The rise of Donald Trump has thrust the Ku Klux Klan into the national spotlight. To better understand the true threat of the Klan and its history of violence and terror, it is crucial to return to work by civil rights activists of an earlier era, especially William Bradford Huie’s 1967 The Klansman. This novel, published 50 years ago, examines the dangers of the organization’s propaganda and its deadly consequences. It is important to pay attention to such critiques, along with more contemporary ones, to recognize what we can learn from them, even though this is such a hard subject to think about, talk about, and teach.
The Klansman reflects on race relations and sexual tensions in a segregated Southern town. Set in the fictive Ellenton in northern Alabama during the 1960s, the novel opens with the narrator’s heroic portrait of the height, weaponry, and family background of Sheriff Big Track Bascomb, a Medal of Honor recipient, so as to underscore his strength as a man. As the novel begins, Big Track and his 17-year-old son, Allen, transport a prisoner down to Mobile. Along their way they see photos of interracial fraternizing that allegedly happened during the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965, travel to the location where Viola Liuzzo was slain, and meet and take a photo with Governor George Wallace. Such elements give the novel the flavor of historical fiction.
The plot thickens when a young black woman named Loretta Sykes returns home to Ellenton to nurse her terminally ill mother. Breck Stancill, a wealthy white man who uses his wealth to provide shelter and sanctuary for local impoverished blacks, had bought Loretta a typewriter as a teen. Her talent typing helped her to migrate to Chicago, where she found work as a secretary at Montgomery Ward. Elmer “Butt Cut” Cates, the Sheriff’s deputy, mistakenly believes that Loretta’s reason for returning home was to work with activists, and wrongly presumes that she’d once been sexually involved with Stancill.
Butt Cut arrests her and, while Sheriff Big Track is away, works with the Klan to orchestrate her rape in the jail by an illiterate black man named Lightning Rod out of resentment of her education and career. The year before, tensions had been high after the Klan’s lynching of a black man named Willie Washington for the rape of a white woman named Nancy Poteet. As racial tensions in the area continue to intensify, Klan members attack Stancill’s Mountain and take several lives, killing Loretta and her mother. Big Track’s evasive investigative work of their deaths, Breck learns, is shaped by Big Track’s Klan sympathies and a clandestine membership in the organization. Breck attempts to persuade Big Track to expose the Klan for its role in the recent murders. Unlike his father, Allen publicly condemns and rejects the Klan, whose members kill the youth and Breck. The novel concludes as Big Track faces a federal arrest warrant for failing to protect the civil rights of Loretta, her mother, Breck, and Allen.
The work of prolific Alabama novelist William Bradford Huie allows us to look to Southern history and literature to learn crucial lessons on how to prevent the Klan from terrorizing this new American present. Huie’s The Klansman was revolutionary as a literary work and remains significant today for its critique of this organization and for several other factors. I will focus here on the novel’s antiracist model of white Alabamians in Breck and Allen, its critique of the damaging impact of racist Klan propaganda and the costs of buying into it, its radical model of black womanhood, and its implications for the Black Power movement. All of these dimensions not only made The Klansman a radical novel for its time, but also are part of why it continues to be relevant now.
The 1967 novel represents a Klan in decline, fighting a losing battle against a growing grassroots black political movement.
Huie’s work as a journalist, best-selling author of 28 books (including several novels adapted into films), and controversial investigative work as a civil rights activist made him one of the most important and culturally impactful writers of the 20th century. Huie, who was born in 1910 in Hartselle, Alabama, started his career as a journalist and became known for his courageous and provocative engagement of civil rights cases. He frequently proclaimed himself to be “in the truth business.”1 He sometimes made use of the controversial tactic of “checkbook journalism” to get at the truth. He first gained prominence after he paid J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the men who killed 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, $4,000 for their confession to the horrific murder and published his findings in Look magazine in 1956.2
While Mississippi was the main focus of some of his earliest writing projects, Huie turned his attention to Alabama in The Klansman, in which he developed a fictive character closely resembling himself. The confirmation of Jeff Sessions as the nation’s attorney general is now linked to “the Alabamafication of America,” a reason that it is valuable to remember Huie as a native Alabamian, who stood at the vanguard in supporting and advancing black civil rights.3 The Klansman is a work of continuing significance for providing a counternarrative to the all too familiar example of white racism in Alabama. It does so through the visionary antiracist agenda of its main protagonist, Breck Stancill, the last remnant of a wealthy cotton farming dynasty, who uses his wealth to help impoverished blacks in the fictive Ellenton, and gives them retreat on his mountain. The novel is radical in part because it offers this insurgent model of white Southern masculinity. Stancill, like the author who created him, commits his life and wealth to the fight against racism. Huie’s ongoing commitment to progressive activism made him a “race traitor” to white supremacy by default. As the book’s original jacket notes, “It is a novel that only a Southerner living in the South and long familiar with the workings of the Klan could have written.” Indeed, the nature of Huie’s work made him a pariah and target of threats by organizations such as the KKK. He and his family were routinely terrorized by cross-burnings at their home.
Huie’s The Klansman, which was the basis of a 1974 film of the same name, also makes valuable contributions by underscoring the susceptibility of people with low levels of literacy and education to reactionary racial propaganda and by suggesting that, in some cases, such indoctrination leads them to commit violent acts. Huie’s character Deputy Elmer “Butt Cut” Cates, who is obsessed with the Klan and posts their fliers around town, can barely read and write; there is a direct link between his lack in literacy and his susceptibility to the propaganda that the group circulates. He defies Big Track, the sheriff for whom he works, and ultimately orchestrates the rape of Loretta Sykes. His illiteracy makes him more vulnerable to internalizing racist propaganda than he might otherwise have been. Huie’s novel, though fictional, bears a kernel of truth about the past, and a warning about the present: hateful rhetoric and propaganda like Trump’s may have—in fact, already have—helped reignite interest in and support for groups—such as the KKK—that are historically linked to racial terrorism, hate, and violence.
In his characterization of Loretta, and most notably in the grisly final scenes depicting her, Huie foregrounds black women as agents in a black liberation struggle within which they have often been marginalized on the basis of gender. In Chicago, Loretta had been a member of the NAACP. Furthermore, Huie also foregrounds the development of her character and centralizes it in his plot’s development. Her subjection to rape is a climactic scene in the novel that underscores the accessibility of the black feminine body to violence and abuse in the South’s segregated and racist climate. These textual layers reflect Huie’s commitment to more complex and nuanced thinking about women characters in his fiction beyond conventional stereotypes. Alongside race, Huie recurrently addresses gender inequality in his work. He foregrounds female identity and highlights black and white female characters, as well as forms of female victimization such as domestic violence and rape. In The Klansman and several other works not as well known, Huie’s engagement of black and white female subjects reflects his effort to produce a visionary and revisionist discourse on race, nation, class, gender, and sexuality, alongside an insurgent model of whiteness. Interrogating racism and sexism in his fiction is a foundation for some of his most significant activist work in civil rights. His scripting of Loretta in The Klansman reflects this antisexist, antiracist vision.4
Huie’s insurgent novel The Klansman was invested in examining not only the civil rights movement, but also the growing Black Power movement spearheaded by Stokely Carmichael and other youth in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).5 The movement was catalyzed in the Black Belt regions of Alabama and Mississippi by Southern states’ primary support for the Democratic Party as “Dixiecrats,” hegemony in electoral politics in the region, and staunch adherence to white supremacy. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) were developed by student activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register blacks to vote and to run for political office.6 Huie’s novel coincided with the emergence of the Black Power movement, the foundation on which contemporary movements such as Black Lives Matter have been developed. The dispossessed blacks in the novel’s fictive Ellenton live in poverty, predominately work in cotton fields as sharecroppers, and are routinely terrorized by the Klan in this rural community. In this hostile racial climate, Stancill provides them shelter and protection on his mountain. Loretta is among the few who escaped the racism and poverty in her home community. She returns home in the midst of a growing grassroots movement to register blacks to vote, a movement that the Klan perceives to be threatening to their white supremacist agenda and to their efforts to subdue and intimidate blacks in the area. That Loretta is linked to activists perceived as “outside agitators” after they visit her mother’s home makes her a target of the Klan.
The novel is radical because it offers an insurgent model of white Southern masculinity. The protagonist, like the author who created him, commits his life and wealth to the fight against racism.
Huie’s highlighting of the Klan in his literature was motivated by an effort to critique the organization’s continuing impact, not to glorify the group. Huie emphasizes that the Klan continues to be a threat, even with smaller numbers, and underscores how important it is for law enforcement to help contain and neutralize it (something that Big Track, a complicated character who supported and enabled the organization, failed to do). FBI official Clay Wilbanks acknowledges Big Tracks’s dilemma in a dialogue with Breck by remarking, “He’s a Klansman, himself guilty of complicity in all the Klan’s crimes. If he arrests Klansmen, he knows they’ll go free and kill him. He can’t turn around now and move against the Klan.”
Huie’s goal was by no means to celebrate the KKK. His novel represented a Klan in decline, fighting a losing battle against a growing grassroots black political movement. In the novel, Big Track’s cherished son Allen, an athlete he wants to send to West Point, represents a new and more visionary generation, and speaks out against the Klan and other atrocities of Southern racism on television. He does not fulfill this dream, but instead dies at the hands of the Klan for his courageous act and for confronting them. In effect, as a young white man, he mirrors the antiracist values associated with Breck and Huie, becomes a martyr for civil rights, and helps pave the way toward a better future.7
Now more than ever, we need to pay attention to Huie’s pioneering work in literature and journalism, and especially to his bold critiques of the Klan in The Klansman. Such critiques are timely and useful because their message challenges the public not to normalize or passively accept Trump’s extremist views, but to recognize the damage that such views can do and to question the president’s investments in them. Even progressive critiques risk according the Klan more attention than it deserves. However, in the current political climate, it is necessary to reflect on this kind of subversive work and to develop strategies for effectively sharing it. Indeed, The Klansman serves as a necessary corrective to any attempts to glorify the Klan. Perhaps even more importantly, it urges us to remain vigilant.
- Notably, I’m in the Truth Business: William Bradford Huie is also the title of the 1997 documentary on the life and work of Huie. ↩
- Huie, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” Look. January, 1956. ↩
- Kyle Whitmire, “With Sessions Scandal, the Alabamafication of America is now Complete,” Al.com, March 2, 2017. ↩
- For a comparative analysis of the novel and film version of The Klansman, see Riché Richardson, Black Masculinity and the US South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta (University of Georgia Press, 2007). ↩
- Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (Vintage, 1967). Notably, this treatise was published the same year as Huie’s novel The Klansman. ↩
- For more on this topic, see Hasan Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York University Press, 2009). Also see Akinyele Omowale Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (New York University Press, 2013). ↩
- “Allen met the Klansmen on the sidewalk outside the jail. He had no weapon, so he yelled ‘you yellow bastards!’ and attacked like a defensive halfback trying to break up a flying wedge. In the melee Breck shook loose and tried to help Allen by butting, kneeing and kicking. Masks and robes were torn, teeth were spat out. The Klansmen had no choice. They shotgunned Breck and Allen, then fled in the cars, leaving two mangled, bloody and dead bodies. Breck lay in the gutter, face up, his tin leg crumpled under him. Allen lay face down in the street.” Huie, The Klansman, 301. ↩