India, please!" Melanie had mastered her voice but her white, shaken face and tortured eyes showed the strain under which she was laboring. "Scarlett, perhaps we should have told you but—but—you had been through so much this afternoon that we — that Frank didn't think—and you were always so outspoken against the Klan—"

"The Klan—"

At first, Scarlett spoke the word as if she had never heard it before and had no comprehension of its meaning and then:

"The Klan!" she almost screamed it. "Ashley isn't in the Klan! Frank can't be! Oh, he promised me!"

"Of course, Mr. Kennedy is in the Klan and Ashley, too, and all the men we know," cried India. "They are men, aren't they? And white men and Southerners. You should have been proud of him instead of making him sneak out as though it were something shameful and -"

"You all have known all along and I didn't -"

"We were afraid it would upset you," said Melanie sorrowfully.

"Then that's where they go when they're supposed to be at the political meetings? Oh, he promised me! Now, the Yankees will come and take my mills and the store and put him in jail - oh, what did Rhett Butler mean?" (my emphasis)
This positive view of the Klan was very much part of the Lost Cause "heritage". I should point out here that Scarlett's opposition to Ashley's and Frank's being part of the Klan was due to her worry for Ashley's safety and her selfish desire to protect her property from being confiscated by the Yankees. It functions in the story as a sign of weakness of character, not as some kind of principled opposition to white Christian terrorism.

Stammp points out that Congress passed three "Force Acts" (1870 and two in 1871) and the Grant administration at that time did take steps to preserve democracy in face of its terrorist opponents:

Additional federal troops were sent into the South, adn President Grant suspended the write of habeas corpus in a number of South Carolina counties [where Christian terrorist violence was particular severe]. After scores of arrests, fines and imprisonments, the Klan's power was finally broken, and by 1872 it had almost disappeared.
As I mentioned, though, and as Stammp proceeds to describe, that didn't end the violence and attempts to suppress democratic government in the South, attempts that eventually succeeded. John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moos, Jr., describe the disgraceful process in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (8th edition; 2003):

The overthrow of the Radicals [pro-democracy Republicans] was accomplished not only by [white] Southerners returning to political action and restoring Conservative governments but also by other circumstances favorable to white Southerners. Intimidation of blacks was effective. Even where there were no riots, whites kept blacks from the polls by terrorism and thus ensured victory for the Democratic party. After the official dissolution of the Ku Klux Klan in 1869, other methods of intimidation were employed to render blacks politically inconsequential. Indeed, intimidation was most effective after 1870, although the Ku Klux Klan disclaimed all responsibility because of the increasing violence. The crops of blacks were destroyed, their barns and houses burned, and they were whipped and lynched for voting Republican. Organized whites became bolder as they patrolled polling places to guarantee "fair, peaceful, and Democratic" elections.
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