Allen W. Trelease,
White Terror:
The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy
& Southern Reconstruction

(HarperCollins, 1971;
Louisiana State University Press, 1995)

Allen Trelease makes a monumental effort to describe the Reconstruction-era Klan from his temporal location in 1970. This academic work is invaluable in that it is the best and only source of all major Klan activity from the end of the War for Southern Independence to the end of Radical Reconstruction -- Trelease follows the Klan chronologically, focusing on hotbeds of activity in all regions of the South. This is important because different motivations and activities defined each local incidence of Klan activity.

Sadly, Trelease fails to take advantage of his unique position, in which he could have written a scholarly, enlightening portrait of the many facets of Klan activities and Klan members. Instead, predictably, Trelease resorts to seeking out examples that support his own cries of conspiracy and terrorism. He gives no credence to stories of the defensive nature of the Reconstruction Klan, choosing to argue that the Klan was a terrorist organization seeking white supremacy, a conspiracy penetrating all aspects of white society to the point of subverting local justice. White violence, he asserts, was racially motivated, usually carried out by mobs and almost always directed against blacks. He dismisses out of hand such motivating factors as illegal moonshining and Democratic-Republican political differences among whites and gives short shrift to cases of white-on-white violence.

He relies heavily on the KKK Congressional Report and testimony of 1871 and on legislative acts dealing with the Klan, often failing to place these "facts" within the true social context of their origins. While admitting that the existence of the Union League served as a stimulus to the birth and growth of the Klan, he maintains that the Union League had no connections to violence, a tenuous (indeed laughable) position to take. While stressing white supremacy as the one major motivation of the Klan, he subverts this message by continually denigrating the Klan for its overriding political aspects. When he acknowledges the fact that some Klan leaders sought law and order, he continues to accuse even these men of politically motivated violence. Trelease, while giving lip service to the existence of many independent "clans" and undisciplined individual acts, seeks to implicate the Klan in all cases of violence in the Reconstruction South.

While this work is probably the most valuable resource available on Reconstruction-era Klan activity (due to the wealth of information it contains), it is also a major failure. Trelease had a golden opportunity to examine the real depths of the different motivations that went into Klan activity and violence (which, despite what Trelease implies, was not engaged in by every white man in the South), but he resorted to a myopic view of events and a decidedly shallow condemnation of a decidedly fluid, far from cohesive society, which he never really tried hard enough to understand.

by Daniel Jolley
1 October 2005

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