Terrorism and Media Consistently Interact Whether the KKK or ISIS

While media and culture have changed dramatically in the last 150 years, the rulebook that terrorists groups use to engage media have not:

  • Be menacingly violent.
  • Dress differently.
  • Take credit for more incidents that you may actually have done.
  • Have an air of mystery.

The same rules might apply to ISIS, circa 2016, or to a fledging Ku Klux Klan (KKK) forming in Tennessee in 1866, according to Dr. Elaine Frantz Parsons. Associate Professor of History at Duquesne University, Parsons has tackled the touchy topic of the KKK and how northern newspapers and culture helped to build it in her new book Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction.

The book, 13 years in the making, works to separate myth from evidence, reputation from reality.

"Klansmen often made jokes and tall tale claims about what they did, like leaping out of a building and setting fire to a train," Parsons said. "They made up a set of fake codes and a constitution called a 'prescript,' which set up a very elaborate bureaucratic structure that would go almost entirely unused. Because they did this sort of thing, there is a tendency to imagine the Klan as being more coherent and organized than they actually were."

The Klan founders also took ghost costumes popular on stage at the time, and drew on the black face minstrel shows and burlesque common in northern culture to devise costumes. "When the Klan appeared, their look was modern to the people at the time. Even though they were resisting the modern, they were using a lot of trendy costumes and catch phrases," Parsons observed.

Then, as now, terrorists tended to originate in the disaffected middle class-not those living in poverty. "If you are low enough down the totem pole, you wouldn't have the skills or resources to engage in elaborate attacks," Parsons explained. "These attacks require planning, organizing, communicating. You have to think of things like having everything from horses and weapons for raids to food for groups during meetings. That's not going to come from the very bottom of society."

Parsons also notes that, in fact, black resistance to Klan attacks was often substantial and sometimes effective. Would-be victims planned to protect themselves, organized to protect each other and fought back once KKK arrived. Klan attackers rarely attacked in places which were well-defended or in ear-shot of would-be defenders.

"There are lessons to learn from the effectiveness of black resistance to the Klan, now that we also face terroristic threats from today's groups," Parsons said.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.