Essay: The Ku Klux Klan

By David Chalmers

The Ku Klux Klan is a native-born American racist terrorist organization that helped overthrow Republican Reconstruction governments in the South after the Civil War and drive black people out of politics. It revived in the 20th Century as a social lodge and briefly became a nationwide political power. During the 1960s, the Klan fought the Civil Rights Movement in the South. Under attack in state and federal courts, in a racially changed and disapproving South, the Klan hangs on —marginally, but still violent.

In the summer of 1866, six young ex-Confederate officers organized a social club. Drawing on their college Greek, they adopted the term for circle, "kuklos." They added the alliterative word "klan," and the "Ku Klux Klan" was born. Their nightly rides, in which members disguised themselves in masks and flowing robes, soon became a political successor to the prewar slave patrols in controlling newly freed blacks. Particularly across the upper South, Klansmen sought to overturn the new Republican state governments, drive black men out of politics, control black labor, and restore black subordination. Led by elites and drawing on a cross-section of white male society, the Klan's assaults and murders numbered in the thousands. Similar organizations such as the Knights of the White Camelia in Louisiana copied the Klan.

In an organizing meeting at the Maxwell House in Nashville, ex-Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest became grand wizard, and other generals served as state grand dragons. But in fact, the Klan was decentralized and local; each state and community had its own violent story. By 1869, the Klan had helped terrorize black voters and overturn elected Republican governments in the Deep South. In 1870 and 1871, the Radical Republicans struck back in Congress, passing the Enforcement and Ku Klux Klan Acts aimed at protecting the rights of blacks, and a Joint Select Committee issued a 12-volume report on its hearings on Klan violence. President Ulysses S. Grant suspended habeas corpus in nine South Carolina counties, and convictions in South Carolina and Mississippi helped bring a decline in violence. 

But Reconstruction was in retreat; when the Supreme Court ruled in 1883 that Congress lacked the authority to outlaw racial discrimination by private individuals and organizations, the national government effectively abandoned its efforts to protect Negro rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Having helped restore white Democratic political power in the South, the Klan had finished its work.  In white Southern legend, the Klan was enshrined as the savior of a downtrodden white people from what they saw as the fearful disorder of black equality.

In the early twentieth century, the story of the post-Civil War Klan was carried in the history books, and, most famously, in Thomas Dixon's 1905 romanticized racist novel The Clansman, on which D.W. Griffith based his epic 1915 motion picture, "The Birth of a Nation." Inspired by the film, "Colonel" William J. Simmons of Atlanta, a former Methodist minister and salesman, initiated a small group of Klansmen in front of a blazing cross on top of nearby Stone Mountain. 

Simmons' reborn Klan would become the great fraternal lodge of the 1920s and the political engine of native-born, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, American nationalism. But it had only local success until after World War I, when Simmons hired a dynamic PR man, Edward Young Clarke, who saw the Klan's possibilities. Clarke and his salesmen would keep most of the $10 dollar initiation fee, so he hired hundreds of salesmen, mostly Protestant ministers, and sent them out across the country to sell the Klan. Soon the Klan was no longer narrowly Southern; law and order, prohibition and anti-Catholicism were added to its white supremacist beliefs, and it enrolled millions of Klansmen and Klanswomen. The aura of violence was part of the initial appeal — when you put on your robes, you were a warrior. In the early years there were hundreds of kidnappings and beatings in the South and Southwest, and outbreaks and episodes elsewhere. Often the victims of the Klan were not blacks, Catholics, Jews or new immigrants, but fellow white native-born Protestants who offended the Klan in some way. 

Between four million and seven million men and women belonged to the Klan in this era. It was active in every state. It found support in many northern and western cities and was particularly politically powerful in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado, and Oregon, as well as the South. The Klan helped elect state and local officials and at least 20 governors and U.S. senators — from Maine to California. In Oregon, a Klan-dominated legislature passed an anti-Catholic school law, later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 1925), that required public school attendance. The Klan was deeply involved in politics, but it did not form its own political party. It was generally Democratic in the South and Republican in the North. It had no national platform. The Klan was a major issue at the 1924 Democratic Convention and the national election; in the 1928 presidential election, when New York Catholic Al Smith was the Democratic candidate, it helped the Republicans win.

The Klan came to town bringing social excitement, Protestant morality, and reform. Prohibition was the great crusade, corrupt political machines were a useful issue, and Catholicism was held up as the leading conspiratorial threat to a Protestant Anglo-Saxon America. However, the Klan always produced opposition and its reputation was soon tarnished. Scandal, corruption and struggles over power and money proved ruinous in every state, and the Roman Catholic threat illusionary. Growing numbers of people came to believe that the Klan was a civic disaster, and it very rapidly declined.

In the 1930s, the Klan had no response to the Great Depression, though it lingered, violently, in the Southeast — principally Georgia, Alabama and Florida — as an enemy of blacks and labor unions. In 1939, James Colescott became Imperial Wizard. An attempted merger with the German-American Bund proved to be a poor public-relations choice. With World War II, gas rationing, and a large bill for back taxes, Colescott formally closed down the Klan.

Revived in the Southeast after the war by Atlanta obstetrician Samuel Green, the Klan was strictly working-class and anti-black. Green died of a heart attack in 1949, and the Klan fragmented. It was dangerous, but not going anywhere. Dynamite was its prime weapon.

The Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that public school segregation was unconstitutional gave the Klan a tremendous boost. When the Civil Rights Movement flowered in the Deep South in the 1960s, the Klan was there to meet it. Its members enjoyed what initially amounted to general immunity from arrest, prosecution and conviction. Many police officers were members. 

But the Klan's violence in Alabama and Mississippi, covered prominently by newspapers and television, produced a backlash of its own in the form of a heightened determination and activism among the young, and eventually a vigorous response from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The reaction to Klan violence helped produce the 1964 (Public Accommodations) and 1965 (Voting) Civil Rights Laws and turned the reluctant FBI into an effective Klan investigating force. Fear of Klan-produced anarchy and rumors of the possible use of federal troops helped the Mississippi establishment to minimally come to terms with the civil rights revolution.

Initially, even the passage of the major civil rights bills provided no protection against the Klan — or the police. The killers of Viola Liuzzo on the road back to Selma, Ala., and Col. Lemuel Penn on the highway near Athens, Ga., were found not guilty. The killing of Mickey Schwerner, Ben Chaney, and Andrew Goodman in Philadelphia, Miss., couldn't even get into court. The bombers of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church and the murderers of Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer, among others, walked free. The best the federal courts could do was send the Liuzzo, Penn, and Philadelphia, Miss., killers to jail with limited civil rights-violation sentences.

The U.S. Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court for a reinterpretation of the 14th Amendment and the Reconstruction Era civil rights laws. In U.S. v. Guest (1966), the court broadened the federal power to protect civil rights and suggested that the Congress pass more protective law — which it did in 1968. In the changing social environment, the Klan was in for more trouble. Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Ala., came up with an innovative legal strategy: Acting under the civil law principle that an organization could be held responsible for the actions of its agents, they went to court and won confiscation of Klan assets, including Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton's Tuscaloosa, Ala., headquarters in 1987.

And in the politically changing South, solid murder cases were eventually assembled in state courts against the Birmingham Church bombers and the murderers of Evers and Dahmer. In 2005, 41 years after the murders, Mississippi finished off the Philadelphia Klan trials with the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen. In the new century, Mississippi Klansmen were also convicted and received life sentences for the less publicized 1960s murders of Ben Chester White, Henry Dee, and Charles Moore.

Though greatly weakened, Klan fragments hang on into the 21st century, sharing the anti-Semitism, anti-Latino and other ideologies of the Aryan Nations, Christian Identity, neo-Nazis and other violent organizations of the extreme right. Individual Klansmen still commit acts of intimidation and violence. Without funds, ideas, able leadership, and with only scattered membership, the Klan nonetheless remains the historic symbol of racist terrorism.

 

David Chalmers is an emeritus Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Florida and the author of Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan (Duke University Press, 1981) and Backfire: How the Ku Klux Klan Helped the Civil Rights Movement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).