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Lessons from Old Words

Updated on December 8, 2011
Nathan Bedford Forrest, the KKK First Grand Wizard.  Why are streets named for this man?
Nathan Bedford Forrest, the KKK First Grand Wizard. Why are streets named for this man?

Here I am, celebrating the Christmas season by filling my Kindle with old texts available for free, as I do not have the money to fill it with new texts for which someone would require payment. Now, I do not object to reading old texts. In fact, I find it to be a fascinating excursion into the foreign at times. Then again there are moments in which I face a text completely at a loss, unable to bridge the time between myself and it to the extent necessary to understand it. I had such a moment last night with Eyre Damer's When the Ku Klux Rode published in 1912.

I expected to have problems with this one. I do not admire the Klan in any of its incarnations, and as this was written by a southern journalist of the early 'teens, just three years before the Klans revival under William J. Simmons, I suspected, rightly, that it was a pro-Klan document. I firmly believe, however, that it is best to know one's enemies, to listen to what they say in order to be armed against it and them. So, I got a cup of coffee and sat down to read.

I read with my laptop on. I do not have the names and alliances of every Reconstruction politician and southern leader in my head, and as part of the defense of the Klan lies in parading the "sins" of Republican politicians and military authorities before the reader I would need easy access to information about them from sources beyond this book. It is hard to follow an argument when you spend half the time asking, "What are they talking about?" A good thing, too, as one of the earliest passages in the book includes a false description of a leading politician, painting him as an advocate of the Union, a good-guy moderate southerner, when he was not.

The introduction to Damer's book prepares the reader for what is to follow. It declares that the book is written to satisfy the public's curiosity about "that most remarkable organization of modern times--begotten of conditions unparalleled in history, conditions which can never recur, and vanishing with the emergency that created it--the militant Ku Klux Klan", who rescued the south from "corrupt adventurers and ignorant freemen" to re-establish order. It is, in other words, a romance of racism, much in the lines of D.W. Griffith's Birth of the Nation (1915), without that film's power of narrative and imagery.

The political lines of the argument occupy the first sections of the book, establishing the crisis to which the Klan was the response. The crisis delineated by Damer is that of a state, Alabama, which having lost the war of secession, envisions its return to the Union as bereft of consequences other than the surrender of arms on the field of battle and a slight change to its constitution (the end of slavery as an institution). Damer believes, or at least writes, that the disturbances of Reconstruction would have been avoided had the state been permitted to rejoin the Union under the terms favored by President Johnson, but that the hijacking of Reconstruction policy by Radical Republicans produced a situation of oppression, corruption, and violence against the southern social order that created the evil necessity of the Klan.

1925, the KKK at the height of its power marches on Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C.
1925, the KKK at the height of its power marches on Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C.

The sort of polemic written by Damer makes demands on the reader. The reader must be active, or mistakes will be made. This text has a sub-text; it has realities which it is hiding, truths it does not want to discuss, that nevertheless appear in hints and disavowals within it. One key element of the "violence" done against the southern social order during Reconstruction, one to which the Klan was the 'necessary' answer, concerned cotton and labor. Without slavery, how was cotton to be harvested in a way beneficial to plantation owners and their commercial concerns? Outside of slavery, what was the relationship between employers and largely black, freeman labor to be? Republicans gave radical lawyers a say in overseeing and enforcing labor contracts that plantation owners found onerous and interfering. These contracts were not part of the inherited social order of the south.

Free laborers acted out their freedom by challenging the terms of their labor, by attending political meetings, largely sponsored by the Union Leagues of Republican activists and educators. This problem is noted by Damer, but it is not faced directly. Instead, he talks of corruption, of interference by carpetbaggers in the proper conduct of labor and government. He points to the presence of the south's traditional leadership, the men of the plantations, and the traditional negro: "the negroes were civil and confiding, scarcely realizing the change in their status, while the whites appreciated their good behavior during he war…and were disposed to show gratitude for it". In other words, the largest race problem of the post-war south, according to Damer, is not that negroes were free, but that they came to know they were free. As southern apologists had a high vested interest in the inferiority of the negro, Damer consistently lies the blame for this self-knowledge and the actions resulting from it upon carpetbaggers and Republican Radicals who led the region's freed slaves into actions against paternalistic, tradition-bound white landowners.

Tradition is one of the idols of the KKK, and of many similar racist organizations. The sacred nature of tradition, isolated from its historical conditions and material realities, is the thread of belief and argument that turns a campaign of hatred into an honorable crusade in the defense of civilization. The past threatened in a present of change and challenge becomes the paradise which the knights battle to regain. Civilization becomes in this ideology one more dead thing which must be falsely animated and set in motion by the pure, oppressed survivors of a bygone age. These organizations are always trying to march into the past, when they say they were more powerful, and things were, thereby, correct.

So far so bad. Then you enter the romance of the book, a narrative of disconnected episodes of violence against black men. Note, that the violence perpetrated against black women and children by these organizations during the same period are unmentioned. They do not suit the romance of battle which is the books main rhetorical crutch: unfortunate events can be white-washed by the deployment of military necessity, of unavoidable evils in the pursuit of a public good. I would like to examine closely one episode described by Damer to address the nature of the violence in the Reconstruction south and the narrative devices Damer employs in relating those events, and what those devices tell us about his probable audience.

The event Damer describes takes place on a road near Tuscaloosa. Two young men are returning home in a wagon when they spot a black lad on the road and decide to have a joke, threatening to kidnap him. The unfortunate child believes them, runs home to tell his father, who also believes them. This father does not, however, allow the young men their joke without challenge, and he picks up his gun, chases them down: "he leveled his gun menacingly and cursed the unarmed and defenseless white men". When he returns home, not trusting that the white men are done with things, the black men gathers other armed men to his home to defend it. He is not wrong, the young men return with friends, armed, in order "to chastise him". In the altercation between white and black, one white boy, Finley, is shot dead before the whites, "attacked front and rear", withdraw. In succeeding days, negroes involved in the altercation are killed, one after being taken from the Tuscaloosa jail. The 'ringleader' (father of the threatened child) is a fugitive hiding in Hale County, where he is eventually found and killed, his body left on the roadside. Although some unfortunate outcomes followed this series of events, writes Damer, by which he means the dismissal of the Tuscaloosa sheriff and a few administrative repercussions in the area, "the ultimate effect was a better understanding between the races".

Here we have an escalation of violence occurring in a situation in which a black man dared to act like a man in the Reconstruction south. I doubt that if the races of those involved had been reversed, Damer would find the "ultimate effect" of the actions a "better understanding between the races". Nor would the two instigators who threatened the young boy have been given the cover for their cruelty of a "joke"; Damer would have assumed that they were serious in their intent. This is shown within Damer's relation of the facts by the differences that occur in his narration in describing the actions of the young travelers and the father: the young travelers are "joking" with a boy; the father menaces "unarmed and defenseless white men"; the white crowd comes merely to "chastise", implying they are there to properly punish for a wrong action; the blacks acting in self-defense deserve to be hunted down and murdered, preferably outside the law, as the kidnapping of one participant from the Tuscaloosa jail illustrates. By the end of Damer's story, the father has been rendered childless and without family, a rogue element of danger to the general public, as a 'ringleader'.

In this single episode we have an unintentional revelation of the true nature of the KKK. This is not a party interested in the protection of whites against roving, murderous freemen, nor against the corruption of Reconstruction authorities. It is an organization of chastisement, an organization that teaches through terror the single lesson of inferiority, for inferiority, submission, and passivity are what is meant in the south by knowing one's place. It is not a restoration of a peaceful social order that they intend, but the recreation of slave existence for southern blacks without the legal institution of slavery. They intend the re-establishment of white dominance, and this requires that blacks learn their inferiority, their dependence on the arbitrary goodwill of whites. They must learn in order for the south to survive within its 'tradition' that their lives are owed to those whites who stay their hand, and that this staying of the hand can be purchased by docility, obedience, and a rejection of the freedom and dignity they so recently won.

Then again, was it an unintentional revelation? Who is Damer writing for and to? He is, I think, writing for that portion of the population that, were he a communist, could be called 'fellow travelers', men and women who, without being officially within the clan, approve of their goal. They do not like the lawlessness associated with Klan activity, the unfortunate results of Damer's war, but they do approve of the organizations goals and the disfranchisement of the freemen, their confinement to a passive, subordinate role. In writing to this audience, and airing their views in a public forum, he has recourse to irony and coded commentary, primarily in the use of terms associated with courtesy to describe actions of violence and terrorism. He is writing, I think, to people for whom the episode described above would be taken as an amusing anecdote, or which would speak to their self-righteous indignation that a black man, any black man, would dare to object to anything done by a white, even if it does frighten or damage their children.

Damer's book was published in 1912. In 1915, Thomas Dixon's The Klansman (1905), a best-selling book, became Birth of a Nation , a widely appreciated film. That same year, advertised in an Atlanta paper beside an advertisement for the movie, William J. Simmons revived the Klan as a vehicle for his own brand of 'comprehensive Americanism', now dedicated not just to the establishment of white domination over blacks in the south, but to the domination and elimination of other anti-American elements throughout the nation--including Jews, Roman Catholics, organized labor, and foreigners. This new Klan had a wider appeal than the old Klan, as it was tied to more widely shared issues in the United States--communism, immigration, a pervasive fear of change and loss. By the 1920s, there were over 4 million Klansman in the States.

The Klan appealed to Americans as a force acting against corruption and alien, un-American influences. It appealed to Americans by acting with violence and force against those defined as the enemies of order and the nation. We must be wary, the Klan teaches us, of appeals to our love of our country and our fears of disorder. We must be constant in our commitment to the better, perhaps more dangerous, virtues of our republic.


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    • Civil War Bob profile image

      Civil War Bob 5 years ago from Glenside, Pennsylvania

      Ed, another well done hub, voted up, interesting, useful. The answer to your question under Forrest's picture is that he was THE best cavalry general during the Civil War (acknowledged by both sides and most historians)and an icon as such in the South, so he quit. He also, if you read Jack Hurst's biography of NBF, repudiated the Klan very quickly after being first Grand Dragon as too violent and actually counter productive to the interests of the South. He also became a born again Christian on 11/15/1875 as a result of the prayers of his wife and mother in law and was subject to their influence throughout his non-Christian days...I think you'd find his biog. interesting. Bob