Table of Contents
1. How it all began(1865-1874)
1.1 Creation and naming
1.3 Decline and replacements by other groups
2. Next chapter in the Klan‟s life(1915-1944)
2.1 Refounding in 1915
2.3 The burning cross
2.4 Political role
2.5 Resistance and decline
3. Later Klans(1950 through 1960s)
4. Contemporary Klan
4.2 References in popular cultures
Imagine living in a society in which friends, family and neighbors are murdered
simply because of the color of their skin. What did they do wrong? They existed. This is the
life of an African-American living in the southern United States throughout much of
America‟s history. The formation of the Ku Klux Klan was one of the major contributing
factors to the long bloody struggle that was racism in America. The Klan is classified as a
hate group, and throughout three summits in history forced blacks and other minorities to live
in a fear that they did not deserve.
I have chosen this topic because the Ku Klux Klan is one of America‟s oldest and
most feared groups and I have been intrigued by its use of violence and its moving above the
law in support of its cause, motivated by the dream of a world with only one race. They have
been in the shadows for over 130 years and continue to succeed in America‟s society today
which to me seems paradoxal.
The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by a group of men including John D.
Kennedy, Captain John C. Lester and Frank O. McCord, among others, in Pulaski, Tennessee.
“The name was derived from the Greek word kylos, meaning „circle‟. „Klan was added for the
purpose of alliteration” (“Ku Klux Klan”). The infamous burning-cross icon became a symbol
of the KKK in the 1920‟s, which was one of many tactics used for intimidation. Perhaps the
most distinguishing characteristic of Klan members were the white robes they wore along
with cone shaped hats that covered their faces. These costumes accomplished their goal of
making them look more outlandish and terrifying, and for the intimidation of their victims
(Smith). The Klan was pretty selective in accepting members, contrary to popular belief, only
WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) could become members. These members possessed
the ideology of white supremacy to all other races and ethnic divisions, similar to the concept
of Neo-Nazism, however they claim to have based their beliefs on Christian values and
nativism. It is often thought that the KKK only hated African-Americans, but many other
groups acquired hatred from the Klan, such as Jews, Catholics (for a short time), homosexuals
and various immigrant groups. (Anti-Defamination League).
1. How it all began
1.1 Creation and naming
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. 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.
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.
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."
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. Masked men shot into houses and burned them,
sometimes with the occupants still inside. They drove successful black farmers off their land.
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. 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.
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.
Milder encounters also occurred In Mississippi, according to the Congressional inquiry.
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."
1.3 Decline and replacements by other groups
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.
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.
In some areas, other local paramilitary organizations such as the White League, Red
Shirts, saber clubs, and rifle clubs continued to intimidate and murder black voters.
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.
2. Next chapter in the Klan’s life(1915-1944)
2.1 Refounding in 1915
In 1915, three separate events acted as catalysts to the revival of the Klan:
The film The Birth of a Nation was released, mythologising and glorifying the first
Klan and their endeavour.
In 1915 Jewish businessman Leo Frank was lynched near Atlanta after the Georgia
governor commuted his death sentence to life in prison. Frank had been convicted in 1913 and
sentenced to death for the murder of a young white factory worker named Mary Phagan, in a
trial marked by media frenzy. Although the conviction was appealed, it was upheld at each
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.
In an era without Social Security or widely available life insurance, men
joined fraternal organizations such as the Elks or the Woodmen of the World to provide for
their families in case they died or were unable to work. The founder of the new Klan, William
J. Simmons, was a member of twelve different fraternal organizations. He recruited for the
Klan with his chest covered with fraternal badges, and consciously modeled the Klan after
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.
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. However 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.
2.3 The burning cross
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, 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.
2.4 Political role
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
2.5 Resistance and decline
Many groups and leaders, including prominent Protestant ministers such as Reinhold
Niebuhr in Detroit, spoke out against the Klan, gaining national attention. The JewishAnti-
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.
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.
3. Later Klans (1950 through 1960s)
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
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. Many murders went unreported and were not
prosecuted by local and state authorities. Continuing disfranchisement of blacks across the
South meant that most could not serve on juries, which were all white.
4. Contemporary Klan
The present Ku Klux Klan is no longer one organization, but is made up of small
independent chapters across the United States. The formation of independent chapters has
made the KKK groups more difficult to infiltrate and researchers find it hard to estimate their
KKK members have increased in recent years, with membership estimated at 5,000 to
8,000 among an estimated 179 chapters. The latest recruitment drives have used hot button
issues like people's anxieties about illegal immigration, urban crime and samesex marriage. ^
The only known former member of the Klan to hold a federal office in the United
States is Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who says he "deeply regrets"
having joined the Klan over half a century ago, when he was about 24 years old.
Although there are numerous KKK groups, the media and popular discourse generally
speak of the Ku Klux Klan for expediency.
In a July 2005 incident, a Hispanic man's house was burned down in Hamilton, Ohio,
after accusations that he sexually assaulted a nine-year-old white girl. Klan members in Klan
robes showed up afterward to distribute pamphlets. Various Klan rallies occur every year
across the country.
4.2 References in popular cultures
The KKK appears as an antagonist in several recent movies and a television show. The
2000 film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? included a scene shot as a KKK rally, featuring a
cross burning and lynching, that includes a musical performance of a traditional American
song called Oh Death. The opening scenes of a 2003 movie entitled Bad Boys II a Klan rally
is featured, including a cross burning. In the current television show South Park a character
has appeared dressed as a Klansman numerous times.
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"
Klecktoken: initiation fee
Kloran: ritual book
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" (or Imperial Wizard) for the overall leader of the Klan, "Night Hawk" for the
official in charge of security, and a few others, mostly for regional officers of the
To cut things short, the Ku Klux Klan has been present in the United States for almost 150
years. As of today, there is no such organization as a single Ku Klux Klan. Current Klan-
related organizations are small, splinter, independent groups which are located across the
United States, especially in the Southern states. These organizations not only try to maintain
the Ku Klux Klan's traditions and rituals but also share similar beliefs. Current Klan-related
groups' ideology is centered on the idea of white supremacy and segregation. These
organizations share Ku Klux Klan's racist attitudes towards African-Americans, Jews,
homosexuals, and immigrants. Minority groups are perceived by their leaders, who stubbornly
refuse to acknowledge their movements as "hate groups", as a threat to the white, Christian
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the Reconstruction-Era Ku Klux Klan
. The Journal of American History 92 (3):
Three Ku Klux Klan members arrested in Tishomingo County, Mississippi,
September 1871, for the attempted murder of an entire family
Three Ku Klux Klan members standing at a 1922 parade.
Ku Klux Klan members march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. in 1928