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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

KKK (p. 48)

From chapter "Invisibility"

The KKK didn’t cause the violence against blacks and those who supported them; the violence was already happening. In May of 1866, to provide one example among many, long before the KKK expanded its range beyond Pulaski County, Tennessee, and long before the Klan’s avowed purpose became anything other than to “have fun, make mischief, and play pranks on the public,” mass violence broke out hundreds of miles away in Memphis. The violence began when a group of black men protested the arrest of two of their friends by six white policemen. Police fired into the crowd, wounding one. Someone in the crowd fired back, wounding a police officer. I don’t know whether the fact that any crowd members survived that immediate engagement is testimony to the restraint of nineteenth-century police, compared to their modern-day counterparts, or to the relative ineffectiveness of their weapons. In any case, the restraint was short lived. The entire police force—along with a good percentage of the white citizenry—soon gathered in the town’s center. John Creighton, the city’s recorder, called out, “Let us prepare to clear every negro son of a bitch out of town!” According to a later congressional report, the mob proceeded to “shoot, beat, and threaten every negro met within that portion of the city.” The final casualty count was two whites and forty-six blacks dead (one white accidentally shot by his own), and two whites and eighty blacks wounded. Scores of black churches, schools, and homes were burned.

Another “race riot” (as the massacres are often called) took place in New Orleans on July 30, 1867. Angered by the state legislature’s failure to allow black men the vote, twenty-five white Republican delegates and two hundred black supporters, primarily veterans from the Civil War, reconvened the constitutional convention. It didn’t take long for former Confederates, aided by New Orleans police, to gather outside and begin their attack, which continued long after delegates and their supporters raised white flags, and didn’t stop until thirty-four black and three (Republican) white men lay dead.

All through the South, even prior to the rise of the Klan, black preachers were being killed for preaching, black women were being killed for resisting the sexual advances of whites (some were merely scalped or had their ears cut off), and black men and women were being killed, as a military attaché reported, “just out of wanton cruelty, for no reason at all that one can imagine.” One planter in Georgia argued that a former slave had shown himself “certainly unfit for freedom” because, “impudently,” he didn’t allow himself to be whipped. In South Carolina, a man was murdered and his step daughter whipped because she’d had the insolence to “embarrass” a white family by bearing the child of one of its members. Southern whites did not need the Klan in order to kill blacks.

I’m not suggesting the KKK didn’t make the violence worse, for it did: As historian Wyn Craig Wade has stated, “The number of outrages committed upon blacks between 1868 and 1871 still defies reasonable estimation. The multitude who were murdered left no accounts. And most who survived were too frightened to report attacks on them to the law.” Conservative figures put the number of Klan murders for those years at twenty thousand, in addition to tens of thousands of other acts of violence committed by the Klan. But to simply blame the KKK for the violence would be to miss a deeper point, akin to blaming McDonald’s for high blood pressure or Weyerhaeuser for global deforestation. The Ku Klux Klan, like McDonald’s, like Weyerhaeuser, like the United States government, is a fiction created or adapted to accomplish some set of social purposes. It exists only insofar as we believe it does.

This doesn’t mean that violence committed by people who called, or call themselves Klan members isn’t real, nor that membership in the Klan doesn’t encourage certain behaviors on the parts of its members, because, clearly, it does, as membership in any social organization does. I don’t know of many people who, for example, deforest hillsides simply for the hell of it; they do so because they’re socially rewarded—in this case, paid—for doing so, Weyerhaeuser being just one of the social forms created to facilitate this social reward.

What this means is that on one hand it’s pointless and misleading—and thus harmful—to demonize the KKK (or McDonald’s, Weyerhaeuser, or the United States government), because the impulse to commit atrocities doesn’t so much originate with the organization as pass through and become amplified by it. To merely eliminate the KKK—no matter how tempting a thought—would not stop the atrocities.

On the other hand the KKK is worth demonizing (or, rather, perceiving accurately, which is itself a pretty appalling perception), and perhaps eliminating, not only for this amplification, but also for its institutional inertia, by which I mean that once the original impulse to commit atrocities has been institutionalized—reified—it can become in a sense self-perpetuating, and certainly self-reinforcing. Perception creates behavior. Perception encourages behavior. And because this institution—this artifice—continues to socially reinforce patterns of perception and behavior, if this behavior is destructive, it may not be a bad idea to eliminate or curtail the institution.

In October 1871, because white violence against blacks had become so extreme, and because so much of this violence was associated with the Ku Klux Klan, and because local governments were so inculpated in the violence as to render any relief impossible, President Ulysses S. Grant suspended the writ of habeus corpus—becoming the first president to do so in peacetime—in parts of South Carolina, and sent in federal soldiers (including three troops of the 7th Cavalry, withdrawn from the West, where they’d been fighting Indians). Klan leaders not arrested by the soldiers fled, and within months the Klan had been broken in South Carolina. Trials followed in which enough details of Klan violence became public that even defense attorney Reverdy Johnson told a jury, “I have listened with unmixed horror to some of the testimony which has been brought before you. The outrages proved are shocking to humanity. They admit of neither excuse nor justification. They violate every obligation which law and nature impose upon men.” The examples of mass arrests in South Carolina, and, to a lesser extent, Mississippi, in combination with a national revulsion—even in some parts of the South—at the bloody details, put a stop to the violence originating with the KKK. Blacks and their supporters could breathe more easily.

Or could they? While the KKK had been broken, left intact were the impulses that led to its original explosion. Left intact also were the social conditions that gave rise to the violence, that a group whose privilege was based on the exploitation of others was threatened with the loss of some of that privilege.

Contrary to popular belief, and contrary, really, to the statement of the military attaché whose imagination could not encompass the reasons for white violence against blacks, the vast majority of this violence in the years following the Civil War was neither random nor simply aimed at beating down the insolent. Much of it had a specific political purpose. President Grant put this purpose as succinctly as may be possible: The purpose of Klan violence was “by force and terror to prevent all political action not in accord with the views of the members, to deprive colored citizens of the right to bear arms and the right of a free ballot, to suppress schools in which colored children were taught, and to reduce the colored people to a condition closely akin to that of slavery.” The Klansmen stated as much: The Klan had been organized for the “killing and whipping and crowding out men from the ballot boxes … to advance the Conservative party and put down the Republican party.” The general rule in many states was, “One vote, one life.”