Michael Newton. White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866. Jefferson: McFarland, 2014. 300 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-7774-6.
Reviewed by Peter St. Clair
Published on H-Socialisms (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
America's Terrorist Heritage
Michael Newton has written an extensive and exhaustive history of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866 is a comprehensive chronology of a 150-year terror campaign in the service of white supremacy and African American oppression. Newton is the grandson of an Oklahoma Klansman, a fact he only learned when in his twenties. He has long had an interest in uncovering Ku Klux Klan crimes and terror by collecting books, articles, and news reports of their war against the 1960s civil rights movement. For this book, he narrates the Klan’s origins in the weeks immediately following the Civil War, and then continues the history of Klan crimes and activities with its involvement in the militia movement and other forms of anti-government, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, and anti-black violence up to the present day.
Newton makes a point of letting the reader know that this is an unadorned telling of history, with little in the way of editorial comment. He states in the preface that “the Klan is a recurring nightmare in America, our country’s—and the world’s—oldest surviving terrorist organization. Its story follows, told without embellishment. In this case, facts are biased, and the truth is bad enough” (p. 1). Indeed, as he rifles off the grim inventory of murders, lynchings, beatings, whippings, arson, and intimidation at the hands of the KKK, one becomes overwhelmed by the sheer horror and brutality of the relentless parade of terror. The sickening almost visceral racial hatred and violence recounted here is intense.
This is not an easy book to read. Sounding at times like an extensive police blotter, listing Klan misdeeds state by state and year by year from 1866 through 2013, one can get lost in the miasma of events and their perpetrators. However, this structure serves a purpose of revealing the Ku Klux Klan as a multi-headed monster that has taken on many different guises and forms in its long history, constantly splintering into rival organizations, disbanding, disintegrating, and reforming anew. The long and seemingly endless list of rival Klans includes the National Aryan Knights of the KKK, Imperial Klans of America, United Klans of America, White Knights, Knights of the Green Forrest, etc. The book reveals the Klan as not only an effective and successful terrorist organization but also a lucrative racket for many of its leaders over the years, from supplying sheets for Klansmen to embezzling funds. Newton draws his well-documented material from a wide array of secondary sources, including books, articles, and academic papers, as well as such primary sources as newspaper reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) files, congressional reports, and anti-Klan and pro-Klan websites.
The Klan and its offshoots, Newton shows us, have always adapted themselves to changing conditions. From a secret organization operating at night under Union occupation in the years immediately after the Civil War, to the proud and unapologetic public institution of the Jim Crow South parading down Main Street in full-hooded regalia, to the once again underground terrorist organizations skulking around the much-less-tolerant law enforcement environment of the twenty-first century, in all cases, they have never lacked for support from an encouraging population of sympathizers and backers.
Newton begins his history with the formation of the KKK, a survey of early Klan chapters and their leaders (mostly ex-Confederate officers, like the first Grand Dragon, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and future congressional leaders), and their terrorist activities in suppressing black suffrage and Radical Reconstruction in the decade following the Civil War. Begun by six young Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, around June 1866, the early KKK was an amalgam of a college frat—the founders were all “college-educated men, familiar with the Kuklos Adelphon fraternity”—and the pre-Civil War Know Nothing movement that was part of the often violent nativist American Party (p. 5). At first a group of local “dens” given to having fun frightening ex-slaves and their white sympathizers and playing pranks with their outrageous costumes, rituals, and weird titles like Grand Wizard, Grand Cyclops, etc., they soon evolved into a violent vigilante force, and from April 1867, into a paramilitary organization to “resist the evils of ‘Radical Reconstruction’ and keep former slaves in their place” (p. 8).
Newton’s catalogue of KKK terrorist activities beginning a few weeks after Appomattox and the Lincoln assassination and lasting up to the present day is a testament to the political success of terrorism as a tactic. The first chapter describes the arson, sabotage, and murder used in the restoration of Negro oppression by the ex-Confederate oligarchy and the southern yeomanry in the years after the Civil War until the ultimate restoration of the unreconstructed Confederates in 1876. In this period, armed resistance to the granting of civil rights and citizenship to the freed slaves was widespread throughout the South: “In Louisiana alone, white terrorists killed at least 1,081 freedmen between April and November 1868” (p. 12). This reign of terror was conducted underground when operating in areas occupied by Union troops, but after the troops were withdrawn, in the open when in the interest of “national reconciliation.” Others have told this story of Reconstruction, including Stetson Kennedy (After Appomattox: How the South Won the War ), to whom Newton dedicates his book; Eric Foner (Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution ); and of course W. E. B. Du Bois (Black Reconstruction in America ), but none of these achieves the inclusiveness of Newton’s recording.
The relentless detailing of the vicious crimes, the fanatical white supremacy, and the continuing river of blood from the Civil War to the present provide the reader with an alternative narration of American history, a story often overlooked or understated in mainstream accounts. White Robes and Burning Crosses highlights the role that racial oppression enforced by terror has played in the structuring of American politics and class relations. Newton’s presentation is pointedly straightforward and chronological, and the cataloguing of crimes certainly has the effect of establishing terrorism as a long-term historical fact in American history. Perhaps more important, Newton has provided a record of the enormous number of separate crimes committed over generations, whose perpetrators in the vast majority of cases were never prosecuted, much less convicted or sentenced. Listing these acts together highlights the prevalence and unity of a practice that is often attributed to individual lone wolf terrorists or to small marginalized groups of crazies. He shows that these perpetrators are connected by a common ideology in a network of hate groups that include Klan splinter groups and other white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups. The ideology and tactics derive from old and well-tested antecedents.
Popular American history often underemphasizes the role of the KKK and organized hate groups in the acts of terror committed over generations against the African American population and their sympathizers in the South (and many times in the North as well). They are often portrayed as spontaneous reactions of a white population suffering from misguided racial prejudice, more a cultural phenomenon than a political tactic (inferring that race hatred is an inborn “natural” phenomenon). The recent movie Selma shows the fatal 1965 attack on the Boston Unitarian minister James Reeb, but I do not remember it identifying the three men who clubbed him to death outside the Silver Moon Café as the Ku Klux Klan members they were (p. 152). More than just ingrained traditional racial prejudice, Klan violence is part of a political method of maintaining white supremacy wherever and whenever it can. It is the military wing of an ideology of white superiority that has helped to maintain a distinctive class structure in parts of the United States, a class structure infused with white supremacy and racial oppression.
Although revealing a common ideology, the chronological narrative history that Newton employs has its drawbacks as well. The long strung-together Klan history seems more of a piece than it actually was. It is true that Klan activity under the KKK trademark or some other generic brand has continued, certainly reduced but nevertheless unabated, up to the present day. However, there was a sea change in the structure of American race relations in the second half of the twentieth century due to the victories of the civil rights movement. This eventually drove the most violent white supremacists underground and the ideology itself into smaller fringe organizations, or in the case of the more mainstream politics of the right, the ideology is present but unstated. Before the civil rights movement, white supremacy existed in an era when segregation ruled the land, racism was overt, lynching frequent, and slavery continued in many parts of the South under a different name. Compare this to a situation in which segregation and racial discrimination are outlawed and equality before the law is at least a de jure principle if still not very de facto. The difference is significant. White supremacy and its terrorist enforcers are still alive, but are they well? To pose the matter in this manner, however, still leaves open the question of whether it is possible to eradicate racism and eliminate white supremacy as a political, social, and economic ideology.
This takes us beyond the terror of the white supremacists to the question of the functional role of white supremacy in American political and social dynamics. Theodore W. Allen in his two-volume Invention of the White Race (1997) examines the role that white supremacy plays as a social control mechanism. He traces this powerful meme of white supremacy as it was adopted by the early Anglo-American plantation owners in the tobacco fields of seventeenth-century Tidewater Virginia from its origins following Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 to its expansion along with the monoculture slave plantation system south and west across the continent. It was these white non-slaveholders, many from the ranks of indentured servants, who made up a majority of the white population and who were enticed into supporting the slave-holding class despite their own lack of economic interest in slavery. Laws enacted in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Virginia set the model to be adopted throughout the plantation South. These laws established whiteness as a social category. The poorest and lowliest white was transformed into the social superior of the wealthiest most educated nonwhite. With this invention of the white race, the threat of black and white uniting and rising up against the plantation-owning elite as had manifested itself in Bacon’s Rebellion was eliminated. Although instituted by the colonial elite, within a generation the poor tenants and landless whites were claiming their rights as white men and demanding the exclusion of slaves and free blacks from skilled trades. The threat of united working-class action was over, with a supporting class created as a buffer between the slave-holding aristocracy and the source of their wealth and power, their slaves. From this group of whites, slave-catching patrols were formed to police the countryside and terrorize any slaves or other person who threatened the institution of slavery. It was these enforcers who were to provide the model for the postwar Klan.
Unable to compete with the productive capacity of the slave-run plantations, white supremacy was carried south and west by the poor non-slaveholding white frontiersmen who staked out new territory by driving off the nonwhite native peoples and set the stage for the expansion of the slave plantations. In a variation of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “safety valve” theory of frontier development in which the expanding frontier provided an outlet for the landless white masses, Allen sees white supremacy itself as the real safety outlet, continuing into the present to ally white workers with the ownership class against their own class interest and working to prevent united working-class action against the interests of the wealthy.
Today, in part because of the successes of African Americans and their supporters in combating and outlawing white supremacists and their terrorist enforcers, and aided by the ongoing work of civil rights workers and human rights groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the possibility exists not only of ending once and for all the terrorist tactics of the KKK but also for the extinction of the ideology of white supremacy altogether. Newton has performed a service in his narration of the history of the Klan. White Robes and Burning Crosses is an important contribution to the retelling of American history and the destructive role white supremacy has continued to play.
. Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor Books, 2008).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-socialisms.
Peter St. Clair. Review of Newton, Michael, White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866.
H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews.
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