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 www.1911encyclopedia.org.
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.”
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: