Thursday, August 9, 2007

A positive spin on the Ku Klux Klan

Ever feel like the KKK gets a bum rap?

I mean... there’s two sides to every story, right? Maybe a case can be made that the original Klansmen were heroes. Freedom fighters. Manful defenders of their women. Soldiers of God.

Well, don’t risk pulling a muscle on that little mind experiment, because the case was made. In the Encyclopedia Britannica, the finest compendium of general knowledge in the English language.

You know I love rummaging through old texts. You step back in time 100 years, you’re bound to discover some interesting perspectives on things. Dig it: The contents of the classic 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (now unprotected by copyright) are online and searchable at

For shits and grins, I looked up “Ku Klux Klan.”

The current Encyclopedia Britannica describes the Klan as “either of two distinct secret terrorist organizations in the United States, one founded immediately after the Civil War..., the other beginning in 1915...”

But the word “terrorist” wasn’t used in the 1911 edition. To say the least. Here is how the 1911 entry begins:

“KU KLUX KLAN, the name of an American secret association of Southern whites united for self-protection and to oppose the Reconstruction measures of the United States Congress, 1865-1876.”

Self-protection? Okaaay. Tell me more.

“The object was to protect the whites during the disorders that followed the Civil War, and to oppose the policy of the North towards the South, and the result of the whole movement was a more or less successful revolution against the Reconstruction and an overthrow of the governments based on negro suffrage.”

Wow. Sounds kind of valorous when you put it like that. How did this revolutionary movement begin?

“[The Ku Klux Klan] began in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, as a social club of young men. It had an absurd ritual and a strange uniform. The members accidentally discovered that the fear of it had a great influence over the lawless but superstitious blacks...

“The various causes assigned for the origin and development of this movement were: ... the corrupt and tyrannical rule of the alien [i.e., Northern whites], renegade and negro...; the disfranchisement of whites; the spread of ideas of social and political equality among the negroes; fear of negro insurrections; the arming of negro militia and the disarming of the whites; outrages upon white women by black men;” –


– “... the humiliation of Confederate soldiers after they had been paroled – in general, the insecurity felt by Southern whites during the decade after the collapse of the Confederacy.”

Perfectly understandable. So what were the Klan’s stated principles?

“[T]he following are characteristic: to protect and succour the weak and unfortunate, especially the widows and orphans of Confederate soldiers;” –

Awww... widows and orphans. Nobody ever talks about that!

– “to protect members of the white race in life, honour and property from the encroachments of the blacks; ... to defend constitutional liberty, to prevent usurpation, emancipate the whites, maintain peace and order, the laws of God, the principles of 1776” –

People, let me hereby repeat: This is from the ENCYCLOPEDIA FREAKING BRITANNICA!

– “and the political and social supremacy of the white race – in short, to oppose African influence in government and society, and to prevent any intermingling of the races.”

I see. So how were these noble principles actualized? What were the Klan’s tactics?

“To control the negro the Klan played upon his superstitious fears by having night patrols, parades and drills of silent horsemen covered with white sheets, carrying skulls with coals of fire for eyes, sacks of bones to rattle, and wearing hideous masks.”

(Pictured at left is a genuine 1870 Ku Klux Klan mask from the North Carolina Museum of History.)

Shit! That sure would scare me good. Not to mention the bullwhips and guns. Oh, right... you didn’t mention the bullwhips and guns. Anyhoo, please continue, Encyclopedia Britannica...

“In calling upon dangerous blacks at night they pretended to be the spirits of dead Confederates, ‘just from Hell’.... Mysterious signs and warnings were sent to disorderly negro politicians. The whites who were responsible for the conduct of the blacks were warned or driven away by social and business ostracism or by violence. Nearly all southern whites (except ‘scalawags’), whether members of the secret societies or not, in some way took part in the Ku Klux movement.”

All right now, reality-check time. Was there anything negative about the Ku Kluxers? What about that violence you alluded to?

“In some communities they fell into the control of violent men and became simply bands of outlaws, dangerous even to the former members; and the anarchical aspects of the movement excited the North to vigorous condemnation.”

So give me the bottom line, 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. What did the original KKK accomplish?

“[T]he Ku Klux movement went on until it accomplished its object by giving protection to the whites, reducing the blacks to order, ... expelling the worst of the carpet-baggers and scalawags, and nullifying those laws of Congress which had resulted in placing the Southern whites under the control of a party composed principally of ex-slaves.”

The End.

Dang. With such a romantic view of the KKK inscribed even in the Encyclopedia Britannica, is it any wonder that a new Klan arose in 1915 and lives on to today?

But let’s end on an up note.

As much as our modern imagination pictures Negroes quaking in terror from the night-riders... as much as that old encyclopedia speaks of fearful and superstitious blacks... there is this New York Times item, published March 19, 1868:


DeAngelo Starnes said...

You talk about "brilliant" and "genius," you just gave us a lesson in wordsmith. It's how you have to look behind the words. Substitute "al-queada," "Saddam," and "Iraq" for "Negro" and "Black," you will have the brainwashing our government is playing on the American public right now.

I'm ready for the rotten tomatoes, too. And with the new "Protect America" bill, I'm sure this post will get on their radar.

I'm NOT ready for Guantanamo! So FBI, NSA, CIA, check my phone records. No foreign calls. No calls other than to my homeboys talkin' 'bout the usual things bruhs talk about. Y'know, drinking, sports, and fat white women.

DeAngelo Starnes said...

Okay, I like big booties but not fat women.

Costa N. Aivaliotis said...

Your KKK link is great. It seems like the past is an "undiscovered country".

Re: "Negro, not a Negro", how do you define "Negro"? [I like to ask the easy questions].

Undercover Black Man said...

Welcome, Costa. And thanks for the comment.

As for your "easy question," I hope you mean in the context of these blog games I like to play. In which case, a Negro is someone with a measure of recent African ancestry who identifies as a member of the black race. Or the child of at least one parent who so identifies. (Biracial.)

Eric said...

Wow! That would make a great movie, wouldn't it?

bklyn6 said...

People, let me hereby repeat: This is from the ENCYCLOPEDIA FREAKING BRITANNICA!

Good grief! Where's Wikipedia when you really need it? :-/

As for that NYT article. "The negro" only killed one klansman? Wonder if he got lynched?

If Tim Wise was around during Reconstruction he might've been a "scalawag."

Undercover Black Man said...

Eric, I've always wondered why Hollywood has never dramatized the Reconstruction Era (apart from "Birth of a Nation," of course -- maybe that's what you were making a sly reference to).

But I think we're talking about tragedy on a Shakespearean scale... and with the specific character types of the Negro Politician, the Scalawag, the Carpetbagger, the Klansman...

Undercover Black Man said...

Jena6: Regarding Tim Wise, yeah... And I could see how the white Southerners would despise him. (Like white nationalists do now.)

Ever read Ignatiev's "Race Traitor"? I gotta dig into that whole "anti-racism" movement... I get a funny vibe from that. Like they're into re-education camps or something.

bklyn6 said...

Ever read Ignatiev's "Race Traitor"?

No, but I bet I'd be into it. Gonna look it up on amazon. Thx!

bklyn6 said...

Re: Race Traitor the editorial review includes: "'Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity,' the editors declare. The enemies of social progress, then, are not just white supremacists but anyone unwilling to dismiss the benefits conferred by racial status."

So, I wasn't too surprised by the 2 (out of 5) star review it received from customers. All the more reason to add it to my wishlist! :-D

Anonymous said...

The phrase "Giant Negro" is conspicuous in its absence. Especially since we know how they roamed the country in those days.

Perhaps the superhuman traits of the Giant Negro rendered him impervious to being frightened by a simple mask, so the Klan set their sights on easier targets.

He would certainly be a character in the Shakesperean recreation of Reconstruction.

Eric said...

Yes, that's what I was referring to.

I once knew a drag queen who went by the name "Bertha V. Nation."

Undercover Black Man said...

^ I'm stealing that, but I'll tweak it to "Bertha Venetian."

That goes on my list of Funny Names to Use Later. (Along with Nipsey Muhammad and Severn Dudley Senz.)

Undercover Black Man said...

"'Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity,' the editors declare...

I really must get around to a detailed critique of that "anti-racist" ideology, Jena6.

Given how profoundly racial attitudes have changed over the last 50 years, there's something bizarre about an intellectual movement based on the premise that white people's default position is "racist."

ThatDeborahGirl said...

Child, have you seen this?

Every time some white person tells me about how "liberal" and "progressive" they are, I think about this site.

I mean, these were these folks' grandparents, aunts, uncles and such...

DeAngelo Starnes said...

"Bertha V. Nation" and "Nipsey Muhammed" - hilarious! Could do a lot with a brotha named Nipsey Muhammed.

DeAngelo Starnes said...

You know, Dave, I was watching this symposium at the Harlem Book Fair on C-Span a couple of years back. This sista editor noted she would be interested in having a Black writer write about white characters or public figures. Your idea about dramaticizing the KKK, if you wrote it, would fit that.

Undercover Black Man said...

DeborahGirl: Welcome, and thanks for the comment. Indeed, I linked to a few months back.

But I'd like to challenge you on your apparent notion of a collective, trans-generational white guilt for lynching.

Two questions (and two answers):

Q: How many black people were lynched in the South between 1882 and 1930?

A: Around 2,500.

Q: How many black Americans were murdered by other blacks in 2005 alone?

A: About 7,500.

The scale and disproportion of black homicide in this country is mind-blowing. What are we to do about this Crisis? I think the solution has little to do with white people, their racial attitudes, or their grandparents' actions.

Edshugeo The GodMoor said...

“It had an absurd ritual and a strange uniform. The members accidentally discovered that the fear of it had a great influence over the lawless but superstitious blacks...”

I remember seeing a scene from Birth Of A Nation in some documentary (that illustrated the above point) and immediately thinking of Batman's "criminals are a superstitious lot" moment.

I think Bob Kane was Jewish, so he wasn't trying to glorify the Klan or anything. Just saw a decent idea and ran with it.

Not related to the above, but when I hear Ziggy Stardust, the line "when the kids had killed a man, I had to break up the band" recalls something I (think I) read on a newsgroup a while back about the Klan being founded by a Freemason who disbanded the group when they got too violent.

I love Batman and David Bowie, but sometimes they remind me of the Klan.

Undercover Black Man said...

I love Batman and David Bowie, but sometimes they remind me of the Klan.


Muze said...

okay, so why am i in love with your blog? i can't even remember how i found it but i'm happy i did!

anyhoo...this is friggin CRAZY. i can't believe something this absurd was printed in the friggin encyclopedia britannica. wow.

"expelling the worst of the carpet-baggers and scalawags, and nullifying those laws of Congress which had resulted in placing the Southern whites under the control of a party composed principally of ex-slaves.”

real intelligent right there. using the term 'scalawags' and 'carpet-baggers' in an encyclopedia?

omg i just realized what they meant by carpet-bagger. whew...feel my blood pressure rising.

AirBourne said...

When I read the item, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth - I had it open in shock the whole way thru and my mouth dried up, but I did smile with the 1868 NYT piece, now that was cool... I made mention of this in my Blog, it is sure to create ripples out here in the Caribbean!

Anonymous said...

UBM you have hit upon a secret of only the finest of African scholars: read the old books! In the "old days" Europeans wrote for other Europeans and their direct honesty is refreshing.

Undercover Black Man said...

Absolutely, Bryan. Absolutely! The face of white racism isn't just the ignorant Southern cracker. It's the scholar. It's U.S. presidents like Woodrow Wilson. White supremacy is part of the intellectual tradition of the West.

Now I'll tell you something deep. I was already familiar with the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. About 20 years ago, I saw the books themselves... on the shelf of a friend's home. Just for laughs, I looked up "Negro."

And of course, the encyclopedia stated, as a matter of scientific fact, "Mentally, the negro is inferior to the white." That was the year my father was born. That's how he was defined at birth. It blew my mind.

But with the online version now, plug "Negro" into the search engine, you don't get this entry. Someone must have removed it. And probably for a "politically correct" reason.

It's shady as hell, because a year ago, when I first discovered the online version, I did look up "Negro," and the definition was there... the same one that I remembered.

Now... gone.

I need to dig into that. It's important that we know the truth about the past.

TonyNola said...

I have to say I cracked up reading the bit on the "Negro" who killed the Klansman.

I personally take a little offense to the idea "Nearly All" southern whites were with the Klan.
I won't deny many were, but "Nearly all" seems a bit much, there were abolitionists and anti-racists in the south.

Hell even some Confederates supported equal rights (PGT Beauregard being the most notable)

I feel the need to mention abotuer counterpoint.
I'm multiracial. Black/white/Choctaw tribe Native American.

Funnily enough the older members of the white family were often most supportive.
I have a great aunt who's older than that Brittanica. She will be 100 if she lives a few more months.
While she still tends to use the term 'colored', she doesn't have a racist bone in her body, and has told off racist members of the family.
Remember, not all old white folks put up with that crap.

Bay Radical said...

Just found your blog via history carnival, and I'm loving it.

Thanks for the link to the old encyclopedias. I'm a total history nerd, so it's a great resource for me.

As for the portrayal of the KKK here, it's horrible and disgusting. And what drives me so crazy is how almost anyone would look at that now and see how biased it is, but so few people want to acknowledge that the information we get now might possibly be off-base!

Undercover Black Man said...

Bay Radical: Welcome to my spot, welcome to blogging, and thanks for your encouraging words.

Old books are the best. I never even knew about the anti-Chinese riots in California till I found a couple of old books by Carey McWilliams.

Undercover Black Man said...

Tony: Thanks for the comment. Keep in mind, the Encyclopedia did say "except for the scalawags"; that would cover those Southern anti-racists. And I bet they were despised by the Klan more than the blacks were.

My dad (b. 1911) was always more comfortable with "colored" too.

Anonymous said...


Every time some white person says that America never had a terrorist problem like over in the Middle East, I think of that website.

Pa_Bila said...

I am surprised that you are surprised.

We can all agree America (and western capitalism) was built on slavery and genocide. These acts demanded a general racist ideology, therefore why are you surprised to find opinions we find racist in a 1911 encyclopedia. I bet it is even sexist, homophobic, and pro-Imperialism.

The Encyclopedia reflects the time it was written in. 1911 Britian was a profoundly racist (classist, etc.) society; while the encyclopedia was written by the finest minds of the day, many of those minds were polluted by notions of white Anglo-Saxon superiority. As I say to my students "it was a book "of its time." (shorthand I use in class when trying to move beyond the racism, sexism, etc. found in many older sources).

Secondly, I am surprised that you surprised to find postive views of the Klan. Few periods of American History are as controversial (at least from a historiographial aspect) as Reconstruction. Current scholars emphasize the violent aspect (Colfax Courthouse massacre), yet if you look at texts from the 40s and 50s many emphasize northern corruption and sympathize with the Klan.

I have my students look back at the 1911 Britianica to get an understanding of the attitudes of the time. No one who takes a long hard look at the book can deny the racist baggage of "Western Civilization."

SoakingNKnowledge said...

oh now I understand the sheets and hoods on some Casper type ish..."they pretended to be the spirits of dead Confederates"

I'm so not surprised at this being in the encyclopedia my grandmother was telling me how her when she "was a girl in Louisiana" their school books were filled with lies