Yesterday America once again celebrated its independence from British Colonialism. Cookouts and fireworks were held all over the country as people sought out even the smallest amount of happiness during what are surreal times. The Coronavirus Pandemic and murder of George Floyd (1973-2020) have placed America at a crossroads. As a nation we are forced with both an invisible enemy that spreads from person to person and a highly visible one which has festered in our nation for far too long. But what is paramount to remember is that America has faced these enemies before but what we do moving forward will truly define what type of country we wish to have. I found this book on Amazon while browsing through a list of daily recommendations and the cover caught my attention instantly. I do confess that did not have the slightest idea who the person on the cover was and why he is important in American history. All that changed as I opened the pages of this book and learned a history lesson that I have never seen in any textbook.
As a person of color, I am sometimes placed in a tough position. I love America deeply but I am sometimes ashamed of the image that we project to the rest of the world. Domestically, we all know of and may have even been to the region simply called “the South”. For black men and women, the southeastern part of the United States was nothing short of hell on earth. And the enslavement of people of color remains entrench in America’s dark past. In the wake of the Civil War, the Republican Party had embarked on a path to eradicate all traces of the Confederacy and rebuild the South from scratch as a part of the Union in which freedom, liberty and equality held true for all. In the state of Georgia, a Radical Republican named George W. Ashburn (1814-1868) had pushed for the reconstruction of Georgia and firmly believed that African-Americans were human beings and should have a part to play in a new society. His actions and beliefs enraged former Confederate officers, slave owners and racists still seething from losing the war. On the night of March 31, 1868, several hooded men burst into the lodgings of Hannah Flournoy where Ashburn was staying and shot the politicaan to death. The group that carried out the murder became known to the public as the Ku Klux Klan.
Founded in 1865 by a group of disgruntled Confederate soldiers in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Ku Klux Klan grew into a widespread organization that terrorized white and black citizens through horrific acts of violence. Their savagery however, was always saved for Black Americans and the atrocities committed by the Klan’s upon people of color is too extensive and disturbing to discuss here. In Washington, D.C., President Ulysses G. Grant (1822-1886) took notice and the government created its plan to dismantle the Ku Klux Klan. The division tasked with such a daunting objective was the Secret Service under the direction of officer and Second Chief Hiram C. Whitley (1834-1919), whom author Charles Lane calls Freedom’s Detective.
As I started the book, I kept asking myself how a figure like Whitley has gone unmentioned in history books? It was clear that he was not a major political figure or military leader but after starting the book, I soon realized why he is important and his story should be known. To be clear, Whitley will most likely never be seen as a “social justice warrior”. In fact, an incident in Kansas involving an abolitionist named John Doy initially put me on the defensive regarding his character. However, I pressed on and as the story develops Whitley is transformed from deviant into a law enforcement officer willing to fight fire with fire. Some readers may be surprised that he was a Secret Service agent and not a typical law enforcement officer. The reason is that upon its creation, the Secret Service was mainly tasked with cracking down on counterfeit money which was a highly lucrative business. And as Lane points out towards the end of the book, it was not until the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, that the Secret Service was assigned to protect the president. Prior to this, the agency had its primary area of investigation but was also asked to take action in other areas which are thoroughly explored in the book. And interestingly, there is a surprising fact about its creation that many of us might not be aware of.
Following Ashburn’s murder, Whitley is dispatched to Georgia to bring the assailants to justice. And what he accomplished marked the first successful infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan and proved to Washington that the organization was far from a myth as some right wing southern newspapers had proclaimed. By no means was the task easy and there were many who still sympathized with the South and had no desire to see African-Americans on equal footing. However, Whitley was undeterred and believed in breaking down the Klan for good. But he was not without his faults, some of which were exposed during the trial of New York City counterfeiter Joshua D. Miner. The arrest of the highly respected Miner and the trial that ensued could have changed the course of history had the old veteran Whitley not been quick on his feet and armed with the support of Washington which was ramping up its war on the Klan.
On June 7, 1871, Senator John Pool produced witnesses from North Carolina to testify before the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States. The committee became known informally as the Ku Klux Committee and heard from witnesses, stories of the atrocities being committed in the south. Washington was paying close attention as Whitley was joined by fresh faces including Joseph G. Hester, whose own past was just murky as Whitley’s. However, Hester figures prominently in the mission to defeat the Klan and Whitley’s agents dealt staggering blows to the Klan as part of their goal to see its extinction. But as readers will learn in the book, silencing the Klan was as much a political issue as it was a social issue. And what I learned caused me to hang my head in shame and disbelief.
You might be wondering, if the government had begun to eradicate the Klan, why did it not go all the way? I began to ask myself the same question and Lane provides the answer to it. What should have been the moment for the U.S. Government to end the Klan once and for all, turned into a moment of the highest lack of foresight. And one result is that it paved the way for Jim Crow and the battle for civil rights that continues to this day. Whitley, Hester and the other agents who fought valiantly against the Klan began to see the writing on the wall. And the recapturing of power by Southern Democrats sealed the Radical Republicans’ fate and their mission to bring true equality to all people in the United States.
Towards the end of the book as the Klan fades away from Washington’s concern and Democrats take control of Washington, Whitley finds himself embroiled in a mind-boggling fiasco that left me speechless. The events surrounding Columbus Alexander felt as if I were reading an eerie premonition of what we now refer to as Watergate. I can only imagine how many investigations would take place and how many hearings would be held if a Secret Service chief attempted what Whitley concocts. The old adage that truth is stranger than fiction applies all throughout this book. And if you need more confirmation, play close attention to Whitley’s actions regarding James Ivins, the stepson of former Attorney General George H. Williams (1823-1910). I cannot put into words just how mind-boggling this part of the book is.
Hiram C. Whitley was certainly an unorthodox figure and while he was far from a beacon of equality, he did lead the way in the battle against the Ku Klux Klan and had his vision prevailed, the organization might have met its demise as early as the 1870s. But the rise in power of the Southern Democrats and the reluctance of Liberal Republicans to go after the Klan, allowed the South to reincorporate its power and for black people, life would become more burensome than any could have predicted. Readers will be left with many what if questions regarding the aftermath of the Civil War. I firmly believe that every American should read this book. And if all men are created equal, we have to understand where we went wrong as a nation so that we can actually do what is needed to correct it. The past is always prologue. Highly recommended.