Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Carnival of Death: Lynching in America

The Ku Klux Klan

Founded in the town of Pulaski, Tennessee in early 1866 by six Confederate Army veterans, the name "Ku Klux Klan" was a distortion of the Greek word for circle: kuklos. It was formed because a group of young men were bored with post war Tennessee and, by their own admission, the club had no real purpose or goals. James Crowe, one of the founding fathers, said the Klan had no political significance and existed only "to have fun, make mischief and play pranks on the public" (Wade, p. 34). The group frequently rode through rural areas dressed in outlandish costumes and word soon spread that the white robed riders were actually ghosts of Confederate soldiers killed during the Civil War. Rumors said the ghosts had returned to extract vengeance on certain people (Wade, p. 35). Soon, the Klan began to harass black residents by breaking up church meetings and other gatherings where blacks were present. White southerners deeply resented former slaves who imagined they had the same rights as whites.

An early gathering of the Klan
An early gathering of the Klan

A former Confederate General named Nathan Forest [9] became the Grand Wizard, commander in chief of the KKK, in 1867. Forest, a wealthy plantation and slave owner before the war, was left ruined and penniless when the fighting ended. He used his wartime experiences to militarize the Klan and give it direction. Soon, the Klan appeared at parades in Pulaski and elsewhere. Announcements of meetings were published in newspapers along with Klan directives that contained ominous warnings to the public. And it became very clear who was at risk: "unholy blacks, cursed by God, take warning and fly" (Wade, p. 42). By 1868, the Ku Klux Klan was fully dedicated to the oppression of the black man. There were already numerous acts of violence committed by the Klan against African Americans and these incidents were well known to local law enforcement agents. However, rarely was legal action ever taken against the Klan. For under the white robes, in a pattern that would be repeated many times over the next 100 years, were often the police themselves[10]. Mob justice became common and the entire state of South Carolina in 1871 was thought to be "firmly in control of the Ku Klux Klan, especially York County" (Tonlay and Beck, p. 11). The situation deteriorated to such depths, that in 1871 Governor Robert Scott requested President Grant to send in federal troops to suppress the violence and regain control (Tolnay and Beck, p. 11). But the worst was yet to come.

The Klan in Washington, DC 1990 (AP)
The Klan in Washington, DC 1990 (AP)

In Watkinsville, Oconee County, Georgia in 1905, two brothers, Lewis and Rich Robinson were arrested and charged with the murder of a white man. They were brought to the local jail and held pending trial. In the same jail were seven other prisoners charged with a variety of crimes including theft. On the night of June 29, 1905, a mob of approximately 100 men wearing robes and masks showed up at the jail. The sheriff had been kidnapped and brought along to open the cell doors. At gunpoint, the deputies were forced to turn over all the prisoners, including the Robinson brothers. The prisoners were tied up and marched to the center of town where they were beaten and tied to a fence. The leader of the mob gave a command to shoot the men. Hundreds of shots were fired at the helpless prisoners. Eight prisoners lay dead on the ground. One man, Joe Patterson, escaped with two bullet wounds in his chest. It was one of the worst lynching incidents ever recorded and like all the others, not one person was ever charged or even arrested for these killings. Fear of the Klan, which had a strong presence in Oconee County for decades, was solidified for another generation.

A KKK ceremony in the rural South
A KKK ceremony in the rural South

As a result, the Klan grew quickly and spread to other states like Alabama, Louisiana and especially Mississippi. Resentment towards blacks, who were all considered former slaves, was a reality in the South. Racism, born out of a Southern culture that required the enslavement of blacks in order to survive, flourished. Violence and intimidation became the sword of the Ku Klux Klan but the exact toll in human lives will surely never be known. Throughout the following decades, the Klan's influence increased dramatically, fueled by a sense of arrogant righteousness that seemed ingrained in southern culture. Then in 1915 an event occurred that would forever alter the public's perception of the Klan. It would transform the nature of race relations in the South for decades to come and do irreparable harm to the African American in his quest for equality. That event was the release of the Hollywood film The Birth of a Nation (1915) and no study of race relations in America during the 20th century can ever ignore its presence.

Birth of a Nation poster
Birth of a Nation poster

Birth of a Nation was directed by legendary filmmaker D. W. Griffith (1875-1948) and released in 1915. It became an immediate sensation. No film made up until that time could compare to it. Over 3 hours long and filled with graphic, powerful images that made a lasting impression on its audience, Birth of a Nation grossed a mind-boggling $18,000,000, an astronomical sum for its time [11]. But the film contained many negative images of the black man and catered to the lowest element of white and black fears alike. Its stereotypical portrayal of blacks, as tribal, lazy and violent criminals who crave white women would become indelible on the collective mind and inflict a profound, cultural wound on the consciousness of the nation. A review of the film in Cinebooks is even more emphatic: "Jim Crow is explicitly endorsed, slavery is romanticized; the Ku Klux Klan is glorified; lynching is condoned; and blacks are represented as simple minded beasts driven primarily by lust and envy" (Cinebooks, Cinemania, '96). Many people became angered over its interpretation of black/white relations while others accepted its version of the Reconstruction Era as truth. Southern whites were elated: "On Thanksgiving night in 1915, 25,000 Klansmen paraded through the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, to celebrate the opening of the movie. And when Griffith, the son of a Confederate soldier, presented his work to President Woodrow Wilson (reportedly the first screening of a feature film in the White House), the President allegedly declared, "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." (www.africana.com/article/birthofanation). Birth of a Nation and its distorted version of history was idolized by the Ku Klux Klan. It was interpreted as an endorsement of Klan values because "in its presentation of the KKK as heroes and Southern blacks as villains, it appealed to white Americans and its mythic view of the Old South, and its thematic exploration of two great American issues: inter-racial sex and the empowerment of blacks" (Dirks, p.1). The film had convinced a large portion of America of a history that had never happened. Or as author Wyn Wade writes: "for many people below the mason Dixon Line, The Birth of a Nation was a near religious experience" (p. 138). But the damage was done and the Ku Klux Klan, whose power was fading in 1915, became rejuvenated and found a new sense of purpose to continue their campaign of murder and mayhem against America's blacks.

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