OR, HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE KLAN
THE FOX NEWS OF THE 1860s?
In The Tragic Era, Claude Bowers offered a biased and virtually mythical retelling of the Reconstruction period that glorified the brave and patient Southerners as it condemned the greedy Yankees and their willing dupes, the lazy freedmen. Bowers described Republican leadership of generally being "brutal, hypocritical and corrupt." They treated the Constitution as a doormat, and the Supreme Court was treated with "ineffable contempt." In the Bowers version of Reconstruction, "the Southern people literally were put to the torture" and "historians have shrunk from the unhappy task of showing us the torture chambers."
The same book describes the formation of the Klan as an understandable effort to lighten the mood during that unhappy Christmas Eve of 1865 right after the war. "Let's start something to break the monotony and cheer up our mothers and girls. Let's start a club of some kind."
Other influential books by scholars such as William Dunning and future president Woodrow Wilson also promoted the White Supremacist myth and would provide similar examples. For a hundred years or more, these myths, — based on Southern rationalizations and racist interpretations — formed the basis of the mainstream view of Reconstruction. In general, the myth goes something like this: Immediately after the Civil War, the white people of the South earnestly sought to cooperate with the victorious North. Realizing that the freedmen could not survive on their own because of their obvious inferiority (as ordained by God), the Southerners had to impose the Black Codes to protect all Southerners, black and white, from the anarchy that would result from black equality. Arrogant (and greedy) Northerners exploited the gullibility of the freedmen and negated the new governments, imposed Congressional Reconstruction, defrauded the innocent Southerners and encouraged the unruly blacks to commit impudent acts. Carpetbaggers were the scum of the North, ignorant and illiterate and interested only in the riches they could extort from the South with the help of the Union Army and its unruly black regiments. The Ku Klux Klan emerged merely as a defensive organization, to protect white women and children from the violent blacks. Incidents of violence by the Klan were greatly exaggerated, and those few excesses that did happen should be attributed to poor white trash pretending to be the Klan.
In 21st-century America, we may again be watching as a new mythology slowly develops, a world where an ex-alcoholic Republican president who went AWOL during the Vietnam War and frequently refuses to deny drug use in his youth can be portrayed as a morally superior politician, even compared to Winston Churchill. His opponent’s combat service can be cynically twisted into an exercise in cowardice, his participation in a protest movement — actually trying to enjoy the alleged rights he fought for in Vietnam — was twisted in a clearly dishonest manner into a "betrayal" of the troops. Media critics claim that Rupert Murdoch’s much-maligned Fox News has endured a certain amount of criticism for its role in current divisions in the political environment. Fox News, according to its detractors, has employed a number of tactics to distort the news and push its far right-wing agenda. Conservatives have far more exposure, and liberals are always portrayed in the worst possible light, with few effective forums for rebuttal. The critics of Fox News claim that, at its worst, the organization repeatedly distorts events, leaves out material that does not support the right-wing agenda, and expresses its opinions as facts for the benefit of a conservative audience that happily gobbles it up uncritically.
Though Fox News is the first organ of broadcast journalism to be sensationalist and partisan to such a degree, print journalism has a long history of such bias and partisanship. The press in the early years of the republic usually divided into two main factions, with frequent reorganizations as parties fell apart and the citizens of the nations reconsidered their loyalty. The South, especially after 1830, tended to have a press that was particularly biased as the newspapers became a major weapon in the war of words over slavery. The enslavement of the black man was a good thing, the white people of the South were bravely and unselfishly caring for the helpless negro as part of God’s divine plan. Every event had to be rationalized and interpreted to support this point of view.
The War Between the States changed a lot of things in the dynamics of political power, but the Southern press remained devoted to white supremacy, and their coverage of the events of Reconstruction are marked by distortion, omission, exaggeration and falsification to support several views necessary to the white Southern worldview. An examination of the Natchez newspapers reveals an early distribution of the falsehoods that would become the myths of Reconstruction, notoriously popularized for a later generation by the film Birth of a Nation.
In the preface to The Tragic Era, Dunning stated: "In the effort to re-create the atmosphere and temper of the times, I have made free use of the newspapers of the times.” Certainly, the newspapers, and the news media in general, are a potent force for manipulation and information. The Natchez press, like most Southern newspapers from 1865 to 1877, played its part in creating the myths of Reconstruction.
Before the war, two major papers had operated in Natchez, rivals for almost thirty years. One of these papers, the Democratic Mississippi Free Trade, folded during the war and was not revived. The other paper, The Natchez Courier, was published sporadically during the war, and it was even operated by the US military during the Union occupation. Giles Hillyer, who had edited the Courier for over ten years before the war, returned to the paper after serving as an officer in the Confederate army. The voters of Mississippi sent Hillyer to the legislature in the new Mississippi government in 1865, where he distinguished himself as an advocate of the Black Code. He proposed that the freedmen should not be allowed to own land because "nests of negro colonies would at once be formed round every city, town and village, whose occupants would alone be supported by theft or other crime." Under Hillyer, the Courier would often vilify and denigrate the freedmen, and deny that they could ever be citizens. Hillyer’s failing health forced him to give up the Courier in 1868, and he died in Vicksburg in 1871. The Courier died the same year, as the new owners could not make it profitable.
Fabius Mead started the Natchez Democrat in the fall of 1865, and this paper enjoyed considerably more success. It is still published today, even though it has changed its editorial policies since 1865. Mead sold the Democrat to Paul Botto and J.W. Lambert early in 1866, and these two men operated the major newspaper that reflected and shaped the opinions of Natchez through Reconstruction and into the 1880s. Like Hillyer, Botto had served in the Confederate Army and was active in politics. Both men served as delegates from Adams County to the state convention in Jackson in 1866. Also serving in the same delegation were W.W.W. Wood, who had edited the Free Trader in 1861 just before its demise, and Thomas Grafton, who would later be listed as assistant editor for the Democrat.
The Democrat has been the major source for my study the Reconstruction press of Natchez. William Harris in The Day of the Carpetbagger cited an editorial by "the moderate editor of the Natchez Democrat." As I read these articles, I do not find it comforting that these statements are from a moderate Mississippi newspaper, and I doubt that the freedmen found it comforting at all.
The Natchez press continuously employed insulting or degrading language to refer to the freedmen. "Why don’t they rekonstruct the niggers if they are goin to?" asked columnist Bill Arp. "I’ll bet a possum that some of ‘em steal my wood this winter or freeze to death."
An editorial from January 1866 claims "the negro is now like the school boy, just released from the restraint of school; he finds himself free and must have his play." The same editorial predicts "the child is already born who will behold the last negro in the state of Mississippi." The blacks are "a race recognized by the American people and the highest tribunal in the land to be an INFERIOR RACE of beings."
The paternalism that characterized the days of slavery never leaves the white Southerners, and they continue to play the victim, the wronged party, and pretend to be doing the freedmen a favor when they agree to hire them again, even after they have dared to consort with Northerners who have filled their heads with silly ideas of equality, as in this editorial from Novermber 18, 1867, titled "To the Colored People":
The negroes will now have an opportunity to look back and see what they have done, and how much they have been profited or injured by the leaders whom they have so blindly followed. Sometimes of late, when we have thought of the determined obstinacy, amounting almost to dogged sullenness, which the colored people of this county (with but very few honorable exceptions) have displayed in putting away from them every particle of good advice offered them by the newspapers and the well disposed people of the county, and the avidity with which they have embraced the seditious and turbulent teachings of a score or more of political mushrooms who have been nurtured into noxious growth among us, we have been almost tempted to harbor ill will against the negro. But then, when we considered their ignorance, their former conditioned, their conduct and disposition in times past, and thought of their now utter helplessness, we have been, and now are, disposed to view the negroes, as the mere unwitting instruments in the hands of unprincipled spoil-seekers, men who pursue their devilish designs with an energy and recklessness almost unparalleled — men whose utter disregard of honor, right and justice, would, in times of good government, render them fit subjects for the gallows.
The Natchez newspapers sadly show no desire for compromise or humanity in addressing the rights of the liberated black man. The writer of this editorial from September 1866 justifies the Black Code, and dishonestly tries to clarify that natural rights are all that are secured by the Constitution and the Thirteenth Amendment:
It is argued that though the negro has no political rights and is not a part of the body politic, he has natural and personal rights which involve every political right but that of voting. He may, by his personal and natural rights, own real estate, may sue and be sued, may marry, may own any kind of personal property, and, in short, is precisely upon the level of a citizen in all but one little matter. Why, then, was it necessary for the legislature to make an express law giving him the right to appear in the courts, to marry lawfully, & c.?
The fact is, the free negro is a stranger and an alien to the commonwealth, and has, strictly, no legal rights except those given him by law. He has the natural and personal right to bear such arms as nature gave him, and no law attempts to deprive him of them. The State has the right to protect every one of its members, and if it is believed to be dangerous to allow negroes to carry deadly weapons it is the duty of the State to prohibit it.
Blacks in government are also subjected to more than their share of ridicule. "As legislatures, their ignorance can only breed corruption, and of the eighty-four colored lawmakers of South Carolina, two-thirds could hardly read or write their own names." And an item from October 1868 pretends to offer up an actual transcript highlighting "Our Colored Rulers," with some comic Sambo dialect helpfully provided, in the Georgia Assembly: "Mr. Clower (negro) took the stump to inaugurate some new ideas. 'Mr. Speaker, dis is a constitutional question. I never thought I’d ever be a lawyer but I’m here studyin' law in de Legislatur hall. I learns law here. You want to turn us out on de same principles dat you used to turn us out o’ de kitchen. Black color is de puttiest color in de world. Why do you war black close? Because you know, gemmen, it’s de puttiest color.'"
On the subject of the carpetbaggers, the Natchez newspapers continuously published negative articles about the corruption of Northern politicians and businessmen who had come to the South, offering exaggerated and fabricated versions of well-known figures like Governor Holden of North Carolina and Louisiana governor David Warmoth. A Natchez figure not so well known is George St. Clair Hussey, who managed the city’s board of health, very successfully, according to William C. Harris. The Natchez Democrat, however, reprinted an article from an Iowa newspaper that accused Hussey of many crimes and indiscretions. Hussy had been "shorn of his clerical robes in [the Lutheran] church an account of his alleged intrigues with lewd women" and later he was "the agent of certain swindling companies." He swindles $600 to start a newspaper in Keokuk, Iowa, another failed effort, and as justice of the peace, he stole the school fund. In Chicago, posing as a Bible salesman, he defrauded a Methodist publishing house of $900, and during the war, he ran a fake charity ostensibly to help the displaced former slaves of Memphis, but he sold the clothes he had collected to a dealer in St. Louis, and set up a saloon and bawdy house in Memphis.
Hussey sued publishers Botto and Lambert for libel, but the case was dismissed. Maybe the allegations against Hussey were true, but so many of the criminal portraits of more prominent carpetbaggers can easily proven to be false that we have to cautious about accepting the validity of the Democrat’s attack on Hussey. In May 1868, the Democrat reprinted an article from the St. Louis Republican entitled "Carpet Baggers" that had some harsh words for the Northern Republicans: "From this city alone, there has gone forth a full battalion of needy adventurers to try their fortunes in the new dominion of Niggerdom. In every instance these men were played out at home – unable to obtain a livelihood here ... and so badly off in points of moral character as to make their removal from our midst a cause for hearty rejoicing." Among the individuals targeted is David Warmoth, "fraudulently elected Governor of Louisiana by the negro vote," according to the article. A number of accusations are leveled at Warmoth, including "Treasury defalcations." Current’s Those Terrible Carpetbaggers sets the record straight on Warmoth, citing specific exaggerations of his enemies. The same book largely clears North Carolina governor Holden, whose impeachment the Democrat reported on gleefully. So it is understandable if the modern historian casts a dubious eye on passages that claim "there is a total prostration, a growing antipathy to the Government, a feeling, rapidly gaining ground, of unutterable loathing of the North, in the ten magnificent States no controlled by the Freedman’s Bureau and presumptuous shoulder-straps. In those States to be intelligent and human is to be proscribed."
At the same time these newspapers slandered the carpetbaggers, they denied or minimized the crimes of the Ku Klux Klan. The Democrat quotes the editor of the New York Times, who toured the South in the spring of 1871. "A diligent search for the Ku-Klux organization was not productive of success, yet that some such thing exists no sane man can deny ... the good citizens of Georgia are as ignorant of such an organization, and as much opposed to such lawless societies, if there be such, as President Grant, Mr. Greeley, or Reverend H.W. Beecher ... Every true Southerner scorns entering any such secret club ... and he is now willing to unite with honest men everywhere in sustaining a union of co-equal States under the Constitution."
In April, the Democrat published a statement from the Grand Cyclops of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan "repudiating the notices of a vindictive character that have been issued in the name of that mysterious brotherhood." The Ku Klux Klan is characterized as "peaceful and charitable in it objects" and many actions have been perpetrated by "a few abject but evil-minded men here and there" who "gladly lend the aid of their vicious faculties in perverting the usages of the Klan (of which they really know nothing) into a weapon for the perpetration of designs as pernicious as they are reprehensible." In that same month — April 1868 — the Democrat published an article on the Klan taken from the Memphis Bulletin that provided some information on the organization and initiation rituals of the Klan and, most importantly, offered a few words on the Klan’s mission: "The object of this organization is for the purpose of protecting the people of the South from the band of murderers and robbers now preying upon them, even to the last resort — assassination — and we pledge ourselves one to the other that nothing shall be allowed to deviate us from this noble object."
In October 1868, the Democrat reported "the worst Ku Klux outrage we ever heard of" as an incident at a Grant speech where an Irishman wanted to hear more when the candidate had finished. "Say more, say more," he shouted. The Radicals thought he was shouting, "Seymour," the name of the Democratic candidate. They called him an "infernal Irish Copperhead" and "fell upon him and beat the poor fellow almost to death before he could explain what he meant." Another Ku-Klux "outrage" was reported in April of 1871, when "a steamboat captain would ... not allow Fred. Douglass to sit at the table ... The story is that because Fred couldn’t eat, the Commission wouldn’t, and the party arrived half-starved at the Federal City."
The Democrat continued its dismissive nature of the Klan with this short item from 1871: "As a natural result of the discovery by Dr. Davis, of the Iuka Gazette, that there were one hundred and fifty thousand bloody Ku-Klux in a cave in Tishomingo, we are now informed that there are in Jackson several agents of fertilizing firms making contracts for the early delivery of dead Radicals and negro children in lots of a thousand or more." I assume they were just funning. Ha ha.
I searched the available issues of the Democrat in vain for recognition of the real violence in Jackson County, Florida, where almost 200 blacks and Republicans were murdered in a three-year period, or the violence in Kemper County in Mississippi on the Alabama border where 35 blacks were killed from 1896 to 1871. In December of 1869, the Democrat acknowledged a single death in Kemper County, that of Joshua Ball, but claimed he was "shot by the negro Ku Klux."
How is Fox News like the Reconstruction press? Its critics charge that Fox News has a point of view that it puts across using many of the same tactics I have just described as typical of the Reconstruction press. They say that Fox News is often very selective in what it chooses to report. Fox News reported extensively on negative aspects of John Kerry’s Vietnam service even though their sources were, in the view of media critics have since been largely discredited. But Fox News seldom reports on the many allegations of corruption among Iraq contractors with suspiciously close ties to the administration, or other stories that may portray Republicans in a bad light. Critics also charge that the organization also emphasizes stories that indicate hostility to religion or to combat soldiers, even if Fox has to exaggerate or falsify the events to make the point.
Fox News also fabricates events, such as fake news story on its Web site that quoted Kerry bragging about his manicure and his hair. It never happened and the story was quickly removed. Fox News has also edited video of Howard Dean, removing several seconds from a Dean statement to make it appear that he was accusing the Bush administration of purposely planning the September 11 attacks.
Fox News has been accused of presenting the president as a great statesman, ignoring his barely passable command of the English language at the same time it rationalizes his frequent difficulties with the truth. Many Democrats and liberals feel the entire Administration frequently gets a pass. Legitimate criticism of the president is always characterized as whining or treason. On Fox News, it is perfectly acceptable to equate any presidential critic as an ally of Osama bin Laden or North Korea. False statements from commentators are passed off as opinion, if they are challenged at all.
The legacy of the Reconstruction myth should be plainly visible to us all. Blacks were quickly deprived of the rights they had gained during Congressional Reconstruction and Jim Crow ruled the South until the 1960s. The myths of Reconstruction, the glorification of the Klan, the denigration of the blacks and the Republicans provided justifications for violence and repression for a century. Second-class citizenship for such a large group of people weakened the South, and ultimately the entire country, because of the energy devoted to forcefully acquire that which is self-evident; that all men are created equal. Across the entire country, this suspicion remains, and we are the weaker for it.
If the critics are correct, what shall be the legacy of the lies and distortions of Fox News? At best they will continue and probably increase the polarization of this country, as the audience for Fox News continues to believe so many lies that demonize those who oppose the Bush administration. This element of society that opposes the Bush administration can only become more suspicious of every word that emanates from Fox News and every motive of the politicians who benefit from Fox News, which they view as a Republican propaganda machine. The long term legacy of these suspicions is not comforting to contemplate in the best frame of mind. A truly pessimistic observer of this trend will surely fear for the future of America if Fox News continues on a course that is viewed by a large segment of society as inflammatory and dishonest.
Natchez Courthouse Records Project, Chancery and Circuit Court Records, 1867 -1868
Bowers, Claude G. The Tragic Era: The Revolution after Lincoln. Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1929.
Current, Richard Nelson. Those Terrible Carpetbaggers: A Reinterpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Dunning, William A. Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction and Related Topics. Originally published in 1897. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971.
Garner, James W. Reconstruction in Mississippi. Originally published in 1901. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1964.
Harris, William C. The Day of the Carpetbagger. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Harris, William C. Presidential Reconstruction in Mississippi. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1967.
Randel, William Peirce. The Ku Klux Klan: A Century of Infamy. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965.
Stampp, Kenneth. The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1975.
Wilson, Woodrow. A History of the American People. Originally published in 1901. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co., 1931.