Sexualized Racism/Gendered Violence: Outraging the Body Politic in the Reconstruction South

From its establishment in the months following the Civil War by a motley assortment of disgruntled former rebels, the first Ku Klux Klan, like its many vigilante counterparts, employed terror to realize its invidious social and political aspirations. This terror assumed disparate shapes – from the storied nightriding of disguised bands on horseback, to cryptic threats, horrific assaults, and, not infrequently, murder. While students of Reconstruction have considered many facets of klan violence, none to date has focused exclusively on sexual violence in its historical specificity. Yet, as the work of Catherine Clinton, Laura Edwards, and Martha Hodes persuasively demonstrates, sexuality was a critical site upon which the complex and often convoluted racial, gender, and class conflicts of the era were waged, one that must be excavated and analyzed as part of a remarkably robust and resilient system of repression. This Article examines the calculated deployment of sexualized violence by the Reconstruction-era klans and its relationship to competing notions of justice, citizenship, and sexual propriety. Exploring what is distinctly sexual about klan terror – the sheer pervasiveness, intensity, and ideological coherence of these acts perpetrated as they were within a system of racial dominance long marked by forced sex and procreation – establishes sexualized violence as an essential aspect of the postwar Southern condition. Resonant throughout these events was the indefeasible legacy of slavery. Much as slaveowners and their minions used sexual violence and coercion in displaying and exercising mastery over their human chattel, klansmen systematically molested and violated their victims in an attempt to reinstantiate white male dominance in its antebellum form, in effect replacing the legal infrastructure of slavery that had once authorized their status with extralegal supports of their own making. Violent sex was in both of these cases a performance of status by the dominant actors and a harshly lived reality for its victims. The enduring consequences of these experiences for the freedpeople, their white sympathizers, and subsequent generations lend important insights into the nature of historical traumatization, its potency and memorialization. Although contemporary historians rightly acknowledge that former slaves strived to resist racist assault in its many guises, the terror of the klans imposed formidable obstacles in the paths of many. As is often the case in the study of sexual trauma, the historical record is less forthcoming about the experience of victimization and survival than it is about the actions and designs of its perpetrators. What follows is in part intended to correct that imbalance.