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Ku Klux Klan's logo
|3rd Klan[notes 1]||since 1946|
|2nd Klan||3,000,000–6,000,000 (peaked in 1920–1925 period)|
|Origin||United States of America|
3rd Klan: Far-right
Ku Klux Klan's logo
|3rd Klan[notes 1]||since 1946|
|2nd Klan||3,000,000–6,000,000 (peaked in 1920–1925 period)|
|Origin||United States of America|
3rd Klan: Far-right
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), or just the Klan, is the name of three distinct movements in the United States. They first played a violent role against African Americans in the South during the Reconstruction Era of the 1860s. The second was a very large controversial nationwide organization in the 1920s. The current manifestation consists of numerous small unconnected groups that use the KKK name. They have all emphasized secrecy and distinctive costumes, and all have called for purification of American society, and all are considered right-wing.
The first Ku Klux Klan flourished in the Southern United States in the late 1860s, then died out by the early 1870s. Members made their own white costumes: robes, masks, and conical hats, designed to be outlandish and terrifying, and to hide their identities. The second KKK flourished nationwide in the early and mid-1920s, and adopted a standard white costume (sales of which together with initiation fees financed the movement) and code words as the first Klan, while adding cross burnings and mass parades. The third KKK emerged after World War II and was associated with opposing the Civil Rights Movement and progress among minorities. The second and third incarnations of the Ku Klux Klan made frequent reference to the USA's "Anglo-Saxon" blood, harking back to 19th-century nativism. Though most members of the KKK saw themselves as holding to American values and Christian morality, virtually every Christian denomination officially denounced the Ku Klux Klan.
The first Klan was founded in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, by six veterans of the Confederate Army. The name is probably derived from the Greek word kuklos (κύκλος) which means circle, suggesting a circle or band of brothers.
Although there was little organizational structure above the local level, similar groups rose across the South and adopted the same name and methods. Klan groups spread throughout the South as an insurgent movement during the Reconstruction era in the United States. As a secret vigilante group, the Klan targeted freedmen and their allies; it sought to restore white supremacy by threats and violence, including murder, against black and white Republicans. In 1870 and 1871, the federal government passed the Force Acts, which were used to prosecute Klan crimes. Prosecution of Klan crimes and enforcement of the Force Acts suppressed Klan activity. In 1874 and later, newly organized and openly active paramilitary organizations, such as the White League and the Red Shirts, started a fresh round of violence aimed at suppressing blacks' voting and running Republicans out of office. These contributed to segregationist white Democrats regaining political power in all the Southern states by 1877.
In 1915, the second Klan was founded in Atlanta, Georgia. Starting in 1921, it adopted a modern business system of recruiting (which paid most of the initiation fee and costume charges as commissions to the organizers) and grew rapidly nationwide at a time of prosperity. Reflecting the social tensions of urban industrialization and vastly increased immigration, its membership grew most rapidly in cities, and spread out of the South to the Midwest and West. The second KKK preached "One Hundred Percent Americanism" and demanded the purification of politics, calling for strict morality and better enforcement of prohibition. Its official rhetoric focused on the threat of the Catholic Church, using anti-Catholicism and nativism. Its appeal was directed exclusively at white Protestants. Some local groups took part in attacks on private houses and carried out other violent activities. The violent episodes were generally in the South.
The second Klan was a formal fraternal organization, with a national and state structure. At its peak in the mid-1920s, the organization claimed to include about 15% of the nation's eligible population, approximately 4–5 million men. Internal divisions, criminal behavior by leaders, and external opposition brought about a collapse in membership, which had dropped to about 30,000 by 1930. It finally faded away in the 1940s. Klan organizers also operated in Canada, especially in Saskatchewan in 1926-28, where members of the Klan attacked immigrants from Eastern Europe.
The "Ku Klux Klan" name was used by a numerous independent local groups opposing the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, they often forged alliances with Southern police departments, as in Birmingham, Alabama; or with governor's offices, as with George Wallace of Alabama. Several members of KKK groups were convicted of murder in the deaths of civil rights workers and children in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Today, researchers estimate that there may be 150 Klan chapters with upwards of 5,000 members nationwide.
Today, many sources classify the Klan as a "subversive or terrorist organization". In April 1997, FBI agents arrested four members of the True Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Dallas for conspiracy to commit robbery and to blow up a natural gas processing plant. In 1999, the city council of Charleston, South Carolina passed a resolution declaring the Klan to be a terrorist organization. In 2004, a professor at the University of Louisville began a campaign to have the Klan declared a terrorist organization in order to ban it from campus.
Six well-educated Confederate veterans from Pulaski, Tennessee created the original Ku Klux Klan on December 24, 1865, during the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War. The name was formed by combining the Greek kyklos (κύκλος, circle) with clan. The group was known for a short time as the "Kuklux Clan". The Ku Klux Klan was one of a number of secret, oath-bound organizations using violence, which included the Southern Cross in New Orleans (1865) and the Knights of the White Camelia (1867) in Louisiana.
Historians generally see the KKK as part of the post Civil War insurgent violence related not only to the high number of veterans in the population, but also to their effort to control the dramatically changed social situation by using extrajudicial means to restore white supremacy. In 1866, Mississippi Governor William L. Sharkey reported that disorder, lack of control and lawlessness were widespread; in some states armed bands of Confederate soldiers roamed at will. The Klan used public violence against blacks as intimidation. They burned houses, and attacked and killed blacks, leaving their bodies on the roads.
At an 1867 meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, Klan members gathered to try to create a hierarchical organization with local chapters eventually reporting up to a national headquarters. Since most of the Klan's members were veterans, they were used to the hierarchical structure of the organization, but the Klan never operated under this centralized structure. Local chapters and bands were highly independent.
Former Confederate Brigadier General George Gordon developed the Prescript, or Klan dogma. The Prescript suggested elements of white supremacist belief. For instance, an applicant should be asked if he was in favor of "a white man's government", "the reenfranchisement and emancipation of the white men of the South, and the restitution of the Southern people to all their rights." The latter is a reference to the Ironclad Oath, which stripped the vote from white persons who refused to swear that they had not borne arms against the Union. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest became Grand Wizard, claiming to be the Klan's national leader.
In an 1868 newspaper interview, Forrest stated that the Klan's primary opposition was to the Loyal Leagues, Republican state governments, people like Tennessee governor Brownlow and other carpetbaggers and scalawags. He argued that many southerners believed that blacks were voting for the Republican Party because they were being hoodwinked by the Loyal Leagues. One Alabama newspaper editor declared "The League is nothing more than a nigger Ku Klux Klan."
Despite Gordon's and Forrest's work, local Klan units never accepted the Prescript and continued to operate autonomously. There were never hierarchical levels or state headquarters. Klan members used violence to settle old feuds and local grudges, as they worked to restore white dominance in the disrupted postwar society. The historian Elaine Frantz Parsons describes the membership:
Lifting the Klan mask revealed a chaotic multitude of antiblack vigilante groups, disgruntled poor white farmers, wartime guerrilla bands, displaced Democratic politicians, illegal whiskey distillers, coercive moral reformers, sadists, rapists, white workmen fearful of black competition, employers trying to enforce labor discipline, common thieves, neighbors with decades-old grudges, and even a few freedmen and white Republicans who allied with Democratic whites or had criminal agendas of their own. Indeed, all they had in common, besides being overwhelmingly white, southern, and Democratic, was that they called themselves, or were called, Klansmen.
Historian Eric Foner observed:
In effect, the Klan was a military force serving the interests of the Democratic party, the planter class, and all those who desired restoration of white supremacy. Its purposes were political, but political in the broadest sense, for it sought to affect power relations, both public and private, throughout Southern society. It aimed to reverse the interlocking changes sweeping over the South during Reconstruction: to destroy the Republican party's infrastructure, undermine the Reconstruction state, reestablish control of the black labor force, and restore racial subordination in every aspect of Southern life.
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To that end they worked to curb the education, economic advancement, voting rights, and right to keep and bear arms of blacks. The Ku Klux Klan soon spread into nearly every southern state, launching a "reign of terror against Republican leaders both black and white. Those political leaders assassinated during the campaign included Arkansas Congressman James M. Hinds, three members of the South Carolina legislature, and several men who served in constitutional conventions."
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Klan members adopted masks and robes that hid their identities and added to the drama of their night rides, their chosen time for attacks. Many of them operated in small towns and rural areas where people otherwise knew each other's faces, and sometimes still recognized the attackers. "The kind of thing that men are afraid or ashamed to do openly, and by day, they accomplish secretly, masked, and at night." The Ku Klux Klan night riders "sometimes claimed to be ghosts of Confederate soldiers so, as they claimed, to frighten superstitious blacks. Few freedmen took such nonsense seriously."
The Klan attacked black members of the Loyal Leagues and intimidated southern Republicans and Freedmen's Bureau workers. When they killed black political leaders, they also took heads of families, along with the leaders of churches and community groups, because these people had many roles in society. Agents of the Freedmen's Bureau reported weekly assaults and murders of blacks. "Armed guerrilla warfare killed thousands of Negroes; political riots were staged; their causes or occasions were always obscure, their results always certain: ten to one hundred times as many Negroes were killed as whites." Masked men shot into houses and burned them, sometimes with the occupants still inside. They drove successful black farmers off their land. "Generally, it can be reported that in North and South Carolina, in 18 months ending in June 1867, there were 197 murders and 548 cases of aggravated assault."
Klan violence worked to suppress black voting. More than 2,000 persons were killed, wounded and otherwise injured in Louisiana within a few weeks prior to the Presidential election of November 1868. Although St. Landry Parish had a registered Republican majority of 1,071, after the murders, no Republicans voted in the fall elections. White Democrats cast the full vote of the parish for Grant's opponent. The KKK killed and wounded more than 200 black Republicans, hunting and chasing them through the woods. Thirteen captives were taken from jail and shot; a half-buried pile of 25 bodies was found in the woods. The KKK made people vote Democratic and gave them certificates of the fact.
In the April 1868 Georgia gubernatorial election, Columbia County cast 1,222 votes for Republican Rufus Bullock. By the November presidential election, Klan intimidation led to suppression of the Republican vote and only one person voted for Ulysses S. Grant.
Klansmen killed more than 150 African Americans in a county in Florida, and hundreds more in other counties. Freedmen's Bureau records provided a detailed recounting of Klansmen's beatings and murders of freedmen and their white allies.
One of these teachers (Miss Allen of Illinois), whose school was at Cotton Gin Port in Monroe County, was visited ... between one and two o'clock in the morning on March 1871, by about fifty men mounted and disguised. Each man wore a long white robe and his face was covered by a loose mask with scarlet stripes. She was ordered to get up and dress which she did at once and then admitted to her room the captain and lieutenant who in addition to the usual disguise had long horns on their heads and a sort of device in front. The lieutenant had a pistol in his hand and he and the captain sat down while eight or ten men stood inside the door and the porch was full. They treated her "gentlemanly and quietly" but complained of the heavy school-tax, said she must stop teaching and go away and warned her that they never gave a second notice. She heeded the warning and left the county.
By 1868, two years after the Klan's creation, its activity was beginning to decrease. Members were hiding behind Klan masks and robes as a way to avoid prosecution for freelance violence. Many influential southern Democrats feared that Klan lawlessness provided an excuse for the federal government to retain its power over the South, and they began to turn against it. There were outlandish claims made, such as Georgian B. H. Hill stating "that some of these outrages were actually perpetrated by the political friends of the parties slain."
Union Army veterans in mountainous Blount County, Alabama, organized "the anti-Ku Klux". They put an end to violence by threatening Klansmen with reprisals unless they stopped whipping Unionists and burning black churches and schools. Armed blacks formed their own defense in Bennettsville, South Carolina and patrolled the streets to protect their homes.
National sentiment gathered to crack down on the Klan, even though some Democrats at the national level questioned whether the Klan really existed or believed that it was just a creation of nervous Southern Republican governors. Many southern states began to pass anti-Klan legislation.
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In January 1871, Pennsylvania Republican Senator John Scott convened a Congressional committee which took testimony from 52 witnesses about Klan atrocities. They accumulated 12 volumes of horrifying testimony. In February, former Union General and Congressman Benjamin Franklin Butler of Massachusetts introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (Ku Klux Klan Act). This added to the enmity that southern white Democrats bore toward him. While the bill was being considered, further violence in the South swung support for its passage. The Governor of South Carolina appealed for federal troops to assist his efforts in keeping control of the state. A riot and massacre in a Meridian, Mississippi, courthouse were reported, from which a black state representative escaped only by taking to the woods. The 1871 Civil Rights Act allowed President Ulysses S. Grant to suspend Habeas Corpus.
In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed Butler's legislation. The Ku Klux Klan Act was used by the Federal government together with the 1870 Force Act, another act that President Grant signed, to enforce the civil rights provisions for individuals under the constitution. Under the 1871 Klan Act, after the Klan refused to voluntarily dissolve, President Grant issued a suspension of Habeas Corpus, and stationed Federal troops in close to 9 South Carolina counties. The Klansmen were apprehended and prosecuted in court. Judges Hugh Lennox Bond and George S. Bryan presided over the trial of Ku Klux Klan members in Columbia, South Carolina during December 1871. The defendants were sentenced to five years to three months incarceration with fines. More African Americans served on juries in Federal court than were selected for local or state juries, so they had a chance to participate in the process. In the crackdown, hundreds of Klan members were fined or imprisoned.
Although Forrest boasted that the Klan was a nationwide organization of 550,000 men and that he could muster 40,000 Klansmen within five days' notice, as a secret or "invisible" group, it had no membership rosters, no chapters, and no local officers. It was difficult for observers to judge its actual membership. It had created a sensation by the dramatic nature of its masked forays and because of its many murders.
In 1870 a federal grand jury determined that the Klan was a "terrorist organization". It issued hundreds of indictments for crimes of violence and terrorism. Klan members were prosecuted, and many fled from areas that were under federal government jurisdiction, particularly in South Carolina. Many people not formally inducted into the Klan had used the Klan's costume for anonymity, to hide their identities when carrying out acts of violence. Forrest called for the Klan to disband in 1869, arguing that the Klan was "being perverted from its original honorable and patriotic purposes, becoming injurious instead of subservient to the public peace". Stanley Horn, a Klan historian argues that "generally speaking, the Klan's end was more in the form of spotty, slow, and gradual disintegration than a formal and decisive disbandment". Moreover, a Georgia based reporter wrote in 1870 that, "A true statement of the case is not that the Ku Klux are an organized band of licensed criminals, but that men who commit crimes call themselves Ku Klux".
While people used the Klan as a mask for nonpolitical crimes, state and local governments seldom acted against them. African Americans were kept off juries. In lynching cases, all-white juries almost never indicted Ku Klux Klan members. When there was a rare indictment, juries were unlikely to vote for a conviction. In part, jury members feared reprisals from local Klansmen.
Others may have agreed with lynching as a way of keeping dominance over black men. In many states, officials were reluctant to use black militia against the Klan out of fear that racial tensions would be raised. When Republican Governor of North Carolina William Woods Holden called out the militia against the Klan in 1870, it added to his unpopularity. Combined with violence and fraud at the polls, the Republicans lost their majority in the state legislature. Disaffection with Holden's actions led to white Democratic legislators' impeaching Holden and removing him from office, but their reasons were numerous.
The Klan was virtually removed in South Carolina and gradually withered away throughout the rest of the South where it had gradually been faltering in prominence. Attorney General Amos Tappan Ackerman led the prosecutions.
In 1874, organized white paramilitary groups were formed in the Deep South to replace the faltering Klan: the White League in Louisiana and the Red Shirts in Mississippi, North and South Carolina. They campaigned openly to turn Republicans out of office, intimidated and killed black voters, tried to disrupt organizing and suppressed black voting. They were out in force during the campaigns and elections of 1874 and 1876, contributing to the conservative Democrats regaining power in 1876, against a background of electoral violence.
Shortly after, in United States v. Cruikshank (1875), the Supreme Court ruled that the Force Act of 1870 did not give the Federal government power to regulate private actions, but only those by state governments. The result was that as the century went on, African Americans were at the mercy of hostile state governments that refused to intervene against private violence and paramilitary groups.
Whereas the number of indictments across the South was large, the number of cases leading to prosecution and sentencing was relatively small. The overloaded federal courts were not able to meet the demands of trying such a tremendous number of cases, a situation that led to selective pardoning. By late 1873 and 1874, most of the charges against Klansmen were dropped although new cases continued to be prosecuted for several more years. Most of those sentenced had either served their terms or had been pardoned by 1875.The Supreme Court of the United States eviscerated the Ku Klux Act in 1876 by ruling that the federal government could no longer prosecute individuals although states would be forced to comply with federal civil rights provisions. Republicans passed a second civil rights act (the Civil Rights Act of 1875) to grant equal access to public facilities and other housing accommodations regardless of race. Ironically, the Klan during this period served to further Northern reconstruction efforts, as Ku Klux violence provided the political climate needed to pass civil rights protections for blacks. Although the Ku Klux Act of 1871 dismantled the first Klan, Southern whites formed other, similar groups that kept blacks away from the polls through intimidation and physical violence. Reconstruction ended with the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes, who suspended the federal military occupation of the South; yet blacks still found themselves without the basic civil liberties that Congressional Republicans had sought to secure.
In 1882, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Harris that the Klan Act was partially unconstitutional. It ruled that Congress's power under the Fourteenth Amendment did not extend to the right to regulate against private conspiracies.
Klan costumes, also called "regalia", disappeared by the early 1870s (Wade 1987, p. 109). The fact that the Klan did not exist for decades was shown when Simmons's 1915 recreation of the Klan attracted only two aging "former Reconstruction Klansmen." All other members were new. By 1872, the Klan was broken as an organization. Nonetheless, the goals that the Klan had failed to achieve itself, such as suppressing suffrage for Southern blacks and driving a wedge between poor whites and blacks, were largely accomplished by the 1890s by militant Southern whites. Lynchings of African Americans, far from being ended by the Klan's disintegration, instead peaked in 1892 with 161 deaths.
In 1915 the film The Birth of a Nation was released, mythologising and glorifying the first Klan and their endeavour. The second Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915 by William J. Simmons at Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta. Its growth was based on a new anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, prohibitionist and antisemitic agenda, which developed in response to contemporary social tensions. Most of the founders were from a small Atlanta-area organization called the Knights of Mary Phagan, who had organized around Leo Frank's trial. The new organization and chapters adopted regalia featured in The Birth of a Nation.
Director D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation glorified the original Klan. His film was based on the book and play The Clansman and the book The Leopard's Spots, both by Thomas Dixon, Jr. Dixon said his purpose was "to revolutionize northern sentiment by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat!" The film created a nationwide Klan craze. At the official premiere in Atlanta, members of the Klan rode up and down the street in front of the theater.
Much of the modern Klan's iconography, including the standardized white costume and the lighted cross, are derived from the film. Its imagery was based on Dixon's romanticized concept of old England and Scotland, as portrayed in the novels and poetry of Sir Walter Scott. The film's influence was enhanced by a purported endorsement by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, a Southerner. A Hollywood press agent claimed that after seeing the film Wilson said, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." Historians doubt he said it. Wilson's remarks generated controversy, and he tried to remain aloof. On April 30, his staff issued a denial. Wilson's aide, Joseph Tumulty, said, "the President was entirely unaware of the nature of the play before it was presented and at no time has expressed his approbation of it."
The new Klan was inaugurated in 1915 by William J. Simmons on top of Stone Mountain. It was a small local organization until 1921. Simmons said he had been inspired by the original Klan's Prescripts, written in 1867 by Confederate veteran George Gordon, but they were never adopted by the first Klan.
The Second Klan saw threats from every direction. A religious tone was present in its activities; "two-thirds of the national Klan lecturers were Protestant ministers," says historian Brian R. Farmer. Much of the Klan's energy went to guarding "the home;" the historian Kathleen Blee said its members wanted to protect "the interests of white womanhood." The pamphlet ABC of the Invisible Empire, published in Atlanta by Simmons in 1917, identified the Klan's goals as "to shield the sanctity of the home and the chastity of womanhood; to maintain white supremacy; to teach and faithfully inculcate a high spiritual philosophy through an exalted ritualism; and by a practical devotedness to conserve, protect and maintain the distinctive institutions, rights, privileges, principles and ideals of a pure Americanism."
The second Klan emerged during the nadir of American race relations, but much of its growth was in response to new issues of urbanization, immigration and industrialization. The massive immigration of Catholics and Jews from eastern and southern Europe led to fears among Protestants about the new peoples, and especially about job and social competition. The Great Migration of African Americans to the North stoked job and housing competition and racism by whites in Midwestern and Western industrial cities. The second Klan achieved its greatest political power in Indiana; it was active throughout the South, Midwest, especially Michigan; and in the West, in Colorado and Oregon. The migration of both African Americans and whites from rural areas to Southern and Midwestern cities increased social tensions.
The Klan became most prominent in urbanizing cities with high growth rates between 1910 and 1930, such as Detroit, Memphis, and Dayton in the Upper South and Midwest; and Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston in the South. In Michigan, close to 50% of the Klan members lived in Detroit, where they numbered 40,000; they were concerned about with finite housing possibilities, rapid social change, and competition for jobs with European immigrants and Southerners both black and white. Stanley Horn, a Southern historian sympathetic to the first Klan, was careful in an oral interview to distinguish it from the later "spurious Ku Klux organization which was in ill-repute—and, of course, had no connection whatsoever with the Klan of Reconstruction days".
The founder of the new Klan, William J. Simmons, joined twelve different fraternal organizations. He recruited for the Klan with his chest covered with fraternal badges, and consciously modeled the Klan after fraternal organizations.
Klan organizers, called "Kleagles", signed up hundreds of new members, who paid initiation fees and received KKK costumes in return. The organizer kept half the money and sent the rest to state or national officials. When the organizer was done with an area, he organized a huge rally, often with burning crosses, and perhaps presented a Bible to a local Protestant preacher. He left town with the money collected. The local units operated like many fraternal organizations and occasionally brought in speakers.
The Klan's growth was also affected by the mobilization for World War I and postwar tensions, especially in the cities, where strangers came up against each other more often and competed for housing and jobs. Southern whites resented the arming of black soldiers. Black veterans did not want to return to second-class status in the South. Some black veterans in the South were lynched while still in uniform, after returning from overseas service.
Simmons initially met with little success in either recruiting members or in raising money, and the Klan remained a small operation in the Atlanta area until 1920, when he handed its day-to-day activities over to two professional publicists, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke. The revived Klan appealed to new members based on current social tensions, and stressed responses to fears raised by immigration and mass migrations within industrializing cities: it became anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and later anti-Communist. It presented itself as a fraternal, nativist and strenuously patriotic organization; and its leaders emphasized support for vigorous enforcement of prohibition laws. It expanded membership dramatically; by the 1920s, most of its members lived in the Midwest and West. It had a national base by 1925.
Religion was a major selling point. Baker argues that Klansmen seriously embraced Protestantism as an essential component of their white supremacist, anti-Catholic, and paternalistic formulation of American democracy and national culture. Their cross was a religious symbol, and their ritual honored Bibles and local ministers. No nationally prominent religious leader said he was a Klan member.
Historians agree that the Klan's resurgence in the 1920s was aided by the national debate over prohibition. The historian Prendergast says that the KKK’s "support for Prohibition represented the single most important bond between Klansmen throughout the nation". The Klan opposed bootleggers, sometimes with violence. In 1922, two hundred Klan members set fire to saloons in Union County, Arkansas. The national Klan office was established in Dallas, Texas, but Little Rock, Arkansas was the home of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan. The first head of this auxiliary was a former president of the Arkansas WCTU.[verification needed] Membership in the Klan and in other prohibition groups overlapped, and they often coordinated activities.
A significant characteristic of the second Klan was that it was an organization based in urban areas, reflecting the major shifts of population to cities in both the North and the South. In Michigan, for instance, 40,000 members lived in Detroit, where they made up more than half of the state's membership. Most Klansmen were lower- to middle-class whites who were trying to protect their jobs and housing from the waves of newcomers to the industrial cities: immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who tended to be Catholic and Jewish in numbers higher than earlier groups of immigrants; and black and white migrants from the South. As new populations poured into cities, rapidly changing neighborhoods created social tensions. Because of the rapid pace of population growth in industrializing cities such as Detroit and Chicago, the Klan grew rapidly in the U.S. Midwest. The Klan also grew in booming Southern cities such as Dallas and Houston.
In the medium-size industrial city of Worcester, Massachusetts in the 1920s, the Klan ascended to power quickly but declined as a result of opposition from the Catholic Church. There was no violence and the local newspaper ridiculed Klansmen as "night-shirt knights". Half of the members were Swedish American, including some first-generation immigrants. The ethnic and religious conflicts among more recent immigrants contributed to the rise of the Klan in the city. Swedish Protestants were struggling against Irish Catholics, who had been entrenched longer, for political and ideological control of the city.
For some states, historians have obtained membership rosters of some local units and matched the names against city directory and local records to create statistical profiles of the membership. Big city newspapers were often hostile and ridiculed Klansmen as ignorant farmers. Detailed analysis from Indiana showed the rural stereotype was false for that state:
Indiana's Klansmen represented a wide cross section of society: they were not disproportionately urban or rural, nor were they significantly more or less likely than other members of society to be from the working class, middle class, or professional ranks. Klansmen were Protestants, of course, but they cannot be described exclusively or even predominantly as fundamentalists. In reality, their religious affiliations mirrored the whole of white Protestant society, including those who did not belong to any church.
The Klan attracted people but most of them did not remain in the organization for long. Membership in the Klan turned over rapidly as people found out that it was not the group they wanted. Millions joined, and at its peak in the 1920s, the organization included about 15% of the nation's eligible population. The lessening of social tensions contributed to the Klan's decline.
The second Klan embraced a burning Latin cross primarily as a symbol of intimidation. No crosses had been used as a symbol by the first Klan. Additionally, the cross was henceforth a representation of the Klan's Christian message. Thus, its lighting during meetings was often accompanied by prayer, the singing of hymns, and other overtly religious symbolism.
The practice of cross burning had been loosely based on ancient Scottish clans' burning a St. Andrew's cross (an X-shaped cross) as a beacon to muster forces for war. In The Clansman (see above), Dixon had falsely claimed that the first Klan had used fiery crosses when rallying to fight against Reconstruction. Griffith brought this image to the screen in The Birth of a Nation; he portrayed the burning cross as an upright Latin cross rather than the St. Andrew's cross. Simmons adopted the symbol wholesale from the movie, prominently displaying it at the 1915 Stone Mountain meeting. The symbol has been associated with the Klan ever since.
In 1921, in an attempt to gain a foothold in education, the Klan bought Lanier University, a struggling Baptist university in Atlanta. Nathan Bedford Forrest, grandson of the Confederate general by the same name, was appointed its business manager. The school was to teach "pure, 100 percent Americanism". Enrollment was dismal, and the school closed after the first year of Klan ownership.
By the 1920s, the KKK developed a women's auxiliary, with chapters in many areas. Its activities included participation in parades, cross lighting, lectures, rallies, and boycotts of local businesses owned by Catholics and Jews. The Women's Klan was active in promoting prohibition, stressing liquor's negative impact on wives and children. Its efforts in public schools included distributing Bibles and petitioning for the dismissal of Roman Catholic teachers. As a result of the Women's Klan's efforts, Texas would not hire Catholic teachers to work in its public schools. As scandals rocked the Klan leadership late in the 1920s, the organization's popularity among both men and women dropped off sharply.
The members of the first Klan in the South were exclusively Democrats. The second Klan expanded with new chapters in the Midwest and West, where for a time, its members were courted by both Republicans and Democrats. The KKK state organizations endorsed candidates from either party that supported its goals; Prohibition in particular helped the Klan and some Republicans to make common cause in the Midwest.
The Klan had numerous members in every part of the United States, but was particularly strong in the South and Midwest. At its peak, claimed Klan membership exceeded four million and comprised 20% of the adult white male population in many broad geographic regions, and 40% in some areas. The Klan also moved north into Canada, especially Saskatchewan, where it opposed Catholics.
With expanded membership came election of Klan members to political office. In Indiana, members were chiefly American-born, white Protestants of many income and social levels. In the 1920s, Indiana had the most powerful Ku Klux Klan in the nation. It had a high number of members statewide (over 30% of its white male citizens), and in 1924 elected the Klan member Edward Jackson as governor.
Given success in state and local elections, the Klan issue contributed to the bitterly divisive 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York City. The leading candidates were William Gibbs McAdoo, a Protestant with a base in areas where the Klan was strong, and New York Governor Al Smith, a Catholic with a base in the large cities. After weeks of stalemate, both candidates withdrew in favor of a compromise. Anti-Klan delegates proposed a resolution indirectly attacking the Klan; it was narrowly defeated.
In some states, such as Alabama and California, KKK chapters had worked for political reform. In 1924, Klan members were elected to the city council in Anaheim, California. The city had been controlled by an entrenched commercial-civic elite that was mostly German American. Given their tradition of moderate social drinking, the German Americans did not strongly support prohibition laws—the mayor had been a saloon keeper. Led by the minister of the First Christian Church, the Klan represented a rising group of politically oriented non-ethnic Germans who denounced the elite as corrupt, undemocratic and self-serving. The historian Christopher Cocoltchos says the Klansmen tried to create a model, orderly community. The Klan had about 1200 members in Orange County, California. The economic and occupational profile of the pro and anti-Klan groups shows the two were similar and about equally prosperous. Klan members were Protestants, as were most of their opponents, but the latter also included many Catholic Germans. Individuals who joined the Klan had earlier demonstrated a much higher rate of voting and civic activism than did their opponents. Cocoltchos suggests that many of the individuals in Orange County joined the Klan out of that sense of civic activism. The Klan representatives easily won the local election in Anaheim in April 1924. They fired known city employees who were Catholic and replaced them with Klan appointees. The new city council tried to enforce prohibition. After its victory, the Klan chapter held large rallies and initiation ceremonies over the summer.
The opposition organized, bribed a Klansman for the secret membership list, and exposed the Klansmen running in the state primaries; they defeated most of the candidates. Klan opponents in 1925 took back local government, and succeeded in a special election in recalling the Klansmen who had been elected in April 1924. The Klan in Anaheim quickly collapsed, its newspaper closed after losing a libel suit, and the minister who led the local Klavern moved to Kansas.
In the South, Klan members were still Democratic, as it was a one-party region for whites. Klan chapters were closely allied with Democratic police, sheriffs, and other functionaries of local government. Since disfranchisement of most African Americans and many poor whites around the start of the 20th century, the only political activity for whites took place within the Democratic Party.
In Alabama, Klan members advocated better public schools, effective prohibition enforcement, expanded road construction, and other political measures to benefit lower-class white people. By 1925, the Klan was a political force in the state, as leaders such as J. Thomas Heflin, David Bibb Graves, and Hugo Black tried to build political power against the Black Belt planters, who had long dominated the state. In 1926, with Klan support, Bibb Graves won the Alabama governor's office. He was a former Klan chapter head. He pushed for increased education funding, better public health, new highway construction, and pro-labor legislation. Because the Alabama state legislature refused to redistrict until 1972, and then under court order, the Klan was unable to break the planters' and rural areas' hold on legislative power. Scholars and biographers have recently examined Hugo Black's Klan role. Ball finds regarding the KKK that Black "sympathized with the group's economic, nativist, and anti-Catholic beliefs." Newman says Black "disliked the Catholic Church as an institution" and gave over 100 anti-Catholic speeches in his 1926 election campaign to KKK meetings across Alabama. Black was elected US senator in 1926 as a Democrat. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 appointed Black to the Supreme Court without knowing how active in the Klan he had been in the 1920s. He was confirmed by his fellow Senators before the full KKK connection was known; Justice Black said he left the Klan when he became a senator.
Many groups and leaders, including prominent Protestant ministers such as Reinhold Niebuhr in Detroit, spoke out against the Klan, gaining national attention. The Jewish Anti-Defamation League was formed in the early 20th century after the lynching of Leo Frank, and in response to attacks against Jewish Americans and the Klan's campaign to outlaw private schools. Opposing groups worked to penetrate the Klan's secrecy. After one civic group began to publish Klan membership lists, there was a rapid decline in members. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People created public education campaigns in order to inform people about Klan activities and lobbied in Congress against Klan abuses. After its peak in 1925, Klan membership in most areas began to decline rapidly.
Specific events contributed to the decline as well. In Indiana, the scandal surrounding the 1925 murder trial of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson destroyed the image of the KKK as upholders of law and order. By 1926 the Klan was "crippled and discredited." D. C. Stephenson was the Grand Dragon of Indiana and 22 northern states. In 1923 he had led the states under his control to separate from the national KKK organization. In his 1925 trial, he was convicted for second degree murder for his part in the rape, partial cannibalization, and subsequent death of Madge Oberholtzer. After Stephenson's conviction, the Klan declined dramatically in Indiana. The historian Leonard Moore says that a failure in leadership caused the Klan's collapse:
Stephenson and the other salesmen and office seekers who maneuvered for control of Indiana's Invisible Empire lacked both the ability and the desire to use the political system to carry out the Klan's stated goals. They were uninterested in, or perhaps even unaware of, grass roots concerns within the movement. For them, the Klan had been nothing more than a means for gaining wealth and power. These marginal men had risen to the top of the hooded order because, until it became a political force, the Klan had never required strong, dedicated leadership. More established and experienced politicians who endorsed the Klan, or who pursued some of the interests of their Klan constituents, also accomplished little. Factionalism created one barrier, but many politicians had supported the Klan simply out of expedience. When charges of crime and corruption began to taint the movement, those concerned about their political futures had even less reason to work on the Klan's behalf.
By 1920 Klan membership in Alabama dropped to less than 6,000. Small independent units continued to be active in the industrial city of Birmingham. In the late 1940s and 1950s, members launched a reign of terror by bombing the homes of upwardly mobile African Americans. Activism by such independent KKK groups increased as a reaction against the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
In Alabama, KKK vigilantes launched a wave of physical terror in 1927. They targeted both blacks and whites for violation of racial norms and for perceived moral lapses. This led to a strong backlash, beginning in the media. Grover C. Hall, Sr., editor of the Montgomery Advertiser from 1926, wrote a series of editorials and articles that attacked the Klan. (Today the paper says it "waged war on the resurgent [KKK]".) Hall won a Pulitzer Prize for the crusade, the 1928 Editorial Writing Pulitzer, citing "his editorials against gangsterism, floggings and racial and religious intolerance." Other newspapers kept up a steady, loud attack on the Klan, referring to the organization as violent and "un-American". Sheriffs cracked down on activities. In the 1928 presidential election, the state voters overcame initial opposition to the Catholic candidate Al Smith, and voted the Democratic Party line as usual.
Although in decline, a measure of the Klan's influence was its march along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC in 1928.
In southern cities such as Birmingham, Alabama, Klan members kept control of access to the better-paying industrial jobs and opposed unions. During the 1930s and 1940s, Klan leaders urged members to disrupt the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which advocated industrial unions and accepted African-American members, unlike earlier unions. With access to dynamite and using the skills from their jobs in mining and steel, in the late 1940s some Klan members in Birmingham used bombings in order to intimidate upwardly mobile blacks who moved into middle-class neighborhoods. "By mid-1949, there were so many charred house carcasses that the area [College Hills] was informally named Dynamite Hill." Independent Klan groups remained active in Birmingham and violently opposed the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1939, after years of the Great Depression, the Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans sold the national organization to James Colescott, an Indiana veterinarian, and Samuel Green, an Atlanta obstetrician. They could not revive the declining membership. In 1944, the IRS filed a lien for $685,000 in back taxes against the Klan, and Colescott dissolved the organization that year. Local Klan groups closed over the following years.
After World War II, the folklorist and author Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Klan; he provided internal data to media and law enforcement agencies. He also provided secret code words to the writers of the Superman radio program, resulting in episodes in which Superman took on the KKK. Kennedy stripped away the Klan's mystique and trivialized its rituals and code words, which may have contributed to the decline in Klan recruiting and membership. In the 1950s, Kennedy wrote a bestselling book about his experiences, which further damaged the Klan.
The following table shows the change in the Klan's estimated membership over time. (The years given in the table represent approximate time periods.)
The KKK was a secret organization; apart from a few top leaders the members never revealed their membership and wore masks in public. Investigators in the 1920s used KKK publicity, court cases, exposés by disgruntled Klansman, newspaper reports, and speculation to write stories about what the Klan was doing. Almost all the major newspapers and magazines were hostile. Published accounts exaggerated the official viewpoint of the Klan leadership, and repeated the interpretations of hostile newspapers and the Klan's enemies. There was almost no evidence regarding the actual behavior or beliefs of individual Klansmen. The resulting popular and scholarly interpretation of the Klan from the 1920s into recent decades, based on those sources, says Pegram, emphasized the Southern roots, and violent vigilante-style actions of the Klan in its efforts to turn back the clock of modernity. Scholars compared it to fascism, which in the 1920s took over Italy. Pegram says this original interpretation:
The "social history" revolution in historiography after the 1960s called for history from the bottom up, that would focus on the characteristics, beliefs, and behavior of the typical membership, and downplay claims from elite sources. This approach was made possible by the discovery of membership lists and the minutes of local meetings from chapters scattered around the country. Historians apply the newest techniques of methodology to test the original interpretation. They discovered that the original interpretation was very largely mistaken about the membership and activities of the Klan. The membership was not anti-modern rural or rustic. It comprised fairly well educated middle-class joiners and community activists. Half the members lived in the fast-growing cities; Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Denver, and Portland, Oregon, were the Klan strongholds rather than the sleepy rural areas.
Studies using the new social history find that in general, the membership was from the stable, successful middle classes, with few members drawn from the elite or the working classes. Pegram, reviewing the studies, concludes, "the popular Klan of the 19205, while diverse, was more of a civic exponent of white Protestant social values than a repressive hate group."
In Indiana, elitist historians focused on notorious leaders, especially D. C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan, whose conviction for murder in 1925 helped destroy the movement nationwide. By contrast new social historian Leonard Moore titled his monograph Citizen Klansmen, and contrasted the sordid and intolerant rhetoric of the group's leaders with that of its much better behaved membership. The Klan was indeed white Protestant, and was highly suspicious of Catholics, Jews and blacks who were accused of subverting the ideal Protestant moral standards. Violence was quite uncommon in the chapters. Threats and vocational actions were directed primarily against fellow white Protestants for transgressions of community moral standards, such as adultery, wife-beating, gambling and heavy drinking. Up to one third of Indiana's Protestant men joined the order making it, Moore argued, "a kind of interest group for average white Protestants who believed that their values should be dominant in their community and state.
Moore goes on to say that they joined:
The name "Ku Klux Klan" began to be used by several independent groups. Beginning in the 1950s, for instance, individual Klan groups in Birmingham, Alabama, began to resist social change and blacks' efforts to improve their lives by bombing houses in transitional neighborhoods. There were so many bombings in Birmingham of blacks' homes by Klan groups in the 1950s that the city's nickname was "Bombingham".
During the tenure of Bull Connor as police commissioner in the city, Klan groups were closely allied with the police and operated with impunity. When the Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham, Connor gave Klan members fifteen minutes to attack the riders before sending in the police to quell the attack. When local and state authorities failed to protect the Freedom Riders and activists, the federal government established effective intervention.
In states such as Alabama and Mississippi, Klan members forged alliances with governors' administrations. In Birmingham and elsewhere, the KKK groups bombed the houses of civil rights activists. In some cases they used physical violence, intimidation and assassination directly against individuals. Continuing disfranchisement of blacks across the South meant that most could not serve on juries, which were all white.
According to a report from the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta, the homes of 40 black Southern families were bombed during 1951 and 1952. Some of the bombing victims were social activists whose work exposed them to danger, but most were either people who refused to bow to racist convention or were innocent bystanders, unsuspecting victims of random violence. Among the more notorious murders by Klan members:
There was also resistance to the Klan. In 1953, newspaper publishers W. Horace Carter (Tabor City, NC), who had campaigned for three years, and Willard Cole (Whiteville, NC) shared the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service citing "their successful campaign against the Ku Klux Klan, waged on their own doorstep at the risk of economic loss and personal danger, culminating in the conviction of over one hundred Klansmen and an end to terrorism in their communities." In a 1958 incident in North Carolina, the Klan burned crosses at the homes of two Lumbee Native Americans who had associated with white people, and they threatened to return with more men. When the KKK held a nighttime rally nearby, they were quickly surrounded by hundreds of armed Lumbees. Gunfire was exchanged, and the Klan was routed at what became known as the Battle of Hayes Pond.
While the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had paid informants in the Klan, for instance in Birmingham in the early 1960s, its relations with local law enforcement agencies and the Klan were often ambiguous. The head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, appeared more concerned about Communist links to civil rights activists than about controlling Klan excesses against citizens. In 1964, the FBI's COINTELPRO program began attempts to infiltrate and disrupt civil rights groups.
As 20th-century Supreme Court rulings extended federal enforcement of citizens' civil rights, the government revived the Force Acts and the Klan Act from Reconstruction days. Federal prosecutors used these laws as the basis for investigations and indictments in the 1964 murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner; and the 1965 murder of Viola Liuzzo. They were also the basis for prosecution in 1991 in Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic.
Once African Americans secured federal legislation to protect civil and voting rights, the KKK shifted its focus to opposing court-ordered busing to desegregate schools, affirmative action and more open immigration. In 1971, KKK members used bombs to destroy 10 school buses in Pontiac, Michigan.
On November 3, 1979, five protesters were killed by KKK and American Nazi Party members in the Greensboro massacre in Greensboro, North Carolina. This incident was the culmination of attempts by the Communist Workers Party to organize industrial workers, predominantly black, in the area.
Jerry Thompson, a newspaper reporter who infiltrated the KKK in 1979, reported that the FBI's COINTELPRO efforts were highly successful. Rival KKK factions accused each other's leaders of being FBI informants. Bill Wilkinson of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was revealed to have been working for the FBI.
Thompson also related that KKK leaders who appeared indifferent to the threat of arrest showed great concern about a series of civil lawsuits filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center for damages amounting to millions of dollars. These were filed after KKK members shot into a group of African Americans. Klansmen curtailed activities to conserve money for defense against the lawsuits. The KKK also used lawsuits as tools; they filed a libel suit to prevent publication of a paperback edition of Thompson's book.
In 1980, three KKK members shot four elderly black women (Viola Ellison, Lela Evans, Opal Jackson and Katherine Johnson) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, following a KKK initiation rally. A fifth woman, Fannie Crumsey, was injured by flying glass in the incident. Attempted murder charges were filed against the three KKK members, two of whom—Bill Church and Larry Payne—were acquitted by an all-white jury, and the other of whom—Marshall Thrash—was sentenced by the same jury to nine months on lesser charges. He was released after three months. In 1982, a jury awarded the five women $535,000 in a civil rights trial.
After Michael Donald was lynched in 1981 in Alabama, the FBI investigated his death and two local KKK members were convicted of having a role, including Henry Francis Hays, who was sentenced to death. With the support of attorneys Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Donald's mother, Beulah Mae Donald, sued the KKK in civil court in Alabama. Her lawsuit against the United Klans of America was tried in February 1987. The all-white jury found the Klan responsible for the lynching of Donald and ordered the Klan to pay US$7 million. To pay the judgment, the KKK turned over all of its assets, including its national headquarters building in Tuscaloosa. After exhausting the appeals process, Hays was executed for Donald's death in Alabama on June 6, 1997. It was the first time since 1913 that a white man had been executed in Alabama for a crime against an African American.
In 1995, Don Black and Chloê Hardin, former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke's ex-wife, began a small bulletin board system (BBS) called Stormfront. Today, Stormfront has become a prominent online forum for white nationalism, Neo-Nazism, hate speech, racism, and antisemitism. Duke has an account on Stormfront which he uses to post articles from his own website, as well as polling forum members for opinions and questions, in particular during his internet broadcasts. Duke has worked with Don Black on numerous projects including Operation Red Dog in 1980.
The modern KKK is not one organization; rather it is composed of small independent chapters across the U.S. The formation of independent chapters has made KKK groups more difficult to infiltrate, and researchers find it hard to estimate their numbers. Estimates are that about two-thirds of KKK members are concentrated in the Southern United States, with another third situated primarily in the lower Midwest.
The Klan has expanded its recruitment efforts to white supremacists at the international level. For some time the Klan's numbers are steadily dropping. This decline has been attributed to the Klan's lack of competence in the use of the Internet, their history of violence, a proliferation of competing hate groups, and a decline in the number of young racist activists who are willing to join groups at all.
Recent membership campaigns have been based on issues such as people's anxieties about illegal immigration, urban crime, civil unions and same-sex marriage. Akins argues that, "Klan literature and propaganda is rabidly homophobic and encourages violence against gays and lesbians....Since the late 1970s, the Klan has increasingly focused its ire on this previously ignored population. Many KKK groups have formed strong alliances with other white supremacist groups, such as neo-Nazis. Some KKK groups have become increasingly "nazified", adopting the look and emblems of white power skinheads.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has provided legal support to various factions of the KKK in defense of their First Amendment rights to hold public rallies, parades, and marches, as well as their right to field political candidates.
Aside from Canada, there have been various attempts to organise KKK chapters outside the United States. In Australia in the late 1990s, former One Nation founding member Peter Coleman established branches throughout the country, and in recent years the KKK has attempted to infiltrate other political parties such as Australia First. Recruitment activity has also been reported in the United Kingdom, dating back to the 1960s when Robert Relf was involved in establishing a British KKK.
In Germany a KKK-related group, the European White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, has organised and it gained notoriety in 2012 when it was widely reported in the German media that two police officers who held membership in the organisation would be allowed to keep their jobs. A group was even established in Fiji in the early 1870s by white settlers, although it was put down by the British who, although not officially established as Fiji's colonial rulers, had played a leading role in establishing a new constitutional monarchy that was being threatened by the Fijian Klan. In São Paulo, Brazil, the website of a group called Imperial Klans of Brazil was shut down in 2003, and the leader arrested.
Membership in the Klan is secret. Like many fraternal organizations, the Klan has signs which members can use to recognize one another. A member may use the acronym AYAK (Are you a Klansman?) in conversation to surreptitiously identify himself to another potential member. The response AKIA (A Klansman I am) completes the greeting.
Throughout its varied history, the Klan has coined many words beginning with "Kl" including:
All of the above terminology was created by William Simmons, as part of his 1915 revival of the Klan. The Reconstruction-era Klan used different titles; the only titles to carry over were "Wizard" for the overall leader of the Klan and "Night Hawk" for the official in charge of security.
The Imperial Kludd was the chaplain of the Imperial Klonvokation and he performed "such other duties as may be required by the Imperial Wizard."
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