Ku Klux Klan

The organization known as the Ku Klux Klan has hidden behind many masks since its inception during the years after the Civil War. Behind the images of sheets, masks, and symbols, the Klan has targeted many different groups. In fact, the Ku Klux Klan has had several different phases. The Klan has evolved from being a strictly southern institution that targeted African Americans and the Republican Party to a nationwide organization with a wide variety of objectives. Ironically, the Klan has also faced many groups attempting to infringe on its civil liberties as well.

The first Klan became an important institution during the Reconstruction Era. The Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866 as a social fraternity designed to provide mutual aid to Confederate families devastated by the war. However, the Klan soon changed into a vehicle to challenge the emancipation and new political rights of the freed slaves. The name Ku Klux Klan was derived from a Greek word for ‘‘circle’’ or ‘‘band.’’ Former Confederate soldiers and officers helped to convert the Klan into a more organized band with the purpose of challenging Republican government in the South. As more and more Southern states elected Republican governments, the Klan rapidly spread.

The leadership of the Klan usually came from the leaders of communities all over the South. Elite landholders easily persuaded many others to join their cause by ‘‘uniting’’ under the banner of being white southerners. Initially, the Klan used their outlandish outfits to play on the supposed superstitions of southern blacks. Some of the first Klan actions involved showing up on porches in the middle of the night and parading as ghosts to frighten innocent citizens. Soon, however, these ‘‘practical jokes,’’ turned into real night terrors, as Klan night riders dragged people from their homes and administered the whip or otherwise assaulted them. Blacks were not the only target of the Klan; white Republicans and others that sympathized with the former slaves also became targets.

In response to Klan activities, local governments were usually either themselves involved in the Klan or powerless to stop it. In most cases, federal intervention was needed to break up Klan activity. The federal government used many means to stop, or at least disrupt, Klan activity by congressional legislation, military action, and trials. In 1870 and 1871, the federal government began a concerted effort to stamp out Klan violence. Congress began by enacting laws designed to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which guaranteed rights to all citizens. Congress also passed new legislation that made it a federal offense to interfere with voting rights. The most powerful initiative passed by Congress came in April of 1871, which was popularly called the Ku Klux Klan act, which enabled the president to suspend habeas corpus rights and send in federal troops to suppress armed resistance.

With these added powers, the Grant administration effectively ended the power of the first Ku Klux Klan movement. Grant only used his powers to suspend habeas corpus in nine South Carolina counties, but he did effectively use federal troops to arrest thousands of suspected Klansmen. With the onset of federal power, the Klan lost much of its momentum and appeal in the South.

The second Ku Klux Klan developed in an era of fear and upheaval in the years before World War I. The founder of the second Klan was the son of a poor Alabama physician, William Joseph Simmons. He was a man who had tried his hand in many occupations such as farming, preaching as a Southern Methodist Episcopal minister, and finally as the lead organizer for the Atlanta area chapter of the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal aid society. In October 1915, Simmons officially began the second Ku Klux Klan with a handful of followers. Part of the inspiration for the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan was a racist film entitled, Birth of a Nation, by D. W. Griffith, which haled the early Klan as having saved the nation from freed slaves threatening to destroy the nation.

In the following years, Simmons struggled to expand his organization, but by 1920, with the aid of several strong organizers, the second Klan’s membership erupted. To sell the idea of the Klan, Simmons and his followers promised white supremacy, Christianity, and male bonding, but also played on national fears surrounding the atmosphere of World War I. The Klan proclaimed itself to be the great defender of everything American, such as patriotism, old-time religion, and morality. They played on the fears of organized African Americans, Jews, and the Catholic Church. The Klan also found a new enemy in Bolshevism. All these fears helped fuel Klan membership. The members proclaimed themselves to be part of a great movement to secure the birthright of all Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans. With this message, the ranks of Klan expanded to include as many as 4 million Americans by 1924, including its female auxiliary, Women of the Ku Klux Klan.

The second Ku Klux Klan differed in many ways from the original. From its southern beginnings, the second Klan spread above the Mason-Dixon Line. As many blacks moved to northern cities, they soon faced much of the same racism as they did in the South. Besides African Americans, Klan literature told of vast conspiracies involving Jews and Catholics. According to many Klan texts, Jewish bankers were extorting the American public for millions of dollars. Catholics also became a target, as Klan members accused priests and nuns of preying on Protestant children in orphanages around the country. Much of the Klan’s literature was also directed toward changing attitudes in America. During the 1920s, there was a sexual awakening in many parts of the country, and Klan literature reflected their attitudes toward this opening up of sexual mores. The Klan railed against supposed sexual abuses of whites and Protestants at the hands of African Americans and Catholic priests in many of their writings.

One aspect of the second Ku Klux Klan that is often overlooked is the level of violence. Many historians have pointed out that the second Klan was much less violent than the first, and in many cases this is true. Most Klan members did not participate in violent acts, but they expressed their views in other ways. Many marched in parades and participated in such activities as Klan barbecues and rallies. The second Ku Klux Klan was also responsible for establishing the most famous image of the Klan, the burning cross. Contrary to popular belief, the first Klan did not burn crosses, but the idea seemed to have been born in the novel The Clansmen, by Thomas Dixon. The symbol of the burning cross is still an issue in the courts of the United States. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled in cases in Virginia that cross burnings are legal expressions of free speech as long as there is no intent to intimidate any group. The cross burning was deemed legal because it took place on private property with the owner’s consent. The Court has upheld the idea that even hateful speech is constitutionally protected.

The second Klan also became much more politically involved than the first. The Klan ran its own political candidates for office, and in many cities prominent citizens backed the Klan candidates. Through 1926, the Klan elected many officials in states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Oregon, and Maine.

Despite many of its members not participating in violent acts, the second Klan did have its share of violence, particularly in Southern areas. Many Klansmen turned to violence to ‘‘prove’’ that in a rapidly changing world, they still had power. They acted out of what they believed was the world’s rejection of their values and turned to violence to assert their power. In many areas, one of the most effective violent tools the Klan used was lynching. The numbers of lynchings in the South were very low before 1915, but by the early 1920s the number was on the rise. One case, in 1921, involved a Georgia man by the name of John Lee Eberhart. Eberhart was sought for the murder of a white farmer’s wife near the city of Athens. Until this point, the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) assured residents that Athens was an area where lynchings were very unlikely. There was very little evidence against Eberhart, but a gathering crowd of Klan members was certain of his guilt. He was abducted from the Athens jail while a crowd of police and sheriffs deputies looked on. At this point, he was taken by the mob and tortured to death by fire. Shortly after his death, conclusive evidence showed Eberhart was not guilty, but the mob and the Klan had already issued its sentence.

Another famous lynching case involved Leo Frank, who was wrongfully accused of the murder of a young girl, Mary Phagan. The girl was murdered in the basement of a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1913, and two years later, the Klan lynched Leo Frank for the murder. The Leo Frank case spurred many important Supreme Court rulings dealing with civil liberties. The Court has argued issues such as an inflamed public and the admissibility of perjured testimony, with its roots in the Leo Frank case.

Another target of Klan violence, especially in the South, was against those trying to organize labor. The Klan targeted labor leaders for trying to destroy ‘‘white harmony’’ by insinuating that white and African American workers should come together in an effort for better wages. Local Klan chapters harassed organized labor leaders with burned crosses in their yards or more extreme measures such as beatings. The attacks on labor became so frequent that the American Federation of Labor adopted resolutions condemning the activities of secret societies, and named the Klan specifically.

The Klan is most well known for its opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Because many African Americans worked for Civil Rights in the South, the Klan rose up in opposition. The new Klan adopted violence early on as one its major tools, and African Americans, along with those hoping to secure their rights, became the target. The most infamous use of Klan violence against Civil Rights workers occurred in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964. During that year, many northern whites working alongside southern blacks attempted to register new voters and push for the end of segregation. On June 21, 1964, three Civil Rights workers were murdered by the Klan. Their bodies were buried beneath a pond dam but later discovered. Events such as these prompted many Americans to despise the Klan and actually helped to further the Civil Rights Movement.

The Klan has also faced its own issues in regard to civil liberties. Often the Klan has argued that national, local, and state governments have violated its rights to free speech and the freedom to peacefully assemble. The principal accusations made by the Klan have involved laws not allowing them to march, as well as anti-mask laws.

Anti-mask laws in many states have been on the books since the mid 1800s. The Klan has argued before the courts that these laws violate the principles of free speech. One of the most famous cases was in the state of New York in 1999. The city of New York refused to issue the Klan a permit to gather if they would not remove their masks. The New York Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of the Klan, but a federal district court upheld the 1845 anti-mask law. The Klan has successfully sued to remove anti-mask laws in the states of Tennessee and Pennsylvania, arguing that the masks were part of their right to free speech and expression.

The three eras of the Ku Klux Klan have all been an effort to stem the tide of diversification and democratization of the United States. The Klan has attempted through violence, fraud, and political motivation to further their goals. All three entities of the Klan have failed in their various missions. The first Klan was thwarted by the federal government, while the second and third often failed because of their own actions. Today, the Ku Klux Klan is a splintered organization that still vows to promote white supremacy and decries the actions of Jews and African Americans. However, the modern Klan lacks much of the broad-based support the organization once enjoyed.

CHRISTOPHER TINGLE

References and Further Reading

  • Chalmers, David. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. F. Watts Company, 1981.
  • MacLean, Nancy. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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