I read with interest Bernard A. Weisberger’s article about the Ku Klux Klan in the April issue (“In the News”). I generally agree with everything he says after the first two paragraphs but I would offer the following additional information about one brief period of time. This information is admittedly third hand, gathered by my mother from, and about, her grandfather and passed on to me. An allowance must be made for distortion under these circumstances, a point offered in the spirit of full disclosure.
My great-grandfather was a citizen of Tennessee from the Nashville area, a soldier in the Confederate Army, and, immediately following the Civil War, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. According to him the Klan was a reaction to efforts to exploit postwar regional economic collapse by manipulating the unelected local government to confiscate the farms of land-poor Confederate veterans for failure to pay taxes. The Klan, in the Nashville area, did more mass parading in broad daylight than night riding, but both occurred. Although hoods were worn, membership was hardly a secret, since the members rode their own horses, as easily identifiable to the locals then as sports cars with vanity plates would be today. Within two years the crisis was over and the Klan formally disbanded; members burned their regalia and swore an oath that the Klan was ended, never to return.
When approached by those who claimed to be “resurrecting” the Klan in the 1880s, my great-grandfather declined to join, based on his oath. Although exceptions to this generalization can presumably be cited, members of the original Klan were conspicuous by their absence from the later bastard klan organizations.
I would like to think that history might judge the Klan of the 1860s to be an organization undeniably outside the law but organized to combat a specific injustice, restrained in its lawless activities by men neither enamored of lawlessness nor coming to enjoy such behavior, who, when the injustice ended, shut down their organization rather than search out excuses to justify continuing their lawless ways.
This was the Klan grotesquely romanticized by D. W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation , not the rascals who sold memberships to rednecks and nincompoops for twenty dollars each, beginning in the 1880s. The point to all of this is that if my friends and I bought pointed hats and declared ourselves to be the Immortals of Darius the Great, it would not make it so. The reputation of the armed forces of the ancient Persian Empire should not be burdened by our follies, and competent historians would not speak of the two groups in the same breath, even if we charged twenty dollars a pop for our silly hats.