Green, John Paterson
15 John Paterson Green
Excerpt from Recollections of the Inhabitants, Localities, Superstitions, and KuKlux Outrages of the Carolinas
Published in 1880; reprinted on Documenting the American South (Web site)
A former slave recounts his experiences with the Ku Klux Klan
"The bull-whip and raw-hide were also instruments of their torture, and made to produce arguments which none dared refute.…"
Started as a secret society for ex-Confederates, the Ku Klux Klan did not remain a secret for long. In a few short years, the white-hooded Klansmen became the most notorious band of terrorists in the postwar South, known for lynching African Americans, shooting "carpetbaggers," and torching freedmen's schools. Their goal was obvious: To defeat any efforts to elevate African Americans to the political or social equal of whites. That meant keeping African Americans away from polling places, chasing African Americans out of elected office, and running off the so-called carpetbaggers, Northern Republicans who came South and ran for office with promises to support African American rights (see Chapter 14).
The group actually had fairly innocent beginnings. Six young Confederate soldiers, having just returned to their hometown of Pulaski, Tennessee, created the secret society in 1866 to launch minor pranks—almost like a college fraternity. "Ku Klux" came from the Greek word kuklos, meaning circle or band. "The origin of the order had no political significance," one of those founders, John C. Lester, later wrote in Ku Klux Klan: Its Origin, Growth, and Disbandment. "It was at first purely social and for our amusement." Members had elaborate initiation rituals, exotic titles like Grand Cyclops and Grand Turk, and bizarre pointy-hat costumes they wore comically at fairs while communicating with each other using children's whistles.
In time, their pranks—and their ranks—grew. Members wore ghost-like robes and made nighttime visits to African Americans, claiming to be dead Confederate soldiers seeking revenge. Just to spook the ex-slaves, the Klansmen would appear to drink tremendous amounts of water (which was actually poured into bags underneath their costumes), saying it was their first thing to drink since their last battle. But, as William Garrott Brown wrote in Reconstruction in Retrospect, this "purposeless fooling" soon led to "the Klan's inevitable discovery that mystery and fear have [power] over the African mind." For Southern whites who resented the new rights being exercised by African Americans, the Klan became a way to intimidate the freedmen.
The South was brimming with racial tension in the years after the American Civil War (1861–65). Not only had the war freed the slaves, but Congress had given Southern African American men the vote under the Reconstruction Act of 1867 (see Chapter 10). At the same time, Congress forbade high-ranking ex-Confederates from voting or holding office. In any given Southern town, the white community leaders were barred from the polls while their former slaves cast ballots and ran for office. "It seems astounding," historian Brown wrote, that Congress did not foresee that white men "so circumstanced would resist, and would find some means to make their resistance effective."
John Brown Gordon (1823–1904), a Confederate general linked to the Klan in Georgia, described the group as "purely a peace police organization," during his 1871 testimony to Congress, reprinted in Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. After the war freed the slaves, Gordon testified, whites lived in fear of being attacked by African Americans, particularly as Northern carpetbaggers "organized" African Americans to push for their rights. Gordon continued:
Men were in many instances afraid to go away from their homes and leave their wives and children, for fear of outrage. Rapes were already being committed in the country.… It was therefore necessary, in order to protect our families from outrage and preserve our own lives, to have something that we could regard as a brotherhood—a combination of the best men in the country, to act purely in self-defense, to repel the attack in case we should be attacked by these people.
But this rationalization had little basis in fact, according to historians. Although freed by the war, most African Americans still relied on whites for a living, as noted in White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. "Seldom were Negroes willing to stand up to a white man and resist or defy him to his face; those who did automatically incurred the wrath of the white community, and risked their lives." In proportion to their population, African Americans committed fewer murders than whites, and usually their victims were other African Americans. "Certainly black men were more often the victims than the perpetrators of racial violence."
The violence from the Klan—and other white supremacist groups (those who believe that whites are superior and should be in charge) such as the Knights of the White Camellia, the Pale Faces, and the White Brotherhood—was aimed at preventing African Americans from voting, so that white Southern Democrats could return to office. "Klansmen repeatedly attacked Negroes for no other stated offense than voting, or intending to vote, the Republican ticket," as noted in White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. In Arkansas, more than three hundred Republicans, including U.S. representative James M. Hinds (1833–1868), were killed in 1868 by Klansmen. That same year, the Klan killed more than one thousand people in Louisiana. And similar attacks in Georgia helped the Democratic Party reclaim various offices in the 1870 elections. "The Klan became in effect a terrorist arm of the Democratic party, whether the party leaders as a whole liked it or not." Klan defenders, such as Gordon, blamed such violence on Klan imposters acting without the group's support.
The Carolinas were a hotbed of Klan activity, so much so that President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77) sent federal troops into nine South Carolina counties in October 1871 to quiet the violence. The following year, former slave John Paterson Green (1845–1940) left Hudsonville, South Carolina, with two other African American families in search of a new town with better opportunities for African Americans. Born in North Carolina, Green escaped from his master as a child and fled to western Ohio, where he learned to read and write. After the war, Green wrote in Recollections of the Inhabitants, Localities, Superstitions, and KuKlux Outrages of the Carolinas, he "returned to the Sunny South with a burning zeal to do something … for the common good."
Green's book describes his travels with Jones, an ex-slave who had extensive knowledge about the local towns, and the other African American family members looking to relocate. In the following passage, Green describes the Klan's destruction.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt of Recollections from the Inhabitants, Localities, Superstitions, and KuKlux Outrages of the Carolinas:
- Although originally founded as a "purely social" secret society for ex-Confederate soldiers, the Ku Klux Klan quickly became a terrorist organization that used intimidation and violence against freed African Americans and the white Northerners who supported African Americans' rights.
- Klan defenders said the group was needed to protect whites from attacks by African Americans. But historians say those fears were greatly exaggerated; African Americans were more often the victims—not the perpetrators—of racial violence.
- The Klan's violence had a political goal: Prevent African Americans from voting or holding office so that white Southern Democrats could return to power. To achieve that goal, the Klan also targeted white Republicans who supported civil and voting rights for African Americans.
Excerpt from Recollections of the Inhabitants, Localities, Superstitions, and KuKlux Outrages of the Carolinas
We had only proceeded a short distance further on our way, when we were confronted by the charred remains of what had been a dwelling house. "What's that?" I asked for the hundredth time, addressing Jones. "That," said he, "is the work of the Ku-Klux-Klan. The man who lived there was nominated for an office ofinconsiderable importance; but being a "Yankee" and for that reason displeasing to his Democratic neighbors, he was warned to leave the country; and failing toheed the notice, he was taken from his house one night by a body of masked men, given a coat of tar and feathers, and twenty-four hours in which to make his escape. After that treatment he hesitated no longer, but left for parts unknown, glad enough to be spared his life. On the following night his house, with all its contents, were burned to the ground, and left in the condition you now see it."
Further inquiry only tended to strengthen the truth of Jones' statement; not only this but the additional fact that throughout the region we were thentraversing, there was a thoroughly organized association of men under the name given above. The Ku-Klux-Klan was an organizationconceived in sin, and born ininiquity; based not so much upon any wrongs or oppression that its members were actually sufferingat the hands of the members of the newly organized government of the State, as upon an imagined violence done to "all theirpreconceived opinions and prejudices.…" One of those opinions was that the South ought to have been left alone tosecede from the Union of these States, and not restrained by the vigorous North; hence a violence had been done the South in restraining her. Another opinion was that, after having beenscourged back into the line of States, South Carolina ought to have been given loose reins to reconstruct herself, and make her own laws; even though their tendency were such as to crush out every spark of civil life from the freedmen, deprive them of their newlyacquired political privileges, andrelegate them to the condition of "corn-field darkies," withoverseers to crack their whips over their heads, and not even a master to say them nay. Violence had been done to their "preconceived opinions" by denying them this privilege, and to cap the climax, their "preconceived prejudices" had been violated by permitting "corn-field darkies and armysutlers " to hold offices ofemolument and trust, notwithstanding the fact they utterly refused tofraternize with them even politically, and reap a portion of the benefitsaccruing therefrom. There was no reasonable cause of complaint existing on the part of the people of that State that could not have been adjusted by lawful means entirely within their power and under their control; and that, in any one of our more considerate States of the North would have been modified without resort to violence andincendiarism. Not so with theseimpulsive people, however. "Their preconceived opinions and prejudices" had been violated, and now, just as when the Republican party of the North had violated them by electing Abraham Lincoln to the Presidential chair, nothing short of blood would wipe out the stain.…
The objects of the Klan, as have been already hinted at, were to banish the so-called "carpet-baggers" from the State, restore the freedmen to positions ofserfdom under their former masters, and regain control of the government of the State. They carried a knife in one hand and a torch in the other, while in their belt they wore a revolver. The bull-whip andraw-hide were also instruments of their torture, and made to produce arguments which none dared refute. In theirexpeditions they spared neither age, sex nor color, and the reputation of being a "black republican" was all that was needed to place one under the ban of their condemnation.…
As time wore onapace their opposition increased invirulence, and assumed a more open form. About six months later direct opposition in the nature of Ku-Klux outrages began to be felt and heard from. In the adjoining county a white Republican was summoned tohis door one night by the usual alarm; he went accompanied by his wife and daughter, and instead of welcoming a neighbor or friend who had come to perform a friendly errand, they were confronted by a band of Ku-Klux, who, without any word of warning or even opportunity of making his peace with his God, shot him down like a dog.…
The question is sometimes asked: "Why don't the freedmen fight?" If our readers will for a moment consider that these men were, from theirinfancy, taught to fear and obey white men; that they are uneducated and unsophisticated, while their former masters are educated and shrewd; that while the white men of the South were educated to the use of the rifle and the shot-gun, the freedmen were kept in ignorance of their use; and further, that in many instances the freedmen are without leaders, they will appreciate the condition of these poor men with their unfortunate surroundings.…
What happened next …
Green and his companions reached their destination of Magnolia, North Carolina, and found the once-prosperous city still in ruins from the war. "Gloom and despondency seemed to brood over the forsaken place," Green wrote. The group decided to return to Hudsonville, just long enough to pack all of their belongings for a move to the North. "We had breathed the pure atmosphere of the free North for so long a time that the prejudices and customs peculiar to that locality [the Carolinas] could illy [scarcely] be brooked [endured] by us," Green wrote.
The First Grand Wizard
Regarded as a brilliant lieutenant general for the Confederacy during the Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821–1877) commanded a different force during Reconstruction: the Ku Klux Klan. As Klan groups began forming in various parts of Tennessee in 1866 to intimidate ex-slaves and harass the so-called carpet-baggers (Northern whites who entered Southern politics), the Klansmen realized they needed a strong leader to unite their efforts. They found an ideal Grand Wizard in Forrest, a respected Confederate cavalry man who had defeated a Union force twice as large as his own in 1864 at the Battle of Brice's Crossroads. Forrest also had a reputation for racial brutality, stemming from the 1864 capture of Fort Pillow, where Forrest's troops killed nearly two hundred African American Union soldiers after seizing the west Tennessee fort.
It appears Forrest joined the Klan in late 1866 or early 1867, although (like most Klansmen) he publicly denied his involvement with the group at the time. Still, he defended the Klan's purpose as a "protective, political, military organization," according to an interview with the Cincinnati Commercial, reprinted in Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography. Once the Klan became active, Forrest told the newspaper, bands of black men "quit killing and murdering our people." But if the Tennessee militia start attacking the Klan, Forrest added, "there will be war, and a bloodier one than we have ever witnessed."
Forrest served as Grand Wizard, or the top leader of the Klan, until 1869, when he issued an order essentially disbanding the organization. In that order, Forrest suggested the violent actions of a few members had taken the Klan away from its original "patriotic" purpose to protect white people. He ordered each member to burn his costumes and masks, and said no further "demonstrations" could be held without the approval of top leaders. Forrest was done with the Klan and, it seems, everything the Klan represented.
In the last years of his life, Forrest grew more receptive to African Americans' rights and less tolerant of violence toward African Americans. When a group of masked white men kidnapped and murdered several African American men in 1874 from a jail in Trenton, Tennessee, Forrest said that if he had the power, "he would capture and exterminate the white marauders [raiders] who disgrace their race by this cowardly murder of negros," according to an account reprinted in Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography. "Forrest … had plainly tired of the race struggle, as well as his own reputation as Fort Pillow's Butcher and the Klan's great wizard," wrote biographer Jack Hurst. Older and wiser, Forrest realized the South would only heal when the two races made peace with each other.
In response to the violent outbursts in the South, Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which allowed the federal government to prosecute people who "go in disguise" to threaten or attack any person. The act also allowed the president to use the military against such groups, as Grant did in South Carolina. A federal grand jury determined at least eleven murders and more than six hundred whippings had occurred at the hands of Klansmen in a single South Carolina county. "The most vigorous [forcible] prosecution of the parties implicated in these crimes is imperatively [urgently] demanded," the grand jury concluded in a report reprinted in Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. "That without this [prosecution] there is great danger that these outrages will be continued, and that there will be no security to our fellow citizens of African descent."
Prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice put a couple dozen Klansmen on trial in South Carolina. Most of them pleaded guilty and went to prison, although up to two thousand more fled the state to escape prosecution, as noted in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. Hundreds more Klansmen were charged in North Carolina. And nearly seven hundred more faced trials in Mississippi, although most of them received little more than a warning not to resume their Klan activities.
By the mid-1870s, the Klan had all but disappeared. Some historians credit the Grant administration's newly created Department of Justice, and particularly Attorney General Amos Akerman (1821–1880), for shutting down the Klan. Others point to an 1869 order from Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821–1877), a former Confederate general from Tennessee, disbanding the Klan (see box). "The Order of the Ku Klux Klan is in some localities being perverted from its original honorable and patriotic purposes," and public opinion was turning against masked organizations, Forrest wrote in the order, as cited in Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, 1866–1871. For whatever reason, the Klan went into a half-century hibernation, stirring again in the 1920s for another reign of terror that would last through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Yet some viewed the Klan as a group of necessity. It arose when Southern whites needed a way to control the African Americans just freed from slavery. It disappeared when those whites regained control of their state governments, often through voter intimidation efforts. "The important work of the Klan was accomplished in regaining for the whites control over the social order and in putting them in a fair way to regain political control," as noted in Ku Klux Klan: Its Origin, Growth, and Disbandment. "In some States this occurred sooner than in others. When the order accomplished its work it passed away."
Did you know …
- Forrest Gump, the title character in the 1994 movie starring Tom Hanks (1956–), was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Klan.
- Forrest, a former Confederate general from Tennessee, had a reputation from the Civil War as a brave leader, but one who was very violent. The most famous example of his temper was in an incident known as the Fort Pillow Massacre, a battle in which hundreds of Union troops—many of them black—were killed. Later reports indicated that many of them were trying to surrender, but that Forrest approved of the killings.
- The Department of Justice was created in 1870, during Reconstruction, to handle lawsuits on behalf of the federal government. Before then, the attorney general was a one-man department who gave legal advice to the president and Congress, but the workload had grown too great for one person. Armed with extra attorneys in the newly created Department of Justice, Grant had the manpower to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan.
- Perhaps the most commonly associated Klan symbol—the burning cross—was not used by the original Klan. The men who revived the Klan in the late 1910s or early 1920s created the haunting symbol.
Consider the following …
- Why was the Ku Klux Klan created?
- What were the Klan's tactics? What were they trying to accomplish?
- Why did the Klan essentially disappear by the mid-1870s?
For More Information
Brown, William Garrott. "The Ku Klux Movement." In Reconstruction in Retrospect. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.
Green, John Paterson. Recollections of the Inhabitants, Localities, Superstitions, and KuKlux Outrages of the Carolinas. Cleveland, OH, 1880. Also available at Documenting the American South: University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/green/green.html (accessed on September 20, 2004).
Horn, Stanley F. Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, 1866–1871. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1939. Reprint, New York: Haskell House, 1973.
Hurst, Jack. Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1993.
Lester, J. C., and D. L. Wilson. Ku Klux Klan: Its Origin, Growth, and Disbandment. New York: Da Capo Press, 1973.
Stalcup, Brenda, ed. Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995.
Trelease, Allen W. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.
Heed: Pay attention to.
Sutlers: Men who sell goods to the military.
Fraternize: Associate in a friendly way.
Incendiarism: Fiery destruction.
Impulsive: Easily excitable.
Raw-hide: A whip made of cow skin.
Apace: At a fast pace.
Infancy: Earliest stage.