Reading

A Nucleus of Ordinary Men

In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois published an influential book titled “Black Reconstruction in America.” This excerpt describes the role of secrecy and fear in perpetuating mob violence. This is Handout 10.3 (p. 178) of The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy.


In his 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois analyzes the sources of the power of the Ku Klux Klan this way:

The method of force which hides itself in secrecy is a method as old as humanity. The kind of thing that men are afraid or ashamed to do openly, and by day, they accomplish secretly, masked, and at night. The method has certain advantages. It uses Fear to cast out Fear; it dares things at which open method hesitates; it may with a certain impunity attack the high and the low; it need hesitate at no outrage of maiming or murder; it shields itself in the mob mind and then throws over all a veil of darkness which becomes glamor. It attracts people who otherwise could not be reached. It harnesses the mob.

. . . Total depravity, human hate . . . do not explain fully the mob spirit in America. Before the wide eyes of the mob is ever the Shape of Fear. Back of the writhing, yelling, cruel-eyed demons who break, destroy, maim and lynch and burn at the stake, is a knot, large or small, of normal human beings, and these human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something. Of what? Of many things, but usually of losing their jobs, being declassed, degraded, or actually disgraced; of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children; of the actual pangs of hunger, of dirt, of crime. And of all this, most ubiquitous in modern industrial society is that fear of unemployment.

It is its nucleus of ordinary men that continually gives the mob its initial and awful impetus. Around this nucleus, to be sure, gather snowball-wise all manner of flotsam, filth and human garbage, and every lewdness of alcohol and current fashion. But all this is the horrible covering of this inner nucleus of Fear. 1

Citations

  • 1 : W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (Free Press, 1999), 677.

Related Content

Reading
Race in US History

W. E. B. Du Bois Reflects on the Purpose of History

W. E. B. Du Bois questions the way that Reconstruction was studied and taught in an excerpt from his 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America.

Lesson
Race in US History

Violence and Backlash

By examining periods of violence during the Reconstruction era, students learn about the potential backlash to political and social change.

Audio
Race in US History
The Reconstruction Era

W.E.B. Du Bois Reflects on the Purpose of History

In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois published an influential book titled Black Reconstruction in America. This audio excerpt, from a chapter titled “The Propaganda of History,” questions the ways in which Reconstruction was being studied and taught at the time.

DVD
Race in US History

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow

From the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, Southern blacks led lives of subordination maintained by white supremacist laws known as “Jim Crow.”

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.