“A great literature will yet arise out of the era of those four [Civil War] years, those scenes—era compressing centuries of native passion, first-class pictures, tempest of life and death—an inexhaustible mine for the histories, drama, romance, and even philosophy, of peoples to come—indeed the verteber of poetry and art (of personal character too) for all future America—far more grand, in my opinion, to the hands capable of it, than Homer’s siege of Troy, or the French wars to Shakespeare.”Walt Whitman, 1879
As I keep going down this rabbit hole of revisionist history, I try to imagine how Walt Whitman would interpret some of the literature that made it out of the era that he so elegantly described above. Today’s reading being the primer, The Ku Klux Klan or Invisible Empire, published by the Daughters of the Confederacy. A primer that would be adopted into schools by the State of Mississippi. I don’t think this is what he had in mind. One thing I know for certain is—I wish I would of read Walt Whitman instead of this. Nevertheless…
S.E.F. Rose, also known as Laura Martin of the West Point, Mississippi chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy—published this pamphlet in 1914. She was from Pulaski, Tennessee, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. Her grandfather had hosted early Klan meetings at his home, as confirmed in a letter from founding member, James R. Crowe, in this pamphlet. She would get letters from the last 2 living “Pulaski 6” members to include in her work. One thing in those letters that jumped out to me, is the detailed account of the swearing-in ceremony of CSA General Nathan Bedford Forrest as the first Grand Wizard of the Klan. The same General Forrest that people have a really hard time deciding if he was in the Klan or not. The Daughters of the Confederacy certainly had no reserves about his membership, nor did the founding members of the Klan.
The beginning of the book is mostly Rose waxing poetic about the conditions of the post war south. Striking up sentimentality for the Southland while describing the ruinous conditions that made for the necessity of the Klan. Some of these conditions carry truth, but there’s a real added flare of dramatics to this. Reconstruction had turned life upside down in the South, no doubt about that. She best paints her picture for this affront to the Southern White way of life in Chapter V: CARPET-BAGGERS—SCALAWAGS—AND NEGROES.
She makes the case that no humiliations were too great for the Radical Carpet-Bagger to afflict upon the Southerner. She says that they, along with the Scalawag (native born whites who were traitors, preaching of equality for Negroes) “would march the ignorant Negro to the polls and make them vote, under a banner inscribed, ‘Down with Democracy.’” She then goes into a description of the faithful Negro, or “Old Confeds“, that would follow their masters to war and knew their place to remain with “ole Mistis and de Chillun,” not looking for their promise of 40-acres and a mule —instead they longed for the “good ole days befo de war,” when “Ole Massa and Ole Missis” looked after all their bodily and spiritual needs. She wrote it, not me. My research map of stereotypes is really starting to come together now.
The book also talks of how the Klan used scare tactics to intimidate and win control back of the South. They admit to killing Negroes, but stick to a narrative of only because they offered violent resistance first. They blame the more violent instances on “bogus” Klan’s that were probably made of Carpet-Baggers looking to make a financial gain. After all, the Ku Klux Klan was made of the most distinguished and honorable men that the South had to offer. They were Confederate heroes that won the South’s dignity back. At least that is what this book certifies. It is officially endorsed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy with the pledge to adopt it in schools across the land. The Sons of Confederates Veterans fully endorsed this book as well and also pledged their efforts to have it placed in schools. Two of the founding KKK members contributed written letters to the book. I could get into this more, but I want to point out what is always the glaring issue—no matter how they try to spin it—White supremacy. Their words, not mine.
In Chapter XII: Lessons Taught By The Klan, she lays out the three many lessons left by these hooded “heroes” that they aimed to hammer home:
- “The Inevitability of Anglo-Saxon Supremacy; when harassed by bands of outlaws, thugs, carpet-baggers, and guerillas, turned loose on the South and upheld by political machinery, during the Reconstruction period, the sturdy white men of the South, against all odds, maintained white supremacy and secured Caucasian civilization, when its very foundations were threatened within and without.”
- “A new revelation of the greatness and genius of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the ‘Wizard of the Saddle’ the great Confederate cavalry leader. As Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire, to his splendid leadership was due, more than to any other thing, the successful carrying out of the high and noble purposes of the real Ku Klux Klan.”
- “The grandeur of the character of the ‘Men who wore the Grey,’ the Confederate soldiers, the real Ku Klux. They were not only great in war, but great in peace, and great in the performance of every Duty, which Robert E. Lee, the mightiest military chieftain the world ever saw, pronounced, ‘The sublimest word in the English language.’”
There’s more talk of White Supremacy in the book, but there’s no need for me to get into it. The book ends with a short biography of Grand Wizard Forrest. Someone who seemed to try to distance himself from the Klan in a political light, but openly boasted about their success behind closed doors. I’ve written a lot on the DOC’s involvement with memorializing Forrest in previous essays, but I want their own published words to speak for themselves on the matter:
“Many great monuments have been erected to his memory, but his greatest monument is erected in the hearts of the people of the Southland whom he loved so well and served so faithfully. All honor to General Nathan Bedford Forrest,—Leader of the Confederate Cavalry, and of the Ku Klux Klan.S.E.F. Rose, Daughters of the Confederacy
In Forrest’s first year as Grand Wizard (1867)—there were 25 murders, 83 assaults, 4 rapes, and 4 arson’s between June and October—in Tennessee alone, all attributed to the KKK. The defenders of this heritage are refusing to recognize this part of it. The DOC recognized the Ku Klux Klan’s role in returning the South to the culture of White supremacy, they glorified it and championed for it to be taught across the nation. But the people who defend the Confederate culture now—including the DOC themselves—try to tell their half-truths about it. If you want the statues to stay—then they HAVE to have context. These men were Klansmen. Admittedly so. The Klan was made of the Confederacy and that flag is tied to the same history, like it or not. White supremacy is pulled from their words, not some new “leftists” talking points.
I put the pictures below of the “stories” from “Ole Black Mammy” and “Old Uncle Wash,” they put in this pamphlet. They are false and disgusting. Again, this was taken to schools and Mississippi actually adopted it. I read the firsthand congressional testimonies from survivors of Klan raids, and they were far more violent than the harmless pranks that the DOC tells here. It’s incredibly insulting to claim that the Ku-Klux Klan won back the South just from playful intimidation tactics, as if there is such a thing. They were a terrorist organization. As usual, they left out the actual accounts of Black folks from that time. The narrative in the book would have you believe that every single Black voter was illiterate, as well as the Black men who were elected to office. That’s no joke, that is the actual claim.
Rose tells the story that these “heroes” just vanished into the night after they won Reconstruction. The truth is that they just didn’t need to wear robes anymore. The entire South entered into a mob mentality of lynch law that would last for decades. This is what the KKK had established. As is the case with much of what is going on today, they made a culture of “we best not talk ’bout that right now,” when it came to the ugly and violent truths of Southern society. One freed slave, (insert sarcasm font here) who actually learned to read and write, would go on to publish the stories of the horrific lynching culture that followed the Klan’s declared victory in the South.
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery and went onto be a journalist and anti-lynching crusader—as well as a founder of the NAACP. On October 26, 1892 she published the pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. She proposes that the Southerners mostly all cried rape as the excuse masking their real intentions for lynchings; The economic progress of Blacks. Using lynchings to suppress Black progress and to carry out their disenfranchisement was now the law of the land. In Southern Horrors she prints a statement from Col. A.S. Colyar of Nashville, a White man and Confederate politician. He speaks openly about the horrid state of lynch law in the south:
“Nothing since I have been a reading man has so impressed me with the decay of manhood among the people of Tennessee as the dastardly submission to the mob reign. We have reached the unprecedented low level; the awful criminal depravity of substituting the mob for the court and jury, of giving up the jail keys to the mob whenever they are demanded. We do it in the largest cities and in the country towns; we do it in midday; we do it after full, not to say formal, notice, and so thoroughly and generally is it acquiesced in that the murderers have discarded the formula of masks. They go into town where everybody knows them, sometimes under the gaze of the governor, in the presence of the courts, in the presence of the sheriff and his deputies, in the presence of the entire police force, take out the prisoner, take his life, often with fiendish glee, and often with acts of cruelty and barbarism which impress the reader with a degeneracy rapidly approaching savage life. That the State is disgraced but faintly expresses the humiliation which has settled upon the once proud people of Tennessee. The State, in its majesty, through its organized life, for which the people pay liberally, makes but one record, but one note, and that a criminal falsehood, ‘was hung by persons to the jury unknown.’ The murder at Shelbyville is only a verification of what every intelligent man knew would come, because with a mob a rumor is as good as a proof.”
Ida B. Wells had to leave Memphis under threats of being lynched to publish these accounts. This was what the culture had become in the South. Glorify the parts of the past we want, and leave out the accounts we don’t. Then when things—like the truth about the Ku Klux Klan—start to get in the way, we better distance ourselves from them too. There was as much work in suppressing the voice of Black authors, and the education of Blacks—as there was in spinning a new narrative about the glory of the old Confederate heroes.
The thing I see the most in researching this, and from my own upbringing in the South, is that the decades of Reconstruction are glossed over at best in school. There was a period in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that the “Lost Cause” narrative was celebrating the Ku Klux Klan, wanting it taught in schools and even succeeding in Mississippi (of course). But, as more and more African Americans were being educated, the other side of the story was getting told. The “Lost Cause” narrative focus shifted to toning down and subverting the KKK and centralized on how to literally segregate the Black voice and mind.
Overall I give this book 1.5 out of 5 burning crosses. It’s horrendous in context, but for the value of the project I am working—on they really knocked it out of the park. There is almost an impressive comedic level in her impressions of Black folk, but then it quickly gets infuriating, because these stereotypes are still held up today, let alone that this is a book championing the Ku Klux Klan. Thank God that it didn’t make it’s way into more schools, but the same basic ideas did and some of these “values” and “heroes” are still out there, written in stone. Oh, and this same author also wrote a glowing review of the film , A Birth of a Nation, a year later. The film would quite literally ignite the rebirth of the Klan in Stone Mountain, Georgia and membership would reach the multi-millions in the 1920s.
Plenty more to come. Love all y’all.
James C. Marshall, July 19, 2020
- Rose, S.E.F. The Ku Klux Klan or Invisible Empire. 1914. L. Graham Co., LTD., New Orleans, LA. ISBN: 9789353867003
- Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. 2010. They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing. ISBN: 9780544225824
- Wells, Ida B. 1892. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.