Historical Memory: Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan

Apparently politicians rarely learn from the mistakes of their fellow politicians.

Take Georgia state representative Tommie Benton, who on Thursday told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Ku Klux Klan “made a lot of people straighten up.”

Like this?


“I’m not saying what they did was right,” he added. “It’s just the way things were.” But he believes that the Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order.”

On Friday Democratic lawmakers struck back.

If nothing else, Representative Benton’s declaration transforms Hillary Clinton’s comments earlier this week concerning Reconstruction (and the response to them) into a minor kerfuffle.

I can’t wait for the people who whine that I talk too much about historical memory and heritage to protest that I should keep away from those subjects in favor of “safer” topics. The fact is that if this is how people remember the past, they will use those understandings in the present to shape our future … and I for one don’t care for an America in which people say that the KKK’s purpose was “to keep law and order.” Its purpose was to maintain white supremacy through violence and terrorism, and to thwart the promise of emancipation by any means necessary.

That someone characterizes an effort to denounce actual terrorism as “cultural terrorism” stuns me. That the same person also has proposed another bill that “would require streets named in honor of veterans that have been renamed since 1968 [to] revert back to their original names” suggests what a hypocrite he is when it comes to “cultural terrorism.” Clearly 1968 is no accident: it’s the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered.

You bet this is a fight over history and memory. It’s going to say much about us as a society if we celebrate domestic terrorists while mocking the struggle for liberty, equality, justice, and opportunity. And if condemning such behavior leads to critics calling me some leftist socialist Marxist fascist academic, so be it. At least then we’ll know where they are coming from.

29 thoughts on “Historical Memory: Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan

  1. Sandi Saunders January 29, 2016 / 5:31 pm

    Growing up in the South, the old “It’s just the way things were” was an oft used phrase whenever the Confederacy came up. The South let themselves off the hook for the Civil War, do you really ever expect them to own up to the terrorism of the KKK or the Jim Crow South? I don’t. Making excuses, revising, blaming the North (who was “just as bad”) is a way of life. I am very grateful for those who reject people like him, but I am also very aware that there are many people just like him.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 29, 2016 / 6:24 pm

      I really didn’t expect such a stupid remark from an elected representative. From certain Confederate heritage advocates, yes. And sooner or later some people figure it out.

      • Andy Hall January 30, 2016 / 12:50 pm

        I really didn’t expect such a stupid remark from an elected representative.


        One of the disillusionments for me as I get older is the realization that people who get elected to prominent public office are, in many cases, no wiser or more knowledgeable that the average person in the street, and sometimes are much worse. It’s hard to be optimistic — not to say, idealistic — for the future of the republic in the face elected officials like Tommy Benton or (from my own state) Louie Gohmert. Lord help us.

      • TFSmith January 30, 2016 / 11:55 pm

        Brooks – He’s a Republican in Georgia; who exactly did you expect “stupid remarks” on such topics to come from? Democrats?

          • TFSmith February 1, 2016 / 2:30 pm

            Yeah, but elected Democrats, even southern Democrats, are generally not stupid enough to try and defend the Klan…

  2. Jimmy Dick January 29, 2016 / 9:21 pm

    You won’t be alone in being called a leftist socialist Marxist fascist academic for long because I teach my students what the KKK was and still is all about. Fortunately, almost all of my students already know the KKK as being a terrorist organization of racists. If they don’t when they first meet me, they know it before the semester ends.

    I agree that this is a fight over history and memory. I am not going to let a bunch of terrorist scumbags escape justice in historical memory or in today’s reality. Let the facts speak for themselves!

    • Ken Noe January 30, 2016 / 7:34 am

      The saddest part is that this guy is a retired middle school teacher.

      • TFSmith January 31, 2016 / 12:04 am

        In Jefferson, Jackson County, (north) Georgia. Jefferson is 80 percent white.

        Not to focus on the obvious, but come on… here’s his bio:


        Not to get all social history-ish and stuff, but the cultural markers are pretty clear. He’s a sixth-generation Jackson County resident and a “life member of the National Rifle Association and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He is also active in the Military Order of the Stars and Bars…”

        He ain’t John Lewis.

  3. Andy Hall January 29, 2016 / 9:39 pm

    “I’m not saying what they did was right,” he added. “It’s just the way things were.” But he believes that the Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order.”


    The klansmen themselves claimed the same thing:

    I found out then that we need law to protect property. We do not need it to protect life; that is, among the American people. It does not take them long to organize and deal out common justice to all evil doers, as any authorized court or organized law.

    What went unsaid — because in the South it was simply understood — that the “evil doers” were generally Freedmen and -women who tried to embrace their newly-established citizenship and exercise the civil rights they now had (at least in principle), and whites who supported and encouraged them.

  4. bob carey January 30, 2016 / 6:33 am

    Based on the tone of the newspaper articles it doesn’t appear that either of Benton’s proposals will see the light of day, although a floor debate may be helpful in exposing Benton for what he is,a reactionary buffoon.
    What really irks me about this is that the Georgia House leadership refuses to denounce Benton in any way. There’s a profile in courage for you!
    Benton is identified as a retired middle school history teacher I wonder how many young minds he has poisoned with his “lost cause” blather.
    Dr. Simpson you are to be commended for your work and diligence in exposing and denouncing these closed minded fools. Keep it up!!

  5. rcocean January 31, 2016 / 7:44 pm

    From what I can tell, being called a “Cultural Marxist” is considered a compliment on most American College Campuses. As for the KKK, it certainly wasn’t a good thing, but plenty of good people joined in it the late 19th century and early 20th century, just like many New Yorkers joined the Communist Party in the 1930s for good motives. Of course, this whole Tempest in a teapot is over some pushack against the proposed erasure of Confederate memorials and holidays.

    • msb February 1, 2016 / 8:02 am

      “just like many New Yorkers joined the Communist Party in the 1930s for good motives”

      If those things are equivalent, sure you can list numbers and names of people lynched and/or burned out by Communist New Yorkers. as they used to sing on Sesame Street, “one of these things is not like the other …”

      • TFSmith February 1, 2016 / 2:31 pm

        Especially as the NYPD stood by and watched…

      • Rcocean February 2, 2016 / 10:35 am

        The Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss were communist party members. Former KKK members include Harry Truman, Hugo Black, and Senator Byrd. Like you say, one thing is not like the other.

        • TF Smith February 5, 2016 / 7:40 am

          And you are suggesting the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss were lynching their neighbors for the crime of whistling at women communists? Or that they were lynched?

          Or what, exactly?

        • Kristoffer February 5, 2016 / 10:39 am

          I doubt Truman was ever a KKK member, given his support for black civil rights.

  6. Connie Chastain February 6, 2016 / 1:17 am

    “I have seen a many patrol in my life time, but they never did have enough nerve to come on us’s place. Now the Ku Klux was different. I have ridden with them a many a time. It was the only way in them days to keep order. ” ~From the slave narrative of Prince Johnson

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 6, 2016 / 7:43 am

      How could a slave narrative describe the KKK? Think about it.

      As Prince Johnson says, “Where I was brought up, the white man knowed his place, and we knowed ours. Both of us stayed in our place, and we didn’t have no lynchings.” No wonder you like him. He knew his place. Your kind of black man.

      • Connie Chastain February 6, 2016 / 9:21 pm

        Well, I didn’t name them “Slave Narratives.” That happened before I was born.

        I also didn’t say anything about liking Prince because he claimed to know his place — or for any other reason. I quoted something he said that was pertinent to this blog post.

        You love to search for hidden motives, don’t you? And if you can’t find them, you make them up.

        • Brooks D. Simpson February 7, 2016 / 6:41 am

          What an angry, unhappy, bitter woman you are. No need to search for hidden motives when your bigotry is so transparent. Yet we can all welcome your blog falling silent … the air is cleaner and fresher now.

          It’s funny to hear you talk about fabricating hidden motives. You’re projecting again. Your blog is … was … filled with such suggestions.

          • bob carey February 8, 2016 / 6:43 pm

            It’s nice to see Connie popping up. I missed her, in a strange sort of way.

  7. Tybalt February 6, 2016 / 11:21 am

    That image is pretty gruesome. Does it depict the ruthless murders perpetrated by the citizens of Marion, Indiana, in August of 1930?

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 6, 2016 / 4:35 pm


      I’m sure you believe you have a point. Is it an effort to excuse white supremacist atrocities during Reconstruction by saying that other folks did cruel things?

      I hope you feel better now.

      • Tybalt February 7, 2016 / 1:55 pm

        No it is not. But is your reply an effort to excuse and dismiss white supremacist atrocities perpetrated against African-Americans by northern whites?

        • Brooks D. Simpson February 7, 2016 / 2:59 pm

          Nope. You need to work at picking a fight through distraction and redirection.

    • Kristoffer February 6, 2016 / 5:05 pm

      I think that fails to take into account the fact that the KKK was able to integrate itself very well into Indiana. Of course, that integration took a nosedive after the hideous murder of Madge Oberholtzer, but there were likely still Southern attitudes among the people.

      I wonder what would happen if someone took a look at the ancestries and historical attitudes of those white people who were involved in lynchings and race riots. I wonder if this would reveal the racism of both the North and South being unwittingly exported to each other by migrations of people on various scales.

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