Straighten Up, or Stand in Fear?: Fact-Checking Georgia State Rep. Tommy Benton on the KKK's History

Last week Georgia General Assembly Representative Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson) told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group whose barbaric lynchings underpinned many generations of terror for Southern Blacks, "made a lot of people straighten up."

Rep. Benton's comments came after he introduced three pieces of controversial legislation: A bill to protect Stone Mountain as a memorial site, another to make Robert E. Lee's birthday a public holiday, and a third to rename streets whose Confederate-era names changed after the Civil Rights movement.

In his efforts to justify the proposals--which Georgia Democrats have condemned as glorifying the institution of slavery--Benton defended his intentions, arguing that the Klan was not a racist institution, but "a vigilante thing to keep law and order."

Either Rep. Benton has confused his facts, or he is deliberately distorting history. To understand the severity of Rep. Benton's misrepresentation, it is important to consider the Klan in the context of its direct ancestor: The Southern slave patrol.

Slave patrols were not the fruit of vigilantism; in many places, they were the law. Patrols in the antebellum South began almost a century before the Constitutional Convention to keep unsupervised slaves from organizing rebellions.

Beginning in 1704, patrollers could legally disperse "any gathering" of slaves, without warrant or warning. In the two decades leading up to the Civil War, one hundred of Charleston's police officers were assigned the sole task of carrying out slave patrols. They checked passes and searched slave quarters, long maintaining a paramilitary occupation of the roads between plantations. For poor Whites who aspired to slave ownership, participation in patrols were the great equalizer: White people might be poor, but they could never be slaves.

Patrols had a long and vicious afterlife. With Reconstruction came the Black Codes: African-Americans still weren't allowed in public places after dark; they still could not carry guns; and they still were barred from gathering without White supervision. Where slave patrols had long enforced these rules in the South, state militias assumed the role.

But the Black Codes ended, too. And when Civil Rights dawned and these practices became illicit in the light of day, the same men cloaked themselves in white sheets and lynched almost thirty-five hundred Black people between 1882 and 1968. They hanged them from trees and telephone poles, burned their bodies in town squares, and bombed their daughters in a Birmingham church. They called themselves the Ku Klux Klan.

The stultifying power of patrols--and then of the Klan--was not only in the physical injury they dealt, but also in the impact they had on a community's sense of security. Above all else, as Kenneth Stampp wrote in his 1956 book The Peculiar Institution, patrollers sought to make Black people "stand in fear."

The Klan picked up where patrols left off. The men of the Klan did not serve to make Blacks in the South "straighten up." They lynched them that their sisters and uncles, wives and sons, husbands and daughters might stand in fear.

"A great majority of prominent men in the South were members of the Klan," Rep. Benton told the AJC. "Should that affect their reputation to the extent that everything else good that they did was forgotten?"

The atrocities of the Ku Klux Klan, in all its forms, must be memorialized in public spaces throughout the South. But it is reprehensible for a member of the Georgia State Assembly to ennoble and exalt the "prominent men" who comprised its membership. Our legislators must pass laws that work to reverse the lasting impact of terrorism against Blacks in the South, not work to further institutionalize that legacy.