Monday, October 7, 2019
October 7, 2019: Domestic Terrorism: The KKK
[October 8th marks the 50th anniversary of the Weather Underground’s Days of Rage protests in Chicago. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the Weathermen and other domestic terrorists—a fraught but important term, I know—leading up to a weekend post on 21st century events.]
On two under-remembered stages to the early histories of our oldest domestic terrorist organization.
I could probably focus the first paragraph of every post here on the books, articles, and work of other scholars that have informed my own thinking about that particular subject. I generally try at least to highlight them through hyperlinks, but sometimes I know the scholars in question themselves as well as their work, and know that they are equally awesome. In that case, and especially when they are women (whose work, as has been illustrated too often in recent months, is often particularly under-cited), I will try to dedicate some blog space to sharing those scholarly texts. So: if you want to learn about the Ku Klux Klan’s Reconstruction origins, check out Elaine Frantz Parsons’s Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (2015); and if you want to follow the Klan’s evolution into the early 20th century, check out Kelly J. Baker’s Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011). Both those books expand greatly and in more far depth and analytical nuance on the histories and ideas about which I’ll write briefly in this post; for those in my last paragraph in particular, I also greatly look forward to Cynthia Lynn Lyerly’s forthcoming Thomas Dixon, Jr.: Apostle of Hate.
One of the histories that Parsons’s book helps us remember is just how contested and controversial the Klan was in its early years. As Parsons traced in this 2014 We’re History post (which was a partial excerpt from and certainly foreshadowed her book), in the late 1860s and early 1870s the Grant Administration and federal government conducted a series of investigations into the Klan, leading to famous Congressional hearings among many other political and legal responses. I can’t agree (and I don’t think Parsons would either, per the end of that We’re History piece) with Grant biographer Ron Chernow, however, when he writes that Grant and these federal inquiries helped destroy the Reconstruction-era Klan; as Parson notes, even those Klan members convicted of crimes as a result of these new laws were generally pardoned by Grant after the 1872 election. So better remembering these Reconstruction debates not only helps us recognize the conflicts over the Klan, but also offers a frustrating glimpse into how that domestic terrorist organization and its violent activities were normalized, even (perhaps especially) in precisely the same moments when it was being treated as the criminal enterprise it always was (and remains to this day).
As I argued in my own We’re History piece on the subject, and as Baker’s book details and (I’m quite sure) Lyerly’s book will as well, popular culture comprised one central vehicle through which that normalization of the Klan took place. One of the first such cultural normalizations was created as a direct response to the Congressional hearings themselves: Mississippi lawyer and white supremacist James D. Lynch’s epic poem Redpath, or, the Ku Klux Tribunal (1877), which depicts a fictional Northern political aide who journeys to the South to investigate the Klan and ends up converting to its cause based on what he finds there. Texts like Lynch’s poem helped create the conditions in which Thomas Dixon’s Klan trilogy could become bestselling “historical” novels, in which the film adaptation of those novels The Birth of a Nation could become one of the most influential American movies of all time, and in which Gone with the Wind (written by a woman, Margaret Mitchell, who would respond to Dixon’s praise of the novel by telling him that she was “practically raised on” his books) remains one of the most successful American novels. All those texts, most released during the years (1872-1915) when the KKK was officially not active, remind us that even a domestic terrorist mainstay like the Klan is not a given, that its arc and influence were constructed over time, and can, crucially, be engaged, challenged, and destroyed in own our era.
Next domestic terrorists tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories of domestic terrorism you’d highlight?