The first comprehensive examination of the nineteenth-century Ku-Klux Klan since the 1970s, Ku-Klux pinpoints the group’s rise with startling acuity. Historians have traced the origins of the Klan to Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866, but the details behind the group’s emergence have long remained shadowy. By parsing the earliest descriptions of the Klan, Elaine Frantz Parsons reveals that it was only as reports of the Tennessee Klan’s mysterious and menacing activities began circulating in northern newspapers that whites enthusiastically formed their own Klan groups throughout the South. The spread of the Klan was thus intimately connected with the politics and mass media of the North.
In the following excerpt from Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (pp. 27-34), Parsons shares the origins of the Ku-Klux Klan’s name and introduces its founding members.
I will only add that nearly all the BLOOD AND THUNDER proclamations and general orders issued in circular form or printed in the columns of THE CITIZEN when the order was in its incipient form and before it had assumed political significations, originated in the brain and were written by the Faber of the then editor of THE CITIZEN, solely for fun and sensational effect. What editor, pray tell me, imbued with the least journalistic enterprise, would have failed to take advantage of the circumstances and enlivened his cou[rse] with these sensational fulminations? Would you? This is my excuse and defense.
—From “Mr. Frank McCord Tells What He Knows about the Kuklux,” Pulaski Citizen, clipping dated December 18, 1892
The Ku-Klux began as a name. It was chosen by a group of young former Confederates in Pulaski, Tennessee, in May or June 1866. Pulaski, the seat of Giles County, is seventy-four miles south of Nashville, connected to the city by the Nashville and Decatur Railroad. The war’s shadow fell heavily on the nation, but Pulaski bore a disproportionate share of suffering. While it was never itself a battlefield, Federal troops had occupied it, and it was in close proximity to some of the war’s most deadly fighting. Union troops camped in Pulaski in the days before the bloody Battle of Nashville, and were a frequent presence throughout the war. These strains may have contributed to the area’s fraught postwar atmosphere.
Giles County saw more than its share of “the ordinary violence of emancipation.” As early as 1866, Giles County experienced particularly heightened racial conflict and noteworthy resistance to federal control. A group of black leaders emerged in Giles during the war, including Dangerfield “Danger” Rhodes (a brickmason, aged fifty-three at the end of the war, who had been buying his time from his master for some years before the war and owned several horses and mules; he sharecropped with his sons during the war and would report $1,900 in property on the 1870 census), Henry Webb, Orange Jones, and others. These were, as one of their number was described, “active energetic m[e]n with good hard homade Sense,” who had won the respect not only of other black Giles Countians, but also of some Union officers (some of whom had stayed on Danger Rhodes’s place during the war). They also worked to support less well-positioned freedpeople: Freedmen’s Bureau superintendent R. C. Caldwell described Danger Rhodes as “a very deserving colored man . . . who beyond his means has been alleviating the wants & necessities of the poor of his race. During the winter he has had under his roof one man (crushed in the tornado . . .), & a nurse for the same, a lying-in woman with three children; all of whom he had to feed & furnish fuel. They sought his house for refuge in their distress, and he would not turn them away from his door.” They reported local problems to sympathetic federal officials. By early 1866, they sent a collective letter to Freedmen’s Bureau assistant commissioner Clinton Fisk: “There is a disposission on the part of the white Citizens some of them to impose and [sic] the colored citizens.” They reported that whites refused to let them use the church basement that had been promised to them for their own church services (after allowing them to renovate it for the purpose), and also refused to allow a black-owned grocery to sell alcoholic beverages, despite its proper licensing. They gave several compelling accounts of abuse. A black saloonkeeper in Pulaski hung a sign out that said “Equal Rights,” which whites immediately tore down. Pulaski was the kind of place where such a sign would have been pulled down, but it is perhaps even more significant that it was the kind of place where someone was going to put it up to begin with.
Freedmen’s Bureau agents consistently identified whites in Giles as particularly oppressive of freedpeople. Superintendent Caldwell took the freedmen’s part, and they considered him well-meaning but complained that he was ineffective. Finding Caldwell unable to stop “gross outrages” in the county, the Bureau removed him in June 1866, and soon replaced him with Captain George E. Judd, a man of firmer mettle and backed by a cavalry. Reporting to his commander Michael Walsh in December 1866, Judd was struck by the unreconstructed nature of Giles County whites, even compared to whites in nearby counties. “It can almost be said that there is no law in Giles County all do just as they see fit without regard to law or decency.”
Freedmen’s Bureau officials could not agree on where to assign blame for aggression against freedpeople in Pulaski. Sometimes the perpetrators were clearly landowners. Prominent Confederate leader John C. Brown lived in Pulaski, and the local editor of the Democratic paper, the Pulaski Citizen, Frank McCord, was believed to be drumming up antiblack sentiment. But those same Freedmen’s Bureau officials also pointed to lower-class whites, “roughs,” as the heart of the problem. Captain George E. Judd, soon after his arrival in Pulaski, fingered poor whites, “men who amount to nothing, have no property and no principle,” or “the low class of whites.” The Pulaski Citizen agreed with the Freedmen’s Bureau that street violence by rowdies was a major problem. Their town was overtaken with the “horse-thieves, housebreakers, loafers and whisky-heads of this community” indulging “their propensities for committing depredations upon the public and reveling in their midnight orgies,” the paper said. It called for Pulaski’s more publicly inclined citizens to put an end to it: “Our citizens should take the matter in their own hands and endeavor to rid the country of such villains.”
Events nearby contributed to the tension and disorder. The Memphis Riot in May 1866, followed by the New Orleans Riot in July, each left dozens of black people dead at the hands of white mobs: many more black urbanites suffered rape, beatings, arson, and theft during these sprees of intense racial violence. The urban race riot was a novel form of violence for the South, a response by whites to freedpeople’s new claims and practices, and it was hard not to notice that the federal government was unable or unwilling to protect freedpeople from such extreme violence, nor even to find and punish wrongdoers in its wake. As one black Pulaskian worried, “Those Memphis Riots are having their effect here.” Organized white violence began to feel attractive and pragmatic to strong southern partisans, and unfortunately inevitable to many others. By the summer of 1867, some political leaders were calling quite publicly for organized resistance to black claims to political, social, and economic rights, and to federal authority. Influential former confederate general Albert Pike advised Tennessee’s conservative whites to form themselves into civic guard companies.
The Ku-Klux Klan was created at this moment and in this place. Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Ku-Klux, by Elaine Frantz Parsons’ »
-  Mrs. S. E. F. Rose, based on a letter from Major James R. Crowe reprinted in her text, places the beginning in the winter of 1865–66. Rose, Ku Klux Klan, 18. The May date is given in William Thomas Richardson, Historic Pulaski, Birthplace of the Ku-klux: Scene of Execution of Sam Davis (W. T. Richardson, 1913), 13, and in Lester and Wilson, Ku Klux Klan, 53. The date of “1867” is given in “Mr. Frank McCord Tells What He Knows about the Kuklux,” Pulaski Citizen, photocopy of a clipping of a December 18, 1892, letter from Frank McCord, Fayetteville, Tenn., Robert Wamble Personal Papers, Pulaski, Tenn. ↩
-  “The fight was very desperate and sanguinary. The Confederate generals led their men in the repeated charges, and the loss among them was of unusual proportions.” Grant, Personal Memoirs, 535–36. ↩
-  Kidada Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me, 26. ↩
-  Letter from John A. Jackson to Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, December 25, 1865, J-56, Registered Letters Received, Series 3379, Office of the Assistant Commissioner of Tennessee, Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, RG 105, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. [BRFAL] (Freedmen and Southern Society Project, University of Maryland, College Park [FSSP] A6058). ↩
-  Letter from John A. Jackson to Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, December 25, 1865. ↩
-  Letter from Cornelius Brown and Other Citizens to Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, March 8, 1866, Box 5, B-84 (1866), Registered Letters Received, Series 3379, Office of the Assistant Commissioner of Tennessee, BRFAL (FSSP A6230). ↩
-  Resolution from Henry Webb and others, submitted to Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, March 26, 1866, filed as M-89 (1866), Registered Letters Received, Series 3379, Office of the Assistant Commissioner of Tennessee, BRFAL (FSSP A6294). ↩
-  Blight, Race and Reunion, 113. ↩
-  Letter from Col. J. R. Lewis, Chief Superintendent of Nashville Sub-District, to Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, July 24, 1866, L-91 (1866), Box 7, Registered Letters Received, Series 3379, Office of the Assistant Commissioner of Tennessee, BRFAL (FSSP A6285). ↩
-  Monthly Report for Williamson and Giles Counties for December 1866 submitted by Captain George E. Judd (Superintendent) to Captain Michael Walsh (Chief Superintendent), December 31, 1866, J-63, Registered Letters Received, Series 3570, Subassistant Commissioner of the Subdistrict of Nashville, Tennessee, BRFAL (FSSP A6482). ↩
-  Letter from Captain George E. Judd (Agent) to Captain Michael A. Walsh (Subassistant Commissioner), May 14, 1867, Box 88, No. 453, Registered Letters Received, July 1866–September 1868, Series 3570, Subassistant Commissioner of the Subdistrict of Nashville, Tennessee, BRFAL (FSSP A6488). ↩
-  Blight, Race and Reunion, 113, includes a sound description of the racial situation in Pulaski at the time of the Klan’s emergence. Monthly Report for Williamson and Giles Counties for December 1866 submitted by Captain George E. Judd (Superintendent) to Captain Michael Walsh (Chief Superintendent), December 31, 1866. ↩
-  “High-Handed Robbery,” Pulaski Citizen, January 17, 1867, 3. ↩
-  John A. Jackson to Clinton B. Fisk, December 25, 1866. ↩
-  Severance, Tennessee’s Radical Army, 87. ↩