Author Interview: Bradley Proctor

Author Interview: Bradley Proctor

Today we share an interview with Bradley Proctor, who published an article in our September 2018 issue, “‘The K.K. Alphabet’: Secret Communication and Coordination of the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan in the Carolinas.” Bradley Proctor is a member of the faculty at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Originally from St. Louis, he has a B.A. in history from Bates College and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is completing a book manuscript on the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction in North and South Carolina. Before teaching at Evergreen, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University.

Thanks for participating in this interview, Brad. How did you get interested in the history of the KKK, and how did this project come to be?

Thank you so much for the opportunity. I became interested in the Ku Klux Klan because of a larger interest in racial oppression and racial equality in the United States after the Civil War. It has always struck me that Reconstruction brought an opportunity for something like real racial equality, at least in terms of political and civil rights. But by the turn of the twentieth century, white southern racists had constructed a whole new system of racial oppression with Jim Crow. I remain very interested in that wider history. Why did white southerners create a whole new system of racial oppression when afforded the opportunity to have a more equitable society? That question of why became entangled with a question about how. Obviously racial violence was a major way white southerners asserted white supremacy after emancipation—arguably the most significant way—and the KKK was responsible for some of the most awful and widespread racial violence in the South. So I wrote my dissertation on how the violence of the KKK worked to reshape racial oppression after emancipation. This article grew out of that dissertation research.

Many of our readers have read your article in our September 2018 issue, but we also have readers who do not subscribe to the journal. Can you briefly summarize the focus and argument of your article?

The article is about a coded letter I discovered in the archives of the South Caroliniana Library in Columbia, South Carolina. Technically it is written in a cipher, not a code, as I soon learned the difference. I was able to decipher the letter because I found a key to the cipher in a book about the Klan in Tennessee, and it turns out that the letter was from a Klansman in North Carolina to his brother in South Carolina about the method of organizing Klan dens. From the bulk of the existing secondary literature, I had gotten the impression that Klan groups had no connections across state lines whatsoever, and that Klan groups were created locally, organically without any connection to the original group in Pulaski, Tennessee. All of a sudden this ciphered letter opened up a world of cross-state Klan organizing I hadn’t even thought existed. It caused me to read other sources in different ways. This article explores the story of the two brothers connected by the letter as a way for us to reassess how organized and connected the Klan was during Reconstruction.

As you say here, and again in the article itself, “this ciphered letter is an exceptional and unusual source” (460). Taking one source and parsing it, and placing it in appropriate context, must have been a fascinating—though challenging—experience. Could you talk a little about other primary sources and secondary sources you used to make sense of this cipher? In other words, how did you approach this research?

The ciphered letter was in an archival collection for Iredell Jones, the recipient of the letter. Jones kept a lot of other documents, including two orders from other Klan officers and a membership roll for his chapter of what they called the “Chester Conservative Clan”—obviously part of the KKK. So those documents provided more direct, immediate context for the ciphered letter. There was also a lot of correspondence to and from other family members, and this immediate family is fairly well documented. There is a second collection of Iredell’s family letters in the archives at Duke University, and the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina houses a manuscript collection for one of Iredell’s brothers. Furthermore, there is a lot of documentation about the nineteenth century Klan. Opposition to the Klan led to lots of contemporary documentation of efforts to suppress the violence its members committed, including state and federal trials and many testimonies people gave to a congressional investigatory committee. So I spent a lot of time piecing together primary sources about the KKK in the Carolinas with the particulars of the Jones brothers. And fortunately there are really wonderful secondary sources about the Klan during Reconstruction, including recent books by Elaine Frantz and Hannah Rosen, and classic works by Allen Trelease and Richard Zuczek.[1]

That’s more documentation about this family than I would have expected, and it does make the research and writing process easier if you have a number of primary sources to work from. That said, what were the primary challenges that you faced in the research process?

Despite all those contemporary primary source documents about the Klan, very few of them came from inside the Klan. So one of the major challenges with the article was knowing just how exceptional or representative the ciphered letter was. As I said in the article, it is an exceptional source, but I think that exceptionality comes from the fact that it survived, not the fact that it was written. In other words, I suspect numerous other ciphered letters were written, but almost none of them survived Reconstruction. Proving that suspicion was difficult. It’s always hard, particularly for a historian, to prove that an absence of evidence isn’t necessarily the evidence of absence. Maybe that’s even impossible! So figuring out the significance of this one surviving letter was my major challenge over the course of researching and writing.

The Ku Klux Klan—and racial violence more broadly–have been receiving more scholarly attention of late. Your article is an excellent example of this. How do you think your research enriches our discussions about racial violence in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction periods? 

I appreciate this question. This research helped me to understand the extent to which racial violence in Reconstruction did not arise just because of ephemeral, amorphous cultural reasons but because of conscious organizing by specific people who shared a particular racial and political ideology. I think too often Americans think of racial violence as inexplicable or senseless. There needs to be more attention to the ways in which violence is the result of conscious organizing and specific ideological choices. I find this lesson really important as we’re seeing a very concerning rise in instances of explicitly racist violence in recent years. I think there can be a tendency among some Americans sometimes to think that racism is the natural result of economic distress and political polarization. It isn’t. Racism is a specific ideological choice, and we need to investigate and condemn the social and political networks that foster and benefit from it.

Your point about “conscious organizing” is crucial here. I appreciate how you have framed this issue. Is there anything else you want to share about this project?

I really appreciate the opportunity to talk some about my work with the Muster blog, and I really appreciate the work the JCWE does! I hope my work prompts people to look even more critically at the networks and organizing efforts that have gone into other organizations of white supremacism in the United States.

We really appreciate Dr. Proctor taking time out of his schedule to chat with us about his project. You can read the article on Project Muse, and if you have questions for Brad, he is happy to chat on Twitter, @bdproctor.


[1] Elaine Frantz Parsons, Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Hannah Rosen, Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Richard Zuczek, State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996); Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971).

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