What Was the Influence of KKK on Local Governments and How It Is Presented in the Novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee?
When Harper Lee was writing her novel called “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Jim Crow laws were still in power in Southern regions, and African Americans suffered from racial discrimination and segregation. Though the city Maycomb and characters’ names are fictional, the text represents actual historical events and obvious parallels with the real situation in Alabama of the 1930s. “To understand the content of To Kill A Mockingbird, the reader needs to consider two significant time periods: 1933-5 when the novel is set, and the late 1950s, when Lee was writing it” (Mills 4). These periods of American history are closely connected with the Great Depression, racism, and the activity of Ku Klux Klan, a nationalist terrorist organization founded in the 1860s whose fundamental ideology was supremacy of white people over all other races. Initially, KKK had seemingly good intentions. Being founded in Tennessee, its first members decided to position their activity as fighting crime in the region. However, considering that a major part of crime at that time was prescribed to African Americans, the organization decided to redefine their principles and punish African Americans who, as they thought, posed a threat to the white society. “The Klan had, after all, taken it upon itself to enforce legal, moral, and cultural standards of its community as guidelines for proper “Americanism” (Pegram 3). In the novel of Harper Lee, the central event is a lawsuit in which a black man Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white woman. Although Atticus, an elderly lawyer and one of the central characters in the novel, managed to prove Tom’s innocence, both the judge and the jury did not take this fact into account. On the contrary, the whole town took up arms against a man who spoke in defense of an African American. Thinking about the role of Ku Klux Klan in the novel “To Kill A Mockingbird,” I am going to argue that members of Ku Klux Klan influenced local governments in two ways: authority and fear.
In the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee represents black-skinned fellow citizens with a certain amount of sympathy. In the novel, there are no negative black characters, on the contrary, all the injustice that we see in the book comes from whites. This detail has led some literary critics to see the idealization of Negroes, characteristic of many white writers, which was not always justified, and to call this trend “the black racism of white Southern writers.” However, in this situation, it makes sense to challenge this statement given the position of the writer clearly expressed in the novel. It consists in the fact that Lee considers all people equal and free by nature, on the fact of birth, and the right of one person should not be valued higher than others because of a different color of skin. Thus, the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” poses the idea that it is a matter of real people who are not too few to defend the humiliated and insulted. The title of the novel – “To Kill A Mockingbird” – has a symbolic meaning. Mockingbird is a harmless and peace-loving bird, and people always believed that killing it is a big sin. In the context of this book, a mockingbird is Tom Robinson, who, being an innocent man, was murdered by townspeople.
Undoubtedly, the situation described in the novel is typical enough for that time for the South of America: in the conditions of segregation, black and white residents of the town co-existed in parallel universes, as it is skillfully shown in the novel, describing the gathering of people in front of the court before the beginning of the court session. In this scene, it is evident that the white people stand apart from the black, and even the assortment of food that relied on the audience was different. However, despite such a distinct division of whites and blacks, they still crossed, and when this crossing took place, it was excruciating and sometimes even tragic. The murder of Robinson once again confirms the idea that the black had no chance to prove his innocence. Although the times of slavery are already over, whites rudely refuse to accept such changes and continue to perceive blacks as private property. In their understanding, black people are mainly guilty of all the troubles, and they are criminals by nature, and therefore, it is not that hard to find (or invent) the reasons to put them in jail or even kill. Atticus, an honest and prone to justice man, spoke out against this kind of public opinion.
Though considering that slavery was gone and blacks began to gain civil rights, the equality was just a matter of time. This order of things naturally did not satisfy some white Americans. That was the reason for the creation of one of the most terrifying and influential organizations of that time. The relationships between governments and the Klan were different depending on the waves of its activity. As it is known, the original KKK that was created in the 1860s, was different from the second one, which came in 1915. Those white clothes, religious rituals, and lynching were characteristic features of the second wave. Thus, the Klan of the XIX century did not influence government at all. Its members were simple ex-soldiers with strong nationalist views who wanted to keep American values clean. As is known, the activity of the initial Ku Klux Klan was suppressed by the government. However, after a long time hiding in shadows, the Klan existed, gained new members, and more power. “Though historical accounts of the KKK have generally emphasized its waves of growth and decline, the trajectory of the klan owes much to continuities in personnel and ritualized that supported successive iterations of the klan” (Cunningham 10).
The second KKK was also a racist organization but in a slightly different light. If the first Klan was de facto an organization of revolutionary and anti-government views, the second, on the contrary, was to protect traditional American values that are threatened by the massive influx of migrants into the country. “The Klan of the 1920s faced this dilemma when it sought to position itself as an organization sufficiently in step with the mainstream white population that it could draw in a larger base of supporters and voters without losing core members who were attracted by its vitriolic hatred and outrageous claims about nonwhites, Jews, and Catholics” (Blee and McDowell 262). If the first KKK considered the Republicans as enemies then in the second they were equal Klansmen, although the majority of the movement was still Southerners and Democrats. The first KKK did not have a religious component, and in the second it was pronounced. The majority of the Klansmen were Protestants and negatively treated even Catholicism, not to mention other religious confessions.
In the novel, there is no direct presence of KKK. However, its influence can be easily traced. Atticus takes a high risk to protect the rights of a black man in the court. Nevertheless, he does not do it because of his empathy to Tom Robinson or blacks in general but because of his principles of justice. Also, he knows that if he would not take this case, he will lose his chance to participate in the following trial cases. However, considering the segregation laws in the town, hardy one would stand up for a black man. His son, Jem, is afraid that Ku Klux Klan will find out about this case and punish his further. Because of that, he tries to dissuade him from such a risky decision. “They were after you, weren’t they?” Jem went to him. “They wanted to get you, didn’t they?” (Lee 148). Atticus tries to calm his son, saying that KKK does not exist already and will never reappear: “The Ku Klux’s gone,” said Atticus. “It’ll never come back.” (Lee 148). At this moment, Lee uses sharp irony, because she knew that the Klan would return soon. It had never disappeared completely. The fact that when Tom Robinson is released, he is threatened and promised to be killed, proves the presence of KKK in Maycomb.
An essential feature of the second KKK was that it had influential members. It is evidenced that at the beginning of the 1920s, members of the Klan could be found in most governments and authorities of the South. “The state governments of Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas included officials who were Klan members, and those governments were profoundly influenced by the Klan during the 1920s” (Lay). Therefore, since that moment, its members had a direct influence on society and the government’s decisions. This very statement proves that Ku Klux Klan influenced local government with the help of authority. “Across the nation, Klansmen and Klanswomen sought to elect “100 percent Americans” to political office” (McVeigh 25). For this reason, the case of Tom Robinson was doomed. The judge knew that if he would justify the black, local authorities will most likely move him from the judge’s seat or even worse, start a lawsuit against him. The same motivation was inherent to all other representatives of the law.
As is known, Ku Klux Klan’s superior tactics were terror and fear. Some people recognized KKK as a hand of justice and purity. However, everybody knew that helping or protecting a black can have terrible consequences. “The Ku Klux Klan was an instrument of fear, and black people, Jews, and even white civil rights workers knew that the fear was intended to control us, to keep things as they had been in the South through slavery, and after that ended, through Jim crow” (Turner and Williams 5). One of the characteristic features of the Klan is their secret court. At the beginning of its existence, the Klan made an offender to be brought to court, usually at night, somewhere in the countryside or in the woods. Not appearing on the court meant confessing his or her guilt and the verdict was delivered to the Klan in absentia. On receiving the message, a person could avoid the court, leaving the country or, if the blame involved public actions, denying their antisocial views and publicly condemning them. Of course, Ku Klux Klan arranged such a step. Those who refused to repent were often expecting death, and the courts were well organized, and in the southern police, there were so many members of the Klan or supporters that virtually none of the courts had been disclosed as a crime.
If the accused person appeared to the Klan’s trial, a mystical ceremony awaited him or her. In the darkness of night, Klan members surrounded that person wearing white cloths, illuminated only by the light of torches, the Klan’s Chairman stood before the accused and read the allegations. Masks and hats that made members of the Klan similar to the ghosts were chosen not accidentally. Initially, this kind of clothes was chosen because the superstitious African Americans considered such “ghosts” with the spirits of the killed soldiers of the army of the South what provoked terror. Attempts to justify and prove their innocence could only be imposed on punishment since the Klan did not investigate and accused them of no accident. They had to admit their guilt and ask for mercy. White men came to the Klan’s trials mainly for the public expression of political slogans regarding the equality of whites and blacks, just trials for blacks, trying to persecute members of the Klan, etc. White women could be punished in secret court for sexual intercourse with black people and mulattos. “Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand…” (Lee 91).
In result, Ku Klux Klan had a strong influence on the government and people of Maycomb. The Klan was called “The Invisible Empire” because the techniques of manipulation and threatening of government members were the major weapons of its members but not lynching or murders. In the novel “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Ku Klux Klan does not appear directly. However, its influence can be seen in the behavior of people and the government. Moreover, historical sources evidence that Klansmen and Klanswomen were members of governments of many Southern states (including Alabama) what makes their influence even more apparent. The trial against Tim Robinson, the decision of the judge, and the following events serve as a great example of the activity of KKK in the novel. Thus, Harper Lee expressed her opposition to racial discrimination initiated by the Klan.
Blee, Kathleen, and Amy Mcdowell. “The Duality of Spectacle and Secrecy: a Case Study of Fraternalism in the 1920s US Ku Klux Klan.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2013, pp. 249–265., doi:10.1080/01419870.2012.676197.
Cunningham, David. Klansville, U.S.A.: the Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.
McVeigh, Rory. The Rise Of The Ku Klux Klan. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Mills, Catriona. Harper’s Lee To Kill A Mockingbird. Insight Publications, 2010.
Pegram, Thomas R. One Hundred Percent American. Ivan R. Dee, 2011.
Turner, John, and Randall Williams. The Ku Klux Klan, a History of Racism and Violence. Klanwatch, A Project Of The Southern Poverty Law Center, 1982.