Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
After the American Civil War destroyed racial slavery, the United States South was faced with the prospect of reconstructing its political, economic, and social systems. Many southerners, white as well as black, embraced the opportunity to establish a democratic biracial political system grounded in black citizenship. More conservative white southerners, however, rejected the idea that African Americans could be equal participants in the body politic. Rather than seeking to recreate slavery, they desired a new kind of racial hierarchy, one that still put white over black but which had new codes of racial behavior and mechanisms through which racial oppression operated. To achieve this goal, thousands of conservative white southern men across the South joined the Ku Klux Klan, which had been founded in Tennessee in 1866. As Republican power increased, and as black citizenship was secured through constitutional amendments, members of the Ku Klux Klan began committing acts of vigilante violence against those people--black and white, men and women--they saw as violating the racial behavior that would define the new racial hierarchy they wanted to replace the system of slavery. This dissertation uses the case studies of North and South Carolina to analyze the men who joined the Ku Klux Klan, the violence they committed, and the new racial order they sought to build. It asserts that membership in the Klan served as a crucible within which many conservative white southern men, of varying ages and class standing, worked out how they wanted race to function in postemancipation America. Simultaneously, membership in the Klan acclimated those men to the use of vigilante violence as the chief means of enforcing their ideas about race. The violence they committed against hundreds of victims in the Carolinas had lasting political, economic, and social consequences, working to prefigure the system of racial oppression that would eventually come to structure the American South: Jim Crow segregation.