Ku Klux Klan

From Academic Kids

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Members of the second Ku Klux Klan at a rally during the 1920s.

Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a term used to refer to a number of past and present fraternal organizations in the United States that have advocated white supremacy, and promoted Protestantism to the exclusion of other religions. In its original incarnation, the Ku Klux Klan sought to reestablish Democratic power in the South at the time when Radical Republicans and carpetbaggers dominated Reconstruction. It was founded by ex-servicemen of the Confederate Army in 1866, led by Nathan Bedford Forrest. The original group opposed the reforms enforced on the South by federal troops regarding the treatment of former slaves, often using violence to achieve their goals. Forrest ordered the Klan to disband in 1869, but many of its groups in other parts of the country ignored the order and continued to function.

A second distinct group using the same name was started atop Stone Mountain near Atlanta in 1915 by William J. Simmons. This second group existed as a money-making fraternal organization and fought to maintain the ways of the past by fighting against the increasing numbers of Roman Catholics, Jews, Blacks, Asians, and other immigrants into the United States. This group, although preaching racism, was a mainstream organization with 4 million members at its peak in the 1920s. Its popularity fell during the Great Depression, and membership fell again during World War II presumably because of mass enlistment or conscription to the Armed Forces.

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The name Ku Klux Klan has since fallen into the public domain. It was adopted in different forms by many different unrelated groups, including many who opposed the Civil Rights Act and desegregation in the 1960s. Today, dozens of organizations with chapters across the United States and other countries use all or part of the name in their titles.



The name Ku Klux Klan comes from κυκλος (kyklos), the Greek word for circle, and the Scots Gaelic-derived word "clan". Another etymology proposes an onomatopoeia of the loading of a gun (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mentions this latter etymology in the Sherlock Holmes story The Five Orange Pips).


Members of the Klan wear white robes with hoods to represent the ghosts of Confederate soldiers returning from the dead to take revenge on their enemies, and to hide their faces. Another explanation of the white robes and hoods was the "anonymity of good works" – as the Ku Klux Klan members believe their works were given to them by God, they wear the robes and hoods as a symbol of humility. Yet another explanation of the costumes may have been to imitate the medieval Knights Templar. Much of the original leadership of the Klan were Masons with the degree of "Knight Templar." Titles such as "Grand Wizard", "Exalted Cyclops" and "Kleagle" are used to indicate status.


The original Ku Klux Klan

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Three Ku Klux Klan members captured in Tishomingo County, Mississippi in September 1871.

The original Ku Klux Klan was first established in Pulaski, Tennessee after the end of the American Civil War on December 24, 1865 by Confederate veterans. It grew to prominence after a convention held in Nashville in the summer of 1866. At this convention, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest presided as the Grand Wizard.

The main goal of the Klan was to fight Congressional Reconstruction. During the Reconstruction the South was undergoing drastic changes to its social and political life. Whites saw this as a threat to their supremacy as a race and sought to end this process. Due to Congress enacting laws that promoted racial equality, southern whites could not turn to the law in order to regain their power through the Democratic Party. In addition, the Klan sought to control the political and social status of the freed slaves. More specifically, it attempted to curb black education, economic advancement, and voting rights. Violence came to be seen as the best way to accomplish their goals. However, the Klan's violence was not limited to African Americans; Southern Republicans also became the target of vicious intimidation tactics. The Klan became the violent arm of the Democratic Party. As federal control of the ex-Confederate states was withdrawn, the local white population re-established their power and with it segregation laws.

Forrest ordered the Klan to disband in 1869, stating that its increasingly violent tactics were at odds with the original reason for which he founded it, which he stated to be the "protection of southern womanhood." It is important to understand that, in the context of the post-Civil War South, the "protection of southern womanhood" has implications beyond its literal meaning. In this society, violence and the threat of violence, including lynching, were tools of social control used, for example, to enforce Jim Crow etiquette, or to prevent economic competition from blacks. Protecting white women against black men was a common pretext for lynchings. Despite Forrest's order, many Klan groups around the country continued to function without a centralized organization.

In 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant put what was believed to be the final nail in the Klan's coffin by signing The Klan Act and Enforcement Act. The Klan became an illegal group, and the use of force was authorized to suppress and disrupt the organization's activities. Hundreds of Klan members were fined or imprisoned, and habeas corpus was suspended in some counties in South Carolina. These efforts were so successful that the Klan was eliminated in South Carolina and decimated throughout the rest of the country. The Klan Act was declared unconstitutional in 1882, but the Klan was largely gone by then, and had in fact achieved many of its original goals, such as denying political rights to blacks.

The second Ku Klux Klan

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Movie poster for The Birth of a Nation.

The second Ku Klux Klan was established during World War I, a feat which arguably would not have been possible without President Woodrow Wilson's influence and D. W. Griffith's controversial classic film, The Birth of a Nation. Upon seeing the film, Wilson remarked, "It was like writing history with lightning. It is all so terribly true." [1] (http://www.woodrowwilson.org/content/articles/48130001/file_2196.pdf)(PDF) Griffith's film was based on the book and play The Clansman and the book The Leopard's Spots, both by Thomas Dixon who intended "to revolutionize northern sentiment by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat!". This was consistent with the new Klan's greater success at recruiting in the US Midwest than in the South. Many poor whites were drawn to the idea that their economic woes were caused by Blacks, or by Jewish bankers, or by other such groups, similar to the Nazi party's propaganda in Germany.

An important event in the coalescence of the second Klan was the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager. Frank had been accused of the brutal rape and strangulation of a 13 year old employee named Mary Phagan. Allegations arose that the motivation was due to the story being taken up of the crime by Thomas E. Watson who was the editor for The Jeffersonian magazine at the time and later a leader in the reorganization of the Klan who was later elected to the U.S. Senate. The Frank lynching demonstrated both the Klan's continuing violent nature and its relatively new emphasis on anti-semitism.

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The lynching of Leo Frank.

This Klan was operated as a profit-making venture by its leaders, and participated in the boom in fraternal organizations at the time. It differed from the first Klan; the first Klan was Democratic and Southern, this Klan boasted members from both the Democratic and to a lesser degree Republican parties and was influential throughout the United States, with major political influence on politicians in several states. It collapsed largely as a result of a scandal involving David Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of Indiana and fourteen other states, who was convicted of the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer in a sensational trial (she was bitten so many times that one man who saw her described her condition as having been "chewed by a cannibal"). The second Klan dwindled in popularity throughout the 1930s. It was disbanded in 1944 and the name Ku Klux Klan fell into the public domain.

Ku Klux Klan members march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC in 1928.
Ku Klux Klan members march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC in 1928.

In the 1920s and 1930s a faction of the Klan called the Black Legion was very active in the Midwestern U.S. Rather than wearing white robes, the Legion wore black uniforms reminiscent of pirates. The Black Legion was the most violent and zealous faction of the Klan, and were notable for targeting and assassinating Communists and Socialists.

Stetson Kennedy, folklorist and author, infiltrated the Klan after World War II, and provided information, including secret codewords, to the writers of the Superman radio program, resulting in a series of four episodes in which Superman took on the Klan. Kennedy intended to strip away the Klan's mystique, and the trivialization of the Klan's rituals and codewords likely did have a negative impact on Klan recruiting and membership.

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The lynching of Michael Donald, 1981.

Later Ku Klux Klans

After World War II, several organizations using the name Ku Klux Klan were established to counter the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These are the Klans that are still seen today, though as American society has become more racially inclusive, the Klan has once more shrunk dramatically. Vulnerability to lawsuits has encouraged the trend away from central organization, as when, for example, the lynching of Michael Donald in 1981 led to a civil suit that bankrupted one Klan group, the United Klans of America[2] (http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAkkk.htm). Klan activity has also been diverted into other racist groups and movements, such as Christian Identity, Neo-Nazi groups, and racist subgroups of the skinheads. KKK organizations currently in operation include the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Imperial Klans of America, and the Knights of the White Kamelia.

Political influence

The second Ku Klux Klan rose to great prominence and spread from the South into the Midwest region and Northern states and even into Canada. At its peak, most of the membership resided in Midwestern states. Through sympathetic elected officials, the KKK controlled the governments of Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Oregon in addition to those of the Southern Democratic legislatures. Klan publications from the 1920's even claimed to have inducted Republican President Warren Harding at the White House, though the evidence of this event actually happening has never been substantiated. Klan delegates played a significant role at the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York City, often called the "Klanbake Convention" as a result. The convention initially pitted Klan-backed candidate William McAdoo against New York Governor Al Smith, who drew the opposition of the group because of his Catholic faith. After days of stalemates and rioting, both candidates withdrew in favor of a compromise. Klan delegates defeated a Democratic Party platform plank that would have condemned their organization. On July 4, 1924 thousands of Klansmen converged on a nearby field in New Jersey where they participated in cross burnings, burned effigies of Smith, and celebrated their defeat of the platform plank.

At its peak in the 1920s, Klan membership exceeded 4 million and counted many politicians among its members. In many places, such as some counties in Missouri during Harry Truman's youth, Klan membership was considered a de facto prerequisite for entering politics. Truman, a Democrat, is believed to have paid the membership fee to join the Klan during his youth, but never formally joined because of the Klan's anti-Catholicism. (When Truman became President of the United States, he had an extensive civil rights record and was much-hated by the Klan.) In Saskatchewan, Canada the KKK was seen as having a dramatic effect on the provincial election of 1929, which defeated the James G. Gardiner Liberal government and installed the 1929-1934 Conservative government of James T.M. Anderson. Another former Klansman to rise to national prominence was the Democratic Senator and later Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who later repudiated the organization. Early in his political career Black defended one of the group's members for the assassination of Father James Coyle, an Alabama Catholic priest, and obtained a "not guilty" verdict through a Klan-controlled jury. David Duke served as a Republican state representative and ran for office in Louisiana in both Democratic and Republican primary elections. He served until 1978 as the National Director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and resigned from the Klan in 1980. West Virginia's Democratic Senator Robert Byrd was a recruiter for the Klan while in his 20s and 30s, rising to the title of Kleagle, and defended the Klan in his 1958 U.S. Senate campaign when he was 41 years old. [3] (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8272822/) He has since called joining the Klan his "greatest mistake."


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KKK members calling the Holocaust a "Zionist hoax"

Although often still discussed in contemporary American politics as representing the quintessential "fringe" end of the far right spectrum, today the group only exists in the form of a number of very isolated, scattered "supporters" that probably do not number more than a few thousand. In a 2002 report on "Extremism in America", the Jewish Anti-Defamation League wrote "Today, there is no such thing as the Ku Klux Klan. Fragmentation, decentralization and decline have continued unabated." However they also noted that the group's supporters' "need for justification runs deep in the disaffected and is unlikely to disappear, regardless of how low the Klan's fortunes eventually sink."

As of 2003, there were an estimated 5,500 to 6,000 dedicated Klan members, divided among 158 chapters of a variety of splinter organizations, about two-thirds of which were in former Confederate states. The other third are primarily in the Midwest region. Template:Ref [4] (http://www.adl.org/backgrounders/american_knights_kkk.asp)

Individuals who consider themselves members of the Klan tend to conceal their affiliation. They may use the acronym AYAK ('Are you a Klansman?') in conversation to surreptitiously identify themselves to another potential member. The response AKIA ('A Klansman I am') completes the greeting.

The ACLU has provided legal support to various factions of the KKK, including defense of First Amendment rights to hold public rallies, parades, marches, and field political candidates.

Related articles

External links


SC City Labels KKK Terrorist Group (http://www.rickross.com/reference/kkk/kkk12.html), and General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association Condemning the Ku Klux Klan (http://www.uua.org/actions/racial-justice/81kkk.html). The KKK is also included in the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base (http://www.tkb.org/Group.jsp?groupID=62).

  1. Template:Note Southern Poverty Law Center. Active U.S. Hate Groups in 2004. Intelligence Report. Retrieved April 5, 2005 from http://www.splcenter.org/intel/map/hate.jsp.
  • Levitt, Stephen D. and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: William Morrow (2005).ca:Ku Klux Klan

de:Ku Klux Klan es:Ku Klux Klan eo:Ku-Kluks-Klano fr:Ku Klux Klan ko:쿠 클럭스 클랜 it:Ku Klux Klan he:קו קלוקס קלאן lt:Ku Kluks Klanas nl:Ku Klux Klan ja:クー・クラックス・クラン no:Ku Klux Klan pl:Ku Klux Klan pt:Ku Klux Klan fi:Ku Klux Klan sv:Ku Klux Klan zh:三K党


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