Sympathy for the Ku-Klux

Visit of the Ku-KluxVisit of the Ku-Klux. Frank Bellew, 1872 (Photo: Harper's Weekly)

Perhaps the closest the U. S. government has come to seriously and systematically punishing respectable white men for violence against black men was almost 150 years ago, in response to the post-Civil War Ku-Klux Klan. From 1868 through 1872, Klan groups committed thousands of assaults, hundreds of murders, numerous rapes, and substantial theft of black property.

The government was reluctant to press charges against white attackers because many people managed to convince themselves that, in fact, the violence was not happening. White southerners often denied reports of Klan attacks as false, “a phantom of a diseased imagination.” At this time, most white southerners were Democrats and most black southerners Republicans. Democratic papers took the lead in Klan denial, referring to the “so-called Klan” as a “humbug,” alleging that because black southerners, as a group, were fearful (they had a “constitutional timidity”) and dishonest, their testimony was worthless. Democrats suggested that sympathetic white Republicans were sentimentalists who failed to understand black racial limitations. When freedpeople and their white allies claimed that the Klan had threatened them or driven them from their homes, Democratic newspapers accused them of being scared by ghost stories. When bodies began to pile up, Klan-deniers claimed that the victims had actually been killed by other freedpeople disguised as Ku-Klux. Even those Republican newspapers opposed to the Klan hated to appear gullible, and often treated accounts of Klan attacks with skepticism.

The federal government and the press carefully investigated and documented Klan violence, making outright denial difficult. They hired detectives and stationed army units not only to protect freedpeople but also to gather information in Klan-ridden areas. They arrested Ku-Klux with their costumes. They gathered confessions. Congressmen formed subcommittees and personally traveled south, where they took volumes of testimony.

When they were unable to deny Klan violence outright, apologists turned to a second strategy, both emphasizing that victims were dangerous and describing poor black communities as chaotic and unpoliceable. When the Klan killed a black man, he was often characterized as a “bad negro.” Rumors of his sexual immorality or criminality circulated in his community and in the white press over the following weeks. Ku-Klux, in these accounts, were good men forced to use violence to control a black population too ignorant to respond to anything but force. Klan whippings, threats, and executions were unseemly, Klan defenders suggested, but were the only way to maintain public order and safety. Faced with evidence of white-on-black violence, Klan apologists inevitably brought countercharges of black aggression, sexual menace, and impudence.

White Republicans who shared the racist views of Democratic southerners found it difficult to dismiss these claims. Nonetheless, the federal government did use its massive accumulation of evidence to arrest a minority of Ku-Klux. The federal government focused their energy on South Carolina, arresting more than a thousand men in 1871-1872.

So a third justification for Klan violence emerged: Klan defenders insisted that, guilty or not, convicted Ku-Klux were being persecuted. Newspapers described terrified white families fleeing federal marshals. In an ironic mirror of the atrocities of the slave trade, newspapers claimed that Ku-Klux prisoners being shipped from the Carolinas to federal prison in Albany, New York had been confined “between decks” in uncomfortably hot conditions and with poor air circulation. They complained about the cleanliness of jailed Ku-Kluxes’ cells. They alleged that their rations were inadequate, and their coffee a poor imitation of the real article. These papers described Ku-Klux as “cripple[d], pale, and emaciated,” some elderly, some leaving behind dependent families, some worn down by poverty and hard work, and unfit for harsh prison conditions.

Popular sympathy for convicted Ku-Klux was striking. Even those opposed to the Klan’s violence embraced their cause. Geritt Smith, a famed abolitionist, expressed concern about the Albany Ku-Klux, personally visiting them and calling upon President Ulysses S. Grant to inquire into their conditions of imprisonment. Grant had strong political reason to appear sympathetic to Ku-Klux: his opponent in the 1872 election, Horace Greeley, positioned himself as the voice of reconciliation. While Grant’s campaign emphasized his effectiveness in suppressing the Klan, he did not want to appear unforgiving. Grant sent his head of the Secret Service, Hiram Whitley, to look into the prisoners’ conditions, and major papers reprinted Whitley’s report that he was pleasantly surprised to find the Ku-Klux prisoners “manly, frank, and communicative.” Whitley concluded that, guilty or innocent, their plight “appeal[s] strongly for mercy.”

This mercy was quickly forthcoming. Grant and his Republicans had found the will to try to stop Klan violence, but they were much less interested in seeing those who had committed this violence punished. Many of the hundreds of suspected Ku-Klux apprehended by federal officials were simply sent home. Of those who were charged, only a minority were ever tried: charges against most were dropped in 1872 and 1873. Soon after his reelection, Grant, who pitied “these wretched men,” began pardoning even that small group of Ku-Klux who had been sent to federal prison. This was a gesture of sectional reconciliation pointing at the hope that war-time divisions would be healed. It was also a gesture of a white solidarity so strong that it would not be broken again for almost a hundred years.

About the Author

Elaine Frantz Parsons

Elaine Frantz Parsons is an associate professor of History at Duquesne University. Her book, The Ku-Klux Klan and the Reconstruction of American Culture (Forthcoming UNC Press, 2015) explores the rise and fall of the reconstruction-era Klan.

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20 Comments

  1. Wonderful piece! I wrote a portion of a dissertation/first book chapter on some of the era’s pro-Southern and pro-KKK literature, including most prominently Mississippi Lawyer James D. Lynch’s epic poem *Redpath; or the Ku-Klux Tribunal* (1877)–which became so well-known and enduringly popular that Lynch was chosen to write the official welcoming poem for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. I would trace that rise in pro-KKK lit directly to their heroic role in Dixon’s novels, *Birth of a Nation*, and *Gone with the Wind*.

    Again, great stuff, thanks!
    Ben

    1. I’d love to see that, Ben! There’s quite a bit of good recent work on the reconstruction-era Klan and its representations.

    2. Contrast Lynch & Dixon with Joel Chandler Harris who in his 1899 “comic” novel “The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann” portrays the Reconstruction era Klan as hapless, low-class bumblers – sort of keystone cops – whose plot against a black politician (horribly depicted as a buffoonish tool of carpetbaggers) is easily thwarted by the patrician former Confederate officer who nobly comes to the defense of his former slave. I’m not sure if the Lynch/Dixon or Harris portrayal is ultimately more damaging. Harris was, of course, internationally popular at the time.

  2. Yeah, I don’t know if Dixon knew Lynch, although it’s entirely possible as they were both prominent members of the Southern literary community in the 1890s. But Lynch wrote what, to my mind, was perhaps the first depiction of a heroic, rescuing KKK, one that Dixon made a centerpiece of novels like The Klansman and The Leopard’s Spots. So I see a trope through-line there for sure, at least.

  3. Really interesting piece, Elaine. I still come down (as I always do!) on the idea that the state is easy on wrong-doers who vote. Seems to me leaders want votes to get reelected, and will do whatever it takes to get them. Ironically, there are moments when standing up for principle actually wins more votes than caving, but it’s the rare politician who is willing to take that risk.

    1. Thanks, Heather… I’m sure that others have written about in a more interesting theoretical way, but I do wonder how much people’s practical sense of who ought to be punished has ever tracked onto what they have done rather than who they were.

      1. Wow. That’s a really interesting way to think about this stuff. Not sure where I come out on it. Let’s toss this around some more.

  4. Great article. I think back to Grant saying that “the public are tired of these autumnal outbursts,” meaning voting and related controversies, I suppose, and I wonder how much we should be revising the earlier views of Grant.

  5. Very nice piece. My forthcoming biography of Custer emphasizes race in his life and career, and I devote much of a chapter to his direct confrontation with the Klan in Kentucky, which was aflame in the early 1870s. Found some very interesting stuff in the National Archives, which fits with recent historiography of the state in the 1870s. The point has been made that conditions for African Americans were worse in Kentucky because it had not fallen under the Reconstruction Acts; the state government essentially allied with the KKK. Troops, U.S. marshals, and the Secret Service were all deployed in Kentucky, though it’s always overshadowed by the federal effort in South Carolina. And Custer hated being sent to oppose the Klan.

  6. Lynch does not come up in Dixon’s papers, but I assume Dixon was aware of the poem, as he read voraciously (albeit not with an open mind) about Reconstruction. I will check to see if this book/pamphlet was in Dixon’s library when I get back to the office!
    Eagerly await reading about how Custer and the KKK intersected in Kentucky.
    Eagerly await reading Elaine’s new book too! Will it be out by fall of next year? In paperback? I am teaching a writing seminar with the Joint Select Committee hearings on the KKK as the common source for all the students’ papers and would love to assign your book.
    Grant pardoned Randolph Abbott Shotwell, one of Dixon’s main sources (and inspirations), a KKK leader in western NC. Personal bugbear of the month: the NC online encyclopedia has an article about Shotwell that repeats some of Elaine’s points above (Shotwell was persecuted, it says, by his Radical enemies).

    1. What an interesting-sounding class. I would love to see your syllabus. I’m checking in with the press on the date for my book, though I believe not until the middle of the fall semester. It will only be in hardback at first, though inexpensive for a hardback.

      Let’s bring the word “bugbear” back!

  7. I was thinking about this article today as I read through a similar case. A group of white men attacked a number of young Native American children at a hockey game, and one of newspaper headlines read, “Did Native students stand for National Anthem?” It’s always amazing (and deeply saddening) to see the lengths people will go to defend violence against minority groups.
    http://huff.to/1IGM06G

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