The work of prolific Alabama novelist William Bradford Huie allows us to look to Southern history and literature to learn crucial lessons on how to prevent the Klan from terrorizing this new American present. Huie’s The Klansman was revolutionary as a literary work and remains significant today for its critique of this organization and for several other factors.I will focus here on the novel’s antiracist model of white Alabamians in Breck and Allen, its critique of the damaging impact of racist Klan propaganda and the costs of buying into it, its radical model of black womanhood, and its implications for the Black Power movement. All of these dimensions not only made The Klansman a radical novel for its time, but also are part of why it continues to be relevant now.
Huie’s work as a journalist, best-selling author of 28 books (including several novels adapted into films), and controversial investigative work as a civil rights activist made him one of the most important and culturally impactful writers of the 20th century. Huie, who was born in 1910 in Hartselle, Alabama, started his career as a journalist and became known for his courageous and provocative engagement of civil rights cases. He frequently proclaimed himself to be “in the truth business.”1 He sometimes made use of the controversial tactic of “checkbook journalism” to get at the truth. He first gained prominence after he paid J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the men who killed 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, $4,000 for their confession to the horrific murder and published his findings in Look magazine in 1956.2
While Mississippi was the main focus of some of his earliest writing projects, Huie turned his attention to Alabama in The Klansman, in which he developed a fictive character closely resembling himself. The confirmation of Jeff Sessions as the nation’s attorney general is now linked to “the Alabamafication of America,” a reason that it is valuable to remember Huie as a native Alabamian, who stood at the vanguard in supporting and advancing black civil rights.3The Klansman is a work of continuing significance for providing a counternarrative to the all too familiar example of white racism in Alabama.