Ku Klux Klan

Ku Klux Klan
Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK, or Klan) refers to two distinct organizations, separated in time by nearly half a century. The first Klan, founded in December 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, by a handful of ex-Confederate soldiers, was only the most prominent among numerous white supremacist secret societies that formed in the U.S. South at the end of the Civil War in opposition to radical Reconstruction and dedicated to maintaining white supremacy through violence and terror. (Similar organizations included the Knights of the White Camellia, the Night Riders, the Order of the White Rose, the Pale Faces, and others.)

Wearing white sheets, conical white hats, and white masks, KKK members and officers were identified by a series of preposterous-sounding names (Grand Wizard, Grand Dragons, Hydras, Grand Titans, Furies, Grand Giants, Night Hawks, Grand Cyclops, Ghouls, and others). By the late 1860s, the Klan was active in almost every southern state and strongest in Piedmont districts where whites outnumbered blacks.

Congressional investigations revealed that the organization was responsible for thousands of murders, burnings, lynchings, beatings, rapes, tar-and-featherings, and other acts of violence and terror. Weakened by the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871, the organization played an important role in maintaining white supremacy in the South and was largely defunct by the formal end of Reconstruction in 1877.

The second Klan, founded in 1915 by Alabama born salesman and preacher William J. Simmons, had only tenuous links to the first. This resuscitated Klan was propelled into prominence in 1915 by D. W. Griffith's epic film Birth of a Nation, in turn based on several novels by southern writer Thomas Dixon, Jr., most notably The Clansman.

Griffith's blatantly racist film, following Dixon, portrayed the Klan as a heroic organization devoted to redeeming the Union and saving white womanhood from savage Negro hordes bent on sowing mayhem and destruction in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Despite the film's malicious misrepresentations, it was endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson as an accurate depiction of the Klan's role in Reconstruction. In the late 1910s and early 1920s the organization grew rapidly in power and numbers.

At its height in the mid-1920s, this second Klan had become a national political force, with as many as 6 million members from all walks of life and chapters in nearly every state. Women played an especially important role in organizing women's chapters and spreading the Klan's message.

In practice, this meant antipathy not only toward blacks but also Catholics, Jews, immigrants, atheists, socialists, communists, gamblers, homosexuals, divorcees, "fornicators," those opposed to Prohibition, and anyone not identified as white, Anglo-Saxon, appropriately Protestant, and conforming to Klan-defined "traditional values." Especially strong in the Midwest and South, in the mid-1920s the Klan became a major political player, electing thousands of its members to offices.

Divided and weakened after 1925 by scandals, infighting, and public backlash—especially the murder and rape charges brought against Indiana Klan leader D. C. Stephenson—by 1930 national membership had dropped below 6,000, and the Klan ceased being a national political force. The organization survived through the 1930s and after, witnessing a resurgence with the Civil Rights movement (the "Second Reconstruction") of the 1960s.

In the 1980s, various civil rights organizations, most notably the Southern Poverty Law Center, used the courts to drive the Klan into bankruptcy and effectively destroy it as a national organization. In both its first and second incarnations, the Ku Klux Klan used violence, terror, and other illegal means to advance its conservative, racist, white supremacist agenda.