by Owen Adams

Recent work of Elaine Frantz Parsons has shown the genesis of the Ku Klux Klan was less an organised militia and more about performers making their own entertainment. Night rides were predominantly staged as costumed comedy, sometimes with murderous consequences.1 This poses a question comedians eternally wrestle with: when is a joke “beyond a joke”?

In their earliest days antics that were claimed to be Klan were portrayed as sensational comic capers, incredulous northern newspapers amplifying the phenomenon and relaying it across the disgruntled South.2 The ideas were developed from ready-accumulated American popular culture, a do-it-yourself extension of the minstrel show. The KKK pulled down the fourth wall between the stage and audience, continuing a thread of inverted-costumed carnivalesque vigilantism that can be traced to early-modern Skimmington Rides and 1840s Daughters of Rebecca (Welsh transvestite rioters).3

An early Klan communique from 1867 enigmatically announced: “The hideous fiends of night are holding high carnival over a world that is all their own.”4 This blurring of the boundary between fantasy and reality, the masks, costumes and play-acting, gave the performers licence to do anything, perhaps desensitising them from the inhumane realities of their actions, while ensuring through fantastic storytelling that nothing was necessarily true, but anything was possible.5 Anyone could claim to be Klan by putting on a costume, and the autonomous, anonymous, non-coordinated, and random, unpredictable nature of such mushrooming activity made it an uncontrollable menace that could only be dampened down by bowing to its segregationist demands.



The photograph (above) is believed by historians in Pulaski, Tennessee to feature six members of the original KKK. On the one hand they wanted to be taken seriously as a talented, educated elite with a mastery of music, a penchant for Latin mottos, pillars of their community, but by their eccentric hat poses, they indicated they shouldn’t be taken seriously.6 They, and in particular fiddle-player (front-left) Frank McCord, had a monopoly on the local media – McCord edited the Pulaski Citizen, from its post-civil war rebirth in January 1866 presenting the newspaper as the moderate, non-partisan of the people which accepted the “death of slavery”, promoted good race relations but believed “social equality a humbug and an impossibility”.7 McCord and associates maintained a monopoly on the Klan origin narrative as an innocent social society, who merely gatecrashed a few parties to play music. McCord retrospectively claimed “nearly” every KKK message published in his organ was part of a sensationalist fantasy he had concocted to entertain his readers.8 But with its moderate editorial and humorous tones, on the front-page in the same edition is an allegorical poem titled The Blackbird, culminating with a declared commitment to defend white property against freedmen.9 Despite their self-portrayal as sweetheart serenaders, the group’s name, Midnight Rangers, Parsons notes, suggests an informal militia.10


The Janus face of American popular culture: Minstrelsy inspired the KKK, above, but also the abolition of slavery, centre, below, and by the end of the century had become a vehicle for ragtime and blues written by African Americans such as W. C. Handy, helping to break down boundaries and eventually end segregation and the minstrel-inspired Jim Crow laws.



Minstrelsy can be claimed as the foster parent of the early KKK but was also used as a vehicle for abolitionism.11 From the 1840s, minstrelsy fused Scottish and Irish and West African syncopated rhythms, melodies and dance, taking in passing fads such as the Czech polka into its melting pot.12 Although the plantation melodies and rhythms were appropriated and recontexualised by white performers, recent appraisers of minstrelsy, including Eric Lott (Love & Theft) and Christopher Smith, stress the combined agency of African American and European Americans in creating the first “American” culture.13 Frederick Douglass described minstrel performers as “the filthy scum of white society” but later recognised that in an “absurd” way the “national… heart songs” (sung by white “Ethiopian delineators”) could “awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root, grow and flourish”.14

By 1870 there were 20 African American minstrel troupes, and a detailed account of one performance in front of a mainly black audience makes for fascinating reading.15 A complex of racial and cultural inversions and double-inversions developed until the mid-20th-century, when segregation ropes were literally torn down by rock ‘n’ roll dancers.16

Minstrelsy was the making of the KKK, but as a mass-consumed culture, minstrelsy reflected and distorted discourse on all sides, and, through its cultural fusion, an evolved minstrelsy known as rock’n’roll ushered in the end of racial segregation 100 years later.




1Elaine Frantz Parsons, Horns, Masks and Women’s Dress: How the First Klan Used Costume to Build Domestic Terrorism (Richmond, VA [US] video: Banner Lecture, Virginia Historical Society, 8 December 2016) (accessed 20/10/18)


3Ibid – Parsons mentions KKK throwing of animal horns. This is a key characteristic of Skimmington Rides, see E. P. Thompson, Customs In Common (London: Merlin Press, 1991), p. 516, and pp. 521-3 for the Rebecca riots.

4 Elaine Frantz Parsons, The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction (USA: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), p. 45.

5 Ibid, pp. 52-54.

6Ibid, p. 33.

7‘Prospectus’, The Pulaski Citizen, January 5, 1866 (University of Tennessee archive, Library of Congress digitized newspapers) (accessed 20/10/18), p. 2.

8Parsons, The Birth of the Klan…, p. 62.

9‘The Blackbird’, The Pulaski Citizen, January 5, 1866, p. 1.

10Parsons, The Birth of the Klan…, p. 33.

11John Strausbourg, Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 93, reveals anti-slavery verses from 1832 added to the ‘Jump Jim Crow’ song.

12Joseph Byrd, Whitewashing Blackface Minstrelsy in American College Textbooks (Popular Music and Society, Vol 32, No. 1, February 2009), p. 78.

13Christopher J. Smith, The Creolization of American Culture – William Sydney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy (Chicago [US], University of Illinois Press, 2013), p. 13. See also Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York [US], Oxford University Press, 1993/ 2013)

14Richard L. Hughes, Minstrel Music: The Sounds and Images of Race in Antebellum America (The History Teacher, Vol. 40, No. 1, November 2006), pp. 39-40.

15Jack Shalom, The Ira Aldridge Troupe: Early black minstrelsy in Philadelphia (African American Review, Vol. 28, Issue 4, Winter 1994), pp. 653-659.

16Owen Adams, How Fats Domino invented rock’n’roll (The Guardian, 14 May 2007) (accessed 20/10/18)