The Ku Klux Klan

Southern Whites not only used legal means such as Black Codes to control emancipated blacks, but they turned to extra-legal terrorism as well. Much of this was accomplished through covert vigelantee action through secret soicieties, especisally the Ku lux Klan. Interest in the Klan grew when Congressional Republicans challenged white supremcy in the South with a program of Reconstruction designed to ensure black civil rights and economic opportunity. Famed Confederate Calvalry commander, Nathan Bedford Forest provided the kleadership of the early Klan. The Klan was founded in Tennesee but rapidly expanded throughout the South. White southerners formed a secret paramilitary white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK terrorized blacks with beatings, whippings, burning of homes and lynching. The Klan was active. The Klan operated throughout the South during the Renconstruction era, but then with the pasage of Federal terrorism laws and the success of white southerens in regaining control of state governments, the Klan largely disappeared. It was later revived and this time spread beyond the borders of the former Confederate states.


The impetus for the Ku Klux Klan was Reconstruction, especially the effort by Congressional Republicans to enfranchize and extend full citizenship. President Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) made freeing the slaves a goal of the Federal Government in the Civil War, there was, however, no well accepted understanding as to the status of the freed slaves after the War. After President Lincoln's assasination, the Congress controlled by the Republicans differed with President Johnson as to the status of the freed slaves and to what extent the Federal Government should intervene in the initial steps taken in the former Confederate states to define the status of blacks. Many in Congress objected to the Black Codes passed by southern states to restict the civic rights and economic aspirations of the freed slaves. Congressional action was stimied by presidentisl vetos. The Republicans in the election of 1866 won more seats in Congress. (Anti-war feeling in 1864 helped the Democrats winn a number of Congressioinal seats. The election of 1866 was run in the wake of the successfil conclusion of the War which assisted the Republicans. The image of the martyred president was another factor. These developments and not black civil rights were the major determinants in the election.) With the added seats, Congressional republicans now had the ability to override President Johnson's vetos. Congress thus passed the first Reconstruction Act (1867). The Act divided the South (except Tennessee) into five military districts, each adminidstered by a major general. New elections were mandated in each state, this time with the participated of blacks. The Act significantly raised the bar for the readmission of the southern states. They were required to ratify the 14th Amendment and to guaranteed adult male suffrage, including black voting. President Johnson vetoed the bill, but the Republicans with their large majority overrode the veto on the same day.

Foundation (1866)

Southern whites in the wake of the collapse of the Confederacy began organizing secreat socities to deal with the newly freed slaves. Former Confederate soldiers were especially active in forming these groups. The concept spread with great rapidity. e first Ku Klux Klan society was founded at Pulaski, Tennessee (May 1866). Other local groups was founded in other parts of the former Confederacy. Representatives of these groups from Tennessee as well as Alabama, Georgia, Louisana, North Carolina, South Carolina as well as other southern states met in Nashville to form a general organization (April 1867). The assembly adopted a declaration of principles and constituted itself as an "Invisible Empire". It affirmed support for the U.S. Constitution. The Confederate defeat was so overwealmingh that there was no longer serious talk of secession. The statement of principles set forth many laudable principles, "... to ptotect the weak, the innocentand the defenseless ...; to relieve the injjured and oppressed; to succor the suffering ..." The Convention created the post of Grand Wizzard of the Empire who would have autocratic power to direct Klan activities. The Convention chose Nathan Bedford Forrest, the famed Confederate Calvalry commander, the first Grand Wizard. The Grand Wizzard would be assisted by ten Genii. Other officials included the Grand Dragon of the Realm who was assisted by eight Hydras. The Grand Titan of the Dominion was assisted by six Furies. The Grand Cyclops of the Den was assisted by two Nighthawks. There are no known statistics about the size of Klan membership, but Klan asctivities were widely supported by the white population of the southern states.


The name of the Klan was based on the Greek word "kuklos meaning "circle". The regalia was designed to prey upon the supersitions of a still largely uneducated black popuilation. (Southern states before the Civil War had laws making it illegal to teach blacks to read.) Klansmen wore white robes with hooded robes. (We note the same outfits worn bu pentitents during the Inquisdition.)

White Terrorism (1865-70)

Congressional Republicans with the passage of the Reconstruction Act (1867) prohibited actions to restrict the civil rights of blascks through legal actions like the Black Codes. Southern white as a result, increasingly turned to terrorism to supress the freed slaves. Klansmen took to wearing masks, white cardboard hats and white sheets on raids targetting blacks who were attempting to gain their civil rights or engage in economic activities that angered local whites. The fear engendered by hooded Klansmen and burning crosses had some impact. More important was the vicuious brutality of Klan terriorism. Often blacks were first warned not to vote or to stop some activity to which their while neighbors objected. Blacks who persisted were assaulted and viciously tortuted. Often the attacks came at night withb the victim being dragged from his bed. Many were beaten or whipped. Others were hung or shot. The Klan and their Allies played a major role in assisting white suprecists in gaining control of the state governments in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. (1868-70).

Other Groups

The Klan was no the only secret terrorist society in the South fighting for white supremecy. The Klan absorbed many smaller groups as it spread. Other groups included the White Brotherhood, the Men of Justice, the Constitutional Union Guards, and the Knights of the White Camelia. The Knights of the White Camnelia was especially important in the deep South.


The earliest Klan attacks were initially to prevent blacks from voting. This was the Klan's priority because the black population in southern states was substantial. The proportion of blacks in the population of the south after the Civil war was much higher than is the case today. Had blacks been allowed to vote they would have been able to wield considerable political power. Once white supreecists were firmly in power, then legal devices could be used to control blacks and to enact laws to supress black voting and other rights. This did not, however, end Klan violence. The Klan not only sought to limit black civil rights, but also blasck economic activity was attacked. Targets often included black businessmen who achieved any success. Other targets included any blacks who attempted to form organizations suchbas unions to further economic aspitations.

The Lost Cause

Perpetrators of the Lost Cause myth portrayed the Klansmen as heros wah saved white civilization in the South. Blacks were portrayed as brutish, barely civilized. Less racially oriented authors suggested that officiald appointed by Federal military authorities prevennted democratic processes in the South. These individuals were called Carpet baggers and Scalwags. I am not sure how to assess claims of coruption by historians promoting the Lost Cause myths. It is likely there was some corruption. Just how extensdive this was, I am not sure. Notably some of the charges of corruption involve state exopenditures for public education, in part to educated the freed slaves. What is certain is that the primary focus of Klan violence designed to prevent blacks from voting. This was necessatry to maintain white and often jutified by impasioned oratorty by the need to protect the purity of southern women.

Congressional Investigation (1870)

Congressional Republicans sought to control Klan violence which they saw as undermining Reconstruction. They were also concerned because blacks voted Reupublican. One of the Republican leaders was Benjamin Butler. Butler was a Federal general and had been the military govenor of NBew Orleans. His sactions there had made him one of the most hated men in the South. Congressional Republicans pressed President Ulysses S. Grant persue more vigorous asctions against the Klan. An investigation of the Klan was launched (1870). A grand jury subsequently reported, "There has existed since 1868, in many counties of the state, an organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, or Invisible Empire of the South, which embraces in its membership a large proportion of the white population of every profession and class. The Klan has a constitution and bylaws, which provides, among other things, that each member shall furnish himself with a pistol, a Ku Klux gown and a signal instrument. 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 of these 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."

Ku Klux Act (1871)

President Grant urged Congress toi take action against the violence in the south. Congress passed the Force Bill also known as the Ku Klux Act (1871). The law was designed to enforce provisions of the 14th Amendment guaranteeing civil rights. The Act provided the president considerable power to intervene in southern states affected by Klan violence. Federal authorities were empowered to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in counties where blacks were being attacked. President Grant issued a Presidentuial proclamation ordering illegal organizations to diusarm and disband (October 1871). Federal officials arrested hundreds of suspected Klansmen. Klan violence subsided. The Klan by this time, however, had aschieved its objectives in most southern states and white supremicist governments were firmly in control. Once in control of the state government, a variety of legal measures could be used to supress black voting and civil rights. With its goals achieved, Klan organizations essentially disbanded.

Figure 1.--Klam membership swelled in the 1920s and the Klan became a major force in american politics. Thev Klan expanded its message to be essentially a crusade against foreigners and foireign influences. many Americans for a time viewed the Klan as a patriotic organization.

Klan Revival (1910s)

There was a major revival of the Klan in the 1910s. Thomas Dixon's book The Ku Klux Klan (1905) played a role here. Even more important was D.W. Griffith. landmark, but voiciouslly racist film "Birth of a Nation (1915). The film was a national sensation. President Wilson, a historian himself, even spoke highly of it. The film proovided a Lost Cause depiction of Reconstruction with white cibvbilization being saved by the Klan. William J. Simmons, a minister, took advantage of the public mood to revive the Klan. The new Klan was incorporated in Georgia as a fratenal organization with the new name of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. It adopted same ritual and regalia as the origional Klan of Reconstruction era in the 1860s. Membership was restricted to white Protestan males, 16 years of age or older. As a result the work of Simmons and others. The revived Klan at first had little real impact.

World War I (1914-18)

The United States experiebnced substantial economic and social change as a result of World War I. Blacks were drafted along with whites and large numbers served in the AEF in France as part if seggregated units. After the War there was a difficult period of economic adjustment. Both industry and agricultured had expanded to meet war needs. Industry scaled back anf jobs became hard to find for returning veterans. The farm economy in particulkar declined. Mixed into these trends were black emigratiuon to the northern states and the expectations of black veterans returning from the more open society in France. There was as a result a great expansion in Klan membership and organization. Klan violence in the South had begun to drive blacks north. Expanding black population in northern cities increased northern interest in the Klan. The experience of blacks in the military, especially among those deployed in Europe, increased black demands for change.

Expansion of the Revived Klan

These trends help to signifgicantly expland Klan membership. the Klan began to grow in the North and not just the South. Klan organization was reported in about 40 ststes. There were differences in the Klan message in the North and South. The great strength oif the Klan remained in the South and there the focus remained primarily on suppression of blacks. The Klan in the South strongly expoused Protestant fundamentalism. The Klan in the North and Mid-west was less focused on blacks, in part because many communities ha few blacks. There was also less association with Protestant fundamentalism. The Klan in the Niorth was more of an ultra-patriotic movement with some similasrity with the Fascist movement in Europe. The Klan portrayed iutself as an American movement to protect the country agaunst foreign elements, including Jews, Roman Catholics, socialists, communists, and foreigners in general. The targets of the Klan in the north were not only blacks but also recent Ruropean immigrants who were often Catholic or Jewish. Labopr organizrs and striking woirkers were klabeled as subversives. The Klan in the North organized mass marches, one even in Washington D.C. Hiram W. Evans became the Klan's Imperial Wizard (1922). Evans led the Klan's most successful membership drive. Klansmen were elected to state and local office throughout the south and in some northern states as well. Evans bosted of a menbership exceediong 4 million people. Some estimates are even as high as 6 million. The Klan achieved considerable political influence not only in the South, but in northern states as well. Klan influence in the North was especially notable in Connecticut, Indiana, and OIregon. Klan violence reached new levels, espercially in the South. and adopted increasingly violent methods with kisnappings, floggings, beatings, and lynchings to terrorize blacks. Klansmens acted with virtual impunity, in part because the police as well as elected officials were often Klan members or sympethizers. Throughout the South only whites served on juries and white juries refused to convict other whites for assaults on blacks.

Klan Decline

The Klan tide was reversed by sensational developments in Indiana, the northern state where the Klan was strongest. Klan leader, David C. Stephenson,was convictedc of murder. The conviction was obtained in large part because he killerd a white woman. He was surprised with the convinction and even mote by the goivernors failure to comute the sentence. Accounts of Klan corruption changed the public image of the Klan and membership plumyted. The Klan became a spent force. Membership declined throughout the Depression and Woirld war II. Finally the orgasnization disbanded (1944).

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Politicans for many years were generally diusinclined to take oin the Klan because of its considerable popularity. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) became the main opponent of the Ku Klux Klan. The NAACP had little political influence, but it did begin to collerct information on Klan violence which it attempted to disseminate in the mainstream media swith varrying success. The NAACP covoked its 1920 national conference in Atlanta, a deep South state with considerable Klan activity. The NAACP launched a drive pushing for a Federal abti-lynching law.

The Civil Rights Movement (1950s-60s)

The American Civil Rights Movement is one of the most momentous epics in the history of the American Republic. I date it from the Brown vs. Topeka Supreme Court deseggregation decission (1954) to the passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965), but of course the struggle began long before that and continues today. The hope of real freedom for the emancipated slaves after the Civil War was quashed by racist state governments after the withdrawl of Federal trops in the 1870s. The gains achieved by blacksere gradually eroded by racist Jim Crow legislation and extra legal terror fomented by the Klu Klux Klan. Lynchings and mob vilolence througout the South cowed blacks into submission and precented them from voting. The economic deprivation and terror caused a small numbers of blacks to migrate north and after World War I (1914-18) this migration increased significantly. The Supreme Court countenced segreagation in the Plessy vs. Fergusson decission (1898) and a system of racial apartaid enforced by law and the lynch rope ruled the American South until after World War II (1939-45). President Truman prepared the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement when he deseggregated the military (1948) and took other steps which led to the landmark Supreme Court Brown decission. Brown Although the Brown decission did not immediately desegragate Southern schools, it did help foster a decade of nonviolent protests and marches, often carried out by teenagers and youths. These ranged from the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott to the student-led sit-ins and Freedom Rides of the 1960s. These protests were finalized by a massive March on Washington (1963). The Civil Rights Act (1964) which provided a frange of legal protections including access to public accomodations. The Voting Rights Act (1965) was the capstone of the movement, guaranteeing access to the voting booth and in the process fundamentally changing America.

Second Klan Revival (1950s-60s)

The emergence of the Civil Rights Movement and its increasing success in challenging the South's seggregation system led to a renewed interest in the Klan. Klan organization both formal and informal increased in the southern states. This was especially true in the deepo South states of Alabama and Mississippi. The most important Klan group was the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan which was led by Robert Shelton. The central concern of the Klan was preventing blackls from voting. Part of the reason was the very substantial black population, especially in Mississippi where over 40 percent of the population was black. Both legal and extra-legal methods were used to prevent black voting.

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Created: August 26, 2002
Last updated: 5:31 PM 5/3/2015