"In spring 1866, six young Confederate veterans met secretly in Pulaski, Tennessee. Their purpose was to found a "hilarious social club," to "have fun, make mischief, and play pranks on the public." They called themselves ku klux, a corruption of the Greek kuklas, and added clan, spelled with a k for uniformity . . . Not that the cause of white supremacy was overlooked, by any means. The Klan was racist from day one, playing its "pranks" exclusively on blacks."
I read this as part of my ongoing investigation of family history and genealogy, and it was no fun. Interesting, yes. Important, yes. But the subject is so sickening and maddening that I finished it feeling awful, despite this being a scholarly account. There's no sensationalism in the presentation, but sensationalism would be redundant. The subject is inherently sensational in the most perverse and ludicrous ways imaginable, and if the Klan were just some fringe element that blipped on the American radar in passing, perhaps we could consign it to the footnotes of history. That is where you tend to find it, but unfortunately more substantial coverage is due.
The Klan's political and social dominance has been sporadic and mostly covert but at times overwhelming, and for time periods extending way beyond a blip. And it was and is not confined to the South; the Indiana and Kansas Klans rank among the most vocal and active, and as of 2007, 450 million virtual members in 18 states had signed in to "be a man, join the Klan" via a simulation game called NationStates.
It is rightly called a terrorist organization, and yet in the most perverse and ludicrous way it is a logical outcome of the insidious and pervasive racism that for decades allowed and encouraged slavery and segregation. And think about this for a minute or two: Byron De La Beckwith admitted -- bragged about -- killing Medgar Evers in 1963 but was not convicted until 1994. The Klan has again and again and astonishingly gotten away with murder.
I am only 55, but throughout my childhood and as recently as 1975 -- which was the last time I visited family in Mississippi -- I can confirm that Jim Crow was alive and well, and 1975 is 110 years after the Civil War ended.
My father left home in 1934 at age 17 in part to get away from his father, who was a devout Klan member and possibly a leader. I didn't find my grandfather's name in this book but knowing he was a participant is very disturbing. He died in 1955 so I never knew him, and my father mostly refused to talk about him (I didn't find out my grandfather was in the Klan until after my father died in 2005), but Dad explained to me how joining the military had cured him of his own racism, as in seeing black men serving their country in World War II, only to have their civil rights denied back home (which was Medgar Evers' case in the extreme).
Dad shared this in 1975 while showing me the plantation his family had sharecropped. From there we went to lunch at the local diner, and proceeded to walk out without finishing or paying for our meal when the owner stood at the entrance and told a black man he'd have to sit on the stoop out back to eat. The diner was full of apparently decent middle-class white folk, and I will never forget how they stared at us like what was our damn problem, or how proud I was of my dad, or that the owner just said good riddance, didn't want our money.
So, yeah, I could go on, but this isn't the time or place. Suffice it to say that Michael Newton has written a very interesting and important and overdue read. Ridicule is a fitting response to the Klan, but it's not enough. We need to understand and confront what it says about who we are and how we have evolved as Americans.
And I recommend this as a companion read:
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