Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism

This report on the history of the Ku Klux Klan, America’s first terrorist organization, was prepared by the Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Klanwatch was formed in 1981 to help curb Klan and racist violence through litigation, education and monitoring.

This report on the history of the Ku Klux Klan, America’s first terrorist organization, was prepared by the Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Klanwatch was formed in 1981 to help curb Klan and racist violence through litigation, education and monitoring.

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This is a history of hate in America — not the natural discord that characterizes a democracy, but the wild, irrational, killing hate that has led men and women throughout our history to extremes of violence against others simply because of their race, nationality, religion or lifestyle.

Since 1865, the Ku Klux Klan has provided a vehicle for this kind of hatred in America, and its members have been responsible for atrocities that are difficult for most people to even imagine. Today, while the traditional Klan has declined, there are many other groups which go by a variety of names and symbols and are at least as dangerous as the KKK.

Some of them are teenagers who shave their heads and wear swastika tattoos and call themselves Skinheads; some of them are young men who wear camouflage fatigues and practice guerrilla warfare tactics; some of them are conservatively dressed professionals who publish journals filled with their bizarre beliefs — ideas which range from denying that the Nazi Holocaust ever happened to the contention that the U.S. federal government is an illegal body and that all governing power should rest with county sheriffs.

Despite their peculiarities, they all share the deep-seated hatred and resentment that has given life to the Klan and terrorized minorities and Jews in this country for more than a century.

The Klan itself has had three periods of significant strength in American history — in the late 19th century, in the 1920s, and during the 1950s and early 1960s when the civil rights movement was at its height. The Klan had resurgence again in the 1970s, but did not reach its past level of influence. Since then, the Klan has become just one element in a much broader spectrum of white supremacist activity.

It’s important to understand, however, that violent prejudice is not limited to the Ku Klux Klan or any other white supremacist organization. Every year, murders, arsons, bombings and assaults are committed by people who have no ties to an organized group, but who share their extreme hatred. I learned the importance of history at an early age — my father, the late Horace Mann Bond, taught at several black colleges and universities. He showed me that knowing the past is critical to making sense of the present. The historical essays in this magazine explain the roots of racism and prejudice which sustain the Ku Klux Klan.

As a young civil rights activist working alongside John Lewis, Andrew Young, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others, I saw the Ku Klux Klan as an all-too visible power in many of the places we went to organize voter registration and protest segregation.

We knew what the Klan was, and often we had a pretty good idea of who its members were. We also knew what Klansmen would do to us if they could get away with it.

For many years the KKK quite literally could get away with murder. The Ku Klux Klan was an instrument of fear, and black people, Jews and even white civil rights workers knew that the fear was intended to control us, to keep things as they had been in the South through slavery, and after that ended, through Jim Crow. This fear of the Klan was very real because, for a long time, the Klan had the power of Southern society on its side.

But in time that changed. It is a tribute to our laws that the Klan gradually was unmasked and its illegal activities checked.

Now, of course, I turn on my television set and see people in Klan robes or military uniforms again handing out hate literature on the town square. I read in my newspaper of crosses again burned in folks’ yards, and it seems as if we are back in the Sixties.

Some say the Klan today should just be ignored. Frankly, I’d like to do that. I’m tired of wasting my time on the KKK. I have better things to do.

But history won’t let me ignore current events. Those who would use violence to deny others their rights can’t be ignored. The law must be exercised to stay strong. And even racists can learn to respect the law.

That’s why this special report was prepared — to show the background of the KKK and its battle with the law, and to point out the current reasons why hate groups can’t be ignored. This hate society was America’s first terrorist organization. As we prepare for the 21st century, we need to prepare for the continued presence of the Klan. Unfortunately, malice and bigotry aren’t limited by dates on a calendar.

This report was produced by the Southern Poverty Law center’s Klanwatch Project. The SPLC is a private, nonprofit, public interest organization located in Montgomery, Alabama. It established Klanwatch in 1981 to monitor white supremacist activities throughout the United States. Together, SPLC attorneys and Klanwatch investigators have won a number of major legal battles against Klan members for crimes they committed.

This is not a pretty part of American history — some of the things you read here will make you angry or ashamed; some will turn your stomach. But it is important that we try to understand the villains as well as the heroes in our midst, if we are to continue building a nation where equality and democracy are preserved.

Two early members of the Ku Klux Klan are pictured in their disguises.

Part One The Terror is Born

The bare facts about the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and its revival half a century later are baffling to most people today. Little more than a year after it was founded, the secret society thundered across the war-torn South, sabotaging Reconstruction governments and imposing a reign of terror and violence that lasted three or four years. And then as rapidly as it had spread, the Klan faded into the history books. After World War I, a new version of the Klan sputtered to life and within a few years brought many parts of the nation under its paralyzing grip of racism and bloodshed. Then, having grown to be a major force for the second time, the Klan again receded into the background. This time it never quite disappeared, but it never again commanded such widespread support.

Today, it seems incredible that an organization so violent, so opposed to the American principles of justice and equality, could twice in the nation’s history have held such power. How did the Ku Klux Klan — one of the nation’s first terrorist groups — so instantly seize the South in the aftermath of the Civil War? Why did it so quickly vanish? How could it have risen so rapidly to power in the 1920s and then so rapidly have lost that power? And why is this ghost of the Civil War still haunting America today with hatred, violence and sometimes death for its enemies and its own members?

Frontier Justice

The answers do not lie on the surface of American history. They are deeper than the events of the turbulent 1960s, the parades and cross burnings and lynching’s of the 1920s, beyond even the Reconstruction era and the Civil War. The story begins, really, on the frontier, where successive generations of Americans learned hard lessons about survival. Those lessons produced some of the qualities of life for which the nation is most admired — fierce individualism, enterprising inventiveness, and the freedom to be whatever a person wants and to go wherever a new road leads.

But the frontier spirit included other traits as well, and one was a stubborn insistence on the prerogative of “frontier justice” — an instant, private, very personal and often violent method of settling differences without involving lawyers or courts. As the frontier was tamed and churches, schools and courthouses replaced log trading posts, settlers substituted law and order for the older brand of private justice. But there were always those who did not accept the change. The quest for personal justice or revenge became a key motivation for many who later rode with the Ku Klux Klan, especially among those who were poor and uneducated.

Night Patrols

A more obvious explanation of the South’s widespread acceptance of the Klan is found in the institution of slavery. Freedom for slaves represented for many white Southerners a bitter defeat — a defeat not only of their armies in the field but of their economic and social way of life. It was an age old nightmare come true, for early in Southern life whites in general and plantation owners in particular had begun to view the large number of slaves living among them as a potential threat to their property and their lives.

A series of bloody slave revolts in Virginia and other parts of the South resulted in the widespread practice of authorized night patrols composed of white men specially deputized for that purpose. White Southerners looked upon these night patrols as a civic duty, something akin to serving on a jury or in the militia. The mounted patrols, or regulators, as they were called, prowled Southern roads, enforcing the curfew for slaves, looking for runaways, and guarding rural areas against the threat of black uprisings. They were authorized by law to give a specific number of lashes to any violators they caught. The memory of these legal night riders and their whips was still fresh in the minds of both defeated Southerners and liberated blacks when the first Klansmen took to those same roads in 1866.

Aftermath of War

An even more immediate impetus for the Ku Klux Klan was the civil War itself and the reconstruction that followed. When robed Klansmen were at their peak of power, alarmed Northerners justifiably saw in the Klan an attempt of unrepentant confederates to win through terrorism what they had been unable to win on the battlefield. Such a simple view did not totally explain the Klan’s sway over the South, but there is little doubt that many a confederate veteran exchanged his rebel gray for the hoods and sheets of the Invisible Empire.

Finally, and most importantly, there were the conditions Southerners were faced with immediately after the war. Their cities, plantations and farms were ruined; they were impoverished and often hungry; there was an occupation army in their midst; and Reconstruction governments threatened to usurp the traditional white ruling authority. In the first few months after the fighting ended, white Southerners had to contend with the losses of life, property and, in their eyes, honor. The time was ripe for the Ku Klux Klan to ride.

Lynchings were a common form of vigilante justice during the 19th century.

Mischief Turns Malicious

Robert R. Lee’s surrender was not fully nine months past when six young ex-confederates met in a law office in December 1865 to form a secret club that they called the Ku Klux Klan. From that beginning in the little town of Pulaski, Tennessee, their club began to grow. Historians disagree on the intention of the six founders, but it is known that word quickly spread about a new organization whose members met in secret and rode with their faces hidden, who practiced elaborate rituals and initiation ceremonies.

Much of the Klan’s early reputation may have been based on almost frivolous mischief and tomfoolery. At first, a favorite Klan tactic had been for a white-sheeted Klansman wearing a ghoulish mask to ride up to a black family’s home at night and demand water. When the well bucket was offered, the Klansman would gulp it down and demand more, having actually poured the water through a rubber tube that flowed into a leather bottle concealed beneath his robe. After draining several buckets, the rider would exclaim that he had not had a drink since he died on the battlefield at Shiloh. He then galloped into the night, leaving the impression that ghosts of confederate dead were riding the countryside.

The presence of armed white men roving the countryside at night reminded many blacks of the pre-war slave patrols. The fact that Klansmen rode with their faces covered intensified blacks’ suspicion and fear. In time, the mischief turned to violence. Whippings were used first, but within months there were bloody clashes between Klansmen and blacks, Northerners who had come South, or Southern unionists. from the start, however, there was also a sinister side to the Klan.

Klansmen were caught trying to lynch a carpetbagger in 1871.

Black Codes

By the time the six Klan founders met in December 1865, the opening phase of reconstruction was nearly complete. All 11 of the former rebel states had been rebuilt on astonishingly lenient terms which allowed many of the ex-confederate leaders to return to positions of power. Southern state legislatures began enacting laws that made it clear that the aristocrats who ran them intended to yield none of their pre-war power and dominance over poor whites and especially over blacks. These laws became known as the Black codes and in some cases amounted to a virtual re-enslavement of blacks.

In Louisiana, the Democratic convention resolved that “we hold this to be a Government of White People, made and to be perpetuated for the exclusive benefit of the White race, and ... that the people of African descent cannot be considered as citizens of the United States.” Mississippi and Florida, in particular, enacted vicious Black codes, other Southern states (except North Carolina) passed somewhat less severe versions, and President Andrew Johnson did nothing to prevent them from being enforced.

These laws and the hostility and violence that erupted against blacks and Union supporters in the South outraged Northerners who just a few months before had celebrated victory, not only over the Confederacy but its system of slavery as well. In protest of the defiant Black Codes, Congress refused to seat the new Southern senators and representatives when it reconvened in December 1865 after a long recess. At the moment the fledgling Klan was born in Pulaski, the stage was set for a showdown between Northerners determined not to be cheated out of the fruits of their victory and die-hard Southerners who refused to give up their supremacy over blacks.

Ironically, the increasingly violent activities of the Klan throughout 1866 helped prove the argument of Radical Republicans in the North, who wanted harsher measures taken against Southern governments as part of their program to force equal treatment for blacks. Partly as a result of news reports of Klan violence in the South, the radicals won overwhelming victories in the congressional elections of 1866. In early 1867, they made a fresh start at Reconstruction. In March 1867, congress overrode President Johnson’s veto and passed the Reconstruction Acts, which abolished the ex-confederate state governments and divided 10 of the 11 former rebel states into military districts. The military governors of these districts were charged with enrolling black voters and holding elections for new constitutional conventions in each of the 10 states, which led to the creation of the radical Reconstruction Southern governments.

Ghost Riders

In April 1867, a call went out for all known Ku Klux Klan chapters or dens to send representatives to Nashville, Tenn., for a meeting that would plan, among other things, the Klan response to the new Federal Reconstruction policy.

Throughout the summer and fall, the Klan had steadily become more violent. Thousands of the white citizens of west Tennessee, northern Alabama and part of Georgia and Mississippi had by this time joined the Klan. Many now viewed the escalating violence with growing alarm — not necessarily because they had sympathy for the victims, but because the night riding was getting out of their control. Anyone could put on a sheet and a mask and ride into the night to commit assault, robbery, rape, arson or murder. The Klan was increasingly used as a cover for common crime or for personal revenge.

The Nashville Klan convention was called to grapple with these problems by creating a chain of command and deciding just what sort of organization the Klan would be. The meeting gave birth to the official philosophy of white supremacy as the fundamental creed of the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the summer of 1867 the Invisible Empire changed, shedding the antics that had brought laughter during its parades and other public appearances, and instead taking on the full nature of a secret and powerful force with a sinister purpose.

All the now-familiar tactics of the Klan date from this period — the threats delivered to blacks, radicals and other enemies warning them to leave town; the night raids on individuals they singled out for rougher treatment; and the mass demonstrations of masked and robed Klansmen designed to cast their long shadow of fear over a troubled community.

By early 1868, stories about Klan activities were appearing in newspapers nationwide, and reconstruction governors realized they faced nothing less than an insurrection by a terrorist organization. Orders went out from state capitols and Union army headquarters during the early months of 1868 to suppress the Klan.

Invisible Government

But it was too late. From middle Tennessee, the Klan quickly was established in nearby counties and then in North and South Carolina. In some counties the Klan became the de facto law, an invisible government that state officials could not control.

When Tennessee Governor William G. Brownlow attempted to plant spies within the Klan, he found the organization knew as much about his efforts as he did. One Brownlow spy who tried to join the Klan was found strung up in a tree, his feet just barely touching the ground. Later another spy was stripped and mutilated, and a third was stuffed in a barrel in Nashville and rolled down a wharf and into the Cumberland River, where he drowned.

With the tacit sympathy and support of most white citizens often behind it, the Klan worked behind a veil that was impossible for Brownlow and other Reconstruction governors to pierce. But even though a large majority of white Southerners opposed the Radical state governments, not all of them approved of the hooded order’s brand of vigilante justice. During its first year, the Klan’s public marches and parades were sometimes hooted and jeered at by townspeople who looked upon them as a joke. Later, when the Klan began to use guns and whips to make its point, some white newspaper editors, ministers and other civic leaders spoke out against the violence.

But in the late 1860s, white Southern voices against the Klan were in the minority. One of the Klan’s greatest strengths during this period was the large number of editors, ministers, former Confederate officers and political leaders who hid behind its sheets and guided its actions. Among them, none was more widely respected in the South than the Klan’s reputed leader, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a legendary Confederate cavalry officer who settled in Tennessee and apparently joined the Klan fairly soon after it began to make a name for itself. Forrest became the Klan’s first imperial wizard, and in 1867 and 1868 there is little doubt that he was its chief missionary, traveling over the South, establishing new chapters and quietly advising its new members.

The ugly side of the Ku Klux Klan, the mutilations and floggings, lynching’s and shootings, began to spread across the South in 1868, and any words of caution that may have been expressed at the Nashville meeting were submerged beneath a stream of bloody deeds.

The KKK’s First Death

As the violence escalated, it turned to general lawlessness, and some Klan groups even began fighting each other. In Nashville, a gang of outlaws who adopted the Klan disguise came to be known as the Black Ku Klux Klan. For several months middle Tennessee was plagued by a guerrilla war between the real and bogus Klan’s.

The Klan was also coming under increased attack by Congress and the Reconstruction state governments. The leaders of the Klan thus realized that the order’s end was at hand, at least as any sort of organized force to serve their interests. It is widely believed that Forrest ordered the Klan disbanded in January 1869, but the surviving document is rather ambiguous. (Some historians think Forrest’s “order” was just a trick so he could deny responsibility or knowledge of Klan atrocities.)

Whatever the actual date, it is clear that as an organized, cohesive body across the South, the Ku Klux Klan had ceased to exist by the end of 1869.

That did not end the violence, however, and as atrocities became more widespread, Radical legislatures throughout the region began to pass very restrictive laws, impose martial law in some Klan dominated counties, and actively hunt Klan leaders. In 1871, Congress held hearings on the Klan and passed a harsh anti-Klan law modeled after a North Carolina statute. Under the new federal law, Southerners lost their jurisdiction over the crimes of assault, robbery and murder, and the president was authorized to declare martial law and suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Night riding and the wearing of masks were expressly prohibited. Hundreds of Klansmen were arrested, but few actually went to prison.

The laws probably dampened the enthusiasm for the Ku Klux Klan, but they can hardly be credited with destroying the hooded order. By the mid-1870s, white Southerners didn’t need the Klan as much as before because they had by that time retaken control of most Southern state governments. Klan terror had proven very effective at keeping black voters away from the polls. Some black officeholders were hanged and many more were brutally beaten. White Southern Democrats won elections easily and then passed laws taking away the rights blacks had won during Reconstruction.

The result was an official system of segregation which was the law of the land for more than 80 years. This system was called “separate but equal,” which was half true — everything was separate, but nothing was equal.

Born Again

During the last half of the 19th century, memories of the Ku Klux Klan’s brief grip on the South faded, and its bloody deeds were forgotten by many whites who were once in sympathy with its cause. On the national scene, two events served to set the stage for the Ku Klux Klan to be reborn early in the 20th century.

The first was massive immigration, bringing some 23 million people from Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Russia and a great cry of opposition from some Americans. The American Protective Association, organized in 1887, reflected the attitude of many Americans who believed that the nation was being swamped by alien people. This organization, a secret, oath bound group, was especially strong in the Middle West, where the reborn Ku Klux Klan would later draw much of its strength.

The other major event which prepared the ground for the Klan’s return was World War I, which had a wrenching, unsettling effect on the nation. On the European battlefields, white Americans again were exposed to unrestrained bloodshed while blacks served in the uniform of their country and saw open up before them a new world. Back at home, Americans learned suspicion, hatred and distrust of anything alien, a sentiment which led to the rejection of President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations.

In the South, yet another series of events occurred which helped breathe life into the Klan several decades later. In the 1890s, an agrarian Populist movement tried to build a coalition of blacks and poor whites against the mill owners, large landholders and conservative elite of the Old South. The aristocracy responded with the old cry of white supremacy and the manipulation of black votes. As a result, the Populists were substantially turned back in every Deep South state except Georgia and North Carolina. A feeling spread across the South, shared by both the aristocracy and many poor whites, that blacks had to be frozen out of society.

The 1890s marked the beginning of efforts in the Deep South to deny political, social and economic power to blacks. Most segregation and disenfranchisement laws date from that period. It was also the beginning of a series of lynching of blacks by white mobs. The combination of legalized racism and the constant threat of violence eventually led to a major black migration to Northern cities.

Part Two The Invisible Empire

William J. Simmons, a Spanish war veteran-turned preacher-turned salesman, was a compulsive joiner who held memberships in a dozen different societies and two churches. But he had always dreamed of starting his own fraternal group, and in the fall of 1915 he put his plans into action.

On Thanksgiving eve, Simmons herded 15 fellow fraternalists onto a hired bus and drove them from Atlanta to nearby Stone Mountain. There, before a cross of pine boards, Simmons lit a match, and the Ku Klux Klan of the 20th century was born.

Although Simmons adopted the titles and regalia of the original version, his new creation at its outset had little similarity to the Reconstruction Klan. It was, in fact, little different from any of the dozens of other benevolent societies then popular in America. There is little doubt that Simmons’ ultimate purpose in forming the group was to make money. But growth at first was slow, even after America entered World War I in 1917 and the Klan had a real “purpose” — that of defending the country from aliens, idlers and union leaders.

Then, in 1920 Simmons met Edward Young Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler, two publicists who had formed a business in Atlanta. In June 1920, with the Klan’s membership at only a few thousand, Simmons signed a contract with Clarke and Mrs. Tyler giving them 80 percent of the profits from the dues of the new members Simmons so eagerly sought. The new promoters used an aggressive new sales pitch — the Klan would be rabidly pro American, which to them meant rabidly anti-black, anti-Jewish, and most importantly, anti-Catholic.

Simmons graphically illustrated the new approach when he was introduced to an audience of Georgia Klansmen and drew a Colt automatic pistol, a revolver and a cartridge belt from his coat and arranged them on the table before him. Plunging a Bowie knife into the table beside the guns, he issued an invitation: “Now let the Niggers, Catholics, Jews and all others who disdain my imperial wizardry, come out!”

Exploiting Fears

The message was clear — the new Klan was serious. That meant expanding its list of enemies to include Asians, immigrants, bootleggers, dope, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, sex, pre- and extra-marital escapades and scandalous behavior. The Klan, with its new mission of social vigilance, soon had organizers scouring the nation, probing for the fears of the communities they hit and then exploiting them to the hilt.

And the tactic was immediately a raging success. By the late summer of 1921, nearly 100,000 had enrolled in the Invisible Empire, and at $10 a head (tax-free since the Klan was a “benevolent” society), the profits were impressive. While Simmons made speeches and tinkered with ritual, Clarke busied himself with expanding the treasury, launching Klan publishing and manufacturing firms and investing in real estate. The future looked very good.

But during that summer the Klan leaders in Atlanta ran into their first trouble — controlling their far-flung empire. While Klan officials talked of fraternal ideals in Atlanta, their members across the nation began to take seriously the fiery rhetoric the recruiters were using to drum up new initiation fees. Violence first flared in a rampage of whippings, tar-and-feathers raids and the use of acid to brand the letters “KKK” on the foreheads of blacks, Jews and others they considered anti-American. Ministers, sheriffs, policemen, mayors and judges either ignored the violence or secretly participated. Few Klansmen were arrested, much less convicted.

The Klan Exposed

In September 1921 the New York World began a series of articles on the Klan, backed up by the revelations of an ex-recruiter. Another newspaper reported some of the internal gossip and financial manipulations within the Atlanta headquarters. And even more embarrassing was a story in the World that Clarke and Mrs. Tyler had been arrested, not quite fully clothed, in a police raid on a bawdy house in 1919.

The Klan was accepted as part of american life in the early 1920s.

The article badly tarnished the Klan’s moralistic image and precipitated a serious rift within the ranks. The World exposés also brought demands for countermeasures, and congress responded in October 1921 with hearings into the Klan’s activities. Although the congressional inquiry so upset Clarke that he considered resigning, the actual hearings did little damage to the Klan. Simmons explained away the secrecy of the Klan as just part of the fraternal aspect of the organization. He disavowed any link between his Klan and the nightriders of reconstruction days, and he denied — just as Forrest had done 50 years earlier — any knowledge of or responsibility for the violence. The committee adjourned without action, and the Klan benefited from all the publicity.

It almost seemed as if people in the rural areas of the country were determined to support whatever the big newspapers and congress condemned. Following more articles in the World in October (these concentrating on the violent nature of the Klan), membership in the Invisible empire exploded. “It wasn’t until the newspapers began to attack the Klan that it really grew,” Simmons recalled later. “Certain newspapers also aided us by inducing congress to investigate us. The result was that congress gave us the best advertising we ever got. Congress made us.”

Blacks were regularly lynched by white mobs.

Power Struggle

With the Klan’s new strength came prolonged internal bickering. In the fall of 1922, with Texas dentist Hiram Wesley Evans leading the way, six conspirators made plans to dethrone Simmons. Evans became imperial wizard, and in 1923 the conspirators saw a chance to grab permanent control of the Klan’s property, worth millions by this time. When Clarke was indicted on a two-year-old morals charge, Evans was able to cancel the promoter’s lucrative contract with the Klan and thus seize control of the money-making dues apparatus. Mrs. Tyler had already resigned to get married, so that left only Simmons, who became furious when he realized he had been out-maneuvered by Evans and his faction.

A full-scale war was fought between the Evans and Simmons factions with lawsuits and countersuits, warrants and injunctions, all gleefully reported in newspapers across the country. The fight spilled over into chapters in Texas and Pennsylvania and resulted in the shooting of Simmons’ lawyer by Evans’ chief publicity man. The power struggle ended in February 1924, when Simmons agreed to a cash settlement.

The Klan continued to grow during this period of internal strife, but its weaknesses were laid open for America to see. The Klan promoted itself as an organization dedicated to defending the morals of the nation, but there had been too many charges of immorality against its leaders. It’s supposed nonprofit status was badly undermined by the wrangling over finances, and most of its vaunted secrecy was exposed in the reams of court documents churned out by the feuding.

More Violence

And its violence was clearly revealed. Under Evans, the Klan launched a campaign of terrorism in the early and mid-1920S, and many communities found themselves firmly in the grasp of the organization. Lynching’s, shootings and whippings were the methods employed by the Klan. Blacks, Jews, Catholics, Mexicans and various immigrants were usually the victims.

But not infrequently, the Klan’s targets were whites, Protestants and females who were considered “immoral” or “traitors” to their race or gender. In Alabama, for example, a divorcee with two children was flogged for the “crime” of remarrying and then given a jar of Vaseline for her wounds. In Georgia, a woman was given 60 lashes for a vague charge of “immorality and failure to go to church”; when her 15-year-old son ran to her rescue, he received the same treatment. In both cases, ministers led the Klansmen responsible for the violence.

But such instances were not confined to the South. In Oklahoma, Klansmen applied the lash to girls caught riding in automobiles with young men, and very early in the Klan revival, women were flogged and even tortured in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

In a period when many women were fighting for the vote, for a place in the job market and for personal and cultural freedom, the Klan claimed to stand for “pure womanhood” and frequently attacked women who sought independence.

Political Gains

During the period of its most uncontrolled violence, the Klan also experienced unprecedented political gains. In 1922, Texas sent Klansman Earl Mayfield to the U.S. Senate, and Klan campaigns helped defeat two Jewish congressmen who had headed the Klan inquiry. Klan efforts were credited with helping to elect governors in 12 states in the early 1920s.

With two million members, new recruits joining the secret rolls daily, a host of friendly politicians throughout the land and his internal enemies subdued for the moment, Evans wanted to influence the presidential election of 1924. He even shifted his national headquarters from Atlanta to Washington. The Klan had a foothold in both parties since Deep South members tended to be Democrats while Klansmen in the North and West were often Republicans. But of the three major Presidential candidates, two were outspoken enemies of the Ku Klux Klan. And when the Democratic convention opened in New York, many Democrats were demanding the party adopt a platform plank condemning the Ku Klux Klan. The resulting fight tore the convention apart. After days of bitter wrangling over the issue, the platform plank denouncing the Klan lost by a single vote.

Although politicians became increasingly uncomfortable with Klan allies as a result of the turmoil, the success of the Klan candidates across the nation in 1924 buoyed Evans’ spirits. His notoriety peaked with a parade of 40,000 Klansmen down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument in August 1925. Evans boasted of having helped reelect Coolidge, of having secured passage of strict anti-immigration laws and of having checked the ambitions of Catholics and others intent on “perverting” the nation. The Klan was riding high.

Losing Ground

But the decline of the Ku Klux Klan was already well underway. By 1926, when Evans tried to repeat the parade in Washington, only half as many marchers arrived, and they were sobered by the news of political defeats in areas that a year before had been considered safe Klan strongholds.

Increasingly the Klan suffered counter attacks by the clergy, the press and a growing number of politicians. Then, in 1927, a group of rebellious Klansmen in Pennsylvania broke away from the Invisible Empire, and Evans promptly filed a $100,000 damage suit against them, confident that he could make an example of the rebels. To his surprise, the Pennsylvania Klansmen fought back in the courts, and the resulting string of witnesses told of Klan horrors, terrorism and violence, named members and spilled secrets. Newspapers carried accounts of testimony ranging from the kidnapping of a small girl from her grandparents in Pittsburgh to a Colorado Klansman who was beaten when he tried to quit. One particularly horrible story described how a man in Terrell, Texas, had been soaked in oil and burned to death before several hundred Klansmen. The enraged judge threw Evans’ case out of court.

The next year the Democrats nominated Al Smith — a New York Catholic and longtime Klan foe — for president against the Republicans’ Herbert Hoover. The Ku Klux Klan had a perfect issue which Evans hoped to use to whip up the faithful. But his Invisible Empire had melted from three million in 1925 to no more than several hundred thousand, and the Klan was no factor in Hoover’s election. Americans had clearly tired of the divisive effect of the masks, robes and burning crosses. What was left of the Klan’s clout disappeared as its old friends in office, smelling the new political winds, deserted the organization in droves.

During the 1930s, the nation struggled through the Great Depression, and the Klan continued to shrink. It became primarily a fraternal society, its leaders urging its members to stay out of trouble and the national headquarters hoarding its meager funds. After Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, the Klan began to charge that he was bringing too many Catholics and Jews into the government. Later they added the charge that the New Deal was tinged with communism. The red menace was used more and more by Evans and other Klansmen as the rallying cry, and communists eventually replaced Catholics as one of the Klan’s foremost enemies.

Only in Florida was the Klan still a factor in the 1930s. With a membership of about 30,000, the Klan was active in Jacksonville, Miami, and the citrus belt from Orlando to Tampa. In the orange groves of central Florida, Klansmen still operated in the old night riding style, intimidating blacks who tried to vote, “punishing” marital infidelity and clashing with union organizers. Florida responded with laws to unmask the nightriders, and a crusading journalist named Stetson Kennedy infiltrated and then exposed the Klan, rousing the anger of ministers, editors, politicians and plain citizens.

Women’s auxiliaries of the Ku Klux Klan formed their own marching corps and joined in mass Klan demonstrations.

New Leadership

Evans was replaced in 1939 by James A. Colescott of Indiana. He led the Klan in the Carolinas, where unions were trying to organize textile workers, and in Georgia, where nightriders flogged some 50 people during a two-year period. An outcry from the citizens of Georgia and South Carolina brought arrests and convictions, and the Klan was forced to retreat.

In the North the Klan suffered another reversal when some local Klan chapters began to develop ties with American Nazis, a move Southern Klansmen opposed but were basically powerless to stop. The end came in 1944 when the Internal revenue Service filed a lien against the Ku Klux Klan for back taxes of more than $685,000 on profits earned during the 1920s. “We had to sell our assets and hand over the proceeds to the government and go out of business,” Colescott recalled when it was over. “Maybe the government can make something out of the Klan — I never could.”

Powerful social forces were at work in the United States following World War II. A new wave of immigrants, particularly Jewish refugees, arrived from war-torn Europe. A generation of young black soldiers returned home after having been a part of a great army fighting for world freedom. In the South, particularly, labor unions began extensive campaigns to organize poorly paid workers. The migration from the farms to the cities continued, with a resulting shakeup in old political alliances.

Bigots began to howl more loudly than in years, and a new Klan leader began to beat the drums of anti-black, anti-union, anti-Jew, anti-Catholic and anti-communist hatred. This man was Samuel Green, an Atlanta doctor. Green managed to reorganize the Klan in California, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and Alabama. But both federal and state bureaus of investigation prosecuted Klan lawlessness, and Green found that his hooded order was surrounded by enemies. The press throughout the South had become increasingly hostile; ministers were more and more inclined to attack the Klan, and state and local governments passed laws against cross burnings and masks.

By the time of Green’s death in August 1949, the Klan was fractured internally by disputes and hounded by investigations from all sides in response to a wave of Klan violence in the South. Many Klansmen went to jail for floggings or other criminal acts. By the early 1950s, the Invisible Empire was at its lowest level since its rebirth on Stone Mountain in 1915.

Part Three Fear And Violence

The study of the ebb and flow of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States reveals a pattern: the Klan is strong when its leaders are able to capitalize on social tensions and the fears of white people; as its popularity escalates and its fanaticism leads to violence, there is greater scrutiny by law enforcement, the press and government; the Klan loses whatever public acceptance it had; and disputes within the ranks finally destroy its effectiveness as a terrorist organization.

The Civil Rights Era Klan conforms to the pattern. When the Supreme Court threw out the “separate but equal” creed and ordered school integration in 1954, many whites throughout the South were determined to oppose the law and maintain segregation. Like the Southern opposition to Reconstruction government, the tensions and fears that arose after the Supreme Court decision provided the groundwork for Klan resurgence.

In 1953, automobile plant worker Eldon Edwards formed the U.S. Klan’s, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in Atlanta, but he attracted few members until the Supreme Court decision the following year. By September 1956, Edwards was host to one of the largest Klan rallies in years, drawing 3,000 members to Stone Mountain, the site of the rebirth of the Klan in 1915. By 1958, Edwards’ group had an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 members.

The U.S. Klan’s wasn’t the only Klan organization trying to gain a stronghold in the South; a number of rival factions made a name for themselves through gruesome acts of violence. A U.S. Klan’s splinter group in Alabama was responsible for the 1957 assault on Edward “Judge” Aaron, a black handyman from Birmingham. Members abducted him, castrated him and poured hot turpentine into his wounds.

Edwards died in 1960, and the U.S. Klan’s organization fell into disarray. The next year, Robert M. Shelton, an Alabama salesman, formed the United Klan’s of America. Shelton achieved national notoriety when his Klansmen viciously beat black and white freedom riders in Birmingham, Montgomery and Anniston and joined in violent confrontations on university campuses in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.

By 1964 Shelton had a loosely organized Klan empire throughout the South. By 1965, total Klan membership had reached an estimated 35,000 to 50,000.

Klan Killings

The South in the early 1960s was the site of daily tensions between those who favored integration and those who opposed it, and the tensions sometimes led to bloodshed. Civil rights marchers were attacked in Birmingham by police with dogs and fire hoses. Freedom riders — blacks and whites who rode buses throughout the South to protest racial inequities — were mobbed by Klansmen in planned attacks. Civil rights leaders had their homes burned and their churches bombed.

Klan members were involved in much of the racial violence that spread throughout the South, and the fanatic Klan rhetoric inspired non-Klan members to participate in the campaign of terror. No Klan group was more ruthless than the secretive White Knights of Mississippi. The White Knights had only 6,000 or 7,000 members at its peak, but still earned the reputation as the most bloodthirsty faction of the Klan since reconstruction. The White Knights committed many crimes during the 1960s, but the most shocking were the murders of one black and two white civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on June 21, 1964.

There were other senseless Klan killings during the 1960s. Among the victims were: Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, a black educator who was shot as he was returning to his home in Washington after summer military duty at ft. Benning, Georgia; rev. James Reeb, who was beaten during voting rights protests in Selma, Alabama; and Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker who was shot in 1965 while driving between Montgomery and Selma.


Klansmen discovered dynamite as a weapon of terror and destruction. The use of bombs by Klansmen dated back to January 1956, when the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery was blasted. Between that incident and June 1, 1963, some 138 bombings were reported, and the Klan was believed responsible for many of them.

One bombing stands out in the history of the Klan and its fanatical fight against integration in the South. On Sept. 15, 1963, a dynamite bomb ripped apart the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, killing four young black girls. Of all the crimes committed by all the desperate men under the sway of the Klan’s twisted preaching, the Birmingham church bombing remains in a category by itself.

All told, the Klan’s campaign of terror against the civil rights Movement resulted in almost 70 bombings in Georgia and Alabama, the arson of 30 black churches in Mississippi, and 10 racial killings in Alabama alone.

Violence Stirs opposition

Klansmen were often operating in an atmosphere of official disapproval but unofficial acceptance of their tactics. While Southern law enforcement authorities made perfunctory efforts to arrest and prosecute the bombers, politicians pledged resistance to integration, and communities responded by closing ranks against blacks.

The acts of violence finally began to arouse public indignation in the South and across the nation. In 1964, a silent counterattack was begun by the FBI, which made a major effort to infiltrate the Klan. By September 1965, the FBI had informants at the top level of seven of the 14 different Klan’s then in existence. Of the estimated 10,000 active Klan members, some 2,000 were relaying information to the government. Although the FBI arrested Klansmen and prevented some violence because of this information, critics accuse the Bureau of improperly controlling some informers who may have been involved in illegal acts themselves.

In 1965, Klan violence prompted President Lyndon Johnson and Georgia congressman Charles L. Weltner to call for a congressional probe of the Ku Klux Klan. The resulting investigation produced a parade of tight-lipped Klansmen, evasive answers and tales of violence as had similar probes in 1871 and 1821.

This time, however, the House of Representatives voted to cite seven Klan leaders, including Shelton, for contempt of congress for refusing to turn over Klan records. The seven Klansmen were indicted by a federal grand jury and found guilty in a Washington trial. Shelton and two other Klan leaders spent a year in prison.

A white mob led by Klansmen burned a Freedom riders bus in Anniston, Alabama.

Klan Power Weakened

FBI pressure, the congressional probe and Southerners’ weariness of violence took its toll on the Klan. Shelton and other Klan leaders still raged at blacks, Jews and other imagined enemies of the nation, but increasingly their public activities were confined to rallies and speeches while they privately tried to hold together their fractured empires. Some of their members drifted away, some were convicted like Shelton and sent to prison, and some remained active but seemed less eager for clashing with authorities.

The stalwarts of the Klan kept hammering away at the old themes of hatred. Though calls for violence were now muted, their fanaticism was undimmed. Instinctively, they seemed to know their fight would carry on into the 1970s and beyond, fueled by the vulnerability of some Americans to the cry of racial prejudice that brought the Klan to life three times in the century following the Civil War.

Part Four Con Men And Thugs

During the late 1970s, it looked as if the Klan was heading for a revival to match its third incarnation during the Civil Rights struggle. Between 1975 and 1979, Klan membership jumped from 6,500 to 10,000 with an estimated 75,000 active sympathizers who read Klan literature or attended rallies but weren’t card-carrying members.

Much of the Klan’s gain was due to an improved public image fashioned by David Duke. A former neo-Nazi, Duke formed the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1975 and traveled the country soliciting radio and television appearances. Duke was articulate, well-dressed and willing to conceal his extreme racism for the general public. Soon journalists everywhere began writing about “the New Klan.” Many of the recruits to the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were people who wrote to Duke after seeing him on television. Klan groups that had been inactive for years also saw their membership growing.

Duke and others tried to translate the newfound attention into political power, with some surprising results but little real success. Duke ran for the Louisiana Senate in 1975 and received a third of the vote. In 1980, California Klan leader Tom Metzger won the Democratic nomination for a seat in the U.S. Congress, but lost the general election.

Defeated for the state Senate again in 1979, Duke lost his hold on the Knights when a rival Klan leader accused him of offering to sell his membership list. Don Black, who replaced Duke in 1980, tried unsuccessfully to sustain the image of Klan respectability. Black had been in charge of the Knights for only a year when he was arrested with other Klansmen and neo-Nazis for attempting to overthrow the government of Dominica.

Confrontational Klansmen

By that time, there was another Klan leader receiving national attention — not for his apparent moderation but for his brazen militancy. Invisible Empire Imperial Wizard Bill Wilkinson liked to appear in newspaper photos with a sneer on his face and two bodyguards by his side, each holding up submachine guns for the camera. He boasted about the weapons his Invisible Empire members typically brought to rallies: “These guns ain’t for killing rabbits, they’re for wasting people.”

Wilkinson followed Duke’s lead in recruiting youth to the Klan, but he took the indoctrination a step further by setting up a Klan camp in Alabama where kids could learn weapons training along with racist ideology. The children learned early on the art of intimidation. In one 1979 incident, about a dozen teenagers wearing Invisible Empire T-shirts burned an old school bus while assembled Klan members cheered.

Wilkinson’s Invisible Empire deliberately sought confrontations. The most notable was a campaign of harassment against blacks in the town of Decatur, Alabama. In 1978, a 26-year-old retarded black man named Tommy Lee Hines was convicted of raping three white women. Blacks in the community launched several protests, arguing that Hines lacked the mental capacity to plan the rapes.

Sensing racial tensions were ripe for an explosion; Wilkinson took his Klan members into the area and held a series of rallies that drew from 3,000 to 10,000 participants. In May 1979, 80 Invisible empire members armed with pistols, shotguns and clubs confronted a “free Tommy Lee Hines” parade in downtown Decatur. Two blacks and two Klansmen were shot in the ensuing battle. Ten Invisible empire members, including Wilkinson’s Alabama grand dragon, were indicted on civil rights violations. (Hines’ conviction was later overturned on appeal, and he was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial.)

Louis Beam, a grand dragon under David Duke, was developing his own confrontational style in Texas. Beam, a Vietnam veteran, instructed his Texas Knights in guerrilla warfare during the late 1970s and formed a paramilitary arm of the Knights called the Texas emergency reserve. When tensions developed between American and Vietnamese fishermen in Galveston Bay, Beam offered paramilitary training to the American fishermen. After burning a Vietnamese boat and issuing threats against the refugee fishermen, the Texas Knights were sued and subsequently ordered to end the harassment and the paramilitary training.

In 1979, a group of Klansmen and Nazis planned a confrontation with members of the communist Workers Party, who were demonstrating against the Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina. The joint Klan/Nazi contingent arrived at the protest site, brought out their weapons and opened fire on the protesters, killing five. They were acquitted of criminal charges but later found civilly liable for the killings. While they were on trial, another group of Klan and Nazi members were arrested for plotting to bomb parts of Greensboro if their friends were found guilty. Members of that group were convicted and sentenced to prison.

American Nazis

At the same time Klan organizations experienced a surge in membership; there was heightened public attention to another growing white supremacist faction in America, the neo-Nazis. These were white Americans who, like the Klan, believed in the superiority of the white race but dressed in military-like uniforms instead of robes. They revered Adolf Hitler as their hero.

Like the Klan, the neo-Nazis were small in number and highly fragmented. The two groups pursued similar, if somewhat paradoxical, courses during this period: striving for mainstream respectability while at the same time practicing confrontational tactics.

Politics was the arena where the Nazis hoped to establish a broad following. In 1975, three National Socialist Party of America (NSPA) members made surprisingly strong, but ultimately unsuccessful showings in their campaigns for city aldermen in Chicago. In 1976, a National Socialist White People’s Party member whose campaign ads featured a swastika won almost 5,000 votes in his race for mayor of Milwaukee. The most astounding election results came in 1980 when NSPA leader Harold Covington drew 56,000 votes in his losing bid for attorney general of North Carolina. The same year, Nazi Gerald r. Carlson won the republican nomination for a Michigan congressional seat. Although Carlson was defeated in the general election, he polled 32 percent of the vote.

At the same time they were running for office, Nazis were seeking confrontation — the most infamous was a riot begun by 200 rock-throwing youths and NSPA members in Chicago’s Marquette Park in 1976. The youths had gathered to counter a black protest against inadequate public housing, and when the protesters failed to show up, they attacked the police and passing motorists with rocks and bottles. An off-duty police officer was shot and at least 200 cars were damaged.

The next summer, NSPA members led another group of 1,500 angry whites to confront black demonstrators in Marquette Park. A riot erupted, and 16 police officers were injured.

The Chicago rallies followed an aborted attempt by the NSPA to march in Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish suburb. When the town tried to prevent the march, NSPA leader frank Collin sued, and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme court, which upheld the lower court’s ruling that the Nazis must be allowed to march. The march was abandoned after Collin received permission to use a Chicago park, but the NSPA had already gained enormous publicity from the lawsuit.

Klan/Nazi Allies

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Klansmen and Nazis were beginning to see the value of cooperating with each other. Although they had roots in different traditions — the Klan in the post-civil War South and the neo-Nazis in Hitler’s Germany — they shared the same enemies and the same fanatic obsession with white supremacy.

Some Klan leaders, like David Duke and Don Black, started out as Nazis. Former Nazi Glenn Miller incorporated the military fatigue uniform and the Nazi salute into his Klan organization in North Carolina. Ed fields in Georgia brought both Klansmen and Nazis into the National States’ Rights Party; his virulently anti-Semitic publication, the Thunderbolt (later renamed The Truth At Last), was read by both groups.

The combination of the Klan, with its historical foothold in American society, and the Nazis, with a modern militancy that appealed to many younger ideologues, resulted in a racist front whose potential for danger was evident by the early 1980s.

Paramilitary Training

The Nazi influence radicalized traditional Klansmen. In secret camps across the country, white supremacists of all descriptions began training in the use of assault weapons, grenades, rocket launchers and explosives — all in preparation for what they believed would be a nationwide race war.

  • In 1981, more than 1,000 people learned advanced guerrilla warfare techniques at an annual paramilitary training camp sponsored by the Christian Patriots Defense League in Louisville, Illinois, which had ties to the white supremacist pseudo-religion, Christian Identity.

  • At a Posse Comitatus “survival school” in 1982, members received instruction in the demolition of roadways, dams and bridges.

  • At the covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord Survivalist compound, members stockpiled weapons and explosives, and trained in urban warfare, martial arts and wilderness survival in preparation for “the coming war.” An FBI raid on the compound in 1985 yielded hundreds of weapons and bombs, and enough cyanide to poison the water supply of an entire city.

Aggressive law enforcement and new legislation in many states halted much of the paramilitary training of the early 1980s, but white supremacists continued to advocate arms training and preparation for a race war.

In the span of a decade, the white supremacist movement had expanded in so many directions that it no longer made sense to talk about the Ku Klux Klan alone. In addition to Nazis, there were survivalists, Identity churches and Posse Comitatus factions — the most diverse collection of white supremacist groups this country has ever seen. These dangerous allies would evolve into the new hate movement of the 1980s.

Part Five Will The Terror Continue?

By the late 1980s, the Klan was once again in decline. The resurgence of a decade earlier had fizzled, and the Klan was down to around 5,000 members — much smaller than during the Civil Rights era and a mere fraction of its size during its heyday in the 1920s. The ebb in Klan fortunes continued into the 1990s, and observers of the Invisible Empire began to question whether the organization would play any significant role in the extremist movement in the 21st century.

A number of lawsuits against various factions contributed to the Klan’s demise. The fear of litigation made Klan groups leery of organizing into chapters, naming officers and expanding across state lines.

The Klan also reeled under the weight of internal squabbles over money and power. The Klan had always been rife with petty infighting and jealousy among its leaders, and this natural inclination toward discord was exacerbated during the lean years of the 1980s and 1990s. Further dividing the movement was a disagreement over tactics: Some factions favored a cleaned-up organization that emphasized public relations, while rivals sought to revive the more militant tactics of earlier Klan incarnations.

But competition from other extremist groups was the real drag on Klan membership and influence. Racism and bigotry still existed in the United States in the latter part of the 20th century; the Klan just no longer seemed a relevant vehicle for expressing it. Meanwhile, the nation’s reinvigorated neo-Nazi organizations filled the void, outpacing the Klan in sheer numbers, influence and militant activism. In the 1990s, many extremists, who once would have gravitated to the Klan, joined the anti-government Patriot movement, especially its militia wing. The philosophy of the Patriot movement, as well as its commitment to armed paramilitary training, had more appeal than the worn-out rhetoric of the Klan.

But if the Klan’s numbers were dropping, its terrorist philosophy was still influencing the extremist movement. Many of the leaders of neo-Nazi and Patriot organizations started in the Klan and continued to espouse the hooded order’s racist ideology in their new roles. This legacy of hate was a testament to the power of the Klan and its enduring influence for over a century.

Lawsuits Take Their Toll

Civil lawsuits had a chilling effect on the activity of many Klan groups. Although it is difficult to measure the deterrent value of such litigation, evidence suggests that Klan leaders began to fear the legal consequences of their members’ acts. Klan outfits toned down their rhetoric and propaganda, altered their recruiting tactics, and banned weapons, alcohol and drugs from their rallies and meetings.

In 1996, four members of a north Carolina-based Klan admitted to the burning of the century-old Macedonia Baptist Church near Bloomville, South Carolina.

In 1987, an all-white Mobile, Alabama, jury awarded a $7 million judgment against the United Klan’s of America for the lynching of a young black man named Michael Donald. To satisfy the terms of the judgment, the group turned its headquarters over to the victim’s mother and went out of business. (See The Woman Who Beat the Klan, page 41).

The Southern Poverty Law center, which filed the suit on behalf of Mrs. Donald, used this legal strategy against another Klan group with an equally sordid history of violence. Over the years, the members of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, had been convicted of crimes ranging from cross burnings and bombings to assaults and murder. At its peak, it was the nation’s largest Klan organization, operating in at least 20 states from coast to coast.

A 1987 attack by the Invisible Empire on a peaceful civil rights march in all-white Forsyth County, Georgia, proved to be the organization’s undoing. SPLC filed suit and in 1988, a federal jury ordered the Invisible Empire, the Southern White Knights (another participant in the violence) and 11 individual Klansmen to pay the marchers nearly $1 million in damages.

In the settlement, the Invisible empire’s leader, James Farrands, agreed to relinquish all the group’s assets — including its name —and personally pay $37,500 to the civil rights marchers. By the summer of 1993, the Invisible Empire was defunct as a consequence of settling the lawsuit.

In 1996, SPLC filed a civil action against the North Carolina-based Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and four of its members on behalf of a black church in South Carolina that had been destroyed by arson the previous year. The century-old Macedonia Baptist church, located near Bloomville, South Carolina, burned to the ground on June 21, 1995, the night after another black church, Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in nearby Greeleyville, was destroyed by fire. (The arsons were among a string of over 30 suspicious fires at black or predominantly black churches from 1995-96.) The complaint, which asked for punitive and compensatory damages, contended that the Christian Knights “encourage their members to commit acts of violence and intimidation” against blacks in order to promote the organization’s goals.

While lawsuits have a proven history of disrupting and even disbanding white supremacist organizations, they also deliver a powerful warning to others in the movement — hate violence can be expensive.

Internal Struggles

A series of internal disagreements over leadership and tactics further decimated the Klan in the closing decades of the 20th century. Klan groups historically were rife with infighting and jealousy, but strong figures usually emerged to bridge the chasms and provide direction. No such individual appeared to reverse the group’s failing fortunes.

When the Invisible Empire crumbled in 1993, Thom Robb’s Arkansas-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan became the country’s largest Klan organization by default. In the early 1990s, Robb won invaluable publicity by appearing on nationwide television talk shows and in a Time magazine article on the hate movement. Aside from Duke, no modern Klan leader was more adept at exploiting television than Robb. The television appearances helped him gain a national following, but they also earned him the scorn of militants in the white supremacist movement who despised the “all talk and no action” posture of Robb’s organization.

Robb’s public relations campaign produced only short-lived gains for his organization. In time, Robb’s television act suffered from overexposure and lost much of its novelty and shock appeal. In 1994, the irreverent television series, TV Nation, aired a segment that lampooned Robb and his followers. The comical portrayal exposed the anti-black, anti-Semitic underbelly of Robb’s sanitized bigotry. His many critics in the white supremacist world had a field day, deriding Robb as a “Hollywood Klansman” leading a group of “Ku Klux Klowns.”

Later that year, the Knights splintered, and Robb found himself scrambling desperately for members. The schism gave birth to a militant offshoot with strong neo-Nazi leanings called the federation of Klans, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The leader of the group was Robb’s former Illinois Grand Dragon Ed Novak, who at one time had been affiliated with the National Socialist Party of America and the American Nazi Party. The federation of Klan’s took more than a third of Robb’s membership nationwide, including leaders and members from Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, California, Missouri and Texas.

Most of the defectors to Novak’s group were hard-core militants who chafed under Robb’s purportedly moderate, non-violent policies and his timid racism. Novak said his group would be more militant than the Knights and would avoid the limelight Robb so avidly sought. After the split, Novak operated quietly behind the scenes, organizing rallies on private property and recruiting. But the militant Klan umbrella organization Novak hoped the federation would become never materialized.

The Knights went through another upheaval in 1994 when a renegade group took what remained of Robb’s Midwest stronghold. The new group’s leader, Michigan Klansman David Neumann, appointed himself imperial wizard. Despite a threatening letter from Robb’s lawyer, he vowed to continue to use the Knights’ name. Neumann’s group tried to oust Robb as national director and claimed that they controlled the Knights. Robb dismissed the new faction as a mere “blip on the radar screen,” but the two massive defections in less than one year delivered a devastating blow to his organization.

Neo-Nazis and Patriots

As Klan influence faded in the 1980s and 1990s, the white supremacist movement began to chart a new course. The Order, a terrorist group that committed murder, armed robbery and counterfeiting in the early 1980s, became the new standard for bold action on behalf of white supremacy. The members of the Order were seen as people of action and conscience, fighting to the death, in the words of leader Bob Mathews, for “blood, soil and honor.” Mathews had lived the ideal, dying after a shootout with federal agents in 1984.

The Klan in contrast looked plodding, cowardly, and even foolish. The old-line, traditional Klan came to be viewed as outdated and out-of-touch, all talk and no action. Militants left the Ku Klux Klan in droves. As the Klan faltered, neo-Nazi organizations like Aryan Nations and the National Alliance, as well as other white supremacist factions like the church of the creator and Tom Metzger’s White Aryan resistance, rose to prominence during the 1980s and 1990s.

Where the Klan had failed in recruiting and keeping members, the neo-Nazi groups and other racist organizations succeeded spectacularly by focusing on the one thing that was vital to the hate movement’s long-term survival — enlisting the next generation. To that end, they aggressively pursued the young, ruthless, neo-Nazi Skinheads and recruited heavily on high school and college campuses. Eager to prove their courage as radical racists, Skinheads quickly became the most violent of all white supremacists.

Prominent white supremacists also sought to manipulate and exploit the anti-government fervor of the militias that sprang up across the nation and became the most visible of the extremist organizations in the 1990s. By early 1997, the Southern Poverty Law center’s Klanwatch project and its Militia Task force had identified 380 militias and 478 Patriot support groups. Some 101 of these groups had ties to racist groups or leaders, or had expressed racist or anti-Semitic beliefs. Camouflaged fatigues may have replaced the Klan robes, but hatred of Jews, blacks, immigrants and other minorities continued to infect the American body politic.

A Klan for the 21st Century?

As the end of the century neared, there was no single, monolithic Klan, if indeed there ever was one. The organization was in tatters, its decreasing membership scattered in scores of squabbling factions across the country, some with no more than a handful of adherents.

The once powerful Invisible Empire was gone. Its successor as the nation’s largest Klan group, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was fractured and disorganized. The most militant activists, such as Louis Beam (see accompanying article), Robert Miles (now deceased) and Tom Metzger, left the Klan years before and assumed leadership roles in other white supremacist groups.

Since its birth in the aftermath of the civil War, the Klan experienced three periods of significant strength in American history — the reconstruction era of the 19th century, when newly-freed slaves began to hold office and own land; the 1920s, when the country’s fierce anti-immigrant mood drove Klan membership into the millions; and, finally, at the height of the civil rights Movement in the 1960s, when blacks and other minorities began to demand equal treatment under the law.

These periods of growth have one common characteristic: they were eras of great social upheaval when the dominant white population felt threatened. In each of these eras, as the perceived attack receded, the Klan faded. And yet it has never completely disappeared.

Will the Ku Klux Klan rebound again as a new century begins? Will it ever vanish completely?

History would suggest a continued role for the Klan. For over a century, the Klan has always appeared on the stage whenever white Americans felt threatened by people different than themselves. Even in decline and disarray, the Klan’s message of hatred endures, supported by a record of violence and terror unmatched in the history of American extremist groups.


It was a sultry June day in Decatur, Alabama. I had come to meet with some of the black marchers who had been attacked on a Decatur street by 100 robed Klansmen swinging bats and sticks, and firing guns. I am a lawyer and had sued the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and some of its top officials for the attack. I had come to Decatur that day to hear from the marchers, first hand, about the confrontation.

Although I was not at the march, I felt as if I had been. I had spent hours viewing video news footage which showed the procession of about 75 black marchers as they were savagely assaulted by waiting Klansmen. I had studied hundreds of photo enlargements obtained by our investigators from the small army of news photographers who had covered the well-publicized march. We had identified marchers as future witnesses, and Klansmen as future defendants. As I walked into the room where the marchers were waiting to be interviewed, I immediately recognized many of their faces.

One was Hattie Brown, a rather large black woman, street wise though not educated beyond high school. On May 26, 1979, Mrs. Brown was in the front line of marchers who gathered to protest the treatment of Tommy Lee Hines, a mentally retarded black youth convicted by an all-white jury for the alleged rape of three white women. The march marked the anniversary of Hines’ arrest, and Mrs. Brown was there because she believed, along with many others, that Hines was incapable of committing the crimes.

Hattie Brown was one of the first marchers to feel the full force of Klan clubs, and she narrowly missed fatal injury. I asked her about the confrontation, gingerly pressing for more details about the attack, and then, towards the end of our interview, she blurted out: “Mr. Dees, do Klansmen bleed?”

She explained that, as one white-sheeted man raced toward her with a raised club, a black man next to her drew his pocket knife and stabbed into the robe flowing around the Klansman’s waist. The man kept coming. She saw no blood.

I heard in her question the genuine terror of a victim of Klan violence. The legends of ghostlike figures riding horseback across rural fields in the moonlight had been passed down through generations, and Mrs. Brown, like many Southern blacks, still viewed Klansmen as larger than life. I assured her that, yes, Klansmen do bleed.

Klan Terror

Bobby Person of Moore County, North Carolina, was the intended victim of this Klan terrorism. 53 After working for years as a state prison guard, he finally mustered the courage to apply to take the sergeant’s examination. No black had ever held an officer’s position in this prison unit.

On the night of May 30, 1983, he awoke to noise outside his small home located at the end of a dirt road, and saw the remnants of a smoldering cross. Several months later, a pickup truck slowed in front of his home and a white-robed Klansman shouted for him to “come out, nigger!”

Mr. Person emerged to see two men standing in the back of the truck with guns pointed at him. His children were terrified. Before the sheriff arrived, the men left.

The man in the robe, I later learned from depositions taken in a civil suit filed on Mr. Person’s behalf against the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was Jerry Michael Lewis. The other man, dressed in military camouflage, was Gregory Short. Mr. Person’s bravery in allowing his name to be used as plaintiff resulted in the exposure of a Klan ring which bought stolen military supplies from soldiers at fort Bragg and a court order enjoining the group’s paramilitary activity.

Both Hattie Brown and Bobby Person were victims of Klan violence. Neither suffered the ultimate sacrifice of Michael Donald, who was lynched in March 1981 by members of the Alabama-based United Klan’s of America “to show Klan strength in Alabama.” But Brown and Person share a much more common trauma — the modern-day reminder to blacks that free exercise of basic civil rights cannot be taken for granted.

The Other Victims

The Klan appeals to young men like Lloyd Letson, Jerry Michael Lewis and Gregory Short. They are also its victims.

Most rank-and-file Klan members I have met in over 250 court depositions, and many more personal interviews, are basically good people. They are little different than my rural neighbors or my many country relatives — with the exception that most are life’s losers. The Klan meetings offer them what they have not been able to attain in their day to-day life — social opportunities, a chance to gain leadership roles, and a forum to vent their gripes.

Klan violence, though horrible, is not the mainstay of Klan activity. Much time is spent cursing the federal government for affirmative action employment policies, welfare programs like food stamps, and imagined Jewish plots to mongrelize the “white race.”

A Klansman-turned-plaintiff’s witness in the North Carolina case told me that he was the black sheep of his family — nothing he did seemed to bring him success until he joined the Klan. He quickly used his commando skills learned in Vietnam to gain respect and a leadership role in the Klan’s underground paramilitary army.

Lloyd Letson, the Klansman who Hattie Brown saw “stabbed,” became my friend. After we filed the Decatur suit, Letson’s lawyer contacted me and a meeting was arranged for Letson and me to talk privately. He told me that he joined the Invisible Empire’s Decatur Klan group after hearing a fiery speech by the charismatic Imperial Wizard Bill Wilkinson. Letson said he was “sick and tired” of the blacks holding parades on Decatur streets protesting for “that nigger” Tommy Lee Hines who was guilty of “cold-blooded rape.” Letson was an ideal audience for Wilkinson, who had come from his home base in Louisiana to capitalize on local racial unrest to sign up new members.

Letson told me that he quickly saw the Klan leaders as being out for money and power. As they started talking about “the race war to come” and wanted him to get a camouflage uniform for paramilitary training, he balked. He agreed to testify against the Klan.

I visited Letson’s small home, met his wife and children. Except for color, Bobby Person and Lloyd Letson are little different. Both wanted better lives for their families. If they had been neighbors, they might have been friends.

Hopefully, both victims of blind racism — the members who fill the marching ranks and the minorities who suffer the ultimate abuse — will join hands in brotherly love and friendship.



Recommended Reading


A Season for Justice, by Morris Dees with Steve Fiffer. New York: MacMillan, 1991.

Armed and Dangerous: The Rise of the Survivalist Right, by James Coates. New York: Hill & Wang, 1987.

Attack on Terror, by Don Whitehead. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1970.

Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and The Rise of the New White Culture, by James Ridgeway. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991.

Brotherhood of Murder, by Thomas Martinez with John Guinther. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Codename GREENKIL: The 1979 Greensboro Killings, by Elizabeth Wheaton. Athens, Ga.: The University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Confession of an Imperial Klansman, by Lem A. Dever. Portland, Oregon, 1924.

Conversion of a Klansman, The, by Thomas Tarrants. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979.

Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America, The, by Wyn Craig Wade. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Free At Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle, Montgomery, Ala.: Teaching Tolerance Project, Southern Poverty Law Center, 1989.

Hate Crimes: America’s Rising Tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed, by Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt. New York: Plenum Press, 1993.

Hate Groups in America: A Record of Bigotry and Violence, by Alan M. Schwartz et al., New York: The Anti-Defamation league of B’nai B’rith, 1988.

Hearings on the Ku Klux Klan, U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Rules. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Hooded Americanism, by David Mark Chalmers. New York: Franklin Watts, 1981.

Hoods: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, by Robert P. Ingalls. Putnam, 1979.

“Illusion of Terror,” by Daniel Gearino. The Flint Journal, June, 1980.

Invisible Empire, The, by William Harvey Fisher. Metuchen, NJ.: Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan Impact on History, The, by William Loren Katz. Seattle: Open Hand Publishing, 1986.

Klandestine, by William Mcllhany. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1975.

Klanwatch: Bringing the Ku Klux Klan to Justice, by Bill Stanton. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.

KKK and the Southwest, The, by Charles Alexander. Lexington, Ky.: University of Kentucky, 1966.

KKK in the City: 1915-1930, The, by Kenneth Jackson. Oxford University Press.

Klan, The, by Patsy Sims. New York: Stein & Day, 1978.

“Kovering the Klan: How the Press Gets Tricked into Boosting the KKK,” by Dean Calbreath. Columbia

Journalism Review, March-April, 1981.

Ku Klux Klan, The, by John Moffatt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963.

Ku Klux Klan, The, by William Pierce Randel. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965.

Ku Klux Klan: A Bibliography, The, compiled by Lenwood G. Davis and Janet L. Sims-Wood. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Ku Klux Klan: America’s Recurring Nightmare, The by Fred T. Cook. New York: Julian Messner, 1980.

Ku Klux Klan: An Encyclopedia, The, by Michael and Judy Ann Newton. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991.

Ku Klux Klan: The Invisible Empire, by David Lowe. New York: W.W. Norton, 1967.

Ku Klux Klan: Its Origin, Growth and Disbandment, by John C. Lester. New York: AMS Press, 1971.

“Mark of the Beast,” Southern Exposure, Vol. VIII, No.2, Summer 1980.

Masks Off, by Lem A. Dever. Vancouver, Wash., 1925.

“Media Martyrdom,” by R. Watson. Harpers, March 1980.

“New Klan, The,” by Roy Blount Jr. Parade Magazine, August, 1981.

My Life in the Klan, by Jerry Thompson. Nashville, Tenn.: Rutledge Hill Press, 1982.

My Undercover Years with the Ku Klux Klan, by Gary Thomas Rowe, New York: Bantam Books, 1976.

Party of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement, The, by David H. Bennett. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. Revised edition, 1995.

Present-Day Ku Klux Klan Movement, The, U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on UnAmerican Activities. Washington, D.C., 1967.

Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement, by Michael Barkun. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Revised Edition, 1996.

Rise of David Duke, The, by Tyler Bridges. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Southern Exposure, by Stetson Kennedy. New York: Doubleday, 1946.

White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction, by Allen W. Trelease, Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

For more information and publications from the Southern Poverty Law Center, please visit our main website at

For information on extremism, see out investigative magazine, Intelligence Report, at

For daily updates on extremism, our blog, Hatewatch, is found at

This report was prepared by the Klanwatch project of the Southern poverty Law Center. Klanwatch was formed in 1981 to help curb Klan and racist violence through litigation, education and monitoring. Since then, lawsuits brought by the SPLC have resulted in federal civil rights indictments against Alabama Invisible Empire members; court orders prohibiting Klan paramilitary training in Texas and North Carolina; contempt of court convictions against North Carolina White Patriot Party members; a civil settlement requiring Alabama Klansmen who attacked a 1979 civil rights march to take a course in race relations; a $7 million judgment against the United Klans of America for the 1981 murder of a black youth in Mobile, Alabama; a $1 million judgment against Klansmen who attacked Forsyth County, Georgia, civil rights marchers in 1987; a nearly $12.5 million judgment against the white Aryan resistance and its leaders for inciting Skinhead violence that resulted in the 1988 murder of an Ethiopian man in Portland, Oregon; a $1 million judgement against the Church of the Creator for its role in the 1991 murder of a black Gulf War veteran; a $6.3 million jury verdict in 2000 against Ranch Rescue, whose members held undocumented immigrants at gunpoint; and a 2008 verdict of $2.5 million against the Imperial Klans of America for its role in the brutal beating of a teenager at a Kentucky county fair.


J. Richard Cohen, President


Morris S. Dees, Jr.

Joseph J. Levin, Jr.


Howard Mandell, Chair

Julian Bond

Andrew Fredman

Lloyd “Vic” Hackley

Alan Howard

Marsha Levick

James Mcelroy

Vanzetta McPherson

James Rucker

Ellen Sudow

David Wang