From its establishment in the months following the Civil War by a motley assortment of disgruntled former rebels, the first Ku Klux Klan, like its many vigilante counterparts, employed terror to realize its invidious social and political aspirations. This terror assumed disparate shapes--from the storied nightriding of disguised bands on horseback, to cryptic threats, horrific assaults, and, not infrequently, murder. While students of Reconstruction have considered many facets of klan violence, (1) none to date has focused exclusively on sexual violence in its historical specificity. Yet, as the work of Catherine Clinton, (2) Laura Edwards, (3) and Martha Hodes (4) persuasively demonstrates, (5) sexuality was a critical site upon which the complex and often convoluted racial, gender, and class conflicts of the era were waged, one that must be excavated and analyzed as part of a remarkably robust and resilient system of repression.
This Article examines the calculated deployment of sexualized violence by the Reconstruction-era klans and its relationship to competing notions of justice, citizenship, and sexual propriety. Exploring what is distinctly sexual about klan terror--the sheer pervasiveness, intensity, and ideological coherence of these acts perpetrated as they were within a system of racial dominance long marked by forced sex and procreation--establishes sexualized violence as an essential aspect of the postwar Southern condition. Resonant throughout these events was the indefeasible legacy of slavery. Much as slaveowners and their minions used sexual violence and coercion in displaying and exercising mastery over their human chattel, klansmen systematically molested and violated their victims in an attempt to reinstantiate white male dominance in its antebellum form, in effect replacing the legal infrastructure of slavery that had once authorized their status with extralegal supports of their own making. Violent sex was in both of these cases a performance of status by the dominant actors and a harshly lived reality for its victims. The enduring consequences of these experiences for the freedpeople, their white sympathizers, and subsequent generations lend important insights into the nature of historical traumatization, its potency and memorialization. Although contemporary historians rightly acknowledge that former slaves strived to resist racist assault in its many guises, (6) the terror of the klans imposed formidable obstacles in the paths of many. (7) As is often the case in the study of sexual trauma, the historical record is less forthcoming about the experience of victimization and survival than it is about the actions and designs of its perpetrators. What follows is in part intended to correct that imbalance. (8)
Using the Ku Klux Klan as an exemplar, Part I of this Article provides a brief overview of the structure, functions, and objectives of postbellum white supremacist organizations. Besides being the largest and most notorious of these bodies, the Klan affords the advantages of a comparatively vast and well-trodden documentary base, the import of which will become further apparent in the following pages. Part II assesses some of the impulses, implicit and explicit, said to have motivated klan violence, in particular the klans' near-obsession with behavior it perceived as sexually transgressive on the part of blacks and whites alike. With these concerns in mind, Part III ventures upon an extended discussion of the klans' purposeful application of sexualized violence towards the realization of their racialist agenda. Through whippings, rape, lynching, genital mutilation, and other nameless tortures, these groups sought aggressively to undermine the resolve of the freedpeople and their supporters in an effort to reinvigorate a system of uncontestable white male supremacy. The objectives of klan terror, ordinarily founded on perceived violations of sexual, social, or political conventions are the subject of Part IV. It is here, where vengeance is inspired by some of the very same offenses that the terrorists themselves routinely committed, that the intricate relations of sex, violence, and klanishness (9) are perhaps most conspicuous.
The klans' reign of terror is also instructive in the perspective it offers on competing understandings of law and legal authority from the Civil War through the turn of the century. Part V takes up three such conceptions and assesses their role in the outbreak of sexual violence that beset the Reconstruction South: first, traditional legal mechanisms promulgated by overlapping federal, state, and local authorities charged with upholding the constitutional and affiliated rights of all citizens, including former slaves; second, the law of the klans, wherein klansmen interposed themselves as self-anointed defenders of a defeated social order; and, third, popular justice as it arose within the historical trajectory of American vigilantism. Although klansmen were not entirely successful in imposing their will as law, they nonetheless managed to exercise considerable sway over the populations they targeted in no small measure because of juridical failures to contain the terror swiftly and decisively, punish the guilty, and restore a semblance of order. Their immediate effectiveness aside, the legal processes brought to bear in the war against klan violence--the investigative bodies it engendered, the congressional acts it inspired, and the judicial decisions that ultimately emerged from it--helped lay the foundation of modern civil rights law. For that alone they must be regarded as enormously consequential.
Part VI interrogates the crisis of white masculinity that lay barely concealed beneath this pattern of atrocities, a crisis initiated by war-time losses and exacerbated by new laws guaranteeing racial equality that klan members were desperate to overcome. Not only had southern white men collectively suffered a catastrophic defeat in war and the concurrent destruction of their homeland, but they were further beset with fears that the emancipation of the slaves and their endowment with the rights of citizenship had left their own ranks diminished in stature. Drawing on some of the insights afforded by the growing field of trauma studies, Part VII contemplates the implications of the klans' exploitation of sexuality for the individuals, families, and communities whose lives were most directly impacted, along with the as yet unrealized capacity of law to remediate injuries of this kind. Much as the once unspeakable traumas of slavery touched the lives of those beyond its immediate grasp, (a fact starkly evinced by the current debate over slave reparations), the collective memory of klan sexual terror has persisted, contributing in intangible but nonetheless significant ways to the perpetuation of de facto subordination in the face of de jure equality.
Through a close analysis of the sexual crimes of the Reconstruction klans, this Article contends that the systematic deployment of sexualized violence against a despised population engenders extraordinary trauma that extends beyond its proximate victims to affect those who stand at a significant temporal, geographic, and imaginative remove. The klans used violent sex with design and deliberation, and they did so precisely because of its effectiveness in accomplishing their ends. This is not, however, a story of unmitigated victimization. Within the narratives that follow, and even more in the indomitable striving of generations of African Americans, there is much to inspire hope that the klans and their successors will be denied the last word. Advancing that aim demands that we recognize the disparate forms such terror has assumed, identify the sources of its potency as they are manifest in distinct historical contexts, and make creative use of the range of domestic and international laws available to undermine its capacity to harm.
THE RECONSTRUCTION-ERA KLANS
On the surface at least, the origins of the Ku Klux Klan, the first and most notorious of the Reconstruction-era klans, appear harmless enough: a handful of bored young men intent on enlivening their monotonous post-War days gathered in the town of Pulaski, Tennessee, where they formed a social club dedicated to their own amusement. (10) Common lore has it that the organization's name was derived from the Greek word kuklos, meaning "circle," with the final "klan" apparently added to enhance both its alliterative power as well as its popular mystique. (11) From the start, the Klan was a highly secretive, insular organization, (12) given to the manipulation of ritual and symbol in crafting an otherworldly identity. (13) Reflecting these predilections, its leadership devised an intricate hierarchical structure by which loosely defined geographical regions were to be overseen by officers decorated with outlandish titles from the loftiest Grand Wizard (14) down to the still regal Grand Ensign. (15) At the same time, elaborate schemes of codes, handshakes, and passwords were formulated to ensure fealty to the cause. (16) If the KKK was ever a purely recreational club, it was not so for long. With a preponderance of its membership drawn from the ranks of the former Confederate Army, embittered by the outcome of the War and the staggering transformations it had wrought, the Klan took pleasure in harassing the newly emancipated slaves and anyone else inclined to support their cause. The minacity of its practices became abundantly clear as the Klan's early attempts to frighten its self-styled antagonists by parading about in ghoulish costumes (17) precipitately degenerated into a series of violent terroristic campaigns aimed at reversing the course of Reconstruction. (18)
In the months following its inception, the Ku Klux Klan spread gradually to encompass a number of counties throughout Tennessee, making its way into the bordering regions...