The KKK: History and Myths

No one actually cares why I started this show, Buzzkillers. But I did so because I worried about the strength with which cultures seem to hold on to historical myths. That strength seemed to be one of the things that affected our thinking and, sometimes, the way we acted, and perhaps even the way we do very important things, like choosing the people we associate ourselves with, and how we vote. Anyway, that’s one of the things I stressed in our initial crowd-funding video.

And I thought that, being a history show, there wouldn’t be as much pressure to crank out topical material like I would have to on a current affairs or political show. It was a very stupid thing to think, Buzzkillers. I knew better. History happens every day and, at various times, reminders of tense and tragic episodes from the past hit us at a very rapid rate.

Recently, events in Charlottesville, Virginia and other places prompted many of you to ask me about the history of vile and extremist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, and about the myths surrounding those organizations. So that’s what this show is going to be about — the KKK. It’s a distressing topic, in nearly every way, and in nearly every detail. The KKK and similar groups and ideologies have plagued this country ever since the end of the Civil War. This has meant 150 years of hate and violence and brainwashing and the misuse and misunderstanding of history. Other ideologies have been wrapped up with the KKK at various stages in its history, and it’s an unsurprising but unsettling fact that we have also been plagued with versions of nativism, white supremacy, white nationalism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, neo-fascism, neo-Nazism, and neo-Confederates for at least a century-and-a-half.

Practically every topic I discuss in this episode deserves its own full episode, and your favorite member of the Buzzkill Institute, Professor Nash, is going to join us in coming weeks to put a lot of this in context. But given what’s going on in many places in the United States right now, I thought I’d lay the groundwork for the specific KKK parts of those episodes.

There are lots of complexities of the Klan’s history. In the first place, there were were three periods of Klan activity: 1865-1871, 1915-1944, and 1946 to the present. Each of those three Klans were somewhat different and were founded in reaction to developments in American society and culture that were going on at that time, and that were perceived as threats. Secondly, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s famous “leadership” of the First Klan was not very complete or as successful as it’s often portrayed. And finally, the Klan, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s was a lot more urban than rural, and Klan chapters were found in nearly every state, not just in the south.

We often seek one cause or one answer for how and why something happened, but the historical causes that brought about the Klan are about as complex as anything else in history. Two things about the Klan are not complex. They are its root philosophy – hate, and its expression of that hatred – violence and murder.

The First Ku Klux Klan 1865-1871

Let’s go back, Buzzkillers, to Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865. That’s when the Ku Klux Klan was founded, on Christmas Eve of that year, roughly seven and a half months after the Civil War ended. Six Confederate veterans got together and formed the Ku Klux Klan as a fraternal organization. The name “Ku Klux Klan” seems to come from combining the ancient Greek work “kuklos” (meaning “circle” – kuklos – pronounced “coo-k-los” with a kind of pause and “ah” after the k in the middle) with “clan.” It’s not clear what the initial activities were of this infant Klan, but it very grew quickly, along with many other secret organizations in the South. These groups were made up primarily of ex-Confederate soldiers and men unhappy with the early attempts at reconstructing the South after the war.

Remember what happened after the war, Buzzkillers. Generally speaking, the Republican government of the North tried to remove slavery and many aspects of legal inequality from the former states of the Confederacy. Of course, first of all slavery was abolished. “Freedmen” were granted many civil rights, and some of them worked their way up to becoming members of state legislatures. White men had to swear an oath that they had never supported secession and the Confederacy before they could get their voting rights back. And other political and legal reforms were pushed through from 1866 until the mid-1877, when Reconstruction ended. In many ways, the results of Reconstruction were a mess. Some improvements were made, but a great deal of reforms in the South were abandoned, and lots of important civil rights achievements were negated by subsequent southern state governments in the following decades.

There was a lot of chaos, as you can imagine, as well as much tension. The KKK and and many other offensive organizations stepped into this scenario. Confederate veterans were around, all with military experience, as well as many white men who believed they had their way of life taken away by outside groups, including Republican politicians at all levels, scalawags (white Southerners who collaborated with northern Republicans during Reconstruction), recently enfranchised black men, and on and on.

Klan groups spread pretty rapidly in the second half of the 1860s and most states suffered from Klan violence until the end of 1871. So, what did they do?

Although they were careful to disguise themselves with various hoods and masks, KKK members across the South made sure to terrorize their opponents (overwhelming black people) by killing them ritualistically, often leaving their bodies in places where they could easily be found. They burned houses, stole and killed livestock, destroyed other property, and made no bones about advertising that they had done it, or threatening their opponents ahead of time. One famous cartoon from Alabama showed the KKK as a native Southern mule, who had just left the scene of a lynching of local freedmen, scalawags, and carpetbaggers from Ohio.

Let me give you a few examples:

From early 1866 to the end of June 1867 (just 18 months), Klansmen in the Carolinas killed 197 people, and assaulted nearly 550.

Between 1866 and 1868, _one_ county in Florida reported that the KKK killed more than 150 African Americans. Other Florida counties reported similar numbers, but they also included reports of the killings of dozens of “white allies” of freed blacks.

The KKK’s campaign of murder and intimidation was particularly bad in Louisiana. Over 2,000 people were killed in the run up to the presidential election of November 1868, both as punishment and as warnings. And if we can measure the impact that the threat of KKK violence (and violence from other groups) had on potential voters, especially registered Republicans by comparing registrations before and after elections. The Republican party in St. Landry Parish in Louisiana had a registered majority of 1,071 over the Democrats and other parties in early 1868. After the murders in October and early November, not a single Republican voted in that county on election day.

Columbia County in Georgia shows the effect of the Klan in 1868 very clearly. The election for governor of Georgia was held in April of that year. 1,222 votes were cast for Rufus Bullock, the Republican candidate. By the time the presidential election rolled around in November, Klan violence and murder had so intimidated Republicans that only one person (a fearless white man, apparently) voted for the Republican candidate, Ulysses S. Grant.

But it wasn’t just electoral violence or violence against freed black men. The KKK was a secret society, and joining it meant that Klan members disguised themselves during their “raids” and killings. This meant that they were protected by their disguises and, usually, their sworn secrecy. So, in addition to killing freedmen, attacking African-American women, and scaring Republicans away from the polls, some Klan members used the organization to settle personal scores and feuds, bring a violent end to personal grudges, and in general commit any crimes they wanted to, including rape.

It sounds as if the Klan was building itself into a massive organization across the old Confederacy, with a military-styled command structure, and coordinated activity. This was not the case, however. Apart from Klan groups throughout the South calling themselves the “KKK,” there was little organization or structure beyond the local level. Former Confederate Generals such as George Gordon and Nathan Bedford Forrest tried to establish a cross-state organization (with a military-like hieirarchy, and a code of conduct and purpose), they did not succeed. In fact, many historians have argued that it was precisely because the Klan stayed local and didn’t attempt to from state organizations that they were able to conduct their raids and terrorize African-Americans and others (like Republican politicians) who were trying to bring the South into the modern world. Local Klans were autonomous and could act when and where they wanted. The larger an organization got, the more communication would be needed between the local groups, and the more likely that Republican state governments in the South could find ways to attack and eliminate them.

So how did Reconstructionists and others fight back against the Klan and like-minded terrorist organizations?

In some Southern areas where Union Army veterans has established themselves after the war, “anti-Ku Klux” groups were founded. Again, this was very local, and since it was local, these “antis” were often able to find out who was in the KKK in their area. They responded by threatening them directly with reprisals not that different in type and ferocity than the violence that Klansmen perpetuated on their victims.

Nationally, anti-Klan sentiment became very strong. Republican state governors informed Congress what was going on. Evidence was gathered, hearings were held, and a Ku Klux Klan Act (technically the Civil Rights Act of 1871) was passed. Although challenging to enforce, the Act did have the effect of arresting Klansmen (aided by the fact that President Grant suspended habeas corpus and sent federal troops to try to enforce it). Those arrested under the KKK Act were prosecuted them in Federal Court. Along with local attempts at suppression, this Federal action helped hasten the decline of this First Klan. By 1872, the KKK was gone, but not without leaving an awful legacy of death and terrorism in its wake.

Let’s take a break, and we’ll return to tell you about the rise of the Second KKK, and how a motion picture helped start it all.

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The Second Ku Klux Klan

Thomas Dixon was a Southern Baptist minister who wrote novels on the side in the early 20th century. Two of those novels, The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905) caught the attention of motion picture pioneer, D.W. Griffith, who used their plot lines for his blockbuster film, Birth of a Nation, which came out in 1915. The first half of the film depicts a northern family and a southern family during the Civil War. All wrapped up in the War are the relationships between the two families (who had know each other before). So far, so typical.

But the second half of the movie depicts Reconstruction in a perhaps the most racist way possible. Freed African-American men are shown corrupting Southern politics, stuffing ballot boxes, and acting like zoo animals in the South Carolina legislature. All the while, white men are denied the right to vote, and on and on. While watching his one of his children playing ghosts and scaring each other, the lead white Southern character from one of the families comes up with the idea of using white robes and hoods as uniforms/disguises for a new white militia that can save the South from the scourge of black rule. At two separate points in the plots, Klansman go on raids and terrorize black people. The Klan robes and hoods are prominent props in the film, as is a burning cross (again, used to scare African-Americans). These two things — the white hoods and robes, and the burning cross were entirely invented by the film makers and had not been used by the original Klan back in the late 1860s.

The Birth of a Nation was a huge hit, and was even shown to President Wilson and his family in the White House [next week we’re going to have a Quote or No Quote episode on his reaction to the film]. The iconography of the film (especially as depicted on its poster – a robed Klansman riding a steed and carrying an Anglo-Saxon flag), and the timing of its release were very important to the development and spread of the Second KKK.

The timing of its release was important because there had been growing anti-Catholic sentiment, anti-Semitic feeling, hysteria of “declining morals” in the US, and a surge in demand for the prohibition of alcohol in the 19-teens. After he had seen Birth of a Nation, and in response to some of these perceived dangers to American morality, Georgia businessman, William Joseph Simmons, convinced several of his friends (and two surviving members of the First KKK) to found the (second) Ku Klux Klan in a highly ritualized cross-burning ceremony on the top of Stone Mountain, north-east of Atlanta, on Thanksgiving night 1915.

In a Klan pamphlet published two years later, Simmons laid out the purpose of the new Ku Klux Klan. It was “to shield the sanctity of the home and the chastity of womanhood; to maintain white supremacy; to teach and faithfully inculcate a high spiritual philosophy through an exalted ritualism; and by a practical devotedness, to conserve, protect and maintain the distinctive institutions, rights, privileges, principles and ideals of a pure Americanism.”

The “sanctity of the home and the chastity of womanhood” referred not only to their opposition to what they saw as the growing acceptance of divorce in America, but also to, again, what they saw as the creeping tide of general immorality in the country. This immorality included adultery, boozing, criminal gangs, and on and on. But this second Klan also defined “Catholicism” and “Judaism” and other “non-American” religions and philosophies as a threat to solid American Protestantism.

Apart from this wider range of hatreds, the second KKK differed from the first in that it was eventually grew into a nation-wide organization, north and south, and urban as well as rural. As the 1920s progressed, William Joseph Simmons turned control of the Klan over to professional publicists and organizers, and, eventually, it spread it to nearly every state. As new “threats” emerged on the American moral scene, the KKK added them to their hate list: immigration, communism, and on and on. And again, unlike the original Klan, this second Klan was highly organized and structured, with local chapters reporting to state and regional offices, and eventually to the national headquarters in Atlanta. The organization made money through selling official regalia and official Klan literature.

The biggest development in the history of the second KKK was its growth in the north and its rapid urbanization. By the end of the 1920s, the overwhelming majority of Klansmen lived in urban areas, and Indiana was the state with the most members and the most KKK chapters. Other northern cities had large Klan populations. Detroit alone had 40,000 Klan members.This was partly a result of many white Southerners moving north for industrial jobs in places like Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, but also the result of a national trend in paranoia over these supposed threats to the nation’s morality and the nation’s majority Protestantism.

The Klan started to hold large-scale marches in major cities and at big events, such as the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York. Buzzkillers can find many pictures on-line of open and public Klan marches across the country during this period. Another fascinating development in the 1920s and the 1930s, was that Klan chapters pushed for political and social reform in their respective states. Especially across the south, the KKK members had strong representation on city and county councils, and in state legislatures. In addition to standing rock-solid by prohibition and fighting any efforts to relax it, KKK politicians also worked for better public schools, road construction and improvement, and similar infrastructure reforms. The crucial thing to remember here, however, is what else was going on in those southern states in the first half of the 20th century.

Parallel to the Klan’s morality drives, Southern legislatures were increasing public segregation throughout the region. And they were very successful. The improved “public” schools that the Klan pushed for were for whites only. The better roads obviously benefitted poor and middle class white farmers and merchants to a much greater degree than they benefited African-Americans or Mexican-Americans.

KKK women’s auxiliaries were founded in the early 1920s, and they fought in the open to have the Klan’s social agenda implemented by local and state governments. They were successful enough in Texas, for instance, that Catholics were banned from working as teachers in public schools.

The growth of the second KKK didn’t go unnoticed, however. Many prominent Protestant ministers spoke out against it. The Anti-Defamation League was founded during this period in response to the Klan’s attacks on Jewish Americans. Some anti-Klan groups in the north secretly infiltrated Klan membership, recorded lists of members, and published that information in order to name and shame Klansmen. And a few sexual scandals, as well as the Grand Dragon of the Indiana’s conviction for the rape and murder of a young, white schoolteacher, caused public outcry, and led to the Klan’s gradual decline as a national organization from the late 1920s onward.

Still, remaining local chapters of the Klan committed atrocities, including murder, rape, and the burning of property, especially in KKK strongholds in the South. But the press was more stringent that before in reporting these terrorist attacks in a negative way, and public support for the Klan wavered and eventually collapsed by the end of the 1930s. World War II certainly hastened the end of the second KKK, when many Americans realized that Klan ideologies were barely different from Nazism.

By 1944, the Klan national organization had filed for bankruptcy and was more or less defunct. The second KKK’s impressive organizational skills from the 1920s apparently could sustain not them against growing public opposition, and they went broke.

The Third Klan

Sadly, the Klan’s type of deep hatred never entirely disappeared from the United States, and especially in the South. After the war, local Klans organized again in most southern states, but especially in Alabama and Georgia. Adopting the second KKK’s costumes and rituals, but not its national organization (at least not right away), this third Ku Klux Klan became one of the most deadly versions in the Klan’s history.

As civil rights for African-Americans became a bigger and bigger issue in the American consciousness throughout the 1950s, local racists joined together to terrorize civil rights campaigners, white as well as black. Birmingham, Alabama became known as “Bombingham” during that decade because local Klansmen planted bombs in the homes of African-Americans, tried to bomb meetings of civil rights organizers, and terrorized them with other types of murders. Birmingham was the home of the steel industry in the south and many Klansmen worked in factories or similar places where they had easy access to explosives and the type of metals that make excellent deadly shrapnel.

Rather than try to organize together across the south, the local Klans concentrated on influencing and forming alliances with the, technically, legitimate city, county, and state governments in those areas. Birmingham’s police department was riddled with Klansmen and Klan sympathizers. And Birmingham’s police chief, Bull Conner, gave local Klansmen time to attack the Freedom Riders in 1961 before his police force stepped in to stop the violence. It was vicious.

Between 1951 and 1968, not a month went by without a violent Klan attack against black people in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. And dozens of these made national and international news, including the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi.

Klan violence was so strong, and local police and government reaction was so weak, that the Federal government had to step in to try to stop it. But this wasn’t immediate. In fact, Washington DC was slow to stop the killing. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was more interested in discrediting civil rights organizations by trying to expose communists within the ranks of civil rights organizations than in stopping the bombings and shootings of African-Americans. In fact, it wasn’t until 1965 (after a great deal of pressure from Congress and President Johnson) that the FBI started overt anti-Klan activities.

Federal government investigations, and the sheer weight of evidence of Klan brutality exposed by the press, gradually started to eat away at public support for the Klan in the south. Still, throughout the 1970s, Klan chapter rallied and demonstrated against civil rights. Many prominent colleges and universities had KKK chapters on their campuses. Murders and terrorist activities continued through the 1980s and 1990s.

In the final decades of the 20th century, different Klan chapters made use of new technology, such as the internet, to spread their messages of hate and gain new members. Using on-line bulletin boards such as Stormfront, they joined with white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, and other hate groups in a broad movement of hatred, discrimination, violence, and terrorism that we see today. Perhaps modern communication has replaced official Klan organization of the 1920s and the cooperation of local and state governments of the 1950s and 1960s.

Legitimate police forces have similar tools to try and combat this high-tech organization of hatred. But will it be enough? It will probably also require help of all decent people. We need to put political pressure on governments, and enlighten people about how badly these things can get (and how quickly it can get worse) if want this historical cycle of KKK violence and hate to stop.

Buzzkill Bookshelf:

Rory McVeigh, The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan: Right-Wing Movements and National Politics (2009).

The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan provides a revealing analysis of the broad social agenda of 1920s-era KKK, showing that although the organization continued to promote white supremacy, it also addressed a surprisingly wide range of social and economic issues, targeting immigrants and, particularly, Catholics, as well as African Americans, as dangers to American society.


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