- Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction by Elaine Frantz Parsons
Elaine Frantz Parsons has written a provocative reevaluation of the Ku Klux Klan that is essential reading for anyone studying the Reconstruction South. Not since Allen W. Trelease published White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Consp iracy and Southern Reconstruction (New York, 1971) has a scholar offered such an important overall assessment of the first Klan and its significance. While acknowledging the "brilliant, exhaustive, and painstakingly careful" research of Trelease's classic study, Parsons asks new questions and reaches new conclusions by analyzing evidence from multiple vantage points through the lens of cultural history (p. 16). The result is a new perspective on the Klan phenomenon of 1866-1872 that promises to transform the way historians understand the meaning of this infamous chapter in American history.
Parsons wisely distinguishes between the imagined Klan that was largely constructed through public discourse in newspaper accounts and editorials, and the actual acts of violence, intimidation, and political theater attributed to a single organization known as the "Ku-Klux" (p. 7). Plainly skeptical of claims to extensive organizational formation, Parsons focuses the majority of her study on interpreting the power of the public discourse about the Klan. In her estimation, the violence of the Klan, and Klan-like groups, ought to be viewed as just one temporary manifestation of extralegal mob violence that was commonly employed for the purposes of community and racial control in the South. "Klan" activity in many places was little more than a single night of raiding, with purposes that were often driven by long-standing local conflicts. Evidence of broad coordination is scant and highly dubious, but Parsons shows that the "real" Klan and the imagined one were interdependent. As sensationalized accounts about the Klan proliferated in early 1868, so did acts that adopted the well-publicized trappings of the Klan, which fed into the public narrative of a vast conspiracy and widely coordinated campaign. Because the Ulysses S. Grant administration set out to substantiate evidence of a vast organization, subsequent historical accounts, including Trelease's, naturally place the search for organization and coordination at the center of inquiry. Parsons reframes the story as one about a compelling media sensation that inspired widespread imitation, that reshaped northern perceptions about southern [End Page 441] white communities, and that ultimately served to portray freedpeople as helpless and dependent on government support.
Parsons believes the Klan served as a "modernizing" force for white southerners, bringing the rural South into a secular national culture (p. 12). The fascination of the northern press inadvertently facilitated the symbolic restoration of white masculinity and solidarity. Moreover, she shows that northern commentary on the Klan began to shift after the Enforcement Acts of 1870-1871, becoming more sympathetic to those prosecuted under the laws' strict prescriptions as being denied a fair trial. At the same time, the graphic descriptions of Klan violence that dominated the early newspaper coverage declined. In a bold departure from the rest of her study, Parsons undertakes in her final two chapters a case study of Union County, South Carolina, demonstrating the relationship between the idealized Klan of the national discourse and the local realities on the ground. Employing a sophisticated network analysis, Parsons impressively reconstructs the social world of Union County with software-generated data and visual mapping. Charting relationships and degrees of association, she paints a convincing picture of the likely participants in the local Klan raids that highlights their local concerns and the continuum of Klan violence within long-standing local conflicts.
One caveat of this extremely valuable study is that it does not attempt to retell a full narrative of the Klan's role within the political context of Reconstruction, and it generally addresses itself to scholars and specialists, which limits its use in the undergraduate classroom.