Life of a Klansman, by Edward Ball*

“White supremacy is not a marginal ideology. It is the early build of the country. It is a foundation on which the social edifice rises, bedrock of institutions. White supremacy also lies on the floor of our minds. Whiteness is not a deformation of thought, but a kind of thought itself…

‘The story that follows is not that a writer discovers a shameful family secret and turns to the public to confess it. The story here is that whiteness and its tribal nature are normal, everywhere, and seem as permanent as the sunrise.”

I read this book free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy.

Edward Ball writes about his ancestor, Constant Lecorgnes, known fondly within his family as “our Klansman.” The biography is noteworthy in that it is told without apology or moral judgement, as if Ball wants whites to feel okay about the racism, the rape, the exploitation, the murders, the terrorism that membership in the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and any and all of the other white supremacist organizations have carried out, and will continue to carry out, in the United States. Relax, he tells us, it’s normal.

Well, let’s back up a moment. The “us” in the narrative is always Caucasians. It apparently hasn’t occurred to him that anybody else might read his book. In some ways, the “us” and the “our” used consistently and liberally throughout this biography are even worse than the explicit horrors detailed within its pages. It’s as if there is a huge, entitled club, and those that don’t belong are not invited to read. Further, it’s as if all white people are of a similar mind and share similar goals.

Not so much.

Ball won the National Book Award some years back for Slaves in the Family, a title currently adorning my shelves downstairs. I have begun it two or three times, but it didn’t hold me long enough for me to see what he does with it. And this book is the same, in that the late Lecorgnes is not particularly compelling as a subject, except within the framework of his terrorism. He was not, Ball tells us, a key player; he was just one more Caucasian foot soldier within the Klan. And so, the reading drones along, and then there are the key pronouns that capture my attention, those that give ownership to his terrible heritage, and a couple of paragraphs of the history of the period, particularly within Southern Louisiana, follow; lather, rinse, repeat.

As I read, I searched for accountability. As it happens, I have one of those relatives too; but my elders, though not beacons within the Civil Rights realm by a long shot, understood that such a membership brings shame upon us, and consequently I was not supposed to know about him at all. I overheard some words intended to be private, uttered quietly during a moment of profound grief following a sudden death. My mother spoke to someone—my father? I can’t recall—but she referred to her father’s horrifying activity, and I was so shocked that I left off lurking and spying, and burst into the room. I believe I was ten years old at the time. I was told that the man—who was never, and never will be referred to in the fond, familiar manner that Ball does—was not entirely right in the head. He truly believed he was helping to protect Southern Caucasian women, but he was wrong. It was awful, and now it’s over; let’s not talk about it anymore. In fact, this topic was so taboo that my own sister didn’t know. She is old now, and was shocked when I mentioned it last spring. She had no idea.

As I developed, I understood, from teachers and friends more enlightened than Mr. Ball, that the best way we can deal with ugly things in our background that we cannot change, is to contribute our own energies in the opposite direction. I’ve lived by it, and so I was waiting for Ball to say something similar, if not in the prologue, then surely somewhere near the end; but he never did. If Ball feels any duty whatsoever to balance the scales of his family’s terrible contribution, he doesn’t offer it up. There’s no call to action, no cry for social justice. Just the message that hey—it’s normal, and it’s fine.

I’m not sure if I want to read his other work anymore; but I know that what I cannot do, and will not do, is recommend this book to you.

Book review One Mississippi Two Mississippi: Methodists, Murder, and the Struggle for Racial Justice in Neshoba County by Carol VR George ***-****

onemississippi I was drawn to this title because it deals with the Civil Rights movement. Fifty years have gone by since the pivotal events of that time, and now, as a second movement unfolds in response to the disproportionate jailing of African-Americans and out-of-control cop violence, it seemed like a good choice. I have no particular interest in Mississippi as opposed to any other part of the USA, and absolutely no interest in the Methodist church, but I was willing to slog through the various ins and outs of church history in order to find the nuggets that were salient to the political struggle. Thank you to Net Galley and Oxford University Press for the DRC. I’ve rated this book, which reads as if it was perhaps someone’s thesis at some point, a 3.5 for general interest levels, but for those with a particular interest in Methodist history or the history of Mississippi, I suspect it would rate five stars.
Methodists take great pride in having participated in the Underground Railroad prior to the American Civil War, and George takes the church to task for having failed so miserably in upholding this standard following Reconstruction. As Jim Crow laws became the rule of the south, Caucasian Methodists in Mississippi closed their doors to African-American worshippers, and the central church administration, after a certain amount of struggle, folded like a card table. Separate churches became the law of the land. Only in recent years has this changed, and even then, change has been slow.
Neshoba County is of particular interest to Civil Rights scholars because it is there that the Freedom Riders, in addition to countless local black voters that opened their homes to Civil Rights activists and helped run the Freedom School, were murdered by the Klan and the cops; it was opened in the (black) Longsdale Methodist church to assist black voters in running the gauntlet of red tape and assorted obstacles through which its citizens had to pass in order to use the power of the ballot. In contrast to Longsdale, the Neshoba County town of Philadelphia is overwhelmingly Caucasian, and its vicious racism, along with that of most of white Mississippi, was a tough nut to crack. There has been progress made, but much work yet to be done.
I was aghast to see that 96 percent of white Mississippians supported the continuation of Jim Crow laws, and it was because of their conspiracy to keep the Old South in entirely white hands that it was nearly impossible to bring the killers of the Civil Rights workers to justice. Only recently have its residents been open to change. The Choctaw Indians opened a casino in the area and in doing so created more jobs, and therefore more turnover in those that reside in Neshoba County, and this is partially responsible for recent progress.
Should you go out and spend money on the hard cover book? I guess this depends upon how deep your pockets are, and whether or not you are interested in the history of Mississippi and of Methodism. I am glad I read it, although the recently re-released biography of Dr. King is unquestionably the definitive story of the Civil Rights movement. Still, for those that have the time and interest to read more than one book on the topic, and I hope you do, you could do much worse than to read this interesting study. I’m glad I did.