Thursday, March 21, 2013

Klansville, USA

While driving back to NY for Presidents’ Day Weekend, my mom and I tuned in to Terry Gross’ Fresh Air on NPR. She was interviewing author David Cunningham on his newly released book, Klansville, USA: The Rise And Fall Of The Civil Rights-Era Klu Klux Klan. Beginning with an old recording, which is described as one of the “popular original songs played at North Carolina Klan rallies,” Cunningham traces through a historical overview of the KKK and their power amongst southern states during the civil rights movement. Listen to the recording of the interview provided on NPR’s website and you will hear this song within the first couple of minutes. Be warned, it is extremely disturbing.

I wanted to share this with all of you because it is a part of civil rights history that we have yet to discuss. I think that this is a difficult topic to talk about for many reasons. For me, I feel as if most of what I know about the KKK is from movies or television. We briefly discussed Django Unchained earlier this semester, but Tarantino’s portrayal of the Klan in this film completely rubbed me the wrong way. I understand that he was going for humor in the scene with Jonah Hill, but it made light of the horrific real life attacks of the KKK (

In this Fresh Air interview the author discusses the rise of the white supremacist group during the civil rights era and how they targeted black Southerners. “At first, the KKK's aims bent toward amusement, especially the playing of ‘pranks’ on local black residents… Groups of klansmen would embark on nighttime rides, paying unwelcome visits to black families.” These outings were not simply for the harmless pleasure of Klan members, explains Cunningham, they were an attempt to implement tactics of the antebellum patrol system. “Like those slave patrols, early klan activity maintained racial subjugation by terrorizing the black population. In much of the Reconstruction-era South, black freed persons remained subject to curfews limiting free assembly and especially the formation of schools. Klan members would beat and whip violators of such racial codes.”

The goal of the KKK was to instill fear in the black community, and, to ultimately, eliminate their human rights. The song that Gross plays at the beginning of this segment may be seen as a form of expression, some may even call it music… But in contrasting those horrifically disturbing and hateful words to the poetry, music, and art we have looked at in class, one can better appreciate the civil rights movement. Its leaders and activists attacked racism with confidence, compassion, and a love for humanity that completely counteracted the mission of the KKK. The anger and desire of black activists to see what they believed to be a better America was turned into beautiful paintings, momentous speeches, and unforgettable songs, not murder and fear. 


  1. I am glad you have addressed this topic, Molly, as I think so far in the course we have not looked enough at the extremist backlash to black freedom movements.

    Your discussion of 'Django Unchained' is interesting and I hope to discuss this film later on in the semester. The scene you are referring to also irritated me. It is ostensibly humorous, with actor Jonah Hill utilising his questionable skills as a comedian to parody the Klan. After all, the Klan is ripe for satire in several ways as their aesthetics and 'Klanguage' (e.g. Grand Dragon, etc.) are in theory absolutely ridiculous.

    However the problem I had with this scene is that it is intermingled with several extremely hard to watch scenes which are by no means parodying to absurdity of racism. It is difficult to determine what Tarantino is trying to accomplish. Is he trying to entertain through comedy and shock tactics? This notion seems apparent in the scene where Leonardo DiCaprio's character orders a runaway slave to be torn apart by dogs. The scene is horrific and sits awkwardly with the dark humour within the film.

    In interviews Tarantino stated that Idris Elba could not play Django as he would make the character a caricature and could not fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation. I think Tarantino has in some ways criticised himself with this statement. He has no historical connection with slavery and as a result has produced a film which I interpreted as clunky and uneducated.

  2. I am also glad that you addressed this topic. I think that like the clip of the comedian dressed as Frederick Douglas that we watched earlier in the semester, audiences often accept and even find humor in performances of racism by the discriminated group. This should not be acceptable. Making light of former horrors is not progressive, but instead diminishes the traumatic effect that permeates through the lineage of the effected families.


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