The KKK History
On December 24, 1865, six former Confederate soldiers gathered in Pulaski, TN, to discuss forming a secret society bent on disrupting the Reconstruction efforts of the victorious Union Army. The men decided to name their organization the Kyklos Clan, “kyklos” being the Latin word for “circle.” Later, they became the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The men who started the KKK were, J. Calvin Jones, John B. Kennedy, James Crowe, Frank McCord, John Lester and Richard Reed.
The Klan and other similar organizations across the South set upon a violent campaign to intimidate former slaves and Northerners who had come to the South after the war to settle or assist with Reconstruction. They wanted to restore the Confederacy and its ideals by any means necessary, including vandalism, arson and mass murder. The local White population saw the post-Civil War changes as an affront, and began violent action against former slaves. In Memphis, TN, a White mob rampaged through a Black neighborhood, killing and wounding over 100 people. In New Orleans, a mob killed 36 people in an attack on a Black suffrage convention.
In 1867, former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest stepped forward and declared himself the national leader of the organization, calling himself the Grand Wizard of the KKK. However, there was no actual structure or tenets of the Klan. There were several groups all over the South, which all acted independently.
The Klan wasn’t simply interested in burning down the house; they sought to burn down the entire Reconstruction government and all it stood for. This meant assassinating Republican politicians, keeping the former slave population from getting an education, voting and running a business, which in the immediate post-Civil War era, usually meant destroying farms.
Ritual and symbolism was important to the KKK. KKK pictures show they wore White hoods, at first to hide their identity, but later, to look like ghosts to frighten the superstitious population of the time. They claimed to be the ghosts of Confederate soldiers killed in the war. Some dressed in all black with red accents, some in all White. The main KKK symbol, the one you see on the white robes they wear, is called the blood drop cross or the MIOAK (an acronym for “Mystic Insignia of a Klansman”). The KKK also uses a symbol that appears to be a triangle, when it is in fact three K’s facing inward and interlocking.
Soon, Klan violence created an atmosphere of dread for many Southern Republicans and former slaves. The violence began to affect the electoral process. During the election campaign of Ulysses S. Grant, mob violence killed scores of people in Kansas, Louisiana and Georgia. The Democrats took control of those states. However, the violence was unable to stop Grant’s election to the Presidency. Grant pushed for a peaceful reintegration of the Southern states, but found the Klan to be a hindrance. The Congress ratified the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted all Black men the right to vote.
Klan violence also alerted the nation that the South was still in a mindset of hatred after the war. Some Northern politicians wanted to propose legislation to crack down on mob violence and Klan violence. Some Southern governors were as well, but executives from both parties feared that if the government didn’t take action, a race war could begin. The Pennsylvania Senator John Scott asked for testimony from victims of Klan violence and gain evidence in support of the proposed legislation.
In 1870, Congress passed the Enforcement Acts, legislation that would help protect Black citizens and enforce the rights granted them by their emancipation. Later in 1871, the Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan acts, which made private criminal acts federal crimes, not simply a matter for state or local jurisdictions to deal with. President Grant’s men were able to prosecute crimes that local officials were afraid to or simply didn’t want to. The government action helped break the Klan’s back in the South through jailing, fining and exiling them from their hometowns.
The Turn of the Century: The KKK Reborn
While the federal government action helped, the Klan had been in decline for a few years. Even the self-appointed Grand Wizard Forrest called for an end to the Klan activities, which he said had become hurtful, rather than helpful. The Klan faded away, while other racist organizations took over. Klan activities and ideas lived on even though the organization was no longer effectual.
In 1905, Thomas Dixon Jr. published his novel The Clansman, a story lionizing the actions of the KKK. Filmmaker D.W. Griffith decided to turn the novel into a film, the 1915 movie Birth of a Nation. The film ignited interest in the Klan. Around that time, America was growing and changing. It was the middle of the industrial revolution. Immigrants came to the country in great numbers looking for work or an escape from oppressive governments. Many people were concerned about the changes, and the KKK offered themselves as a solution to problems that hadn’t manifested yet. People were afraid, and the KKK promised to protect people from the unknown.
The KKK definition of enemies now included Jews. Jews were a minority in the South in the early 1900s, and the anti-Semitism was not uncommon. When 13-year-old Mary Phagan was discovered strangled to death in the factory where she worked, blame fell to the Jewish-American superintendent Leo Frank. The trial found Frank guilty, and shortly after the Court sentenced him to jail. Later, a lynch mob kidnapped him from jail and murdered him.
These events inspired William J. Simmons to revive the KKK and become the second grand imperial wizard. This second iteration of the KKK found all manner of things to rail against; liquor, partying, night clubs and other vices aside from the usual concerns regarding non-White, non-Protestant, non-English speaking people. Simmons may have been as interested in publicity as in making an organization that would be dedicated to “comprehensive Americanism,” as he hired publicity agents to promote this new KKK. The efforts were successful, as membership increased, as well as their influence. The new KKK, glamourized by Griffith’s movie and the publicity push gave the organization new respectability. Politicians, including future President Harry Truman joined the organization. However, the organization again drifted into ill repute when the violence of the old KKK resurfaced. Congress called hearings again, and Simmons faded in this new spotlight.
The KKK slipped into the background again, but the attitudes that supported the organization lived on in the post-World War I America. However, the war against Nazi Germany and totalitarianism tempered American support for these kinds of organizations. The German American Bund was an organization designed to gain support for the Nazis before World War II. Once the war began, the government and citizens turned against the Bund, more because of wartime patriotism rather than changes in opinion about Jews. 58% of Americans felt that Jews had “too much power.”
The 1960s: The KKK and the Civil Rights Movement
While racial and religious prejudice continued, the prosperity of the post-war generation did not lend itself to supporting a violent organization like the KKK, even during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. The states in the Deep South witnessed many violent acts in response to the Civil Rights movement. Random vigilante gangs performed much of the violence against Southern Blacks and civil rights workers; however, the KKK was at the forefront of many of the murders and more organized efforts to try to stop the advance of the Civil Rights movements. The White Knights of the KKK was the resurgent arm of the KKK, responsible for much of the violence against Blacks in the Deep South.
Ironically, the White Knights caused the government to become more involved in protecting civil rights workers. The US government initially took a hands-off approach in the early 60s, with then US Attorney General Robert Kennedy approving surveillance on Civil Rights leaders, including Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1962, a group of young civil rights workers called the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) planned to send a force of college students of all races from all over the country down to Mississippi to organize the state’s Black citizens to help them secure the right to vote. The White Knights discovered the plan and tried to stop SNCC through violence. Members of the KKK tracked and killed three SNCC members, two White, one Black. The deaths of these men drew the nation’s attention to the activities of the Klan as well as brought closer scrutiny by the FBI. Klan violence helped convince Kennedy to become a supporter of the civil rights movement rather than a skeptic.
The KKK continued to terrorize civil rights workers despite the increased presence of the federal government. Local officials in Mississippi were either sympathetic to the Klan or belonged to the organization. The violence continued throughout the late 60s. The U.S. Department of Justice petitioned the US Supreme Court to broaden federal powers to act against local criminal acts, harking back to the Enforcement Acts of 1870 in the case US vs Guest (1966). Again, the federal government stepped in where local law enforcement would not.
The Klan suffered because of the federal action and the changing society. Even if people agreed with some of the Klan’s racist ideology, they did not support bullying and violence against others. Membership faded; however, the Klan did not completely fade from the public. Some sympathetic to the Klan tried to use the Klan’s visibility to create seats of power for themselves.
The 1970s: Klan Tries to Remake Its Image
In 1974, David Duke, a graduate of Louisiana State University started his own local KKK organization, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke teamed up with a pastor named Thomas Robb, who tried to change the Klan’s image. Their knights did not wear white hoods, but instead wore business suits. They didn’t not openly espouse hatred for other races, claiming they were simply “pro-White.” They pursued legal challenges to civil rights laws and tried to change the image of the Klan, modeling themselves after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) a popular civil rights organization in America. Duke decided to run for President of the US in 1988 and did not win many votes. He ran for, and won, a special election to represent a district in Metairie, LA, in Congress in 1989. He only served a few months before his term ended. He ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 1990, for governor of Louisiana in 1991 and again for President, this time as a member of the Republican Party, in 1992.
While the KKK tried to soften its image, other KKK organizations maintained the white hood and all that it symbolized. The White Knights were still active, and one of its members was a professional wrestler named Johnny Lee Clary, who wrestled under the name Johnny Angel. Clery became the Grand Dragon of the White Knights’ chapter in Oklahoma, and went on several national television programs preaching the racist beliefs, infamously battling talk show host Morton Downey Jr. However, Clary became disillusioned by the Klan. When he discovered his girlfriend had been an informant working for the FBI, he quit the Klan and joined the ministry.
The KKK Today
Today, the Klan is a very weak organization. Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center discovered a legal strategy that enabled persons to sue organizations like the Klan and seize their assets. Law enforcement members in the changing Southern US reopened cases where Klan members were responsible for deaths and sent the criminals to jail.
The KKK still tries to modernize to attract new members. The Klan is active on social media and the national organization has a website. Recently, the KKK tried to impose its presence in another civil rights case, but hackers hacked and defaced the KKK website.