he Civil War revolutionized Southern labor relations. Enslaved people fled plantations, took up arms against their brutal exploiters, and forged new political horizons. The future appeared promising.
For plantation owners, however, this transformation was a nightmare — the laborers they held in bondage had waged a “general strike,” as W. E. B. Du Bois later called it, leaving them financially vulnerable and intensely rattled. This racist, revanchist group didn’t simply mourn their defeats — they organized.
Through the Reconstruction years, the mostly planation-based Southern ruling class fiercely resisted the efflorescence of black freedom. Restrictive Black Codes, the pro-planter polices of President Andrew Johnson, racist riots in Memphis and New Orleans, and, above all, the widespread terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan brutally demonstrated the limits of emancipation. Led by former slave owners, the Klan meted out various forms of violence to prevent African Americans from voting or attending schools, intimidate northern “carpetbaggers,” and ensure, according to an undated Klan document, that freed people “continue at their appropriate labor.”
Klan chapters, spread out unevenly throughout many parts of the South, promised to address the planters’ most pressing labor problems. After learning about the organization, Nathan Bedford Forrest — the former slave trader, lead butcher at the 1864 battle at Fort Pillow, and the organization’s first Grand Wizard — expressed approval of its secrecy, activities, and goals: “That’s a good thing; that’s a damned good thing. We can use that to keep the niggers in their place.”
Keeping “them in their place” was no easy task — African Americans eagerly left farms and plantations, causing widespread labor shortages. Alfred Richardson, an African American from Georgia, observed that planters remained deeply frustrated because they were unable “to make their crop.” But the KKK proved to be one of Southern employers’ best tools for violently imposing their will.
For decades, historians have debated how best to characterize the KKK, a white supremacist terrorist organization launched by Confederate veterans that first emerged in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1866 before spreading across the South. Hundreds of thousands joined, though obtaining a detailed count of actual members is practically impossible because of the organization’s hyper-secrecy.
Yet much is not in dispute: Klansmen were closely tied to the Democratic Party and used violence — whippings, hangings, drownings, sexual violence, drive-out campaigns — against “insubordinate” African Americans and Republicans of all races. Klansmen also used “softer” forms of repression, including school and book burnings and blacklisting of northern teachers. Sometimes they mobilized to prevent African Americans from becoming educated. According to Z. B. Hargrove of Georgia, Klansmen occasionally whipped freed people “for being almost too smart.”
Racism united white members of the Klan regardless of class differences, but not all played an equal role in the organization. The Klan leadership consisted mostly of downwardly mobile plantation owners, lawyers, newspaper editors, and storeowners — those most harmed by the radical transformation of the South’s economy and labor relations.
These men were infuriated at their declining economic position and the ascension of black men to positions of political power. Newly empowered black men, North Carolina–based Klan leader Randolph Abbott Shotwell complained, had helped the federal government strike down “the rights of the master” and disfranchise “a large proportion of the ablest and best men in the naturally dominated race.”
Resentful elites like Shotwell and Forrest were determined to reestablish their power. Abundant evidence suggests that the Reconstruction-era Klan functioned like an employers’ association with goals that, in some ways, resembled the aims of other anti-labor business organizations.
Klan leaders demanded that the black masses perform one function: engage in tiring, brutally intense forms of labor that resembled pre–Civil War plantation life. Klansmen sought to prevent African American from departing worksites, taking part in political meetings, pursuing education, accessing firearms, or joining organizations meant to challenge their exploiters. As one observer from Georgia told a congressional investigation committee in 1871, “I think their purpose is to control the State government and control the negro labor, the same as they did under slavery.”