Klan Violence/Local Violence in Reconstruction-Era Union County: A Social Network Analysis

Elaine Frantz Parsons, History, Duquesne University

Research Grant, 2009

I have completed a book manuscript, The Ku-Klux and the Reconstruction of American Culture, which I expect to come out in 2016, a few months before the 150th anniversary of the reconstruction-era Klan’s beginnings. The book is a new analysis of the reconstruction-era Ku-Klux Klan. It explores the relationship between the idea of the Klan that circulated through the popular media and the ways in which that translocal idea of the Klan became embodied within particular local rural southern cultures of violence.

I make four new claims about the Klan. First, I argue that the Ku-Klux was entirely dependent upon and in large part produced by its representation in northern newspapers and other popular cultural texts. I claim secondly that despite the fact that Klansmen, their supporters, and journalists writing about them often used deliberately reactionary rhetoric, and despite the fact that many actions of Klansmen were intended to and did work to restore the social, political, and economic forms of the antebellum period, contemporary rural white Southerners often experienced the Klan as a modernizing process through which they could learn, appropriate, and inhabit cultural forms from the urban North. Third, this collaborative national discourse about the Ku-Klux became a terrain of sectional reconciliation and the construction of a shared set of political understandings between North and South. My fourth argument reconsiders how these nationally circulating ideas about the Klan landed in local communities, showing how the Klan fit itself into and relabeled existing local patterns of violence and conflict.

The level and amount of violence increased dramatically with the Klan, but the perpetrators and victims of violence largely remained continuous through the period.

The research supported by the HFG grant is the basis of Chapter Six, “The Ku-Klux and the Social Structure of Union County, South Carolina,” which is the backbone of my fourth claim. This chapter explains what, structurally, happened to patterns of violence in Union County when the Klan emerged there in 1868 and then again in 1870. The level and amount of violence increased dramatically with the Klan, but the perpetrators and victims of violence largely remained continuous through the period. That is, the Klan period, generally, did not result in the mobilization of a new class of politically motivated violent actors but in a relabeling of existing violent actors as Klansmen and in an increase in their social prestige, centrality, and in a proliferation of their violent behavior. There were two incidents which were notable exceptions to this: the two deadly jail raid executions conducted by large groups of socially elite Klansmen. The chapter argues, though, that even in these cases, the elites are working in collaboration with existing groups of local thugs, particularly those engaged in the county’s vice industries, and that Klan violence continued, rather than breaking from, existing local patterns of violence.

The arguments in this chapter are based in the network analysis supported by the HFG grant. The grant enabled me to devote substantial time to using the techniques of historical network analysis, to transforming my database into a form usable by network analysis software, to collaborating with network analysis mathematicians including Patrick Dorian, Patrick Juola, and Hossein Azari Soufiani, and to learning both Pajek and Gephi software. My network of relationships among the more than 5,000 people who were named in criminal indictments in Union County, South Carolina, from 1852 to 1878 allows me to provide a substantially richer sense of who Klansmen and their victims were, and how they fit into their local communities than has been possible before for any reconstruction-era community.

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