The Ku Klux Klan (KKK)
By: Ida B. Wells
Source: Southern Horrors is a pamphlet published in 1892 by Ida B. Wells.
About the Author: Journalist and speaker Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) is best known for leading the fight against the lynching of African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Already established as a respected voice within the African American community in Memphis, Wells published Southern Horrors in 1892 after a close friend died along with two other black men at the hands of a lynch mob. The book's title mocked Southern honor as the commonly cited justification for lynching. Forced out of the South because of her activism, Wells moved to Chicago. She spent the remainder of her life speaking and writing on behalf of African Americans.
In the decades following the end of the Civil War, lynching (killing by a mob) became a popular terrorist weapon against African Americans. These ritualized killings were public displays designed to terrorize black people from claiming economic or political power. Lynchings were frequently announced in newspapers and treated as social events by some white people, who would take home souvenirs such as bits of bone and flesh of the victim. While most common in the Deep South, lynching was a nationwide problem, occurring as far north as Duluth, Minnesota, and often drawing thousands of white spectators.
Lynching generally required the support of local law enforcement agents that allowed white vigilante groups to remove blacks, often falsely accused of crimes, from jail cells. In the overwhelming majority of the cases, the victims were male. The white perpetrators were almost never punished for these murders, even when photographs illustrating their involvement in such acts circulated as postcards or novelty items. Despite the efforts of activists such as Wells, the U.S. Congress never passed an anti-lynching bill. Blacks were effectively left on their own to deal with a form of terrorism that claimed thousands of lives.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the nation's oldest right-wing extremist group, organized many lynchings. Founded in 1866 in Tennessee by Confederate veterans as a fraternal organization, the KKK became a terrorist group within a year. Groups of a few to more than 100 Klansmen would visit their victims late at night, on the pretense of a suspected crime. Their chosen victims were usually black men, who would be whipped, stabbed, beaten, shot, or sometimes hanged.
Lynch law has spread its insidious influence till men in New York State, Pennsylvania and on the free Western plains feel they can take the law in their own hands with impunity, especially where an Afro-American is concerned. The South is brutalized to a degree not realized by its own inhabitants, and the very foundation of government, law and order, are imperiled. . . .
Col. A.S. Colyar of Nashville, Tenn. is so overcome with the horrible state of affairs that he addressed the following earnest letter to the Nashville American.
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 the 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. . . .
To palliate this record . . . and excuse some of the most heinous crimes that ever stained the history of a country, the South is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women. This, too, in the face of the fact that only one-third of the 728 victims to mobs have been charged with rape, to say nothing of those of that one-third who were innocent of the charge. A white correspondent of the Baltimore Sun declares that the Afro-American who was lynched in Chestertown, Md., in May for assault on a white girl was innocent; that the deed was done by a white man who had since disappeared. The girl herself maintained that her assailant was a white man. When that poor Afro-American was murdered, the whites excused their refusal of a trial on the ground that they wished to spare the white girl the mortification of having to testify in court.
This cry has had its effect. It has closed the heart, stifled the conscience, warped the judgment and hushed the voice of press and pulpit on the subject of lynch law throughout this "land of liberty." Men who stand high in the esteem of the public for Christian character, for moral and physical courage, for devotion to the principles of equal and exact justice to all, and for great sagacity, stand as cowards who fear to open their mouths before this great outrage. They do not see that by their tacit encouragement, their silent acquiescence, the black shadow of lawlessness in the form of lynch law is spreading its wings over the whole country.
Men who, like Governor Tillman, start the ball of lynch law rolling for a certain crime, are powerless to stop it when drunken or criminal white toughs feel like hanging an Afro-American on any pretext.
Even to the better class of Afro-Americans the crime of rape is so revolting they have too often taken the white man's word and given lynch law neither the investigation or condemnation it deserved.
With the end of the Civil War and the passage of federal legislation giving political rights to black men, whites felt threatened by blacks. The changes in race relations were so dramatic that a backlash resulted. The broader purpose of lynching was to turn back the clock to the days of slavery and to put fear into the hearts of black men. It was a way of setting limits not only upon the behavior of African Americans, but also on black hopes for social and political advancements.
To a great extent, lynching succeeded. The activities of the KKK helped to overturn radical Republican rule in the South and to end Reconstruction. After Ulysses S. Grant assumed the presidency in 1869, the federal government began to take action against the KKK. The organization faded by 1872, only to revive in the 1920s, collapse, and then appeared for a third time following the 1954 Brown decision desegregating public schools. Every incarnation of the KKK employed violence to intimidate and kill blacks.
During Wells's lifetime, lynchings did not stop, but they did become a national embarrassment, partially as the result of her reporting. Anti-lynching bills were periodically introduced in Congress, but never passed. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, approved by the House of Representatives in 1922, was typical. The Dyer Bill would have tried culpable state officials and mob participants in federal courts if state courts refused to take action. The Senate never approved the Dyer Bill or any other anti-lynching legislation. By 1922, more than 3,500 African Americans had been lynched by mobs. The number of dead continued to rise until the 1960s, when cultural changes made violence against African Americans socially unacceptable to most Americans. In 2005, the U.S. Congress issued a formal apology for failing to enact anti-lynching legislation.
Chalmers, David M. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1981.
Royster, Jacqueline Jones, ed. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
Trelease, Allen W. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1999.