A Saturday Night In Reidsville

A ride with the KKK produced a memorable photographic essay which featured as an HCP exhibition last October.

The sequence of events which led to this essay was somewhat accidental, as I had actually set out to photograph a tobacco auction near Reidsville. I left Savannah on a Saturday morning in 1957. About twenty miles west of Savannah, in Pooler, Georgia — a tiny community known for its speed traps — I saw a line of cars being decorated with KKK symbols. I stopped and asked permission to take photographs. I had to convince the group that I was not with Life or Time magazines, which had recently published articles on the KKK. Having convinced the toughest-looking members of the group, I was then invited to join the motorcade. About thirty miles down Highway 28, it began raining, and the KKK decorations on the cars were damaged. A stop was made after the storm passed to repair the paint. Then the procession continued until it reached the outskirts of Reidsville, where it pulled over to wait until dusk.

To most Georgians, the town of Reidsville has a vaguely ominous reputation — the memory of chain gangs, prisoners who worked out of the state penitentiary just on the outskirts of town. In other respects, Reidsville is a typical market town, serving the surrounding population of farmers, raising tobacco, corn, and cotton. As in many other areas of the Deep South, the farms around Reidsville are small. The farmers are poor, and about half of them are black. Reidsville is the county seat of Tattnall County and has a population of less than 3,000. On Saturday afternoon, however, the population may double, when country people come into town to buy, congregate, and socialize on Main Street across from the courthouse.

I went into town to photograph the shoppers and the reactions of people to the erection of a platform and cross on the courthouse steps. The people, both black and white, viewed these events with little outward response. When the KKK motorcade arrived in town at dusk, it passed in review in front of the police booth, located at the corner of the courthouse square. The reviewers consisted of the mayor, the sheriff, the Grande Kleegle of the KKK, a Baptist minister from a nearby town.

As it became dark, the KKK meeting began, with the Knights forming a semicircle around the huge cross. The cross was covered with electric light bulbs and wrapped in aluminum foil. The program, as I remember it, included the National Anthem, the Lord's Prayer, and several passionate prayers and speeches warning of the perils of "Communism, Jews, Niggers, Catholics, Foreigners, and Time Magazine." The rally provided a vivid spectacle for the large crowd of both black and white people who watched discreetly from a street across from the courthouse. By 9:30 p.m., it was over, and everybody went home without incident.

I recently returned to Reidsville and showed these photographs to a number of people who were either in the photographs or witnessed the event. I have taped interviews with these people: the former police chief, Justice of the Peace, sheriff, cafe owner, school bus driver, and county school official. These interviews described Reidsville, how it has changed and how it has remained the same in the twenty-five years since I first went there to take these pictures. I found that the people were not at all reluctant to discuss the Klan, race relations, county politics, and general gossip about people in the photographs. In fact, they took a set of the pictures to hang in the cafe. I plan to return to do more photographs and interviews, including portraits of the people interviewed.

By Fred Baldwin