A couple of peep-holes in the pillowcase and off we go a-lynching

Ian Hamilton

  • Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of the Ku Klux Klan of the Twenties by David Horowitz
    Southern Illinois, 191 pp, £39.95, July 1999, ISBN 0 8093 2247 1

For quite a few of us, I’d guess, the name Ku Klux Klan suggests a rather creepy style of nightwear. When, as a boy, I first saw pictures of those Deep South nocturnalists in their crazy all-white strip, I had the notion that they had just sprung from their Alabaman slumbers, roused maybe by a sudden seizure of race-hatred, and had simply grabbed the nearest uniform that came to hand. A couple of peep-holes in the pillowcase and off we go a-lynching, so to speak. For a Northern English kid whose Beano routinely dressed its ghosts in bedsheets, these gangs of white-garbed spooks on horseback fitted easily into one’s line-up of night terrors. At the same time, though, they were nothing like as spooky as my Beano visitants. After all, I wasn’t black. Well, not black-skinned.

Later on, of course, in my school Liberal Studies classes, I came to a fuller understanding of what these Klansmen were really all about. Even so, I didn’t know much about them, except that they were the baddest of the bad. When, still later on, in Cinema Studies, I was invited to applaud as a masterpiece D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, I found myself perplexed by the film’s evident admiration for a movement I was by then accustomed to deplore. I could see that hordes of fully togged-out Klansmen rampaging across open plains were immensely cinematic and all that, but Griffith wasn’t like Leni Riefenstahl, a recurrent conundrum in our adolescent Life v. Art debates. He hadn’t merely been sucked in by the visuals, which seemed to be the tale with Leni. Griffith had a genuine feeling for what those uniforms were up to. He harboured dreams that ‘the former enemies of North and South’ might be ‘united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright’. For him, the Klan was ‘the organisation that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule’.

Birth of a Nation was based on a novel called The Clansman by Thomas Dixon (whose own persistent dream was ‘to prevent the lowering of the standard of our citizenship by its mixture with Negro blood’) and was first screened in 1915, by which date the Klan itself had been formally defunct for more than four decades and was pretty well assimilated into the whole panoply of Civil War nostalgia. The original Klansmen – c. 1866 – had projected themselves as the spirits of the Confederate dead, returned from the battlefields, and had their own ways of defining Reconstruction. They were, literally, the spirit – or spirits – of the South. Hence the spook-sheets, and hence, too, the other Klan accessories, like skulls hanging from the horses’ saddles. The original Klan nags, it seems, also got to wear bedsheets, and their hoofs were always muffled, in order to enhance the effect of visible invisibility. My boyhood picture of hurried midnight robings was made to look pretty silly as I learned more about the Klan’s obsession with ponderous ceremonial: its secret code-words, its handshakes and parades – not to mention the cross burnings which seemed to feature at key moments in its night-time frolics. And then, of course, there were the lynchings, for which Klan nighties doubled as judicial robes.

On top of all this, there were the various mad names the Klansmen gave themselves, to denote ranks within the organisation. The overall top man was called Grand Wizard of the Invisible Empire, and immediately beneath him were ten Genii. If a Klansman was in charge of a whole state (or, in Klanspeak, ‘realm’), he called himself a Grand Dragon, if you please, and his assistants were called Hydra. At a grassroots level, neighbourhood set-ups were called Dens, or Klaverns. The bossman of each Den was an Exalted Cyclops and his humble Klansmen gofers were called Ghouls.

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