The Ku Klux Klan is one of America’s oldest hate groups. While it was established shortly after the end of the Civil War, it rose in popularity and power for decades until the start of the civil rights movement. After this, the Klan declined in popularity among many people who viewed it as part of America’s past that they would rather forget. Today, the Klan is rarely heard about or seen in the news, but there is some evidence that it and similar groups are regaining some popularity.
Ku Klux Klan History – Origins of the Klan
The Ku Klux Klan was originally founded by six Confederate veterans from Pulaski, Tennessee on Christmas Eve of 1865. It was actually one of several similar groups formed around the time. Groups such as the Southern Cross and Knight of the White Camelia had similar missions and goals.
Like many of these groups, the KKK was formed to protect the interest and advance the causes of white people in the South. To this end, its members waged a campaign of violence and intimidation against black residents. At first, these incidents were reported as the misdeeds of bands of former Confederate soldiers, leading to a few incidents of intervention by the federal government. Nonetheless, the organization grew in popularity, and by 1867 they held their first national convention. This meeting organized the group and gave it a hierarchical structure, but many chapters continued to operate rather independently of the national organization. This is still true of many chapters of the group today.
Over the next several years, the KKK grew in size and strength. Under the leadership of Nathan Forrest, the group’s first Grand Wizard, the group publicly declared that they were only interested in restoring the rights that had been taken from former Confederate soldiers, in actuality they waged a campaign of extreme violence against anyone who made a stand for their own rights.
One of the first groups that the KKK declared was on was the Republican party and the “Loyal Leagues” that were composed of both black and white persons who voted for Republican candidates. People who were members of a “Loyal League” were subjected to beatings, lynchings, and in many cases had their homes burned down. In the early years, there were members who objected to these methods, but many of them were ousted or converted to the group’s more radical line of thinking by the end of the decade.
The group’s members originally primarily consisted of poor white farmers and tradespeople who had enlisted in the Confederate army. As the group become more popular, however, it often found allies and members among the middle and upper class whites. Democratic politicians often aligned themselves with Klan leadership, and in many cases judges, mayors, and other people in positions of power were Klan members. In many rural areas, Klan membership was essential to achieving government and professional jobs.
The Height of the Klan
Because of the extreme violence utilized by the KKK, the group’s members quickly took to wearing white robes and hoods in order to disguise their identity. In the early days of the Klan, these robes helped to disguise the members from people in authority who opposed their extreme measures. As the Klan grew in popularity, however, these disguises were not as necessary. The robes did become a symbol of the group that was used to intimidate its victims.
The spread of the Klan was helped along by the fact that the group used their extreme measures on anyone who opposed their agenda. By the 1870s, this resulted in dozens of counties throughout the South reporting that they did not have a single Republican vote cast in national and local elections.
In order to ensure their authority, the Klan would often round up dozens of African Americans and commit violent acts such as mass executions in order to make a statement to others. Originally, the group opposed African Americans entering into any type of public office and exercising their right to vote. By the late 1800s, however, the KKK opposed everything from public education for African Americans to allowing them to shop, worship, and eat in what were deemed to be white only establishments.
As stories of the incredible violence of the group grew, it began to lose popularity in favor of other hate groups that were more narrowly focused. By the late 1870s, the KKK was losing members and it was believed by many that it would be replaced by other groups with similar groups but less brutal tactics. In 1876, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that took away a lot of the political power that the group had, and many people simply assumed that it would vanish into history.
The group had almost completely disappeared by 1915. Unfortunately, that year saw the release of Birth of a Nation, a silent film celebrating the role of the Klan in American and Southern history. This led to a renewed interest in the group, and chapters of the KKK soon saw their membership growing. The new Klan, as it was referred to by many people, was reorganized as a group that opposed not only giving equal rights to African Americans, but also to Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. This time, the group was composed of primarily professionals and politicians, giving the group a lot of political and economic authority throughout the South.
With a few years, it was considered to be a right of passage for white young men in many Southern states to join the KKK. In many areas, it was impossible to be a member of the Chamber of Commerce or hold any type of government office without first joining the KKK. Throughout the first half of the century, the group was successful at preventing African Americans from voting, obtaining government offices, starting businesses, and living in the neighborhoods they wanted.
It was during this second resurgence of power that many of the common symbols of the KKK became commonly recognized throughout America. The white hoods and robes, previously worn to hide the identity of members, were now openly paraded in public. Many members wore this “costume” in parades and during other public functions. Members no longer wore masks with these outfits, however. The burning cross also became more widespread. It was often erected and lit on property owned or lived in by African Americans as a way to intimidate or warn the residents to leave the property.
The Decline of the Klan
At the end of World War II, a more mobile and more educated population brought many changes to the South, including the start of the decline of the power of the KKK. Membership dropped dramatically during the war, and it was now no longer seen as essential to holding public office. In many larger cities, this meant that positions of authority were now held by people who actively opposed the Klan and its activities.
In fact, a number of people began to speak out against the violence and extreme methods favored by the group. As televisions and radios became common features in many American homes, a lot of people were appalled by images of lynchings, hangings, and other violence committed against people who had committed no crime and simply wanted (in many cases) to be left alone. Furthermore, many Americans were outraged at the idea that the freedoms they had fought for during the war were not extended to all citizens of the nation.
The Klan still functioned mostly as many independent groups rather than one central organization. To many people in law enforcement, this was a huge disadvantage. Because the Klan did not have any central authority, it was possible to further weaken it by going after members in areas where there was not a lot of support for the group. As members in Klan strongholds saw that this was occurring, they became very concerned that their association with the group would cause them to be arrested. This, along with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement that supported the prosecution of the crimes this group committed, made it possible for the federal government to weaken the stranglehold of the KKK on the South.
The Klan Today
Today, the KKK reports that it has several thousand members, but many law enforcement officials believe the number of active members to be much lower. Furthermore, the group has been pushed to the very fringes of society. Instead of publicly marching in parades and committing crimes in the open without fear of retribution, most members today are very quiet about their ties to the Klan.
By the 1970s, the Klan had allied itself with several neo-Nazi groups and expanded its focus to include recent immigrants, Hispanics, and Communists. The number of violent incidents that the group was involved in began to greatly decrease. There were several well-publicized fights with Communists in the late 1970s, but by the 1980s it was rare to hear about the Klan in the news. A series of court cases throughout the 1970s and early 1980s resulted in many prominent Klan members going to jail for their crimes. This effectively removed the senior leadership of the KKK, making the group very weak. Open groups of the KKK were typically only found in very rural areas of the United States
Membership continued to drop off throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. After the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th, however, the Klan reported a renewed interest in membership. Not surprisingly, they had amended their doctrine to include the expulsion of Muslims from American soil.
While the group no longer enjoys the same freedom of movement and immunity from the law that they once did, there are regions of America where the group is experiencing a rise in power. In many of these places members are aligned with other white supremacist groups.
Surprisingly, many current members claim that the group is no longer the violent, secret sect that it once was. According to them, the KKK simply wants to express their belief that America and its lands should be solely populated and controlled by white people. The group now openly states that they hate Jews, African Americans, LGBTQ persons, Hispanics, Muslims, and a variety of other economic and religious minorities.
While various chapters of the group are still monitored by federal law enforcement, there have been comparatively few incidents of violence when compared to Klan activities in the past. Several leaders of the groups claim that this is because they belief that the violence was getting in the way of their message. The group has openly stated that they want their point of view to be discussed in public forums, and their ideas to be given the political clout that they once had decades ago.