Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

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. 388. Illustrations, figures, acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95.)

The last comprehensive treatment of the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan was Allen Trelease's still authoritative White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction, published in 1971. Elaine Frantz Parsons returns to the primary sources to argue that the Klan's existence as a functioning national organization may have been overestimated by Trelease but that the Klan as a national framing device for postwar political and cultural arguments has been underestimated. Her careful argument will seem credible to readers living in a period of nationwide but decentralized movements from the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter, which have been propagated more by the use of commercial and social media than by traditional organizational infrastructure. Parsons musters congressional records, local court documents, and thousands of press accounts to show that, rather than being a paramilitary or para-political organization, the Klan of 1868 to 1872 was the co-creation of "embodied" vigilantes on the ground, who perpetuated local acts of violence with local motives, and also a "disembodied" national phenomenon, which framed postwar discourse on citizenship, anxiety over expanding federal power, and skepticism about a new national media's growing claims of objectivity.

Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction is a happy marriage of the tools of social history and the insights of cultural history. References to theory are frequent, from David Roediger and Catherine Clinton's work on racial and gendered violence to Barbara Babcock-Abraham's work on tricksters in folk culture, but here theory explicates the evidence, rather than sources being mined as support for theory. Parsons' news database of more than 3000 articles and analysis of the relationships among more than 5000 Union County, South Carolina, residents give her argument formidable heft. The first and the final two chapters provide studies of Pulaski, Tennessee, where the Klan was founded, and of Union County, where it undertook some of its most systematic violence. The four chapters in between examine the Klan's impact on ideas of manhood, its shaping of the postwar South, the national press as the Klan's co-creator, and the way ongoing skepticism about the reality of the Klan allowed white northerners and southerners to create a shared postwar narrative to guide the nation's racial and political future.

In examining racial violence in Union County, both on the ground and as depicted in the national press, Parsons shows how a well-established local culture of violence morphed into self-identified Ku-Klux operations only when it became politically expedient to do so-after the elections of 1870, a time when the Klan had begun to receive a more sympathetic hearing in the national press. In her mapping of local court records, Parsons demonstrates that local elites' longstanding cooperation with the area's criminal elements in liquor sales and prostitution was threatened by assertive freedpeople and that these local economic conflicts drove early violence. Only after the fall of 1870 did Union County elites adopt the Klan frame as a way to constrain the excesses of their lower-class allies and to shape a narrative for national consumption emphasizing the necessity of their violence. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.