The Birth of the Ku Klux Brand

In her new book, Elaine Frantz Parsons re-traces the origins of the 19th-century KKK, which began as a social club before swiftly moving to murder.
By Malcolm Harris,
Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction. (Photo: Courtesy of the University of North Carolina Press)

In March of 2015, a group of football players at Wheaton College got in national trouble for dressing as Ku Klux Klansmen for a team-building skit. Their performance was hardly an actual Klan threat—the team also made a movie montage that included Bad Boys II, with its memorable opening scene of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence tearing off their hoods to shoot up a nighttime gathering of white supremacists—but the players were contrite nonetheless. Student Josh Aldrin emailed the campus community: "As a black male, a team captain, and the leader of the group that performed the skit, I should have understood that the KKK and Confederate symbols are not funny in any context."

But the Wheaton students were much closer to the Klan's origins than they probably recognized. In fact, the most feared terrorist organization in American history actually began with skits and jokes and costumes. In historian Elaine Frantz Parsons' new book Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction, she re-traces the organization's first steps. During a few short years from the mid 1860s to the early 1870s, the Klan went from an inside joke among a gang of a friends to a secret empire rumored to control to the entire country. But no matter how many assaults and murders the Reconstruction Klan committed, somehow it never stopped being a joke.

The widespread violence of the early Klan lasted only five years, from 1867 to 1872. The group formed in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866, and its founders don't conform to the toothless hick caricature that developed in the 20th century. "The idea of the Ku-Klux was not the product of plantation culture," Parsons writes. "Neither its founders nor many of its key early supporters were the sort of southerners that southerners themselves considered typical." These were Confederate veterans, but not Lost-Causers or Southern gentlemen. They were college boys, and they were dealing with a brand new historical phenomenon: They were bored.

"Boredom," Parsons points out, had just recently entered English usage, and the men who started the first Klan were early victims. In a depressed economy and a defeated would-be nation, these young men wanted something to do. That "something to do" included traditional cures for boredom—riding around with your buddies, crashing parties, playing pranks, scamming on babes, jamming in a band. The first photograph of the Pulaski Klan shows them glowering while they brandish guitars and fiddles.

Forced to confront a rapidly changing social, cultural, and economic environment, Southern white men were looking for someone to be and something to do. The Klan offered both.

Without its more modern innovations, the Klan would have been just one of many gangs of white jerks that plagued the Reconstruction South. The first innovation was bureaucratic organization. The name Ku Klux is a goofy play on the Greek kuklos, to which they added "Klan"—Walter Scott's story of Scottish clansmen being popular at the time. It's like you and your friends calling yourselves "The Group Gang," and it was always supposed to sound silly. The Pulaski group played on contemporary conventions of organization, doling out mysterious titles and inventing shadowy boss figures. With their wizards and cyclops, the Klan was mocking bureaucracy while giving bored Southern white men their own in which to participate. Plus, there were no real requirements to start a chapter—though different local Klans did occasionally spar over territorial claims.

The Klan was not really an invisible empire, but they played one in the newspapers. They didn't invent Southern white hooliganism, wearing costumes, or nighttime anti-black harassment, but the Pulaski gang happened on the right historical circumstances to unify those impulses into a national brand. The brothers Frank and Luther McCord not only helped form the first Klan chapter, Luther also owner and edited the local paper, the Pulaski Citizen. As a moderate antebellum paper, the Citizen opposed secession. As the Klan organized, the Citizen published "mysterious" missives from the "Grand Cyclops," feigning ignorance of the larger group. The McCords were writing both sides, but they were able to stir up their own media controversy around the incipient Klan. This would set the pattern for the group's expansion: Local chapters would claim the KKK identity autonomously rather than being organized by some national body. "A Ku-Klux was a man," Parsons writes, "who decided to adopt as his own an identity he had read about in the paper." Forced to confront a rapidly changing social, cultural, and economic environment, Southern white men were looking for someone to be and something to do. The Klan offered both.

While the south's upper class of white men were bored with the new racial order, their newly free black fellow citizens didn't suffer from the same problem. Before emancipation, two narratives about how black people would handle freedom predominated: Without political education, they would prove too unsophisticated for democracy's demands. Either that or they would immediately slaughter all the white people. Neither happened. Instead, black Southerners took to democracy quickly, building schools, forming debating societies, electing officials, and—perhaps most disturbing to paranoid whites—organizing militias. Throughout Reconstruction, Southern black leaders at the local level maintained relationships with state and federal Republican Party officials. The KKK rose in response, Parsons writes, to black civil competence.

Menacing and attacking former slaves was a Southern white pastime for as long as there had been former slaves. Frank McCord had himself led a failed anti-freedman mob but couldn't convince his neighbors to join. (This was before he formed the Klan.) Parsons makes a convincing case that white supremacy and politics in general were not foundational motivations for the Pulaski Klan; within a year, though, freedmen and their Republican allies would become the Klan's targets. The book is careful not to draw some artificial line between the Klan as some bros just kidding around and the Klan as a vicious terrorist organization. For a Ku Klux, the two were one and the same.

Even as they took to organized murder, comedy was central to the Klan's elaborate performance. The Reconstruction Klan wore a motley variety of costumes—and they were costumes, sometimes re-purposed from parties—not just ghosts and demons, but also "moon men." (The white uniforms didn't show up until later.) They wore women's dresses for the same reason a lot of men do so: Fun. During attacks, Klansmen spoke in fake accents and used spooky ghost voices. "Ku-Klux endeavored to portray victims' entirely rational fear of their physical violence as though it were superstition or gullibility," Parsons writes. "The victim, tellingly, failed to 'get the joke,' allowing himself or herself to be frightened by 'ghosts' or 'devils.'" Staging lethal violence as their own inside joke gave Klan members a sense of power and control; they tried to deprive their victims of even a dignified story.

A member of the Ku Klux Klan gives a Nazi salute as the Klan members fly the Confederate flag during a demonstration at the state capitol building on July 18, 2015, in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

The Klan attack narrative was crucial to the Klan attack. The nighttime raid pitted an organized and capable white mob against scared and isolated black families. In addition to material attacks on individual freedmen leaders, these were symbolic attacks on black Americans as political subjects. "It was a crucial project of white Democratic southerners to dismiss social rights and meaningful ties of obligation among black people," Parsons writes, "in order to bring back a system in which whites could imagine that black people's primary or sole social ties were ties of dependence to white people." Violence against the bodies of freed people was a means of foregrounding black vulnerability—and therefore dependence.

Whatever the Klan liked to tell themselves, black people did not tend to think they were being attacked by ghosts or aliens. Parsons lists a couple of occasions when Klan victims were able to identify the attackers by their wives' dresses. Nor were freedpeople disorganized or helpless, as the Klan sought to portray them: "Klan victims often planned ahead to resist Klan violence, and often fought for their lives when the violence caught them unawares," Parsons writes. "They formed into militias, made mutual self-defense pacts, slept in one anothers' homes, picketed on behalf of one another, and fought for one another." Perhaps the Klan's biggest victory has been dominating popular Reconstruction history. These murderous clown gangs that operated for a scant five years succeeded in centering their own story to the obfuscation of black democracy.

In the book's later sections Parsons examines South Carolina's Union County in significant detail, going so far as to map social relations based on court records. The revelations from these data-based methods are interesting, but the central virtue of these sections is the attention the author pays to black Reconstruction organizing. The Union County Klan was active for only part of 1871, but in that time they killed at least 16 men. The better term is probably assassination—the local Klan targeted black leaders in a way that would seriously affect freedpeople's ability to participate in democratic self-organization.

Take the case of freedman Alex Walker: In his mid-20s, Walker was a teacher, militia captain, elected trial judge, and father of three young children. Walker kept up a correspondence with the Republican governor and made sure his militia's weapons stayed locked in storage rather than in freedmen's homes where they would inflame racial tension. He was careful, prudent, and, as Parsons puts it, "the sort of man who could preside over the building of a post-war Union County in which black people meaningfully shared power." It's for these reasons that the Klan murdered him, and for every Alex Walker they killed, they intimidated more out of public life.

That the Klan continued to be a joke—both to participants and to newspaper readers in the north—throughout this slow-motion coup is a testament to the flexibility of humor. Too often we imagine that jokes are uniquely a tool of the weak: always David's sling, never Goliath's sword. But the Reconstruction Klan was resolutely a joke, top to bottom, an extension of the minstrel stage, a joke about "the tragicomedy of black aspiration" and the gullibility and mental weakness of freedmen. A prank Klan costume is just a Klan costume, and it always has been.