In the post-Civil War era, published news was accessible to the citizens of the United States more than it had ever been before, allowing stories to travel across the nation at a rapid pace. In the South during this time period, the Ku Klux Klan was committing horrid acts of violence against Republicans and African Americans to maintain the atmosphere of white superiority. Papers in the North and South exposed every aspect of the violence, allowing the American people to witness the racism run rapid in murderous ways. Even though published news was a way for African Americans to advocate for their rights, the Klan could never have evolved as much as it without the aid of national news coverage and lack of federal government involvement.
Although public press allowed American citizens to experience news in ways, they had never been able to before the Civil War, the exposure of stories about the Ku Klux Klan flourished, and its racist propaganda spread in the South and the entire country. The four main Northern papers that centralized a majority of their stories around Klan involvement were the Chicago Times, the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, the New York Times, and the New York Tribune By the year 1873, over 3,000 articles about the Klan were printed by these papers; consequently, published news played a, “crucial role in the shaping and proliferation of the idea of the Klan.” The first news story that was reported on was the killing of a black man named Orange Rhodes by the New York Tribune, on January 18, 1868. Within a few days, more articles were printed by other agencies, and the Klan had been named “riot” to “gang” to “organization.” Minimal details about the victims were revealed to the public, such as their name, race, and political affiliation, while a majority of the story focused on the Klan organization itself.
As stated in the Ku-Klux in the National Press, “newspapers had a particular fascination with secret organization elements,” that led to fascination within the public, which in turn promoted the growth of violence, and ultimately gave more power to the organization. Both Klan violence and the speed and volume at which news traveled escalated at the same time at a national level. The violence that occurred in the South was a direct consequence of the coverage the Klan received from national press, which only fueled more attacks and murders. During this time period, the KKK was crowned an “organization,” and there was thought to be thousands of members of this “empire,” and this was only possible through the actions of the media.
Because of the frequencies of the attacks on Republicans and freed people, there was an extreme amount of information circulating in the press which forced most of the papers to claim a neutral position. The stories had begun, “to take on a life of their own,” and readers had to decide how much of the information they were receiving was accurate and consider the real position of the papers they were reading. A great deal of skepticism was created around the idea of the Klan because it, “never was entirely settled even in mainstream public discourse.” In addition to the constant fear and skepticism during the time of Reconstruction, Black newspapers surfaced in order to advocate for their newly found rights and the victims of the crimes. Elaine Parsons, Klan Skepticism and Denial in Reconstruction-Era Public Discourse.
Published news was a way for African Americans to empower each other through the active racism running rapid in the South and protest to the crimes committed by the Klan.
Much of the information and stories circulating the country focused on how the government was handling the acts of the Klan rather than how the Klan’s acts were targeted toward African Americans. This lack of focus lead to more suppression of the freed people and provided another reason to publish news regarding their own community. Even though the violence was directed towards freed people and progressive Republicans, the stories were never centralized around the victims, contributing to the growing fascination of the Klan. The first black public press that was founded was the Freedom’s Journal, in New York City. Much of the African American population was illiterate because they were not taught how to read as slaves, which forced the publishers to target support of the white population as well.
During the Reconstruction era, the South had many black publications surface that were less focused on a flourishing business and more centralized on advocating for equal rights. There was hope for progression in the social movement toward equalizing rights in the lives of freed people during the Reconstruction era, but it quickly diminished when the federal government withdrew their troops that were overseeing the South in 1877. This action promoted physical acts of racism all throughout the southern states, such as lynchings and beatings; consequently, in response to the violence and intimidation tactics, African Americans called on each other to protest what was happening to them, including the support of newspapers. Unlike Northern white papers, newspapers published by African Americans directly addressed the, “southern racial policies and called for federal aid to protect black citizens and their rights.”
Papers in the South gave an underlying view that these “organized” and “violent” crimes were separate incidences that could not be claimed as political and were just part of routine crime in the South. Newspapers greatly exaggerated the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, such as claiming the organization had the ability to influence and control the, “Associated wire press or the national Democratic Party.” However, even though the information presented in the press was primarily concerned with the rapidly occurring violence, there was a lack of description of organizational infrastructure of the group. The national press implemented the idea that the organization was recruiting members well into the thousands without ever reporting evidence of accounting for that many individuals, creating a theme of skepticism within the public.
Between the years 1868-1872, Klan violence was at the center of national publication, and during those years the government devoted some federal resources by stationing their troops in the southern states but failed to discover direct Klan existence and did not successfully put an end to the murders. The attacks and threats committed on Republicans and African Americans consisted of, “corpses, bullet wounds, and necks chafed raw,” yet there was no discoveries made by the federal government that led to real consequences and permanent arrests; furthermore, federal agents were even found responsible for moving pictures of KKK uniforms and bodies they had come into contact with to be put on display around the country.
Newspapers also had motive to be in the national spotlight, which is another reason why they reported on Klan activity. For example, Horace Greeley’s Tribune, from New York, received information and their sources from information networks in southern cities, and their goal was to expose the ignorance occurring in Congress about lack of serious federal involvement.Republicans in Congress argued for more employment and distribution of police to try and contain breakouts of violence, but Democrats heavily disagreed claiming the acts of violence could not be declared as strictly political.
While published news committed to the idea of exposing the country to as much information on the Klan as it could, it also fueled the spread of Klan propaganda. The change in the way mainstream news was received by the public and the start of Klan violence coincided with each other, creating a continuous cycle. The more attention the organization got, the more crimes it committed. Lack of serious federal government involvement only contributed to the rising crimes in the South, and the thought that the infrastructure of the Klan was an elite heavily numbered empire.
- O’Kelly, Charlotte G. ‘Black Newspapers and the Black Protest Movement: Their Historical
- Relationship, 1827-1945.’ Phylon (1960-) 43, no. 1 (1982): 1-14. Accessed April 20, 2020. doi:10.2307/274595.
- Parsons, Elaine Frantz. ‘Klan Skepticism and Denial in Reconstruction-Era Public Discourse.’
- The Journal of Southern History 77, no. 1 (2011): 53-90. Accessed April 20, 2020.www.jstor.org/stable/27919387.
- Parsons, Elaine Frantz. ‘The Ku-Klux in the National Press.’ In Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klanduring Reconstruction, 144-80. University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Accessed April20, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469625430_parsons.7.