28 December 2013

President Wilson on the Ku Klux Klan

After the Confederacy was militarily defeated, the South was put through to a harsh "Reconstruction", felt by many to be dictatorial and unjust. Two novels, turned into famous movies, made exactly this point, and presented the Ku Klux Klan as an ultimate desperate attempt to restore justice and save white civilization from being crushed under black power. 

The first of these novels is Thomas Dixon's The Clansman (1904), whose famous movie version was The birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith (1915). Both agree in describing "Austin Stoneman", in real life Radical Republican politician Thaddeus Stevens, as the evil mind behind the monstrous master plan to annihilate the white South. In 1936, Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the wind, which made a movie classic in 1939. Here too, the Ku Klux Klan is noble and knightly. The movie hints at its actions without naming it, but the novel is explicit. 

For a balanced view on the KKK we turn to none other than the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, in office from 1913 to 1921, and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. (Short biography here, official website of the Nobel Prize.) He wrote A history of the American people, in five volumes. Below, we quote some pages on Reconstruction, Thaddeus Stevens and the KKK. Note that we are dealing here with the original "first" KKK, founded in 1865 and officially disbanded in 1869. Wilson describes the birth of the KKK as a joke by bored youngsters. In fact, they were former confederate officers, whose names are known. In Griffith's film, in a scene called "The Inspiration", we see two white children disguised as a ghost chasing black children off.

From Birth of a Nation

*  *

Woodrow Wilson, A history of the American people,  
Vol. V, Reunion and Nationalisation, 1908, 
pp. 58-64, illustration included. (Original pages here.)
The dominance of the negroes in the South was to be made a principle of the very constitution of the Union. A long year went by before three fourths of the States had ratified the radical Amendment, [the 15th, “intended to lay in the constitution itself the foundations of negro suffrage” —p. 57]] but the necessary votes came in at last, and on the 30th of March, 1870, the new article was officially declared in force.

The price of the policy to which it gave the final touch of permanence was the temporary disintegration of southern society and the utter, apparently the irretrievable, alienation of the South from the political party [the Republican party] whose mastery it had been Mr. Stevens’s chief aim to perpetuate. The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers; governments whose incredible debts were incurred that thieves might be enriched, whose increasing loans and taxes went to no public use but into the pockets of party managers and corrupt contractors. There was no place of open action or of constitutional agitation, under the terms of reconstruction, for the men who were the real leaders of the southern communities. Its restrictions shut white men of the older order out from the suffrage even. They could act only by private combination, by private means, as a force outside the government, hostile to it, proscribed by it, of whom opposition and bitter resistance was expected, and expected with defiance. Sober men kept their heads; prudent men saw how sad an increase of passion would come out of hasty counsels of strife, an open grapple between those outlawed and those appointed to govern. Men whom experience had chastened saw that only the slow processes of opinion could mend the unutterable errors of a time like that. But there were men to whom counsels of prudence seemed as ineffectual as they were unpalatable, men who could not sit still and suffer what was now put upon them. It was folly for them to give rein to their impulses; it was impossible for them to do nothing.

They took the law into their own hands, and began to attempt by intimidation what they were not allowed to attempt by the ballot or by any ordered course of public action. They began to do by secret concert and association what they could not do in avowed parties. Almost by accident a way was found to succeed which led insensibly farther and farther afield into the ways of violence and outlawry. In May, 1866, a little group of young men in the Tennessee village of Pulaski, finding time hang heavy on their hands after the excitements of the field, so lately abandoned, formed a secret club for the mere pleasure of association, for private amusement, for anything that might promise to break the monotony of the too quiet place, as their wits might work upon the matter, and one of their number suggested that they call themselves the Kuklos, the Circle. Secrecy and mystery were at the heart of the pranks they planned: secrecy with regard to the membership of their Circle, secrecy with regard to the place and the objects of its meetings; and the mystery of disguise and of silent parade when the comrades rode abroad at night when the moon was up: a white mask, a tall cardboard hat, the figures of man and horse sheeted like a ghost, and the horses feet muffled to move with out sound of their approach. It was the delightful discovery of the thrill of awesome fear, the woeful looking for of calamity that swept through the country sides as they moved from place to place upon their silent visitations, coming no man could say whence, going upon no man knew what errand, that put thought of mischief into the minds of the frolicking comrades. It threw the negroes into a very ecstasy of panic to see these sheeted “Ku Klux” move near them in the shrouded night; and their comic fear stimulated the lads who excited it to many an extravagant prank and mummery. No one knew or could discover who the masked players were; no one could say whether they meant serious or only innocent mischief; and the zest of the business lay in keeping the secret close.

Here was a very tempting and dangerous instrument of power for days of disorder and social upheaval, when law seemed set aside by the very government itself, and outsiders, adventurers, were in the seats of authority, the poor negroes, and white men without honor, their only partisans. Year by year the organization spread, from county to county, from State to State. Every country-side wished to have its own Ku Klux, founded in secrecy and mystery like the mother “Den” at Pulaski, until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, an “Invisible Empire of the South,’” bound together in loose organization to protect the southern country from some of the ugliest hazards of a time of revolution. The objects of the mysterious brotherhood grew serious fast enough. It passed from jest to earnest. Men took hold of it who rejoiced to find in it a new instrument of political power: men half outlawed, denied the suffrage, without hope of justice

in the courts, who meant to take this means to make their will felt. “They were to protect their people from indignities and wrongs; to succor the suffering, particularly the families of dead confederate soldiers”; to enforce what they conceived to be the real laws of their States “and defend the constitution of the United States and all laws passed in conformity thereto; to aid in executing all constitutional laws and protect the people from unlawful seizures and from trial otherwise than by jury.” Similar secret orders grew up alongside the great Klan, or in States were its “dens” had not been established: Knights of the White Camellia, Pale Faces, Constitutional Union Guards, the White Brotherhood, to serve the same ends by the same means. The Knights of the White Camellia, founded in New Orleans in the winter of 1867-1868, spread their organization abroad more widely even than the Ku Klux Klan.

It was impossible to keep such a power in hand. Sober men governed the counsels and moderated the plans of these roving knights errant; but it was lawless work at best. They had set themselves, after the first year or two of mere mischievous frolic had passed, to right a disordered society through the power of fear. Men of hot passions who could not always be restrained carried their plans into effect. Reckless men not of their order, malicious fellows of the baser sort who did not feel the compulsions of honor and who had private grudges to satisfy, imitated their disguises and borrowed their methods. What was done passed beyond mere mummery, mere visiting the glimpses of the moon and making night hideous, that they might cause mere “fools of nature horridly to shake their disposition with thoughts beyond the reaches of their souls.” It became the chief object of the night-riding comrades to silence or drive from the country the principal mischief-makers of the reconstruction régime, whether white or black. The negroes were generally easy enough to deal with: a thorough fright usually disposed them to make utter submission, resign their parts inaffairs, leave the country, —do anything their ghostly visitors demanded. But white men were less tractable; and here and there even a negro ignored or defied them. The regulators would not always threaten and never execute their threats. They backed their commands, when need arose, with violence. Houses were surrounded in the night and burned, and the inmates shot as they fled, as in the dreadful days of border warfare. Men were dragged from their houses and tarred and feathered. Some who defied the vigilant visitors came mysteriously to some sudden death.

The more ardent regulators made no nice discriminations. All northern white men or women who came into the South to work among the negroes, though they were but school teachers, were in danger of their enmity and silent onset. Many of the teachers who worked among the negroes did in fact do mischief as deep as any political adventurer. The lessons taught in their schools seemed to be lessons of self-assertion against the whites: they seemed too often to train their pupils to be aggressive Republican politicians and mischief-makers between the races. The innocent and enlightened among them suffered in the general opinion from the errors of those who deliberately sowed discord; and the regulators too often failed to discriminate between those who made trouble and those who fulfilled their gentle errand in peace and good temper.

The ranks of those who flocked into the South to take part in the reconstruction of the States and the habilitation of the negro for his life of freedom were strangely mixed of good and bad. The teachers came upon an errand of mercy and humanity, but came too many of them with bitter thoughts and intolerant purpose against the white people of the South, upon whom, as they did not reflect, the fortunes of the negro in any case depended. The politicians came for the most part like a predatory horde; but here and there emerged a man of integrity, of principle, of wise and moderate counsel, who in the long run won the confidence even of those who hated with an ineradicable hatred the party and the practice of federal control which he represented. The Ku Klux and those who masqueraded in their guise struck at first only at those who made palpable mischief between the races or set just law aside to make themselves masters; but their work grew under their hands, and their zest for it. Brutal crimes were committed; the innocent suffered with the guilty; a reign of terror was brought on, and society was infinitely more disturbed than defended. Law seemed oftentimes given over. The right to the writ of habeas corpus was again and again suspended to check the lawless work. At least one governor of the reconstruction period sent to his adjutant general lists of leading citizens proscribed, with the suggestion that those whose names were specially marked should be tried by court martial and executed at once before the use of the writ should be restored. One lawless force seemed in contest with another.
*    *