The 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.
The Planters’ Labor Problems
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.”
While Klansmen insisted that the black masses spend their waking hours planting and picking crops, many refused to believe these same laborers deserved the financial benefits of their efforts. According to a 1871 report from Tennessee, frequently “the employer frames some excuse and falls out with the laborer, and he is forced to leave his crop and abandon his wages by the terror of the Ku Klux, who, in all cases, sympathize with the white employers.” Such cases resembled slavery more than the free labor system promised by emancipation.
The Klan as Employers’ Association
Few scholars have labeled the Klan an employers’ association, and most management historians have ignored the Reconstruction South. Clarence Bonnett’s important 1922 book, Employers’ Associations in the United States: A Study of Typical Associations, is mute about the Klan, focusing exclusively on business-led organizations that formed in the late-nineteenth-century North to counter the increasingly restive labor movement.
Yet Bonnett’s definition is flexible, allowing us to apply it to the actions of Reconstruction vigilante organizations: “An employers’ association is a group which is composed of or fostered by employers and which seeks to promote the employers’ interest in labor matters. The group, accordingly, is either (1) a formal or informal organization of employers, or (2) a collection of individuals whose grouping is fostered by employers.”
Of course, Reconstruction-era Klansmen and Progressive Era employers’ associations framed their respective labor issues quite differently. While members of northern employers’ and “citizens’ alliances” touted the freedom that industrial workers supposedly enjoyed (namely, to not join unions), Klansmen had zero interest in trying to win legitimacy from the African American masses.
This is not to say that Northern-based employers’ associations accepted outbursts of labor unrest. They, too, used coercive techniques, including private guards and kidnappings, beatings, and hangings, and they benefited from the swift interventions of the police and National Guardsmen. But rhetorically, Progressive Era employers’ associations often employed the Lincolnesque language of “free labor,” signaling to the masses of “free” workers that they were best served by laboring diligently and cooperating with their bosses. Those who opted for more confrontational paths often found themselves fired and blacklisted — coercive, yes, but very different from what former slaves experienced.
Klansmen spoke the unvarnished language of racial and class dominance — and they followed through with extreme brutality. If we measure the number of killings and beatings, the Klan was far more violent than most Northern-based employers’ associations. Historian Stephen Budiansky has calculated that white vigilantes murdered over three thousand people during the Reconstruction period.
Klansmen were nevertheless strategic, employing threats, kidnappings, and whippings to achieve the primary goals of the Southern ruling classes. This meant keeping freed people from polling booths, breaking up political gatherings, and murdering the most irredeemably rebellious men and women. “White raiders,” historian Douglas Egerton has pointed out, “did not simply assault blacks for being black.” Instead, they used intimidation and violence against what they considered shiftless, unreliable, disrespectful, and defiant men and women.
Gruesome actions like whippings and hangings served management’s needs, helping to discipline countless numbers of laborers. Mississippi cotton grower Robert Philip Howell, for example, expressed appreciation for the Klan because its members helped solve his problems with “free negros” in 1868: “had it not been for their deadly fear of the Ku-Klux, I do not think we could have managed them as well as we did.”
Nor does the fact that poor and working-class whites participated in Klan chapters mean that we shouldn’t regard the KKK as a bosses’ organization — achieving labor control has almost always involved coordinating cross-class groups of participants. After all, the mostly Northern-based employers’ associations could not have succeeded in breaking strikes and busting unions without the mobilizations of scabs during industrial conflicts.
The Klan, then, was a particularly vicious, particularly racist employers’ association — but it was an employers’ association all the same. And it was brutally effective.
Fear blanketed the mostly agricultural black laboring class. Although black people throughout the South were no longer “property,” the threat of Klan-organized violence loomed large. Too many missteps, including subtle and overt forms of insubordination, might lead to unwelcome encounters with hooded men followed by threats, beatings, and even death. Klansmen were management’s vicious enforcers, ensuring that the masses kept their heads down and labored efficiently.
Some freed people still joined resistance organizations like the Union Leagues. These Republican-allied organizations were active in states like Alabama, where members held meetings, mobilized voters, and often armed themselves — activities far outside of their “appropriate” workplace-based duties.
But in response, Klansmen plotted with one another before raiding the homes of league members, whipping residents, snatching their guns, and demanding that they stay away from polling booths. They spared lives only when their targets promised to abandon the leagues. In Alabama alone, Klansmen murdered roughly fifteen league members between 1868 and 1871.
“Counter-Revolution of Property”
Ensuring that African Americans remained tied (sometimes literally) to farms, plantations, and other worksites while receiving little compensation was one of the central goals of Southern elites — the same people who benefited from slavery before the Civil War. While whites of all classes joined Klan branches — and eagerly participated in attacks against Northern teachers, Freedom Bureau administrators, and Union League members — elites called most of the shots.
This was a “Counter-Revolution of Property,” as W. E. B. Du Bois famously put it. Reconstruction-era reformers failed to provide genuine freedom to former slaves, he wrote, partially “because the military dictatorship behind labor did not function successfully in the face of the Ku Klux Klan.” Like Northern-based employers’ associations, the KKK fought for the interests of the most powerful members of society — meting out violence and terror on behalf of agricultural-based employers.
We should appreciate the enormous emancipatory breakthroughs of the Civil War without losing sight of the ways that the Southern ruling class fought to cling to power. They did so in part by holding leadership roles in the Klan and by actively supporting the numerous racist vigilante organizations that demanded labor subordination.
By highlighting their fundamental class interests, we can better understand the reasons for their strategic acts of terror. These men lost perhaps the most meaningful conflict for democracy in US history — but they did not cease fighting the forces of liberation.