Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction

Article excerpt

Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction. By Elaine Frantz Parsons. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pp. [xii], 388. $34.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-2542-3.)

Elaine Frantz Parsons has written a provocative reevaluation of the Ku Klux Klan that is essential reading for anyone studying the Reconstruction South. Not since Allen W. Trelease published White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (New York, 1971) has a scholar offered such an important overall assessment of the first Klan and its significance. While acknowledging the "brilliant, exhaustive, and painstakingly careful" research of Trelease's classic study. Parsons asks new questions and reaches new conclusions by analyzing evidence from multiple vantage points through the lens of cultural history (p. 16). The result is a new perspective on the Klan phenomenon of 1866-1872 that promises to transform the way historians understand the meaning of this infamous chapter in American history.

Parsons wisely distinguishes between the imagined Klan that was largely constructed through public discourse in newspaper accounts and editorials, and the actual acts of violence, intimidation, and political theater attributed to a single organization known as the "Ku-Klux" (p. 7). Plainly skeptical of claims to extensive organizational formation. Parsons focuses the majority of her study on interpreting the power of the public discourse about the Klan. In her estimation, the violence of the Klan, and Klan-like groups, ought to be viewed as just one temporary manifestation of extralegal mob violence that was commonly employed for the purposes of community and racial control in the South. "Klan" activity in many places was little more than a single night of raiding, with purposes that were often driven by long-standing local conflicts. Evidence of broad coordination is scant and highly dubious, but Parsons shows that the "real" Klan and the imagined one were interdependent. As sensationalized accounts about the Klan proliferated in early 1868, so did acts that adopted the well-publicized trappings of the Klan, which fed into the public narrative of a vast conspiracy and widely coordinated campaign. …

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