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Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan, with its long history of violence, is the oldest and most infamous of American hate groups. Although Black Americans have typically been the Klan’s primary target, it also has attacked Jews, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community and, until recently, Catholics.

Top takeaways

In the past few years, the Ku Klux Klan experienced a drop in the number of active chapters. Unlike years past, however, this downward trajectory was partially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A purge of VK (a Russian social media network popular with the Klan) earlier this year severely limited the visibility of many Klansmen, while constant infighting and an inability to resolve conflict had the largest impact, making the Klan increasingly insular.  

Few new members are being recruited to the remaining Klan organizations.

Key moments

Most Klan interactions and activations came from online activity on VK, Stormfront, and Facebook. An increase of online interaction as opposed to in-person may have contributed to more infighting between Klansmen, causing the creation of more splinter groups.

One of the most notable of divisions occurred at the end of 2019 and into the very beginning of 2020, when controversy surrounding stolen American Christian Dixie Knights funds divided leadership in that group and led to the creation of a new group, the United Klan Nation.

Roughly two-thirds of Klan-related hate flyering incidents can be attributed to the Loyal White Knights across several states in the Mid-Atlantic region. Other groups that dropped flyers in 2020 include the Honorable Sacred Knights, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Imperial Klans of America and Church of the National Knights.

What’s ahead

Several Klan groups cancelled events as a result of the pandemic. Klan activity may pick up a bit in 2021 once a vaccine becomes available, but a notable rise in Klan activity is not expected.

Background

In 1865, at the conclusion of the Civil War, six Confederate veterans gathered in Pulaski, Tennessee, to create the Ku Klux Klan, a vigilante group mobilizing a campaign of violence and terror against the progress of Reconstruction. As the group gained members from all strata of Southern white society, they used violent intimidation to prevent Black people – and any white people who supported Reconstruction – from voting and holding political office.

In an effort to maintain white hegemonic control of government, the Klan, joined by other white Southerners, engaged in a violent campaign of deadly voter intimidation during the 1868 presidential election. From Arkansas to Georgia, thousands of black people were killed. Similar campaigns of lynchings, tar-and-featherings, rapes and other violent attacks on those challenging white supremacy became a hallmark of the Klan.

The first leader, or “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, was Nathan Bedford Forrest, a well-known Confederate general. Within the structure of the Klan, he directed a hierarchy of members with outlandish titles, such as imperial wizard and exalted cyclops. Hooded costumes, violent "night rides," and the notion that the group made up an "invisible empire" conferred a mystique that only added to the Klan's popularity.

After a short but violent period, the "first era" Klan disbanded when it became evident that Jim Crow laws would secure white supremacy across the country. However, the legacy of the original Klan, and the figureheads of the Confederacy before it, have been enshrined across the country in the “Cult of the Lost Cause.” Only in recent years – after gaining significant attention through large counterprotests and after deadly attacks from far-right extremists – have these statues started being removed and public spaces renamed. On July 9, 2020, Tennessee’s State Capitol Commission voted to remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the State Capitol Building.

In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan was revived by white Protestants near Atlanta, Georgia. In addition to the group’s anti-Black ideologic core, this second iteration of the Klan also opposed Catholic and Jewish immigrants. A growing fear of communism and immigration broadened the Klan’s base throughout the South and into the Midwest, with a particular stronghold in Indiana. By 1925, when its followers staged a march in Washington, D.C., the Klan had as many as 4 million members and, in some states, considerable political power. A series of sex scandals, internal battles over power and newspaper exposés quickly reduced the group’s influence.

The Klan arose a third time during the 1960s to oppose the civil rights movement and attempt to preserve segregation as the Warren Court substantiated civil rights in multiple Supreme Court rulings. Bombings, murders and other attacks the Klan carried out took a great many lives. Murders committed by Klansmen during the civil rights era include four young girls killed while preparing for Sunday services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the 1964 murder of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi.

Throughout the second and third eras of the Klan, many Black Americans left Southern states in the Great Migration. While those who moved North were seeking economic prosperity and social opportunities, they were also hoping to escape the racial terror centered around the Klan’s ideological stronghold in the South. With over 6 million Black Americans taking part in this migration, the demographics of the country shifted dramatically.

With the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the subsequent return of American soldiers, several key figures arose within the Klan. Louis Beam, upon his return from Vietnam, joined the Alabama-based United Klans of America. His teachings on “leaderless resistance” and early adaptation to technological advances help bridge neo-Nazi and Klan groups into the organized white power movement. Similarly, David Duke – founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1975 – maintained a distinctly antisemitic hatred that closed ideological gaps with neo-Nazis.

Through a series of court cases aimed at bankrupting the Klan and closing the group’s paramilitary training camps, the organization has been greatly weakened. Internal fighting and government infiltrations have led to a seemingly endless series of splits, resulting in smaller, less organized Klan chapters. Given the Klan’s insistence on remaining an “invisible empire,” it is nearly impossible to estimate how many active members there are today. However, it is fair to assume that the infighting, rigid traditions and uncouth aesthetic of the Klan are not attracting significant new membership.

2020 KKK hate groups

View all groups by state and by ideology.
*Asterisk denotes headquarters.

American Christian Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Tennessee*
Florida

Church of the Ku Klux Klan
DeKalb, TX*

Church of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
South Bend, IN*

East Coast Knights of the True Invisible Empire
Pennsylvania*

Exalted Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Tennessee*

Honorable Sacred Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Madison, IN*

Imperial Klans of America of the Ku Klux Klan
Dawson Springs, KY*

International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Florida

Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Harrison, Arkansas*

Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Pelham, NC*
Maryland
Pennsylvania
Virginia

Noble Klans of America
Maryland*

Nordic Order Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Indiana*

Order of the Ku Klux Klan / White Christian Brotherhood
Cookeville, TN*
Dayton, OH

Patriotic Brigade Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Gladewater, TX*
South Carolina

Rebel Brigade Knights True Invisible Empire
Martinsville, VA*
United Klan Nation
Thurmond, NC*
Tazewell, TN

United Klans of America
Alabama*

United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
Ellijay, GA*

Klan glossary

AKIA: A password meaning "A Klansman I Am", often seen on decals and bumper stickers.

Alien: A person who does not belong to the Klan.

AYAK?: A password meaning "Are You a Klansman?"

CA BARK: A password meaning "Constantly Applied By All Real Klansmen."

CLASP: A password meaning "Clannish Loyalty A Sacred Principle."

Genii: The collective name for the national officers. Also known as the Kloncilium, or the advisory board to the Imperial Wizard.

Hydras: The Real officers, with the exception of the Grand Dragon.

Imperial Giant: Former Imperial Wizard.

Imperial Wizard: The overall, or national, head of a Klan, which it sometimes compares to the president of the United States.

Inner Circle: Small group of four or five members who plan and carry out "action." Its members and activities are not disclosed to the general membership.

Invisible Empire: A Ku Klux Klan's overall geographical jurisdiction, which it compares to the United States although none exist in every state.

Kalendar: Klan calendar, which dates events from both the origin and its 1915 rebirth Anno Klan, and means "in the year of the Klan," and is usually written "AK."

Kardinal Kullors: White, crimson, gold and black. Secondary Kullors are grey, green and blue. The Imperial Wizard's Kullor is Skipper Blue.

K.B.I.: Klan Bureau of Investigation.

KIGY!: A password meaning "Klansman, I greet you!"

Klankfraft: The practices and beliefs of the Klan.

Klanton: The jurisdiction of a Klavern.

Klavern: A local unit or club; also called "den."

Kleagle: An organizer whose main function is to recruit new members. In some Klans, he gets a percentage of the initiation fees.

Klectokon: Initiation fee.

Klepeer: Delegate elected to Imperial Klonvokation.

Klonkave: Secret Klavern meeting.

Klonverse: Province convention.

Kloran: Official book of Klan rituals.

Klorero: Realm convention.

SAN BOG: A password meaning "Strangers Are Near, Be On Guard."

Terrors: The Exalted Cyclops' officers