Ku Klux Klan

views updated Jun 08 2018


Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is the name given not so much to a specific organization as to a tradition of southern vigilantism that dates back to the time of African American slavery in the early to mid-nineteenth century, when "slave patrols" were used to guard against escape, uprising, and other sorts of misbehavior by slaves. The first organization to call itself "Ku Klux Klan" was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, by six young Confederate veterans in 1866. The first two words of the name were derived from kyklos, the Greek word for "circle"—a designation appropriate to its mission, which revolved largely around differentiating those inside the circle (European Americans loyal to white supremacy) from those outside it. The founders regarded the Klan as a social club, a sort of fraternity, and adopted rituals, special outfits, a vow of secrecy, and an elaborate organizational structure to emphasize its exclusivity. Although the originators later claimed to have had no political intent in founding the Klan, it evolved over the course of the next year into a terrorist organization whose methods included lynchings and other tactics of intimidation.


When the Civil War ended in 1865, it was immediately succeeded by a political war of comparable ferocity. The principal issues were the terms under which the rebel states would be readmitted to the Union and the status and rights of African Americans in those states. Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), although he freed the slaves, was not a friend to the concept of African American equality, and his intention toward the southern states was to put the Civil War behind immediately and heal the Union as quickly and painlessly as possible. After Lincoln was assassinated, the new president, Andrew Johnson (1808–1875), took up Lincoln's moderate approach toward the South. However, the Radical Republicans in Congress, led by Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, wanted to treat the South as a vanquished foe and immediately bring the former slaves into full citizenship with suffrage and political rights equal to those of their former masters. The Radical Republicans succeeded in passing the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866 (both over Johnson's opposition), giving citizenship rights with the exception of suffrage to African Americans. In 1867 they passed the Reconstruction Acts, which added suffrage for African Americans (later made permanent by the Fifteenth Amendment), disbanded the state militias of the defeated southern states, established federal military control of the governments of those states, and required approval of the Fourteenth Amendment by each state before it could be readmitted to the Union. Congress itself was divided over these measures, as reflected by the narrow defeat of the Radical Republican effort to remove Johnson from office by impeachment. Meanwhile, the Southern states were moving in the opposite direction, acting in 1865 and 1866 to establish "black codes" (based on the pre-emancipation slave codes), by which the rights of freed slaves were so radically limited as to return them to a condition not much different from slavery. The political struggle was waged largely along party lines, with Republicans advocating federal control over the Southern states and Democrats advocating "states' rights"—that is, the rights of the states to choose their own forms of government and determine their own laws.

In this highly polarized environment it was not difficult for the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups, such as the Knights of the White Camellia in Louisiana, to attract disaffected southerners, especially former Confederate soldiers, interested in safeguarding the economic well-being and traditional values of southern society. The KKK expanded to become a statewide organization that achieved formal structure at a gathering in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1867. The former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821–1877) was named Grand Wizard, the top position in the Klan's hierarchy. Forrest, a vocal opponent of Republican policies toward the South, issued the "Prescript of the Order," specifying support for white control of state governments and denial of Negro equality.

By 1868 the KKK had spread to all the southern states. At first Klansmen were content to intimidate the black population by sweeping through the night in white robes, riding horses with muffled hooves, and pretending to be the ghosts of the Confederate dead returning to exact retribution. Soon, however, psychological intimidation gave way to whipping, beating, and even murder. The main targets were the former slaves, but many whites who sympathized with the Republican agenda were victims of Klan violence as well. Teachers, both black and white, at public schools established for African Americans by the Freedmen's Bureau (created by the federal government to aid the freed slaves) were among those frequently chosen for harassment.

The reign of the Klan was brief but effective. The main accomplishment was keeping African Americans from voting—an important factor enabling all the southern states within a few years to reject the Republican state governments imposed by Congress, install Democratic rule, and return the African American population to subjugation. Thus, the principal tenets of Forrest's "Prescript" were realized.


The success of the Klan, however, also provided the seeds for its demise. The first great blow came from its own Grand Wizard. Declaring that he had never intended terrorist violence to be a part of the order's arsenal, Forrest in early 1869 ordered the KKK disbanded and instructed its officers to destroy all Klan regalia and Klan records. This was the end of the nineteenth-century Ku Klux Klan as a centralized organization operating throughout the South. However, many local Klan groups continued to operate independently and as violently as ever.

At about the same time, Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), a Republican sympathetic to Radical Reconstruction, succeeded Andrew Johnson as president. Urged on by Congress, Grant ordered an investigation of the KKK that resulted in a grand jury report which, calling the Klan the "Invisible Empire of the South," concluded:

The operations of the Klan are executed in the night and are invariably directed against members of the Republican Party. The Klan is inflicting summary vengeance on the colored citizens by breaking into their houses at the dead of night, dragging them from their beds, torturing them in the most inhuman manner, and in many instances murdering. ("Radical Republicans")

In 1870 and 1871 Congress passed the Force Acts and the Ku Klux Klan Act, intended to curb the Klan's activities at all levels. These acts made it illegal to deprive anyone of his or her constitutional rights, including those provided by the recent amendments pertaining to freed slaves. The acts were to be enforced by the states, but if a state failed to enforce the laws, the president had the power to intervene. These federal actions successfully finished the destruction of the Klan that Forrest had begun; by the mid-1870s, when Reconstruction ended, the Klan was virtually nonexistent.

The problems of African Americans in the American South, however, were far from over. In the post-Reconstruction era their mistreatment simply became routine. Although the black codes were gone, they were replaced by Jim Crow laws that legally sanctioned racial segregation. As George Washington Cable (1844–1925) later said (in The Negro Question, published in 1890), "The ex-slave was not a free man; he was only a free Negro" (Trelease, p. xvi). The end of Reconstruction had occurred, curiously enough, with the election of another Republican president, Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893), in 1876—an election whose outcome initially was inconclusive, hinging on disputed vote counts in three southern states. Hayes, in order to get the vote count he wanted, agreed to bring all Reconstruction activities to an end and let the southern states return to full sovereignty. The states gave Hayes the vote count that resulted in his election, and Reconstruction was over. In this climate the Ku Klux Klan was, in fact, no longer needed. Any intimidation perceived to be required could occur without interference from, and often with the active cooperation of, local and state governments. The federal government, and the North in general, apparently had lost interest in the fate of the freed slaves.


Albion Tourgée's novel A Fool's Errand, published in 1879, recounts many Klan-related atrocities in the Reconstruction South. Tourgée (1838–1905) himself served as a federal judge in North Carolina from 1868 to 1874 and knew firsthand what it was like to experience Klan terror. In 1870 he wrote a letter to Senator Joseph Abbott (later published in the New York Tribune) complaining of Klan violence, including the lynching of fellow judge John Stephens. About his own situation he said: "I have very little doubt that I shall be one of the next victims. My steps have been dogged for months, and only a good opportunity has been wanting to secure to me the fate which Stephens has just met" (Tourgée, "Albion W. Tourgée"). Though A Fool's Errand gives primary attention to Klan crimes, it also shows sympathy for the plight of the South that provided a fertile ground for the growth of the Klan, and it criticizes the federal government's Reconstruction policy—both its omissions and its excesses.

Anger at the sort of violence perpetrated by the Klan and then institutionalized in the post-Reconstruction era led Mark Twain (1835–1910) in 1901 to write "The United States of Lyncherdom" (not published until 1923), which denounced the "moral cowardice" that prevented individuals from opposing mob violence. Twain also dealt with such violence in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), which includes several near-lynchings. Most notably, after Colonel Sherburn, an aristocratic resident of a small town in Arkansas, murders the town drunk (Boggs) in broad daylight in front of witnesses, a mob tries to lynch Sherburn, but he faces them down with a shotgun and a liberal dose of scorn. Sherburn's speech to the crowd refers sarcastically to Klan-style justice, though without actually mentioning the Klan (which would have been an anachronism because the novel is set in the 1840s):

The pitifulest thing out is a mob. . . . Now the thing for you to do, is to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole. If any real lynching's going to be done, it will be done in the dark, Southern fashion; and when they come they'll bring their masks. (P. 191)

The problem is that Sherburn's otherwise admirably heroic stand against mob violence is not really an attack on lynching per se. In fact, he portrays lynching, in view of the average person's cowardice, as perhaps the only viable instrument of justice: "Why don't your juries hang murderers? Because they're afraid the man's friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark—and that's just what they would do. So . . . then a man goes in the night, with a hundred masked cowards at his back, and lynches the rascal" (p. 190). In Life on the Mississippi (1883), Twain blames many of the South's nineteenth-century deficiencies on what he calls "the Sir Walter [Scott] disease" (p. 468)—a reliance on antiquated romantic notions "that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations" (p. 469).

The sort of sentimentality and delusions of grandeur that Twain cites as being so harmful to the South are precisely the values promoted in novels by Thomas Nelson Page (1853–1922) and Thomas Dixon Jr. (1864–1946). The hallmark of the KKK as portrayed in Page's Red Rock (1898) is the preservation of purity: the purity of southern womanhood, the purity of the threatened idyllic southern lifestyle, the purity of the European American racial heritage. Dixon's much more influential The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden, 1865–1900 (1902) and The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905) follow a similar trajectory but add a deep racial hatred to the mix. All three novels sold well, and their premises were for the most part not regarded as offensive. In an era in which social unrest had become a major concern for those in the North (where there were serious labor uprisings) as well as the South, an organization such as the Klan, whose mission was to stifle troublemakers and maintain an unruffled surface for society, could exert a romantic appeal.

Dixon believed that African Americans had been "idealized" and "worshipped" in accordance with their romanticized portrayal in Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–1852) and that Americans had "heard only one side for forty years" (Railton). The Leopard's Spots straightforwardly presents itself as an antithetical rewriting of Stowe's novel. It represents blacks as subhuman, Radical Republicans as evil, and the Ku Klux Klan as heroic saviors of the wholesome traditional values of the South.

The Clansman is a heavily researched historical novel that again portrays the KKK as heroic and blacks as bestial—acceptable as domesticated animals but dangerous if allowed to roam free. The story centers on the rape of a young, white southern virgin by a black man, the girl's and her mother's suicides rather than live with their shame, and the heroic lynching of the perpetrator by the Klansmen. A subplot features Austin Stoneman, a character based on the Radical Republican senator Thaddeus Stevens. Stoneman sets the evil machinery of the Reconstruction in motion, but then, broken in health, moves to the South with his son and daughter. The daughter falls in love with a dashing ex-Confederate officer who becomes the Grand Dragon of the South Carolina KKK and, at the novel's dramatic conclusion, leads his Klan forces in rescuing Stoneman's son from an unjust execution.


The literary rehabilitation of the Ku Klux Klan was completed in 1915 when the moviemaker D. W. Griffith turned Dixon's The Clansman into a feature film titled The Birth of a Nation. The film was a cinematic masterpiece and was immensely popular. President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) was said to have commented after seeing the film: "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true" (Freund). Inspired by Griffith's film, William J. Simmons, a former Methodist clergyman living in Atlanta, revived the Klan tradition with a dramatic ceremony at Stone Mountain, Georgia, that included a cross burning—a ritual that had not been part of Klan ceremonies of the Reconstruction era. Simmons called his group the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and declared himself Imperial Wizard. The new Klan grew rapidly and became a nationwide organization, though strongest in the South and the Midwest.

Simmons's Klan abstained for the most part from violence; however, it was a potent political force promoting an ultraconservative moral, religious, and social agenda. As in Page's and Dixon's novels, the emphasis was on purity—white Anglo-Saxon Protestant purity. It was opposed not only to African Americans but also to Jews, Roman Catholics, immigrants, and labor unions as well; it also supported Prohibition. At its peak in the 1920s, it had more than four million members, including about half a million members in the Women's Ku Klux Klan, and this translated into votes that were likely to be focused effectively on a narrow range of issues. The Klan successfully supported the election of sixteen U.S. senators in the 1920s, of whom five were actually members of the KKK—including Hugo Black, who later became a Supreme Court justice. President Warren Harding also joined the Klan. The Klan gained almost total political control over the state of Indiana, but that control dissolved when Indiana's Klan boss David Stephenson was convicted of second-degree murder. When Ed Jackson, Stephenson's handpicked governor, refused to pardon him, Stephenson took revenge by releasing incriminating information showing the deep corruption of the Klan organization. These events, coming in 1925 at the height of Klan power, led to a rapid deflation of its image as defender of purity, and despite a momentary revival in 1928 to oppose the presidential candidacy of Al Smith, a Roman Catholic, membership plummeted.

In 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) published The Great Gatsby, in which Tom Buchanan, a rich but thoroughly boorish character, says that he has been reading a book titled The Rise of the Colored Empires: "The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. . . . It's up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things" (p. 17). Though Fitzgerald's treatment is satirical, Tom is articulating a concern shared by millions of his contemporaries, as exhibited by the huge, if short-lived, success of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

The early twentieth century also showed a growing reaction to Klan-style violence among African American writers. Sutton Griggs's Imperium in Imperio (1899) chronicles a fictional attempt to establish an insurrectionist black government; characters debate what would later be called the "black power" response to racial violence and injustice (with the specific warning that a black man "beset by the Ku Klux" [p. 182] would get no help from the federal government) versus the accommodationist/integrationist approach. Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition (1901), based on an actual incident of large-scale racial violence in Wilmington, North Carolina, attacks the pervasive injustice of Jim Crow laws and strongly invokes the memory of Klan violence. W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903) includes a story titled "The Coming of John," in which the title character, a promising young black man in a southern town, kills a white man who is in the act of raping a young black woman, and the story ends with the lynch mob closing in. Anti-lynching plays also constitute a notable subgenre among African American authors of the early twentieth century, especially African American women—for example, Angelina Grimké's Rachel (1916), Georgia Douglas Johnson's A Sunday Morning in the South (1925), and May Miller's Nails and Thorns (1933). Each of these plays is built around the lynching of a black man on the basis of a false accusation that he has raped a white woman, and each is designed to appeal to the maternal instincts of white women who might imagine such things happening to their own innocent sons. Langston Hughes's "Father and Son," published in The Ways of White Folks (1933), concludes with the lynching of two black men, one of whom is known by the lynchers to be innocent, and several of the stories in Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children (1938) depict incidents of Klanlike violence.


The Klan declined through the 1930s, and in 1944 the national organization was effectively destroyed when the Internal Revenue Service hit it with a $650,000 lien for back taxes. Yet the Klan rose again when the civil rights movement began to gain momentum. This new Klan actually consisted of several separate organizations. Most notable were Robert Shelton's United Klans of America, based in Alabama, and Sam Bowers's White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi. Like the Reconstruction Klan, these new groups inflicted considerable violence on blacks and those supporting their right to racial equality, but unlike the Reconstruction Klan, the Klans of the 1960s were unable to halt the social forces they deplored. The federal government, under the strong leadership of President Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973), used the provisions of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 to prosecute racial crimes when state courts failed to do so. Bowers received a life sentence for the murders of civil rights activists. Shelton's organization was ruined financially when the mother of a black victim of a Klan murder successfully sued the United Klans, with the help of the activist Southern Poverty Law Center, as a conspirator in the violation of her son's civil rights. Various Klan organizations have continued to exist in diminished form and, though clinging to some of the old traditions, have begun to merge with or evolve into the paramilitary and neo-Nazi organizations that have taken up the banner of white supremacy.

See alsoThe Birth of a Nation; Blacks; Jim Crow; Lynching; The Marrow of Tradition; Reconstruction; Violence


Primary Works

Cable, George Washington. The Negro Question: A Selection of Writings on Civil Rights in the South. 1890. Edited by Arlin Turner. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958.

Chesnutt, Charles W. The Marrow of Tradition. 1901. New York: Arno, 1969.

Dixon, Thomas, Jr. The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. 1905. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.

Dixon, Thomas, Jr. The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden, 1865–1900. 1902. Gretna, La.: Pelican, 2001.

Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880. 1935. New York: Atheneum, 1992.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribners, 1995.

Griggs, Sutton. Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem. 1899. New York: Arno, 1969.

Railton, Stephen. "Dixon's Leopard's Spots." Stephen Railton and the University of Virginia, 2004. http://www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/proslav/dixonhp.html.

Tourgée, Albion Winegar. "Albion W. Tourgée, Letter on Ku Klux Klan Activities (1870)." America Past and Present. Available at http://occawlonline.pearsoned.com/bookbind/pubbooks/divine5e/medialib/timeline/docs/sources/theme_primarysources_Civil_Rights_5.html.

Tourgée, Albion Winegar. A Fool's Errand: A Novel of the South during Reconstruction. 1879. New York: HarperCollins, 1979.

Tourgée, Albion Winegar. The Invisible Empire. 1880. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1885. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. 1883. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Secondary Works

Chalmers, David M. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: New Viewpoints, 1976.

Freund, Charles Paul. "Dixiecrats Triumphant: The Menacing Mr. Wilson." Reasonline, 18 December 2002. http://reason.com/links/links121802.shtml.

Horn, Stanley F. Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, 1866–1871. 2nd ed. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1969.

Katz, William Loren. The Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan Impact on History. Seattle: Open Hand, 1986.

"Radical Republicans." Teaching History Online. 15 March 2005. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USASradical.htm.

Randel, William Peirce. The Ku Klux Klan: A Century of Infamy. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1965.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877. New York: Knopf, 1965.

Trelease, Allen W. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Wade, Wyn Craig. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

James S. Leonard

Ku Klux Klan

views updated May 11 2018

Ku Klux Klan

LEADERS: James Roesch, Ron Edwards, Jeff Berry




The Ku Klux Klan, also known as the KKK or the Klan, is one of the oldest and best-known hate groups in America. Founded by a group of Confederate Civil War veterans in 1866, the group expanded throughout the South and beyond, attracting thousands of members unhappy with Reconstruction, the post-war period when the former Confederate states were occupied by Union troops and governed by northerners. The Klan eventually swelled to more than half a million members, though national leaders actually exercised little direct control over the local chapters. As the Klan became larger, it also grew more violent, prompting national leader Nathan Forrest to formally disband it in 1869. Despite his attempt to end the organization, local Klans continued their actions, and in 1871, federal legislation outlawing the Klan was passed. The resulting legal crackdown marked the end of the Klan's first incarnation.

In 1915, William J. Simmons reorganized the Klan in Georgia, focusing its attention on African-Americans, Catholics, immigrants, and various other groups. Membership swelled to 100,000 and money flooded in. This second incarnation of the KKK spread across the nation, and the group managed to recruit numerous political leaders into its ranks. A rising tide of violence, combined with a midwestern Klan leader's conviction for a grisly rape and murder, began the Klan's decline. An IRS tax lien finished the job by bankrupting the organization in 1944. While the formal Klan no longer exists as a unified organization, various splinter groups, estimated to have fewer than 10,000 members altogether, continue to employ the name and practices of the Ku Klux Klan.


The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee, by six Confederate army veterans. In its earliest form, the group was largely social in nature, its members enjoying many of the rites and rituals often found in other fraternal organizations. But soon after its founding, the Klan's members became involved in racially motivated actions aimed at African-American families and organizations.

The Klan's 1867 convention created a formal structure for the group, as well as a three-item statement of purpose, called the "Prescript." This document defined the Klan's purposes: protecting the weak and defenseless, defending the U.S. Constitution, and enforcing the laws of the United States, particularly those dealing with unlawful seizure of property. While these objectives sound relatively benign to modern ears, they conveyed a clear message in the post Civil War South: the Klan existed to resist Reconstruction and impede the progress of freed slaves.

Leading the Klan in its new mission was a former Confederate general, Nathan Forrest, who was named the Klan's first Grand Wizard. Under his leadership, the Klan swiftly capitalized on Southern suffering, particularly in rural areas. The Klan was organized into various regions, with leaders creatively titled Grand Dragons, Titans, Giants, and Cyclopes. Across the rural South, Klansmen began a campaign of violence, including hundreds of lynchings. Klan violence was not restricted to freed slaves; Northern teachers, judges, and Republicans were all targeted for their perceived role in the destruction of the South's traditional way of life. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Klan leader George Gordon issued a proclamation in 1868 reaffirming the Klan's nonviolence and disavowing any connection with violent acts carried out in its name.

At its peak in 1868, the first Klan claimed more than half a million members nationwide. Despite its rapid numerical growth, the Klan's nominal leadership lacked any real control of its widely dispersed chapters. National leaders began to complain that local Klan groups were doing as they wished, and as violence escalated, reputable citizens began leaving the group. In 1869, in the face of growing unrest and infighting within the Klan's ranks, Grand Wizard Forrest ordered the organization disbanded. Whether this order was a legitimate effort to rein in the group's excessive violence or simply a form of legal self-protection for the group's leader, it had little effect and the violence continued to escalate.

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation making the Klan illegal and authorizing law enforcement to use force in bringing the group under control. Hundreds of Klansmen were jailed or fined as a result of the new law, and while pockets of Klan membership remained throughout the South, the organization as a whole was largely destroyed.

Despite a court ruling in 1882, which struck down the original anti-Klan legislation, the Klan's reputation had been largely destroyed, and the Klan largely disappeared for more than 30 years. In 1915, D. W. Griffith's epic film The Birth of a Nation was released. This work of historical fiction depicted the post Civil War South as a noble society, African-Americans as uneducated and violent, and Northerners as wicked interlopers. The film's heroes were the hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan, who delivered Southern white virtue from the African-American menace.

The film was a box office smash, ultimately taking in more than $10 million to become the highest grossing movie to that date. While controversial, the movie played upon the fears of many Americans, particularly working class men who were nervously watching an enormous wave of immigrants enter the U.S. workforce. In Atlanta, newspapers carrying ads for the movie also carried a small advertisement soliciting interest in a new Klan. The response was overwhelming, and later that year, Methodist pastor William J. Simmons gathered with a group of followers to launch the second Ku Klux Klan, with Simmons as Grand Wizard.

Simmons' new Klan had much in common with the original Klan, opposing Jews, Catholics, African-Americans, and immigrants. It also took positions against various illegal and allegedly immoral acts, including bootlegging, prostitution, graft, and failure to observe the Sabbath. Simmons also is credited with adding the infamous burning cross to the Klan's repertoire.

Simmons was a consummate promoter, and in the years leading up to 1921, membership swelled to 100,000, as money flooded in. In 1924, 40,000 Klansmen marched through the streets of the nation's capital in support of the Democratic National Convention. And political leaders at all levels chose to join the Klan rather than risk incurring its opposition. Future president Harry Truman was briefly a member.

The second Klan was much better organized, and far more profitable, than the first. It also managed to extend its reach beyond the South to much of the United States. But like the first Klan, the second soon found itself swimming in a rapidly rising tide of violence. As Klan leaders battled for control of the group's coffers, local Klan groups became more and more violent. The conviction of Midwest Klan leader, D. C. Stephenson, for the gruesome kidnapping, rape, and murder of a young schoolteacher, played a major role in the Klan once again falling from public favor during the 1930s. Following an IRS tax lien filing in 1944, the Klan formally dissolved for the second time.

Although the Klan formally died in the 1940s, the name continued to be used by numerous independent groups. The rapid growth of the U.S. economy following World War II, combined with the nation's resulting prosperity, reduced support for these factions. Rising interest in civil rights and victims' increased willingness to fight back during the 1960s also reduced the Klan's influence, and Klan marches were frequently met by counter-protestors. Law enforcement officials also actively worked to monitor and disrupt Klan activities.

By the 1980s, three separate umbrella Klan groups were competing for members: the Imperial Klans of America, the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Knights of the White Kamelia. A string of lawsuits has hurt these three groups; a civil suit following the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald pushed another group, the United Klans of America, into bankruptcy. The Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil rights groups have achieved some success in using high-dollar lawsuits to siphon off Klan resources.

While remaining one of the most widely known and most inflammatory of the nation's many hate groups, today's Ku Klux Klan is little more than a shadow of its former self, with an estimated 5,000-7,000 members scattered primarily across the South and Midwest. A 2002 report by the Jewish Anti-Defamation League concludes that, "Today, there is no such thing as the Ku Klux Klan. Fragmentation, decentralization, and decline have continued unabated."


While the Ku Klux Klan has a lengthy history of bigotry, violence, and racism, the group's focus and tactics have proven remarkably malleable, often shifting in response to the current mood in the country. While the specific targets of Klan attacks have changed, a common theme runs throughout; in each of its incarnations, the Klan has targeted groups that are easily painted as a threat to working-class Americans. By blaming these groups for the struggles faced by blue-collar workers, the Klan has been able to tap into deep veins of frustration and paranoia, allowing it to attract new members and grow rapidly.

The original Ku Klux Klan, sprouting amid the rubble of the Reconstructionist South, quickly set its sights on those it saw as a threat to the South's way of life: freed slaves, Northern immigrants, and local judges who seized property and enforced federal equality laws. In addition, the original Klan offered defeated Confederate soldiers a second chance to battle the foes of the South. The tactics used by the first Klan were typically harassment, intimidation, and physical violence. Among the most violent acts was the practice of lynching.

Lynching, in its broadest sense, refers to any punishment administered outside the formal justice system. Lynching takes a variety of forms around the world; in the United States, the term most often refers to murder by hanging. During the late 1800s, lynchers often raided African-Americans' homes at night. In some cases, the attackers removed firearms, while in others they whipped or murdered the residents. Lynching was intended to intimidate African-Americans and prevent freed slaves from voting or owning weapons. The number of lynchings declined after the Klan was banned in 1871, but they continued to occur regularly well into the twentieth century. Thus the threat of lynching remained a potent weapon for Klan members for many years.

The revived Klan of the early twentieth century was far broader in its geographic scope, moving beyond the South and into the Midwest and other regions of the country. As the group expanded, it found itself with new resources and new techniques at its disposal. The year 1915 saw the birth of the new Klan, and along with it, the arrival of a new technique, the placement of a burning cross on property in order to terrorize the owner. Along with the burning cross, the reorganized Klan also employed violence similar to that used in the group's first incarnation.

The Klan's rapid expansion in the 1920s also provided it with significant sums of money. Klan Grand Wizard William Simmons, a former pastor, used some of this income to hire publicists to assist the Klan with advertising and recruiting, and the group's numbers swelled. With both financial resources and a large membership, the group was now able to impact the political process in ways the original Klan never could. At its peak, the Klan had the resources to elect candidates of its choosing, most notably Ed Jackson, whom the Klan aided in his successful bid for the Indiana governor's office.

Various national politicians were members or past members of the Klan. Edward White, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in the early twentieth century, was one of two Supreme Court members known to have been Klansmen. While there remains some scholarly debate on the question, evidence suggests that President Warren Harding was a member of the Klan, having supposedly taken the oath of membership in the White House. Harry Truman was advised to join the Klan to help win re-election to a judgeship in Missouri, which he did, though he later distanced himself from the group. Hugo Black, Democratic Senator and Supreme Court Justice, was a Klan member in the 1920s, but later repudiated the group. West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd was a Klansman for many years. Byrd later called his membership a mistake.

In its second incarnation, the Klan once again identified groups that it blamed for the struggles of working-class Americans. While the original Klan was largely a product of Southern frustration and had chosen its targets accordingly, the second Klan quickly spread beyond the South. Consequently, its list of targets was correspondingly longer and more diverse. The second Klan's enemy list formally included African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, and various lawbreakers, including drug dealers and prostitutes; informally, local Klan organizations were frequently willing to target anyone they perceived as threatening their chosen values. Given the general distrust of foreigners and "outsiders" prevalent in the United States at the time, the Klan's focus on opposition to these groups led to rapid growth.


Six middle-class Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, form the original Ku Klux Klan, a social club focusing on fraternity-like rituals and hazing. The group soon begins racist activities.
The Klan is formalized at a convention in Nashville. Former slave trader and Confederate general, Nathan Forrest, is named its first Grand Wizard, or national leader.
Grand Wizard Forrest claims 550,000 members of the KKK, though most local groups remain autonomous.
Amid rising violence, President U.S. Grant signs legislation banning the Klan and authorizing the use of force against its members, marking the end of the first Ku Klux Klan.
D. W. Griffith's film, The Birth of a Nation, is released; the film glorifies the Klan as protectors of the South.
William J. Simmons leads the creation of the second Ku Klux Klan, which espouses anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant beliefs. The Klan grows to more than 100,000 members.
More than 40,000 uniformed Klansmen march in Washington D.C.
Growing violence and scandals within the Klan turn the public against the group; membership declines.
The Internal Revenue Service files a lien for $685,000 in back taxes against the Klan, leading to its dissolution. Various independent groups begin using the name.
Klan members bomb a church used by civil rights leaders in Atlanta.
The FBI begins efforts to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
Michael Donald is lynched by two Klansmen in Mobile, Alabama. The resulting civil suit bankrupts the United Klans of America, one of several Klan groups.
The Anti-Defamation League issues a report on extremism, in which it declares that the Ku Klux Klan no longer exists as an organized group.
Robed Klan members distribute literature following a fire at a Hispanic man's house in Ohio. The man had been accused of sexually assaulting a white girl.

The Klan's tactics against these new groups once again included traditional practices such as lynching, which became more frequent as the Klan grew. In addition, the new Klan began using the burning cross, a graphic threat that, by itself, was sometimes adequate to force victims to relocate. Klan leader Simmons also began to employ the tactics of marketing, hiring publicists to help him advertise and recruit new Klan members. The Klan's high point came in 1924, when 40,000 Klansmen converged to march in Washington, D.C. as a demonstration of the organization's growing political clout. Membership in the Klan approached 100,000 at its peak, and several top Klan leaders became wealthy.

As the Klan grew, it began to face a growing incompatibility between its public image of law and order and its private addiction to violence. With violent acts becoming more common and more extreme, the Klan's leadership found itself repeating the struggles of the first Klan's leaders, who had also tried to corral the group's increasingly radical fringe segments. This inability to exert control, combined with intense infighting over the group's profits, began to shake the Klan apart. By the late 1920s, the Klan was once again largely discredited among the general public, and its membership dissolved into dozens of competing factions, most with dwindling membership roles.

The Klan continued to decline throughout the Great Depression and World War II. With the U.S. economy rolling rapidly ahead following the war, the Klan's recruiting pleas were largely ineffective. While local Klan groups remained throughout America, efforts to reunite them into a monolithic Klan during the 1950s and 1960s failed. The coming of civil rights legislation in the 1960s did provide some new fuel for Klan fires, and membership nudged upward in response. However, the FBI and other law enforcement groups also became far more active in policing the Klan during this era, often using informants and infiltrators within the Klan to monitor and at times disrupt the group's operations. In one of the more bizarre episodes of this era, author Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Georgia Klan and began stealing Klan passwords, which were then broadcast on the weekly Superman radio show. These episodes, in which Superman battled and defeated the Klan, revealed the group's mysterious secret rituals to actually be sophomoric passwords and signs, leaving the Klan publicly humiliated.

While the Ku Klux Klan has little political influence today, Klan members have attempted to enter the political arena. David Duke joined the Klan at the age of 17, and was eventually elected Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a title he later changed to "national director." Duke ran for the Louisiana State Senate in 1976. While he later left the Klan to create the National Association for the Advancement of White People, he maintained his white supremacist position and never repudiated his involvement with the Klan. Duke later ran for statewide office as a Republican, prompting both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush to visit the state and campaign for his opponent. Duke was imprisoned in 2002 for tax and mail fraud. He was reportedly considering a new run for office following his release in 2004.


While the Ku Klux Klan has found its popularity dwindling in recent years, it does still have allies, primarily other white supremacist organizations which share the Klan's views.

The ACLU, whose stated purpose is to defend American individual rights from government interference, is frequently criticized for their work on behalf of groups such as the KKK. In 2002, Klan members reserved a Riverside Country, California public facility. Upon learning of the Klan's connection to the event, state officials attempted to cancel the contract. The ACLU of Southern California obtained a court order permitting the event to take place, citing First Amendment freedom of speech protection for the Klan's activities.

The ACLU often serves as a legal advocate for the Klan, not based upon the merits of Klan philosophy and thought, but rather for their Constitutional right to express their views. In a statement on the ACLU of Southern California's website, Ramona Ripston, ACLU/SC Executive Director, offered this perspective: "We defend the free speech rights of individuals and groups no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, from left to right and no matter how repugnant we find their message."


In the twenty-first century, the Ku Klux Klan is in disarray. Living in an increasingly diverse America, most U.S. citizens have become more comfortable with interpersonal differences, making them less receptive to white supremacist claims. Further, the generally healthy economic climate of the recent past has left fewer Americans out of work, further limiting the Klan's appeal. Today, the Klan exists only as around 100 independent Klaverns, whose influence is largely local and, in most cases, extremely limited. The emergence of numerous other white supremacist organizations has also provided new options to potential Klan members, making recruiting even more difficult for the aging KKK.

Ku Klutz Klan: KKK Initiation Ceremony Goes Astray

"Oh my God, I shot little brother!" was the first thing police say America's Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan member Gregory Allen Freeman said after he accidentally shot a fellow Klansman in the head during a Nov. 23 initiation in Johnson City, Tenn.

The ritual began to go awry after Klan initiate Karl Mitchell III, 27, was strung to a tree with a noose and made to stand on tiptoe while being pelted with paintballs.

According to Chief Deputy Patrick Littleton of Washington County, Freeman apparently meant to scare Mitchell with the sound of real gunfire by firing his handgun near Mitchell's ear.

But one of the paintballs apparently struck Freeman, causing him to buckle and squeeze off a round in the direction of Klan brother Jeffrey S. Murr, 24, who may have leaned forward after being hit with a paintball as well. A 9mm bullet entered the top of Murr's head and exited the bottom of his skull.

Freeman's reaction wasn't very helpful to his brother Klansman. A 45-year-old who goes by the nickname "Rebel," Freeman reportedly paced back and forth, hitting himself in the head with his handgun over and over, before he fled the scene.

Only Mitchell, the initiate, seemed to have his wits about him after the accidental shooting. After telling the Klansmen to cut him down from the tree, Mitchell rushed to Murr's side and applied pressure to the wound until help arrived.

Three months later Murr remained in serious condition, unable to speak.

Freeman was later found near his home and charged with reckless endangerment and aggravated assault. Released on $7,500 bail, he was scheduled to face a judge in mid-March.

Source: Southern Poverty Law Center, 2004



B'nai B'rith. Extremism in America. New York: Anti-Defamation League, 2002.

Wade, Wyn C. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Web sites

Anti-Defamation League. "Ku Klux Klan." 〈http://www.adl.org/learn/ext_us/kkk.asp〉 (accessed October 18, 2005).

Bartleby.com. "The Columbia Encyclopedia: Ku Klux Klan." 〈http://www.bartleby.com/65/ku/KuKluxKl.html〉 (accessed October 18, 2005).


National Association for the Advancement of White People

Ku Klux Klan

views updated May 14 2018

Ku Klux Klan









The Ku Klux Klan is America’s oldest domestic terrorist organization, and despite several cycles of growth and decline, it still exists and still commits violent acts in the early twenty-first century. With eight major groups and around forty minor ones, comprising roughly 110 chapters or “Klaverns,” Klan groups are the most common type of hate group in the United States. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Klan members, with greater numbers of associates, sympathizers, and hangers-on, perpetuate its history.

Despite its age, the Klan has demonstrated amazing resiliency. This has allowed it to appeal to poor and working-class whites, addressing their economic and social frustrations, regardless of what those frustrations may be at any given point in history. Klan ideology and conspiracy theories provide members with scapegoats to blame for their failures and misfortunes, an enemy to absorb their attention, and activities on which to focus their energies. It also provides self-respect, pride, and empowerment.

The Klan’s enemies are often minority groups in direct economic competition with the lower- and working-class whites who form the Klan’s core constituency. Other perceived enemies are groups that threaten white control of society in some other way. At various times, Klan enemies have included African Americans, Jews, immigrants, Catholics, anti-prohibitionists, drug dealers, homosexuals, and others.

Klansmen (and Klanswomen) also have a strong sense of victimization. Many Klan members are motivated to commit acts of intimidation, murder, torture, and terrorism—and to rationalize these acts as “self defense” because of a twisted perception that they are under attack and have to protect their “way of life.” In the minds of most Klan members, the Klan never attacks innocent victims—it simply responds with vigor and righteousness to encroachments on the God-given rights of whites.


In the early 2000s, the Ku Klux Klan is no longer a single entity. Instead, fragmentation and decentralization are the rule. Many of the approximately 110 Klan groups or chapters remain at least nominally independent, although some are attached to national organizations—Klan groups that claim a national or multiregional reach.

Various Imperial Wizards, who set the tone for their subordinate chapters, lead these national organizations. The larger Klans sometimes have an intermediate level of organization, called the “Realm,” usually based within a state or a regional collection of states. Both independent local Klaverns and nationwide Klans tend to revolve around a central leader with a strong, charismatic personality, and the fortunes of the organizations typically rise and fall with those of their leaders.

Early twenty-first century Klans generally adopt one of two public stances. Some take a cue from David Duke. Duke was the Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan during the late 1970s. He changed his title to “national director,” stopped “burning crosses” and instead held “cross lightings,” and encouraged his followers to run for political office at the local level. Like Duke, some Klansmen use euphemisms instead of racial epithets and proclaim pride in their “heritage” rather than hatred of other groups. Others, however, consider themselves “old school” and take pride in the Klan’s heritage as a terrorist organization. They take a confrontational approach to law enforcement and make no effort to disguise or tone down their beliefs.


Today’s splintered Klan encompasses a wide range of beliefs. For the sake of clarity, the ideology is categorized into religious, political, racial, and anti-Semitic beliefs, but Klan members do not necessarily make the same categorical distinctions.

Klan ideology, at its core, is centered on the idea that white Americans are threatened by nonwhite minorities and that most of these threats are arranged or encouraged by a sinister Jewish conspiracy. The Klan promotes itself as a way for white Americans to right these perceived wrongs, protect themselves, and to strike back at their enemies. At the heart of Klan beliefs is the notion that violence is justified in order to protect white America.


One basic assumption behind the Klan’s political ideology is that nonwhites and immigrants threaten whites. Klan members therefore seek to remove these threats, either by themselves or through government action. Another assumption is that, because Klan members believe that the government sides with minorities and immigrants instead of with whites, the government itself has become an enemy. Specific political issues that concern Klan members include immigration, free trade agreements, “racial purity,” affirmative action programs, foreign aid, gun control laws, gay rights, and what they perceive as an unconstitutional separation of church and state. Because of its emphasis on an America “by, for and of” whites, the Klan is also extremely opposed to immigration and often calls for military forces to be deployed along U.S. borders.

“Taking back” America is an important theme in Klan ideology. The Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’s Web site makes this clear: “Enemies from within are destroying the United States of America. An unholy coalition of anti-White, anti-Christian liberals, socialists, feminists, homosexuals, and militant minorities have managed to seize control of our government and mass media … We shall liberate our nation from these savage criminals and restore law and order to America.”


Traditionally, the Ku Klux Klan has held extremely conservative Protestant Christian beliefs. Since the early 1970s, many Klaverns have converted to strongly fundamentalist Protestant beliefs, Christian Identity beliefs, or an amalgam of the two.

Christian Identity. Christian Identity, which has become popular among many Klan groups, is a relatively obscure sect known primarily for its racism and anti-Semitism. Its core belief is that whites are actually descendants of the Biblical lost tribes of Israel, and are therefore God’s “Chosen People.” Most Identity adherents believe that Jews, in contrast, are descended from Satan and that other nonwhite peoples are “mud people” on the same spiritual level as animals.

One of the main teachings of Identity Christianity is that all other Christians are “false” Christians, followers of corrupt “Churchianity” and duped by a Jewish conspiracy. This is clearly explained on the White Camelia Knights Internet site: “I understand that most people have been educated to believe that the jewish [sic] people are God’s chosen people. Christians have even gone as far

as to call themselves judeo-christians [sic], they become extremely hostile at the Klan whenever this subject is mentioned. But, we are followers of Christ and even if our beliefs are unpopular, they are still correct. I am constantly told that Christ was a jew [sic]. That Moses and Abraham were jews [sic], but, this belief is incorrect” (Lee 2005, White Camilia Kights Internet site).

In effect, this belief system teaches that, because they are animals, blacks are subhuman, do not have souls, and therefore do not deserve equality before the law, much less American citizenship. Jews, as the descendants and representatives of Satan, are considered the root of all evil in the world.

Fundamentalism. While many Klan members have converted to Christian Identity, others have merely adopted some of its tenets or practice one of several extreme variations of Christian fundamentalism. There are three primary facets of extreme fundamentalism that are important in understanding Klan ideology.

First, fundamentalists, in general, are millennialists and believe that the world is fast approaching its end. They believe that a final, major event of apocalyptic proportions will “purify” the Earth and leave only true believers behind in a perfect world. Klan members inter-mesh these beliefs with their racism and anti-Semitism; thus, the final battles may be against racial minorities or Jews.

Second, extreme fundamentalism is an essentially dualist belief system that offers black-and-white answers to all questions. Anyone who does not share the fundamentalist view is wrong; compromises would be capitulations to evil.

Finally, and most importantly, fundamentalists are conspiracists. Their interpretations of history and society hold that there are secretive, manipulative, all-powerful entities operating behind the scenes.

Anti-Semitism. The Klan sees Jews as the source of virtually all evil in American society—as secretive, hidden manipulators operating behind the scenes to control government, education, banking, and the mass media. Most Klansmen refer to this supposed secret Jewish cabal as ZOG, or Zionist Occupied Government. Many Klansmen believe that Jews are behind the federal government’s efforts to combat organizations such as the Klan. According to the White Camelia Knights” leader, Charles Lee, “the jews [sic] tried to entrap Jesus in a conspiracy against the government, just as they do to Christian Klansmen today” (Lee 2005, White Camelia Knights Internet site).

The ultimate goal of this alleged Jewish conspiracy, the Klan believes, is to first control and then destroy the white “race,” primarily by encouraging miscegenation. Jews also serve another function by reconciling a glaring inconsistency in Klan ideology. Klan members believe that blacks are unintelligent, lazy, and inferior. But if whites are so superior to blacks, how can blacks be such a monumental threat? The Klan answer is that Jews control the blacks. Jews manipulate African Americans, encouraging them to commit crimes against whites, and they also manipulate the government to give blacks preference over whites. Therefore, if the “Jewish problem” could be solved, all of America’s other minority “problems” would become easier to deal with. Klan leaders also insist that Jews are attempting to outlaw Christianity, and they often point to the Supreme Court’s ban on mandatory prayer in public schools as proof.


Race has always been the central issue in Klan ideology. Klan activists believe that all nonwhite races are a threat to whites; most of the organization’s history has revolved around its attempts to exert or retain white control over minorities. In the early twenty-first century, many Klan leaders offer a perverse variation on this theme: Not only have whites lost control of their country, but the future of the white race itself is now threatened. Only the Klan can save it.

African Americans. The typical Klan activist believes that African Americans are the cause of most crime in America. They also believe that blacks are intellectually inferior and have no moral sense, that they rely on welfare to survive, that they are drug users, and that black men are pathological rapists of white women.

Klan literature also blames the failure of whites to succeed or advance in their careers on “reverse discrimination.” According to the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, “anti-White discrimination is official government policy through “affirmative action” schemes such as minority scholarships, minority business grants, contract “set-asides,” and the hiring and force fed promotion of less qualified employees” (Ku Klux Klan Internet site). This is a key part of the Klan sense of victimization, especially its belief that white males are the “real” victims.

C. Edward Foster wrote in the November/December 1997 issue of The Pennsylvania Klansman that “the Pennsylvania Ku Klux Klan recognizes the simple fact that all African niggers are all savage, bloodthirsty Satanic beasts … In the last thirty years these cannibalistic apes have fiendishly murdered over 50,000 White Christians. A nigger cannot be a Christian. Voodoo is the only appropriate religion for these depraved, demonic, vile, ape-like creatures of jungle darkness” (p. 2). This sort of rhetoric attempts to dehumanize African Americans, to make them easier and more acceptable targets for violence and intimidation.

Hispanics. The fear of a foreign “invasion” is a source of great anxiety among Klansmen. This fear demonstrates the Klan tendency to hate those who might compete with lower-class whites in the job market, as well as the tendency to seek scapegoats to blame for economic and educational failures. Klan websites and newsletters are replete with calls for the military to “seal the border.” Hispanics, of whatever background, are simultaneously and paradoxically seen as direct economic competition (stealing the jobs of white men) and as lazy welfare recipients.


The hallmark activity of the Ku Klux Klan is the perpetration of violence. From the early days of the original Klan when “night riders” terrorized former slaves, through the firebombing and murders during the civil rights era, to the present day, the Klan has been America’s most notorious and well-known domestic terrorist movement. The Klan is known for terrorism, murder, and assault.

Klan violence largely stems from a combination of Klan ideology combined with the lack of political power on the part of Klan members. Typical Klan members are poor, with low education levels and little or no access to political leaders. Thus, Klan groups rarely experience success using normal political and social means of achieving their goals. This makes violence a more attractive option for some Klan members.

Rather than being ashamed of the Klan’s sordid past, many modern Klan members are quite proud of this history. As Grand Dragon C. Edward Foster once said of the Klan, “I’ll tell you this, the Klan’s here because we’ve been here for 131 years. The legacy is that, uh, we’ve had a lot of hangings, a lot of bombings, a lot of shootings. That don’t bother me at all. If somebody wants to go out here and kill a nigger or something, I don’t know … They’re [African Americans] not our equal, they have got no right to breathe free air in America. This is not the Boy Scouts, this is the Ku Klux Klan … You know who we are and you know what our history is” (Brummel 1998).


Despite its age and fragmentation, the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in the United States is still strong. Though smaller than in the Klan’s heyday in the 1920s, or its resurgence in the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan continues to be the most common type of hate group in America.

The Klan is likely to become even more decentralized. Large, hierarchical Klan structures are more vulnerable to collapse than are smaller Klan groups. The future may also see more “hybrid” Klan groups, such as the Aryan Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, that combine Klan traditions and goals with those of newer neo-Nazi groups. The level of Klan criminal activity is likely to remain high. In addition to their rallies and publicity-gaining stunts, Klan groups routinely engage in more sordid forms of activity, from harassment and intimidation to hate crimes and acts of terrorism.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Christian Identity; Duke, David; Hate Crimes; Intelligence Project; Second Klan; White Racial Identity.


Brummel, Bill. 1998. The Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History. Written and produced by Bill Brummel for A&E Home Video.

Chalmers, David. 1987. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, 3rd ed. Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press.

Lee, C. 2005. “Christian Identity.” White Camilia Kights Internet site. Available from http://www.wckkkk.com/identity.html.

Ku Klux Klan Internet site. Available from http://nationalknights.org. Sims, Patsy. 1996. The Klan, 2nd ed. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Telease, Allen W. 1971. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. New York: Harper & Row.

Wade, Wyn Craig. 1987. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Weller, Worth H., and Brad Thompson. 1998. Under the Hood: Unmasking the Modern Ku Klux Klan. North Manchester, IN: DeWitt Books.

J. Keith Akins

Ku Klux Klan

views updated May 21 2018

Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan is America's oldest and most notorious white supremacist organization. Originally formed to combat Reconstruction in the South following the Civil War, it soon became identified with virulent and violent racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, and terrorism. It has been embedded in the American cultural psyche and political consciousness virtually since its inception, evoking fear for its victims and repugnance among the educated and the liberal elements of society, while profoundly influencing the attitudes of those induced to follow its tenets, which are strongly wrapped in a skewed vision of patriotism. The Klan's public behavior and its treatment and exposure in the media have served to keep its presence in the public eye.

The name derived from the Greek kuklos, meaning "circle" and a corruption of "clan," or family, a fanciful idea created by six idle young Confederate war veterans who relieved the tedium of life in Pulaski, Tennessee, by dressing up in ghostly white sheets by night and playing pranks on their neighbors. Although its numbers gradually increased, the Klan was little more than a gang of ruffians until 1867, when Congress passed the Congressional Reconstruction Act. The new law mandated military occupation of the South, invalidated most of the region's existing state governments, and decreed that the rights of the newly freed black slaves would be guaranteed by force, if necessary.

Confronted with this challenge to the traditional Southern power structure, the Ku Klux Klan turned to terror, dedicating itself to the continuation of white supremacy in the South, a return to black subjugation, and resistance to any attempts to change the traditional Southern way of life. Its weapons were arson, beatings, torture, mutilation, and murder. No one knows how many people were lynched, shot, burned alive, or beaten to death during the Klan's initial reign of terror, but these outrages finally spurred Congress to pass anti-Klan legislation in 1871 and 1872. The Federal troops sent to enforce the law failed to wipe out the Klan, but succeeded in driving it into a period of dormancy. The Klan legend, however, was only beginning.

The first major appearance of the Ku Klux Klan to penetrate the nation's consciousness occurred shortly after the turn of the century. In 1905, a racist former minister from North Carolina named Thomas Dixon published The Clansman, a novel depicting the supposed evils of Reconstruction and the alleged heroism of the Klan in resisting it. A year later Dixon produced a sequel, The Leopard's Spots, which developed the same themes. Both novels sold well, especially in the South, but their real importance comes from the influence they exercised on director D.W. Griffith, who used much of the material in his 1915 epic film, The Birth of a Nation. Given the viewpoint of Dixon's novels, it is unsurprising that Griffith's classic of the cinema is exceedingly racist. The scenes set during Reconstruction depict blacks as moronic dupes of northern carpetbaggers, and lust-crazed despoilers of white women. The film's main characters, the Stoneman family, are saved from a savage black mob only by the timely intervention of the Ku Klux Klan.

The film was both hugely popular and immensely inflammatory. It was seen by many whites, protested by many blacks, and frequently caused race riots at theaters where it played; it was also very popular with the Klan, which used it as a propaganda device for recruitment. Klan chapters advertised for new members in newspaper ads, and would insist that their ads run next to those for local screenings of The Birth of a Nation. Robed Klansmen attended showings of the film in several cities and towns, handing out literature to the exiting audiences.

Another positive depiction of the Klan could be seen in the 1918 film The Prussian Cur. Directed by Raoul Walsh (who had worked with Griffith on The Birth of a Nation), this production was one of the last of the "hate films" that flourished in America during World War I, designed to support the war effort by inflaming hostility toward the German enemy. Walsh's film concerns a German agent in America who, while on a mission of sabotage, is caught and jailed. A group of disloyal German-Americans try to free him, but are thwarted by the arrival of robed Klansmen who return the spy to prison and force his would-be rescuers to kiss the American flag.

The original Klan, which had faded away in the 1870s, had been revived in 1915 by William Joseph Simmons, who commemorated the organization's rebirth with a cross-burning ceremony atop Stone Mountain in Georgia. The following year Simmons hired a public relations firm to spearhead recruitment for his new Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The Southern Publicity Association, formed in 1917 by Bessie Tyler and Edward Clarke to help sell war bonds, was phenomenally successful in attracting members. The new Klan, which opposed the aspirations of blacks, Jews, immigrants, Catholics, labor unions, and Suffragettes, had much to offer those concerned about the social changes taking place in the United States, and Tyler and Clarke used all the methods of modern public relations to gain favorable publicity for their client. They arranged for journalists to interview Simmons, who charmed them; they secured Klan cooperation in the filming of newsreels designed to show the Klan in a favorable light to the nation's moviegoers; and they set up impressive public initiation ceremonies for new Klansmen. These also served as rallies designed to attract even more members while garnering publicity for the organization. Tyler and Clarke even hired a Chicago advertising agency to design newspaper ads and billboards, both of which were soon seen all over the country.

The Klan continued to grow during the 1920s, but in the course of the decade it became the subject of controversy in an unlikely place: the pages of Black Mask, a popular pulp magazine which was the first publication to introduce "hard boiled" detective stories into American culture. Beginning in 1923, the magazine began an ongoing feature called "Klan Forum," in which readers were invited to debate the merits of the Klan. At the same time, Black Mask began running a series of detective stories with plot lines critical of the Klan. Many of these were written by Carroll John Daly, whose hero, the aptly named Race Williams, opposed the Klan and fought to frustrate its racist activities.

The Klan appeared in popular culture only sporadically during the next several decades. The Burning Cross (1948), a film starring Hank Daniels and Virginia Patton, concerned a returned World War II veteran who confronts the Klan in his hometown. In Storm Warning (1951), Ronald Reagan played a crusading District Attorney out to convict a group of Klansmen who have committed murder. The Cardinal (1963) contained a segment in which Klansmen of the 1930s try to intimidate a Catholic priest, played by Tom Tryon. A 1975 episode of the made-for-TV film series, The FBI Story, was "Attack on Terror: The FBI versus the Ku Klux Klan."

The 1980s, however, saw a revival of media interest in the Klan. The 1981 documentary film Resurgence: The Movement for Equality vs. the Ku Klux Klan concerns a two-year strike against a chicken processing plant in Laurel, Mississippi. The strikers, mostly black women, eventually triumph over a hostile management, extended unemployment, and threats of violence by the local Klan who oppose the women because of both their labor activity and their race. Two years later saw the premiere of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). A homage to Rod Serling's classic television series, the film contains three stories of the fantastic and the supernatural. In the first, Vic Morrow plays a vicious bigot who is magically transformed into a victim of oppression in several scenarios, one of which has him as the victim a Ku Klux Klan lynching. Perhaps the most prominent of the decade's Klan depictions was Alan Parker's powerful Mississippi Burning (1988). Partially based on actual events, the film follows an FBI investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers by the Klan in 1964. Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, and Frances McDormandbrought star power and intensity to an unrelentingly grim story of murder, hatred, and betrayal.

The next year, television took its turn at transforming the Klan's history into drama. Cross of Fire, a two-part made-for-TV movie directed by Paul Wendkos, was broadcast in November 1989. Set in the 1920s, the film focuses on the rise and fall of Klan leader D.C. Stephenson, an actual Klan Grand Dragon in the decade after World War I. The film is concerned less with the activities of the Klan during this period than it is with Stephenson's personal villainy and eventual comeuppance.

However, the media of the 1980s was not solely the province of the Klan's enemies. Klansmen themselves launched vigorous efforts to spread their message and attract new recruits. Beginning in 1984, a former California Klan leader named Tom Metzger began to use public-access cable television to his cause's advantage, and his cause was white racism. Public access channels are, by law, open to anyone who submits a videocassette in the proper format, and Metzger's cassettes contained episodes of his talk show, "Race and Reason." The number of cities in which the show appeared during its six-year run is not precisely known—Metzger claimed 55, his foes said about 20. But it was clear that the Klan had entered the 1990s alive and active, at least insofar as broadcasting was concerned.

Meanwhile, David Duke was busy in Louisiana. Duke, a former Klan leader, tried to put his racist past behind him by claiming that he was not anti-black but rather pro-white. Dubbed "the blow-dried Klansman," he proved adept at modern campaign techniques and learned how to exploit the press for his political purposes. He was elected to the Louisiana State legislature in 1989, but failed in later bids for Governor, U.S. Senator, and the Republican presidential nomination.

The 1990s offered even more exposure, both positive and negative, of the Klan and its message. Daytime talk shows, especially those hosted by Geraldo Rivera, Jerry Springer, and Sally Jesse Raphael, often invited Klan members as guests—usually to face the scorn of both the host and much of the studio audience. The 1990 documentary Blood in the Face presented white supremacists, including Klan members, using their own words. Through interviews, video from Metzger's "Race and Reason" program, and video footage of a white supremacist gathering (including a Klan wedding performed in front of a burning cross), the film provides an unflinching portrait of a side of America that many never see.

Other depictions of the Klan were produced for network television and cable. Murder in Mississippi (1990) deals with the same crimes as did Mississippi Burning, but from the black citizens' point of view. Another made-for-TV film, Sophie and the Moonhanger (1995), involves a woman's discovery of her husband's Klan affiliations and his plans for violence against her black friends. In 1998, HBO premiered Spike Lee's film, 4 Little Girls, focusing on the 1963 Klan bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church that left four children dead.

But the most sinister aspect of the Klan in the 1990s involved the World Wide Web. Klan organizations around the country (there are over 80 of them) have learned that they can reach greater numbers of people with a web page than they ever could with leaflets or newspapers—and, unlike an appearance on a talk show such as Oprah, there are no jeering crowds; the Klan controls the message, and that message has not substantially changed in over 130 years.

—Justin Gustainis

Further Reading:

Chalmers, David Mark. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. New York, F. Watts, 1981.

Cutlip, Scott M. The Unseen Power: Public Relations, A History. Hillsdale, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994.

Esolen, Gary. "More than a Pretty Face: David Duke's Use of Television as a Political Tool." The Emergence of David Duke and the Politics of Race, ed. Douglas Rose. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 1992, 136-155.

Jackson, Kenneth T. The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930. New York, Oxford University Press, 1967.

"KKK.com." http://kkk.com. April 1999.

Quarles, Chester L. The Ku Klux Klan and Related American Racialist and Antisemitic Organizations: A History and Analysis. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1999.

Riley, Michael. "New Klan, Old Hatred." Time. July 6, 1992, 24-27.

Wade, Wyn Craig. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Ku Klux Klan

views updated Jun 27 2018


The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a white supremacist organization that was founded in 1866. Throughout its notorious history, factions of the secret fraternal organization have used acts of terrorism—including murder, lynching, arson, rape, and bombing—to oppose the granting of civil rights to African Americans. Deriving its membership from native-born, white Protestant U.S. citizens, the KKK has also been anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, and has opposed the immigration of all those it does not view as "racially pure."

Other names for the group have been White Brotherhood, Heroes of America, Constitutional Union Guards, and Invisible Empire.

Origins and Initial Growth

Ex-Confederate soldiers established the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866. They developed the first two words of the group's name from the Greek word kuklos, meaning "group or band," and took the third as a variant of the word clan. Starting as a largely recreational group, the Klan soon turned to intimidating newly freed African Americans. Riding at night, the Klan terrorized and sometimes murdered those it opposed. Members adopted a hooded white costume—a guise intended to represent the ghosts of the Confederate dead—to avoid identification and to frighten victims during nighttime raids.

The Klan fed off the post-Civil War resentments of white southerners—resentment that centered on the Reconstruction programs imposed on the South by a Republican Congress. Under Reconstruction, the North sought to restructure southern society on the basis of racial equality. Under this new regime, leading southern whites were disfranchised, while inexperienced African Americans, carpetbaggers (northerners who had migrated to the South following the war), and scalawags (southerners who cooperated with the North) occupied major political offices.

Shortly after the KKK's formation, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former slave trader and Confederate general, assumed control of the organization and turned it into a militaristic, hierarchical entity. In 1868, Forrest formally disbanded the group after he became appalled by its growing violence. However, the KKK continued to grow, and its atrocities worsened. Drawing the core of its membership from ex-Confederate soldiers, the KKK may have numbered several hundred thousand at its height during Reconstruction.

In 1871, the federal government took a series of steps to counter the KKK and its violence. Congress organized a joint select committee made up of seven senators and 14 representatives to look into the Klan and its activities. It then passed the civil rights act of 1871, frequently referred to as the ku klux klan act, which made night-riding a crime and empowered the president to order the use of federal troops to put down conspirators by force. The law also provided criminal and civil penalties for people convicted of private conspiracies—such as those perpetrated by the KKK—intended to deny others their civil rights.

Hugo L. Black and the KKK

Hugo L. Black is remembered as a distinguished U.S. Supreme Court justice, a progressive U.S. Senator, and an able trial attorney. Black also was a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s. Public disclosure of this fact came shortly after his appointment to the Supreme Court was confirmed by the Senate in 1937. The resulting public uproar would probably have doomed his Court appointment if the disclosure had come just a few weeks earlier.

In 1923 Black was a trial attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, which at the time was controlled by members of the Klan. After rebuffing membership several times, he joined the KKK on September 23, 1923. Black later claimed to have left the group after several years, but no clear evidence documented his departure. In 1937 there were allegations he had signed an undated letter resigning from the Klan, which was to have been used to establish a false resignation date if public scandal occurred.

In 1937 Black made a radio address to the nation, in which he admitted his Klan membership but claimed he had resigned and had not had any connection with the group for many years. He also stated he harbored no prejudice against anyone because of their race, religion, or ethnicity.

During his Court career, Black was reluctant to discuss his KKK membership and offered various reasons for why he had joined. To some people he admitted it was a mistake, whereas to others he said the KKK was just another fraternal organization, like the Masons or Elks. It is clear, however, that as an ambitious politician, Black had sought Klan support for his political campaigns. In the 1920s KKK support had been critical to a Democratic politician in Alabama.

Despite his later denial of holding any prejudices, Black was an active member of the KKK for several years. He participated in Klan events throughout Alabama, wearing the organization's characteristic white robes and hood, and initiated new Klan members into the Invisible Empire, reading the Klan oath, which pledged the members to "most zealously and valiantly shield and preserve by any and all justifiable means … white supremacy."


Black, Hugo Lafayette.

Also in 1871, President ulysses s. grant relocated troops from the Indian wars on the western plains to South Carolina, in order to quell Klan violence. In October and November of that year, the federal Circuit Court for the District of South Carolina held a series of trials of KKK members suspected of having engaged in criminal conspiracies, but the trials resulted in few convictions.

The Klan declined in influence as the 1870s wore on. Arrests, combined with the return of southern whites to political dominance in the South, diminished its activity and influence.


The KKK experienced a resurgence after world war i, reaching a peak of 3 or 4 million members in the 1920s. David W. Griffith's 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel The Clansman, served as the spark for this revival. The movie depicted the Klan as a heroic force defending the "Aryan birthright" of white southerners against African Americans and Radical Republicans seeking to build a Black Empire in the South. In particular, the movie showed a gallant Klan defending the honor of white women threatened by lecherous African American men.

William J. Simmons renewed the KKK at a Stone Mountain, Georgia, ceremony in 1915. Later, Christian fundamentalist ministers aided recruitment as the Klan portrayed itself as the protector of traditional values during the Jazz Age.

As its membership grew into the millions in the 1920s, the Klan exerted considerable political influence, helping to elect sympathetic candidates to state and national offices. The group was strong not only in southern states such as Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, but also in Oklahoma, California, Oregon, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. Strongly opposed to non–Anglo-Saxon immigration, the Klan helped secure the passage of strict quotas on immigration. In addition to being racist, the group also espoused hatred of Jews, Catholics, socialists, and unions.

By the end of the 1920s, a backlash against the KKK had developed. Reports of its violence turned public sentiment against the group, and its membership declined to about 40,000. At the same time, Louisiana, Michigan, and Oklahoma passed anti-mask laws intended to frustrate Klan activity. Most of these laws made it a misdemeanor to wear a mask that concealed the identity of the wearer, excluding masks worn for holiday costumes or other legitimate uses. South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia later passed similar laws.

Anti-Civil Rights Involvement

The KKK experienced another, less successful resurgence during the 1960s as African

Americans won civil rights gains in the South. Opposed to the civil rights movement and its attempt to end racial segregation and discrimination, the Klan capitalized on the fears of whites, to grow to a membership of about 20,000. It portrayed the civil rights movement as a Communist, Jewish conspiracy, and it engaged in terrorist acts designed to frustrate and intimidate the movement's members. KKK adherents were responsible for acts such as the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four young African–American girls were killed and many others injured, and the 1964 murder of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, in Mississippi. The Klan was also responsible for many other beatings, murders, and bombings, including attacks on the Freedom Riders, who sought to integrate interstate buses.

In many instances, the federal bureau of investigation (FBI), then under the control of J. EDGAR HOOVER , had intelligence that would have led to the prevention of Klan violence or conviction of its perpetrators. However, the FBI did little to oppose the Klan during the height of the civil rights movement.

By the 1990s, the Klan had shrunk to under ten thousand members and had splintered into several organizations, including the Imperial Klans of America, the Knights of the White Kamelia, and the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. These factions also sought alliances with a proliferating number of other white supremacist groups, including the Order and Aryan Nations. Like these groups, the KKK put new emphasis on whites as an "oppressed majority," victimized by affirmative action and other civil rights measures.

The Klan's campaign of hatred has spurred opposition from many fronts, including Klanwatch, an organization started by lawyer and civil rights activist Morris Dees in 1980. The group is affiliated with Dees's southern poverty law center, in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1987, Dees won a $7 million civil suit against the Alabama-based United Klans of America for the 1981 murder of a 19-year-old man. The suit drove that Klan organization into bankruptcy. In 1998, Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center won a civil suit against the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who were accused of burning down the Macedonia Baptist Church in Bloomville, South Carolina. The center won an unprecedented $37.8 million in damages.

The KKK suffered other setbacks. For example, in 1990 the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of that state's Anti-Mask Act (Ga. Code Ann. § 16-11-38) by a vote of 6–1 (State v. Miller, 260 Ga. 669, 398 S.E. 2d 547). The case involved a Klan member who had been arrested for wearing full Klan regalia, including mask, in public and had claimed a first amendment right to wear such clothing. The court ruled that the law, first passed in 1951, protected a state interest in safeguarding the right of people to exercise their civil rights and to be free from violence and intimidation. It held that the law did not interfere with the defendant's freedom of speech.

further readings

Allen, Wayne R. 1991. "Klan, Cloth, and Constitution: Anti-Mask Laws and the First Amendment." Georgia Law Review 25 (spring).

Chalmers, David Mark. 2003. Backfire: How the Ku Klux Klan Helped the Civil Rights Movement. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Grossman, Mark. 1993. "Ku Klux Klan." Civil Rights Movement. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO.

Johnson, Sandra E. 2002. Standing on Holy Ground: A Triumph Over Hate Crime in the Deep South. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Phillips, John W. 2000. Sign of the Cross: The Prosecutor's True Story of a Landmark Trial Against the Klan. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.


Jim Crow Laws.

Ku Klux Klan

views updated Jun 27 2018


KU KLUX KLAN. A Reconstruction-era terrorist group founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866, the Ku Klux Klan has been resurrected in a variety of forms from that time to the present; it is one of the powerful, enduring symbols of violent white supremacy and bigotry in American history.

Initially a fraternal organization for a small group of Confederate veterans, the Reconstruction-era Klan quickly turned in a violent, overtly political direction. Like similar groups that appeared across the South in 1866 and 1867 (the Knights of the White Camellia, for example), the Klan used violence and the threat of violence to thwart perceived challenges to white supremacy and Democratic rule. Its mayhem was intended, among other purposes, as a means of controlling black labor, reinforcing social deference to whites, disciplining perceived instances of interracial sexual relationships, and punishing any whites sympathetic to or working on behalf of the Republican Party. Most often, the Klan's victims were African American community leaders—ministers, teachers, politicians, former or current soldiers, or anyone else who clearly held a place of special importance among the former slaves. Murders, floggings, beatings, and sexual assaults carried out against these leaders often achieved the intended goal not only of undermining Reconstruction government, but also of demoralizing the wider black community. Klan terror erupted on a vast scale during the election year of 1868, leading to more than two thousand political assassinations and murders in the former Confederate states, often carried out with the approval or even direct support of local Democratic leaders. "Run nigger, run, or the Kuklux will catch you," warned one Democratic newspaper in Alabama (Trelease, White Terror, p. 63). The violence completely eliminated Republican opposition in some areas of the South. Similar waves of Klan activity in 1870 and 1872 led to a series of congressional acts that gave the federal government historic new authority to enforce civil rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The most significant of these

were the Enforcement Act of 1870 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The Klan faded from the scene after Reconstruction came to an end in 1877, but remained a vivid symbol of barbarous racial violence in the minds of African Americans—and an equally powerful emblem for many whites of what they saw as a just struggle against the tyranny of Reconstruction and "black rule."

By the early twentieth century, idealized images of the Klan as savior of white civilization had become a mainstay of scholarly and popular representations of the Reconstruction era. Thomas Dixon's best selling, turn-of-the-century novels The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman told the story of heroic Klansmen with melodramatic flair. In 1915, the motion picture visionary D. W. Griffith used The Clansman as the basis for his sweeping epic, Birth of a Nation.

In that same year, previously unsuccessful fraternal organizer William J. Simmons capitalized on the enormous popularity of Griffith's film by launching a new Klan movement. For five years the "second" Klan barely survived, maintaining a small membership in Georgia and Alabama. In 1920, however, in the wake of extensive postwar labor and racial strife and the onset of national Prohibition, it began a five-year period of enormous, nationwide popularity. The revived Klan was based on romantic images of the original, but ultimately was a very different organization. While the first Klan had little formal structure or leadership outside of individual communities, the second had a highly developed organization, with a hierarchy of local, state, and national leaders, public relations advisers, a string of newspapers, and a marketing operation that sold official uniforms and other paraphernalia. Using recruiting agents—who earned a 25 percent commission on each ten-dollar initiation fee—and holding mass public ceremonies, parades, and social events to attract widespread attention, the second Klan enrolled perhaps as many as five million male and female members (women joined a separate organization, Women of the Ku Klux Klan). Its largest state memberships and greatest local influence came outside the South, in the Midwest and the West. The Indiana Klan enrolled approximately 25 percent of all native-born white men in the state; at least one half million men and women became Klan members in Ohio.

The goals and tactics of the second Klan also differed markedly from those of the first. While the original movement used terror to confront the significant challenge to white supremacy that came with Reconstruction, the Klan of the 1920s faced no such threat and was focused instead on upholding a more general sense of white, Protestant hegemony within American society. The perceived threat came from Catholics, Jews, immigrants, African Americans, Prohibition-related lawlessness, gambling, prostitution, immoral popular culture and personal behavior, and a sense of decline in religion, "pure womanhood," and the family. Vigilante violence did occur in association with the new Klan, most often in the South, targeted in some instances, of course, against African Americans. But more often, when violence did occur, it was directed against fellow white Protestants as punishment for drinking, gambling, adulterous behavior, or other perceived moral lapse. Mob violence was also directed against the Klan, particularly in northern and midwestern cities where ethnic minorities vastly outnumbered native, white Protestants and Klan parades and demonstrations were not well received. The main thrust of the second Klan movement, however, was to elect its members and supporters to public office. Promising to uphold traditional values and enforce the law—Prohibition in particular—the Klan won control of mayor's offices, city councils, school boards, sheriff and district attorney offices, and judgeships in many communities across the nation. It gained complete control of state politics for a time in Indiana, Colorado, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Alabama, and was an important political force in almost every state outside the Northeast. The second Klan began to lose its momentum by 1925 when Klan politicians proved as incapable as other elected officials of halting Prohibition-related vice and other unwanted conditions. Membership dropped precipitously after a series of scandals, the most famous involving Indiana Klan leader D. C. Stephenson, who was convicted of second-degree murder after committing a brutal sexual assault against an Indianapolis woman who eventually died from her injuries.

By the end of the 1920s only small pockets of Klan members remained, most of them in the South and devoted primarily to perpetuating the tradition of racial vigilantism. After World War II, support for Klan groups began to increase again as war-related social changes and the rising expectations of African Americans threatened the Jim Crow system. Once the civil rights movement took hold, the spirit of massive white resistance and the leadership of the White Citizens' Council gave birth to a number of independent, regional Klan organizations. Like the Reconstruction-era Klan cells, these new groups operated mainly through terror, committing hundreds of murders, and countless other acts of violence and intimidation, with the goal of stopping the second Reconstruction. In the face of intense media coverage and the persistent courage of civil rights workers, however, Klan violence actually back fired by broadening public sympathy for the cause of racial justice. Klan groups have continued to exist since that time as part of a diverse, sometimes violent right-wing element in American life, although consistently and effectively assailed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups. In one notable instance, one-time Louisiana Klan leader David Duke gained widespread national attention during the late 1980s and early 1990s by proclaiming himself a mainstream conservative Republican, winning election to the state legislature, and falling just short of the governors' office. National party leaders, however, rejected Duke, underscoring the fact that the Klan itself had lost any place of legitimacy or influence in American life.


Blee, Kathleen M. Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Chalmers, David M. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. 3d ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1987. The original edition was published in 1965.

Jenkins, William D. Steel Valley Klan: The Ku Klux Klan in Ohio's Mahoning Valley. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990.

Moore, Leonard J. Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921–1928. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Trelease, Allan W. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Leonard J.Moore

See alsoDiscrimination: Race ; Force Acts ; Jim Crow Laws ; Race Relations .

Ku Klux Klan

views updated Jun 27 2018

Ku Klux Klan


Founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, in the spring of 1866 by six former Confederate soldiers, the Ku Klux Klan quickly emerged as an antiblack and anti-Republican force in the South. Following the passage by Congress of the Reconstruction Acts in 1867, Klansmen began a reign of terror, abusing, intimidating, assaulting, and sometimes murdering those who sought to create a true democracy in the former slave states. Riding across the countryside in white (and black) robes, they burned churches, schools, and the homes of former slaves and their white sympathizers.

In his fine study of the topic, Allen Trelease (1971) described this first Klan as a conspiracy among many whites in the Democratic Party to subdue their rivals, but historians have pointed out the lack of communication between Klan members in different states and locales during this period. Even if there was no conspiracy, there was large-scale participation. One estimate noted that in Alabama alone there were ten thousand Klan members. In 1870 and 1871, however, President Ulysses S. Grant (18221885) signed into law what were called the Force Acts, giving the federal government authority to protect freedmen and Republicans. The Force Acts drove the Klan underground, and the racial and political violence that occurred in subsequent years was mostly caused by white vigilante groups.

The second Klan, founded by William Joseph Simmons (18801945) at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 1915, expanded the geographical reach and organizational purpose of the group. The second Klan acquired immediate legitimacy with the almost simultaneous release of D. W. Griffiths sympathetic and successful motion picture, Birth of a Nation (1915), based on Thomas Dixon Jr.s novel The Clansman (1905). By the 1920s, Klan rallies, complete with cross burnings, were being held in the South, Southwest, and north-central states. The city where perhaps the largest Klan rally in American history occurred was Kokomo, Indiana, on July 4, 1923, when about 100,000 Klansmen and Klanswomen gathered to celebrate the inauguration of a new Grand Wizard. The second Klan stood against foreigners, Jews, blacks, and Catholics, proclaiming Native, white, Protestant supremacy. In this movement to create an all-white society, the Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire, as the head of the Klan was called, explained: We know that we are right in the same sense that a good Christian knows that he has been saved and that Christ lives (Mann 1968, p. 129). With a national organization and national distribution of regalia, the new message of hate attracted a large membership, estimated at several million. It was this incarnation of the Klan that neither the U.S. government nor state and county agencies, including law enforcement departments, were able to curb or drive to cover. The Great Depression of the 1930s, however, decimated its ranks. With poverty, hunger, and unemployment among millions of Americans during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Klans membership declined precipitously.

Following World War II (19391945), several Klan organizations emerged in various sections of the country. Klan members fought against the civil rights movement in the South and were responsible for bombings, burnings, and murders in Alabama, Mississippi, and other states. In response to this violence, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a small civil rights law firm, was founded in 1971 in Montgomery, Alabama. Today, the center is internationally known for its tolerance education programs, its legal victories against white supremacists, and its tracking of hate groups. More recently, some Klansmen, including David Duke, have gained celebrity status by appearing on television talk shows. Throughout its history, however, the Ku Klux Klan has been a secret, terrorist organization dedicated to promoting white supremacy in the United States.

SEE ALSO Racism; White Supremacy


Chalmers, David M. 1965. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Doubleday.

Mann, Arthur, comp. 1968. Immigrants in American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Trelease, Allen. 1971. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. New York: Harper.

Loren Schweninger

Ku Klux Klan

views updated May 21 2018


The Civil War ended the institution of slavery. Despite the Constitutional protections of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, peace ushered in a new struggle that would affect American society and culture for over 100 years. In the South, the war to defend slavery was transformed into a conflict to repress free blacks through custom, law, intimidation, and violence. In one sense the Civil War continued but in a different form.

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) emerged in 1866 from the Pulaski, Tennessee, law office of Judge Thomas M. Jones as a social movement responding to the Thirteenth Amendment's legislated end of slavery after the defeat of the Confederacy. Six former Rebel soldiers changed the Greek word "kuklos" ("circle or band") to "Ku Klux," adding the redundant "Klan." Based on fraternity rituals, the Klansmen disguised themselves as spirits to torment the free black population.

Under Reconstruction, the Southern Republican Party gained political momentum as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments granted and enforced male blacks the right to vote. Angry former Confederates, disqualified from political office, resented "carpetbaggers," "scalawags," and Radical Republicans, whom they believed prevented white Southerners from retaining their proper social status. When the Freedman's Bureau granted blacks land and assistance, Black Codes echoed the antebellum period, continuing to keep the blacks disenfranchised, poor, and unable to rise in social status.

In the beginning, the Klan resembled an umbrella organization for many anti-African-American groups. Former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee organized one of the first in 1866 (eventually becoming the first Imperial Wizard) and men united in their hatred and fears of the black population answered his call. By January of 1868, the name "Ku Klux Klan" began to become more widely adopted. Employing secret signals, complicated codes, and following a military style manual, the KKK gained momentum. Assemblages of camps and dens ranged from thirty to forty thousand men in each Southern state; there were estimated to be 500,000 Klansmen in the entire South.

The Reconstruction Acts of March 1867 prepared former Rebel states for return to the fold of the Union, reorganizing state governments in 1868. Despite President Johnson's unconditional pardon of former Confederates, Southern whites resented the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Enraged, and unable to discern that the blacks only wished to achieve equality before the law, whites determined for themselves that the black population meant to dominate the native white Southern population. Capitalizing on the fear that blacks would rise against the whites, the KKK set out to scare and to stop a black extension of power through thousands of acts of intimidation and of violence. Whites too, who were deemed to be enabling or collaborating with blacks, similarly were made targets. From Radical Republicans to clergy to teachers, neither black nor white were spared. The KKK also was known to abuse those from within their own organization whom they deemed to have committed treason against the Klan. Violence escalated as civil authorities ignored, participated in, or were intimidated by Klan activities.

Mounted, hooded (many seeming to possess long moustaches and beards) and clothed in white robes, members of the Klan generally drew members from the lower white classes. Literally casting issues in black or white, with only one race or one form of politics viewed as all good or all evil, the Klan was able to muster broad appeal. Yet, the power to continue these abuses rested in the hands of the Southern elite, who directed the marginalized classes in the new cause.

Often preceding attacks with written warnings setting precise times to vacate or disband and clearly delineating punishments for decided offenses, the KKK utilized a system of surprise, appearing at night to disarm, terrorize, whip, lynch or murder chosen targets. The KKK also burned black schools and verbally and physically abused and killed their white schoolteachers. Perpetrators viewed themselves as protecting the Southern way of life, much as they had fought for it during the Civil War.

Ultimately, Congress began to act. The Enforcement Acts of May 31, 1870 and February 28, 1871 allowed the president to use military force and extended Federal control to elections. Further, Republicans pushed through Congress the Ku Klux Act on April 20, 1871, which enforced the Fourteenth Amendment. Deciding after Congressional hearings that the form Reconstruction had assumed in the South had allowed for the creation of the Klan, rules against Southern Democrats were relaxed. Federal arrests and prosecutions against the Klan began in earnest in 1871. As a result, the first wave of Klansmen disappeared in 1873 and Reconstruction ended in 1877.

In the early 20th century the KKK revived in response to efforts by blacks and whites to end segregation, the so-called "Jim Crow" laws, that had reduced many former slaves to poverty and dependency. In 1915, William Joseph Simmons led fifteen men to the top of Atlanta's Stone Mountain with an American flag, a burning cross, and a Bible (opened to the Twelfth Chapter of Romans) and pledged to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Delineated in a revised fifty-four-page manual of

the original rituals (entitled and copyrighted as the "Kloran"), Simmons set the structure of a new centralized second KKK. Comprised of domains, realms, provinces, and local klaverns, it rode the rising wave of nativism that preceded and then increased after World War I. Between 1920 and 1925 membership peaked to around five million members in forty-five states. Capitalizing on the fears of white men and women at the margins of society, whose employment and social status was threatened by the tides of immigrants and returning soldiers from Europe, the Klan aimed its furious propaganda at African-Americans, Catholics, Jews, Communist labor organizers, and emigrating masses.

Utilizing films such as The Face at Your Window, newspapers like The Searchlight, and lecturers who spoke of "100 percent Americanism," protecting white women, and upholding Protestantism, appeals of recruiters (kleagles) were answered in the cities, where competition for housing, jobs, and authority was strongest. It found its base in all regions of the country where influxes of African-Americans and immigrants competed for work. Enduring internal schisms and publicly printed unmaskings, weathering legislative scrutiny incurred by increasing violence, and entering into politics with vigor (strengthened by the women's right to suffrage, and therefore increased participation in the Klan), the 1928 Presidential campaign of New York Governor and Catholic Al Smith signaled its demise. Ironically, the Klan claimed to protect the Constitutional rights of Americans, while simultaneously being anti-freedom of religion, anti-freedom of speech, and anti-equality under the law. With a dwindling influence and membership, and in some cases becoming outnumbered by minority populations, by 1944 the Klan was gone.

However, as returning soldiers and new waves of minorities moved north to compete for work, Atlanta hosted the revival of the Klan on Stone Mountain on May 9, 1946. Drawing from traditional sources, the revived Klan found its voice after the May 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education. The ensuing Civil Rights movement increased Klan activity and membership. By 1965, Congress began to investigate the Klan. Despite FBI infiltration, the Klan continued to publish their newspaper The Fiery Cross and to support segregationists like George Wallace. In the end, its failure to attract a larger following came from owing legal fees, FBI successes, and the inability of the Klan to effect racial, social, and political change.

No longer centralized, and hurt by the retribution of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which in 1979 began suing leaders for subordinates' violence, the Klan still can be found in many regions of the country where restricted economic circumstances among whites make the quest for white supremacy attractive.


Jackson, Kenneth T. The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915–1930. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992.

Tourgee, Albion Winegar. The Invisible Empire. Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Trelease, Allen W. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. Baton Rouge & London: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

Sarah Hilgendorff List

See also:Reconstruction.

Ku Klux Klan

views updated May 11 2018

Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan is America's oldest white supremacist organization. It first gained power in the South during Reconstruction (1865–77; the period following the American Civil War when the federal government assisted and policed the former Confederate states), which the Klan resisted with beatings, murder, and terrorism. Although the organization has splintered and its fortunes have declined somewhat, the Klan still maintained a hold on the American consciousness going into the twenty-first century.

The organization's name is derived from the Greek word kuklos, meaning "circle," and a corruption of "clan," or family. Its origins lie with a group of six Confederate war veterans who returned to Pulaski, Tennessee, when the Civil War (1861–65) ended in 1865. They relieved boredom by dressing up in white sheets and playing pranks on their neighbors by night. The Klan might have remained a mere gang of bullies were it not for the Congressional Reconstruction Act of 1867. This law mandated Federal military occupation of the South, declared Southern state governments illegitimate, and said that the rights of newly freed black slaves would be guaranteed by the U.S. Army.

The Klan, whose membership grew quickly, responded with violence toward anyone—black or white—who appeared to threaten the traditional Southern way of life. There are no reliable statistics for the number of people intimidated, beaten, shot, or lynched (murdered by a mob, usually by hanging) by the Klan, but the violence was bad enough for Congress to pass anti-Klan legislation in 1871 and again in 1872, and to back it up with Federal troops. The Klan did not disappear, but its more public outrages stopped.

The Klan first entered popular culture in 1905, with the publication of a novel by Thomas Dixon Jr. (1864–1946), The Clansman. Dixon was a virulent racist. His book both criticized Reconstruction and praised the Klan's response to it. He did the same in the sequel, The Leopard's Spots, which appeared the following year. Both books were popular in the South, but their greatest influence involved filmmaker D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), who used material from the two novels in his 1915 epic film The Birth of a Nation (see entry under 1910s—Film and Theater in volume 1).

The film, regarded as one of the classics of early American cinema, is nonetheless thoroughly racist. Blacks are portrayed as either sex-crazed rapists or as moronic victims of "carpet-baggers," Northerners who came south after the war to take advantage of post-war conditions in the South. The film's protagonists, the Stonemans, are saved from a mob of blacks only by the intervention of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan is also portrayed positively in 1918's The Prussian Cur, an anti-German propaganda film released in the last year of World War I (1914–18). Director Raoul Walsh (1887–1980) tells the story of a German spy in the United States who is caught and put in jail. A group of disloyal German Americans try to free him, but they are stopped by a patriotic group of robed Klansmen.

The Klan itself began to show renewed signs of life in 1915, courtesy of William Joseph Simmons (1880–1945). He even hired a public relations firm to drum up membership for the organization, now known as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The new Klan reached out to those whites who were troubled by the social changes taking place in America. Consequently, its recruiting material stressed the Klan's opposition to the rising social position of blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, suffragettes, and labor unions. The public relations firm arranged for journalists to interview Simmons, planned elaborate initiation ceremonies for new Klansmen, and even had newspaper ads and billboards spreading the Klan's message.

The Klan played an important role in the best-selling novel Gone with the Wind (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2) by Margaret Mitchell (1900–1949), published in 1937. Most of the male characters in the book become Klan members. Even Rhett Butler is sympathetic to the group's aims. However, movie producer David O. Selznick (1902–1965) eliminated all mention of the Klan in his 1939 movie version of the book.

The Klan appeared only sporadically in the popular culture of the next several decades, mostly in films. The Burning Cross (1948) has its war-veteran hero confront the Klan's power in his hometown. In Storm Warning (1951), a crusading district attorney, played by Ronald Reagan (1911–), sets out to convict a group of murderous Klansmen. In The FBI Story (1959), Special Agent Chip Hardesty, played by Jimmy Stewart (1908–1997), fights Klan violence in a Southern town.

Portrayals of the Klan surged in the 1980s and beyond. A segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) turns the tables on a bigot, portrayed by Vic Morrow (1929–1982), and includes a scene in which he is the victim of a Klan lynching. Set in 1964, the grimly powerful film Mississippi Burning (1988), directed by Alan Parker (1944–), follows the investigation of FBI agents into the Klan murder of three civil rights workers. Klan violence is also portrayed in the films Fried Green Tomatoes (1990); Sommersby (1992); A Time to Kill and The Chamber (both 1996 films based on novels by John Grisham, 1955–); and O Brother Where Art Thou? (2001).

The actual Klan has not been idle, either. In some areas, Klan groups exploit local public access TV to broadcast their propaganda. Klan leaders have also appeared on talk shows ranging from Oprah to The Jerry Springer Show. But the biggest boost to the Klan has come from the World Wide Web. Klan organizations have learned that they can reach far more people with a Web site than they ever could with their rallies and leaflets. And so they do—with a message of hate that remains fundamentally unchanged since 1915.

—Justin Gustainis

For More Information

Chalmers, David Mark. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: F. Watts, 1981.

Cutlip, Scott M. The Unseen Power: Public Relations, A History. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994.

Dessomes, Nancy Bishop. "Hollywood in Hoods: The Portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan in Popular Film." Journal of Popular Culture (Spring 1999): pp. 13–22.

Riley, Michael. "New Klan, Old Hatred." Time (July 6, 1992): pp. 24–27.

Ku Klux Klan

views updated Jun 11 2018


The Ku Klux Klan (abbreviated KKK) is a white supremacist groupmembers believe in the superiority of whites over other races. The first part of the name ("Ku Klux") is derived from the Greek word kyklos, meaning circle. Klan is a derivative of the English word "clan," meaning family. The group was originally formed in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, when Confederate Army veterans formed what they called a social club. The first leader (called the "Grand Wizard") was Nathan Bedford Forrest (18211877), a former general in the Confederate Army, who, on April 12, 1864, in the final days of the American Civil War(18611865), led a massacre of three hundred African American soldiers in service of the Union Army at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.

As the unofficial arm of resistance against Republican efforts to restore the nation and make full citizens of its African American (formerly slave) population, the Ku Klux Klan waged a campaign of terror against former slaves in the South. Klan members, cloaked in robes and hoods to disguise their identity, threatened, beat, and killed numerous African Americans. While the group deprived its victims of their rights as citizens, their intent was also to intimidate the entire African American population and keep them out of, or in some cases remove them from, politics. People who supported the federal government's measures to extend rights to all citizens also became the victims of the fearsome Klan. Membership in the group grew quickly and the Ku Klux Klan soon had a presence throughout the South.

In 1871 the U.S. Congress passed the Force Bill, giving President Ulysses S. Grant (18691877) authority to direct federal troops against the Klan. The action was successful, causing the group to disappearbut only for a time. The society was newly organized at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 1915 as a Protestant fraternal organization (called "The Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc."), this time widening its focus of persecution to include Roman Catholics, immigrants, and Jews, as well as African Americans. Members of all of these groups became targets of KKK harassment, which now included torture and whippings. The group, which proclaimed its mission to be "racial purity," grew in number and became national, electing some of their members to public office in many states (and not just Southern states). The KKK's acts of violence, howveer, raised public ire, and by the 1940s, America's attention focused on World War II (19391945) and the Klan died out or went completely underground. The group had another resurgence during the 1950s and into the early 1970s, as the nation struggled through the civil rights era. The Klan still exists today, fostering the extremist views of its membership and staging marches to demonstrate its presence on the American landscape. Such demonstrations are often attended by protestors, with violence being the sad outcome.

See also: Reconstruction