Saturday, June 25, 2005

The real Klan

You know, I can't stand Robert Byrd, the insufferable Senator from West Virginia. If reminding people that he once belonged to the KKK will help get his sorry butt out of office, I say fire at will. But let's show some respect for historical accuracy here.

I followed a link to Wizbang and saw commenter after commenter making ritual denunciations of the Klan. Terrific - we certainly don't need any of what they've come to represent. But when was the last time anyone took a look at how they came to represent it?

The simple fact is that the Klan was popular nationwide until well into the last century. They were even represented as the heroes of one of the world's best known early movies, "Birth of a Nation".

And it wasn't just a Southern thing either. It was found throughout the North too, including central IL where I grew up. I had at least one older relative (deceased for half a century now) who was a member, and his quote was that he couldn't see anything wrong with an organization that required its members to be free, white and 21. Enlightened he wasn't, but he was typical of his generation.

As for the ambient racism, a town not far away (LaSalle-Peru, IL) was known to have signs on each end of town saying "Nigger - don't let the sun set on you". There were few blacks or Jews in the area, and there were enough Catholics to take care of themselves, so it must have been kind of frustrating if everyone was seeking violence and destruction.

Incidentally, we've had entire political parties dedicated to intolerance, such as the Know-Nothings and the Anti-Masonic party.

The Klan is associated with terrorizing minorities, particularly blacks. But have you seen pictures of lynched blacks? Look in the crowds - how many of them are wearing Klan outfits? The fact is that lynching was approved by much of the population once upon a time. It didn't take the Klan to start or even accelerate lynching, and in fact the term predates the Klan.

And it so happens that I have a very distant cousin, who was at least half white for sure, who allegedly was lynched out in western Iowa somewhere. Nowadays no one is quite sure how it happened, but the theory is that he was accused of stealing a horse. Here is an account of a white guy named Bowen who was lynched in Texas.

The recent book "Freakonomics" studies some of the most offbeat things, and among them is the KKK. The book tells of one Stetson Kennedy who infiltrated the Klan - here's a passage:
But if the Ku Klux Klan of the 1940s wasn't uniformly violent, what was it? The Klan that Stetson Kennedy found was in fact a storry fraternity of men, most of them poorly educated and with poor prospects, who needed a place to vent-and an excuse for occasionally staying out all night. That their fraternity engaged in quasi-religious chanting and oath taking and hosanna hailing, all of it top secret, made it that much more appealing.

Kennedy also found the Klan to be a slick money-making operation, at least for those near the top of the organization. Klan leaders had any number of revenue sources: thousands of dues-paying rank-and-file members; business owners who hired the Klan to scare off the unions or who paid the Klan protection money; Klan rallies that generated huge cash donations; even the occasional gunrunning or moonshine operation. Then there were rackets such as the Klan's Death Benefit Association, which sold insurance policies to Klan members and accepted only cash or personal checks made out to the Grand Dragon himself.
Yep, it was a big boys' club for losers. Setting up a local branch of such an organization was a way for Robert Byrd to promote himself and and live off poor people. It's little wonder he became a Democrat Senator - it's the same thing on a larger scale.

(Want to know the ingenious way in which Stetson Kennedy turned the Klan into a laughingstock? Read "Freakanomics".)

How busy was the Klan? In terms of lynchings at least there were some 4000-odd lynchings between around 1880 and 1950, but not all were black and not all of those were by the Klan for sure (not that the Klan wouldn't lynch or terrorize whites too - I'm just trying to come up with some sort of ballpark estimate). In contrast, over less than 5 years 1063 people have been killed by Palestinian violence and terror, yet some people think they're the good guys.

But hey, let's hang 4000 lynchings on the Klan. Literally millions of men had had something to do with the Klan at one time or another over that period. Lynchings by the Klan at least appears to have been fairly uncommon, and chapters who did do it might well have been the exception rather than the rule. When Klan membership is common as it was, it can be difficult to determine whether people were acting as Klansmen or just as people who happened to be Klan members. I don't know - I don't have the data.

Now suppose that every last trace of the Klan disappeared from the earth this instant. IMO something comparable would arise in its place. Dung by any other name would smell as bad, and if we don't want the Klan back then we must avoid creating the conditions that incubated it in the first place.

Is the above a defense of the Klan? Hardly. But let's not make out as if any past association with the Klan is some sort of indelible stain or original sin. Unless someone can dig up some actual terrorism conducted by Byrd's little scam, his past association probably says more about his age and where he grew up than anything else.

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