Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction

Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction

Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction

Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction

Synopsis

The first comprehensive examination of the nineteenth-century Ku Klux Klan since the 1970s, Ku-Klux pinpoints the group's rise with startling acuity. Historians have traced the origins of the Klan to Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866, but the details behind the group's emergence have long remained shadowy. By parsing the earliest descriptions of the Klan, Elaine Frantz Parsons reveals that it was only as reports of the Tennessee Klan's mysterious and menacing activities began circulating in northern newspapers that whites enthusiastically formed their own Klan groups throughout the South. The spread of the Klan was thus intimately connected with the politics and mass media of the North.

Shedding new light on the ideas that motivated the Klan, Parsons explores Klansmen's appropriation of images and language from northern urban forms such as minstrelsy, burlesque, and business culture. While the Klan sought to retain the prewar racial order, the figure of the Ku-Klux became a joint creation of northern popular cultural entrepreneurs and southern whites seeking, perversely and violently, to modernize the South. Innovative and packed with fresh insight, Parsons' book offers the definitive account of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction.

Excerpt

The Ku-Klux Klan remains a ghostly presence in U.S. history. Like a ghost, it commands attention: 150 years after the Klan’s beginning, the Klansman still evokes a powerful response when he appears and reappears in popular films and writings. And no U.S. history textbook is complete without discussions of the Klan in the Reconstruction era, around World War I, and in response to the civil rights movement. The Klan is solidly entrenched as part of our national narrative, where it has come to represent the most violent aspect of white racial oppression. And yet few are confident that they know what they have seen. Discussions of the Klan tend to resolve into discussions of its covert nature: we spend as much time contemplating what we imagine is hidden from us as we do describing the Klan based on the ample information we have. The Klan’s secrecy is as large a part of what makes it interesting to many as is its violence.

The Klan emerged after the Civil War as a solution to the problem of southern white defeat. We know now that white political, economic, and social dominance of black southerners would long outlast slavery, but white southerners, lacking the benefit of hindsight, were not at all certain that they could maintain their grip on resources and power in the South after losing the war. They had reason to fear; black southerners had reason to hope, and northerners looked on with mixed feelings. White southerners still had immense advantages over their black neighbors: they owned the vast majority of land and other capital; as a group, they were considerably more literate and numerate; they had experience controlling and working within institutional structures such as local governments, the military, and other voluntary organizations; and they had important allies—many had active networks of personal and business ties to influential people beyond their local area, in neighboring counties and even distant states. Together, these white advantages in property, education, organization, and connections would seem insurance enough against black competition even without the formal system of slavery.

Yet white southerners shared a widespread fear that their former slaves would rapidly overtake them. They worried that all of the remaining pillars of their power could be chipped away if freedpeople took full advantage . . .

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