The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America
© 1998 Wyn Craig Wade
Living in the country as I did, the bus ride to school always lasted over an hour, and in elementary school I remember being utterly petrified by older students telling we younger horror stories. They spoke of monsters in white sheets, demons from hell, who could rise from the ground, or who lived in the woods, and would come out at dusk or emerge from a fog and snatch little children up, returning to their lairs to eat them. This was my earliest exposure to the Ku Klux Klan. After having read The Fiery Cross, I wonder if those stories have some basis in 19th century folk history, of parents warning their young against the obscene danger that continued to erupt in the hundred years that followed the Civil War. The Fiery Cross is a history of America’s own hydra, of a hooded beast that has risen and been slain numerous times, yet always comes back — the Invisible Empire, an organization where sheets hide a confusing jumble of motives, fears, and hatreds.
Although Lincoln’s armies prevailed against those of the south, the Confederate cause was not totally lost until Andrew Johnson faced off against a Republican congress and was defeated. A southerner himself, Johnson’s plan for quickly grafting South back into the Union left Congress with a bitter taste in its mouth. What had been the point of the war, of those hundreds of thousands of men and boys dying, of all of the money spent, if the South was simply to be welcomed back with open arms? Not settling for anything less than a total remolding of the south, Congress introduced its own re-admittance programs, incorporating various amendments and federal administrations like the Freedman’s Bureau. Southern resistance manifested itself almost immediately, bristling at outside meddling and the humiliation of having been made second-class subjects of the law in their own land. The most forceful opposition came from shattered remnants of the Confederate army, either refusing to give up the fight or seeing resistance easier than submission, and the ranks of the old slave patrols. Both bands of men moved about and acted autonomously, taking the law into their own hands when they saw fit. Their violence against the new invasion of not only Union troops, but northern lawyers, government agents, and teachers, found a means of easy expression in the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan.
Curiously, the Klan proper did not begin as a political organization; according to the author, six young men formed a secret society complete withe elaborate titles and costumes for the pure purpose of gallivanting around the countryside at night, raising hell and having fun. When they started playing pranks on freedmen, however, pretending to be the ghosts of Confederate dead, things grew far nastier. As the Klan grew in number, it took a life of its own, one demanding purpose — and that purpose came to protect the supremacy of white southerners, both against the Yankee invader and against the usurping blacks. The civil war continued again, this time under cover of night, and fought more with terror than muskets. Although the Klan would be reorganized as a strict hierarchy, anyone with a bedsheet and the desire for vengeance could cause trouble. Hooded hooliganism so swept the south that the “Grand Wizard” of the Klan ordered the organization’s self-destruction, and President Grant was forced to declare martial law to quell the anarchy.The Klan collapsed when the North washed its hands of the South, ending reconstruction and allowing the old planters to redeem their nation. Soon attempts at subduing blacks through fear and criminal means would find success in binding them by the law.
The Klan would revive in the early 20th century, but not as simple reaction against one government program. Credit for reviving the group is generally given to The Birth of a Nation, a highly innovative piece of film-making that depicted the Klan as righteous saviors of civilization against moral bankruptcy. In truth, public response to Birth of a Nation was managed carefully by a evangelical preacher who thought the old clan admirable. Reusing old charters and titles, but adding a bit more organization, he effected a comeback that was more potent and less obvious. The new Klan still maintained its racial message and support of segregation, but it was heavily influenced by the Fundamentalist movement, and drew support from the rising fear of social and moral anarchy. The early decades were a frightening world for many Americans: organized crime was on the rise, immigration from Europe continued apace and brought with it all kinds of new, strange, and sometimes dangerous ideas. Although from the 21st century it is easy to sit in judgment of our predecessors a century go for panicking about flappers and jazz, this was an age of labor riots and anarchist assassinations, in which increasingly very little could be taken for granted. America was changing — the country emptying out, the cities swelling. Farmers were in debt and industrial workers utterly at the mercy of their employers. Against this chaos, the Klan pitched itself as a rear guard of civilization. If political machines and bribe-taking cops wouldn’t keep bedlam in check, the ‘caped crusaders’ would — leaving ominous messages outside the doors of evil-doers like men failing to support their wives, or blacks attempting to move into a white neighborhood. They held high the cross and flag, offering a social club that gave aid to its ailing members and offered them a chance to ‘fight back’, either as a political organization or through old-fashioned thuggery. They were a cult, a gang, an invisible empire justified unto themselves and utterly sinister. Between World War 2 and the revelation that a Klan chieftan had kidnapped a young girl and tried to eat her, however, the second Klan fell apart. Later iterations have never achieved much more than being vague threats; they have certainly lost whatever reputation they cultivated as guardians of civic order (cannibalism will do that) and settled for being lunatics on the fringe, content merely to stir up trouble.
The Fiery Cross is an exceptionally well-done history of a dismal subject, relying heavily on letters and charters for the 1870s clan, and interviews for the modern iteration. Despite having grown up in the South, I knew next to nothing about the thing that is the clan, and I say thing because there’s never been just the one organization. It is instead an idea, a symbol — rather like the V for Vendetta masks, not to slander those activists — that creates association without unification. One hopes that the Klan’s day is now past, despite its occasional resurfacing. Given that they have descended to becoming recurring characters on The Jerry Springer Show, there is is room for optimism. The most fascinating section for me was that on the second Klan, given that its perverse masquerade as a civic organization manages to launch it to national success, flouring not only in the South, but in the northeast and especially the midwest.
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