Ku Klux Klan

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Members of the second Ku Klux Klan at a rally in 1922.
Members of the second Ku Klux Klan at a rally in 1922.

"Ku Klux Klan" is the name of a number of past and present fraternal organizations in the United States that have advocated white supremacy and anti-Semitism; and in the past century, anti-Catholicism, and nativism.

The Klan's first incarnation was in 1866. Founded by veterans of the Confederate Army, its main purpose was to resist Congressional Reconstruction, and it focused as much on intimidating "carpetbaggers" and "scalawags" as on putting down the freed slaves. It quickly adopted violent methods, and was involved in a wave of 1,300 murders of Republican voters in 1868. A rapid reaction set in, with the Klan's leadership disowning it, and Southern elites seeing the Klan as an excuse for federal troops to continue their activities in the South. The organization was in decline from 1868 to 1870, and was destroyed in the early 1870s by President Ulysses S. Grant's vigorous action under the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act).

William Joseph Simmons founded the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915.
William Joseph Simmons founded the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915.

The founding in 1915 of a second distinct group using the same name was inspired by the newfound power of the modern mass media, via the film The Birth of a Nation and inflammatory and anti-Semitic newspaper accounts surrounding the trial and lynching of accused murderer Leo Frank. This second Klan fought to maintain the dominance of white Protestants over blacks, as well as Roman Catholics, Jews, and other immigrants. This group, although preaching racism and known for lynching and other violent activities, operated openly, and at its peak in the 1920s included about 15% of the nation's eligible population.[1] Many politicians at all levels of government were members, and at its height the organization secretly or openly took over some state and local governments. Its popularity fell during the Great Depression, and membership fell again during World War II, due to scandals resulting from prominent members' crimes and support of the Nazis.

The name "Ku Klux Klan" has since been used by many different unrelated groups, including many who opposed the civil rights movement and desegregation in the 1960s. Today, dozens of organizations with chapters across the United States and other countries use all or part of the name in their titles, but their total membership is estimated to be only a few thousand.


The first Klan

A cartoon threatening that the KKK would lynch carpetbaggers, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Independent Monitor, 1868.
A cartoon threatening that the KKK would lynch carpetbaggers, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Independent Monitor, 1868.


The original Ku Klux Klan was created after the end of the American Civil War on December 24, 1865, by six educated, middle-class Confederate veterans[2] who were bored with postwar Pulaski, Tennessee. The name was constructed by combining the Greek "kyklos" (circle) with "clan."[3] It was at first a humorous social club centering on practical jokes and hazing rituals.[4] From 1866 to 1867, the Klan began breaking up black prayer meetings and invading black homes at night to steal firearms. Some of these activities may have been modeled on previous Tennessee vigilante groups such as the Yellow Jackets and Redcaps.

A political cartoon depicting the KKK and the Democratic party as continuations of the Confederacy.
A political cartoon depicting the KKK and the Democratic party as continuations of the Confederacy.

In an 1867 convention held in Nashville, the Klan was formalized as a national organization under a "Prescript" written by George Gordon, a former Confederate brigadier general. The Prescript states as the Klan's purposes:[5]

  • First: To protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless from the indignities, wrongs and outrages of the lawless, the violent and the brutal; to relieve the injured and oppressed; to succor the suffering and unfortunate, and especially the widows and orphans of the Confederate soldiers.
  • Second: To protect and defend the Constitution of the United States ...
  • Third: To aid and assist in the execution of all constitutional laws, and to protect the people from unlawful seizure, and from trial except by their peers in conformity with the laws of the land.

Stripped of obfuscation and attempts to protect themselves from accusations of treason, this is essentially a statement that the Klan's purpose was to resist Congressional Reconstruction. The word "oppressed," for example, clearly refers to oppression by the Union Army, and "peers" implies that white Southern property holders should be protected from carpetbaggers and "uppity" freedmen. During Reconstruction the South was undergoing drastic changes to its social and political life. Whites saw this as a threat to their supremacy as a race and sought to end this process. (The provisions for Confederate widows and orphans can be seen as an adaptation to the post-Civil War context of the similar provisions for members' families made by many other 19th-century fraternal organizations[6].)

The Prescript also includes a list of questions to be asked of applicants for membership, which confirms the focus on resisting Reconstruction and the Republican Party. The applicant is to be asked whether he was a Republican, a Union Army veteran, or a member of the Loyal League; whether he is "opposed to Negro equality both social and political;" and whether he is in favor of "a white man's government," "maintaining the constitutional rights of the South," "the reenfranchisement and emancipation of the white men of the South, and the restitution of the Southern people to all their rights," and "the inalienable right of self-preservation of the people against the exercise of arbitrary and unlicensed power."

According to one oral report, Gordon went to former slave trader and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis and told him about the new organization, to which Forrest replied, "That's a good thing; that's a damn good thing. We can use that to keep the niggers in their place."[7] A few weeks later, Forrest was selected as Grand Wizard, the Klan's national leader.


The Klan sought to control the political and social status of the freed slaves. Specifically, it attempted to curb black education, economic advancement, voting rights, and the right to bear arms. However, the Klan's focus was not limited to African Americans; Southern Republicans also became the target of vicious intimidation tactics, and a wave of 1,300 murders of Republican voters in 1868, was primarily a political purge rather than a racial conflict.[8] The violence achieved its purpose. For example, in the April, 1868 Georgia gubernatorial election, Columbia County cast 1222 votes for Democrat Rufus Bullock, but in the November presidential election, the county cast only one vote for Republican candidate Ulysses Grant.[9]

An 1868 proclamation by Gordon[10] demonstrates several of the issues surrounding the Klan's violent activities.

  • Many blacks were veterans of the Union Army, and were armed. From the beginning, one of the original Klan's strongest focuses was on confiscating firearms from Blacks. In the proclamation, Gordon warned that the Klan had been "fired into three times," and that if the blacks "make war upon us they must abide by the awful retribution that will follow."
  • Gordon also stated that the Klan was a peaceful organization. Such claims were common ways for the Klan to attempt to protect itself from prosecution.
  • Gordon warned that some people had been carrying out violent acts in the name of the Klan. It was true that many people who had not been formally inducted into the Klan found the Klan's uniform to be a convenient way to hide their identities when carrying out acts of violence. However, it was also convenient for the higher levels of the organization to disclaim responsibility for such acts, and the secretive, decentralized nature of the Klan made membership fuzzy rather than clear-cut.
Wikisource has the full text of the 1868 interview with Forrest.

By this time, only two years after the Klan's creation, its activity was already beginning to decrease[11] and, as Gordon's proclamation shows, to become less political and more simply a way of avoiding prosecution for violence. Many influential southern Democrats were beginning to see it as a liability, an excuse for the federal government to retain its power over the South.[12] Georgian B.H. Hill went so far as to claim "that some of these outrages were actually perpetrated by the political friends of the parties slain."[13]

Three Ku Klux Klan members arrested in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, September 1871, for the attempted murder of an entire family.
Three Ku Klux Klan members arrested in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, September 1871, for the attempted murder of an entire family.

In an 1868 newspaper interview,[14] Forrest boasted that the Klan was a nationwide organization of 550,000 men, and that although he himself was not a member, he was "in sympathy" and would "cooperate" with them, and could himself muster 40,000 Klansmen with five days' notice. He stated that the Klan did not see blacks as its enemy so much the Loyal Leagues, Republican state governments like Tennessee governor Brownlow's, and other carpetbaggers and scalawags. There was an element of truth to this claim, since the Klan did go after white members of these groups, especially the schoolteachers brought south by the Freedmen's Bureau, many of whom had before the war been abolitionists or active in the underground railroad. Many white southerners believed, for example, that blacks were voting for the Republican party only because they had been hoodwinked by the Loyal Leagues. Black members of the Loyal Leagues were also the frequent targets of Klan raids. One Alabama newspaper editor declared that "The League is nothing more than a nigger Ku Klux Klan."[15]

Decline and suppression

Forrest's national organization, in fact, had little control over the local Klans, which were highly autonomous. One Klan official complained that his own "so-called 'Chief'-ship was purely nominal, I having not the least authority over the reckless young country boys who were most active in 'night-riding,' whipping, etc., all of which was outside of the intent and constitution of the Klan..." Forrest ordered the Klan to disband in 1869, stating that it was "being perverted from its original honorable and patriotic purposes, becoming injurious instead of subservient to the public peace."[16] Due to the national organization's lack of control, this proclamation was more a symptom of the Klan's decline than a cause of it. Historian Stanley Horn writes that "generally speaking, the Klan's end was more in the form of spotty, slow, and gradual disintegration than a formal and decisive disbandment."[17] A reporter in Georgia wrote in January 1870 that "A true statement of the case is not that the Ku Klux are an organized band of licensed criminals, but that men who commit crimes call themselves Ku Klux."[18]

Gov. William Holden of North Carolina attempted to use the state militia against the Klan, and was voted out of office.
Gov. William Holden of North Carolina attempted to use the state militia against the Klan, and was voted out of office.

Although the Klan was being used more and more often as a mask for nonpolitical crimes, state and local governments seldom acted against it. In lynching cases, whites were almost never indicted by all-white coroner's juries, and even when there was an indictment, all-white trial juries were extremely unlikely to vote for conviction. In many states, there were fears that the use of black militiamen would ignite a race war.[19] When Republican governor Holden of North Carolina called out the militia against the Klan in 1870, the result was a backlash that lost him the upcoming election.[20]

Meanwhile, many Democrats at the national level were questioning whether the Klan even existed, or was a creation of nervous Republican governors in the South.[21] In January 1871, Pennsylvania Republican senator John Scott convened a committee which took testimony from 52 witnesses about Klan atrocities. Many Southern states had already passed anti-Klan legislation, and in February former Union general Benjamin Franklin Butler of Massachusetts (who was widely reviled by Southern whites) introduced federal legislation modeled on it.[22] The tide was turned in favor of the bill by the governor of South Carolina's appeal for federal troops, and by reports of a riot and massacre in a Meridian, Mississippi, courthouse, which a black state representative escaped only by taking to the woods.[23]

In 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant signed Butler's legislation, the Ku Klux Klan Act, which was used along with the 1870 Force Act to enforce the civil rights provisions of the constitution. Under the Klan Act, federal troops were used rather than state militias, and Klansmen were prosecuted in federal court, where juries were often predominantly black.[24] Hundreds of Klan members were fined or imprisoned, and habeas corpus was suspended in nine counties in South Carolina. These efforts were so successful that the Klan was destroyed in South Carolina[25] and decimated throughout the rest of the country, where it had already been in decline for several years. Prosecutions were led by Attorney General Amos Tappan Ackerman. The tapering off of the federal government's actions under the Klan Act, ca. 1871–74, went along with the final extinction of the Klan,[26] although in some areas similar activities, including intimidation and murder of black voters, continued under the auspices of local organizations such the White League, Red Shirts, saber clubs, and rifle clubs.[27] Even though the Klan no longer existed, it had achieved many of its goals, such as denying voting rights to Southern blacks.

In 1882, long after the end of the first Klan, the Supreme Court ruled in United States vs. Harris that the Klan Act was partially unconstitutional, saying that Congress's power under the fourteenth amendment did not extend to private conspiracies.[28] However, the Force Act and the Klan Act have been invoked in later civil rights conflicts, including the 1964 murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner[29]; the 1965 murder of Viola Liuzzo;[30] and Bray vs. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic, 1991, which became an issue in the 2005 debate on the confirmation of John G. Roberts, Jr.'s nomination to the Supreme Court.[31]

Wikisource has the full text of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act.

The second Klan


Movie poster for The Birth of a Nation.
Movie poster for The Birth of a Nation.

The founding of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915 demonstrated the newfound power of modern mass media. The year saw three closely related events:

  • The film The Birth of a Nation was released, mythologizing and glorifying the first Klan.
  • Leo Frank, a Jewish man accused of the rape and murder of a young white girl named Mary Phagan, was lynched against a backdrop of media frenzy.
  • The second Ku Klux Klan was founded with a new anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic agenda. The bulk of the founders were from an organization calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan, and the new organization emulated the fictionalized version of the original Klan presented in The Birth of a Nation.
An illustration from The Clansman: "Take dat f'um yo equal—"
An illustration from The Clansman: "Take dat f'um yo equal—"

D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation glorified the original Klan, which was now a fading memory. Griffith's film was based on the book and play The Clansman and the book The Leopard's Spots, both by Thomas Dixon who said his purpose was "to revolutionize northern sentiment by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat!" The film created a nationwide craze for the Klan. At a preview in Los Angeles, actors dressed as Klansmen were hired to ride by as a promotional stunt, and real-life members of the newly reorganized Klan rode up and down the street at its later official premiere in Atlanta. In some cases, enthusiastic southern audiences fired their guns into the screen.[32] The film's popularity and influence were enhanced by a widely reported endorsement of its factual accuracy by historian and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (see below, under Political Influence) as a favor to an old friend. Much of the modern Klan's iconography, including the standardized white costume and the burning cross, are imitations of the film, whose imagery was itself based on Dixon's romanticized concept of old Scotland rather than on the Reconstruction Klan.

A quote from Woodrow Wilson used in the film.
A quote from Woodrow Wilson used in the film.

The Birth of a Nation includes extensive quotations from Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People,[33] e.g., "The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation ... until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country." Wilson, on seeing the film in a special White House screening on February 18, 1915, exclaimed, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."[34] Wilson's family had sympathized with the Confederacy during the Civil War, and cared for wounded Confederate soldiers at a church. When he was a young man, his party had vigorously opposed Reconstruction, and as president he resegregated the federal government for the first time since Reconstruction. Given the film's strong Democratic partisan message and Wilson's documented views on race and the Klan, it is not unreasonable to interpret the statement as supporting the Klan, and the word "regret" as referring to the film's depiction of Radical Republican Reconstruction. Later correspondence with the film's director, D.W. Griffith, confirms Wilson's enthusiasm about the film. Wilson's remarks were widely reported and immediately became controversial. Wilson tried to remain aloof from the controversy, but finally, on April 30, he issued a non-denial denial.[35] His endorsement of the film greatly enhanced its popularity and influence, and helped Griffith to defend it against legal attack by the NAACP; the film, in turn, was a major factor leading to the creation of the second Klan in the same year.

The lynching of Leo Frank.
The lynching of Leo Frank.

In the same year, an important event in the coalescence of the second Klan was the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager. In sensationalistic newspaper accounts, Frank was accused of fantastic sexual crimes and of the murder of a Mary Phagan, a girl employed at his factory. He was convicted of murder after a questionable trial in Georgia (the judge asked that Frank and his counsel not be present when the verdict was announced due to the violent mob of people surrounding the court house). His appeals failed (Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes dissented, condemning the intimidation of the jury as failing to provide due process of law). The governor then commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, but a mob calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan kidnapped Frank from the prison farm and lynched him. Ironically, much of the evidence in the murder actually pointed to the factory's black janitor, Jim Conley, who the prosecution claimed only helped Frank to dispose of the body.

The huge confederate memorial at Stone Mountain, site of the founding of the second Klan. Work was begun in 1923 with funding mainly from the Klan, and was completed in 1970.
The huge confederate memorial at Stone Mountain, site of the founding of the second Klan. Work was begun in 1923 with funding mainly from the Klan, and was completed in 1970.

For many southerners who believed Frank to be guilty, there was a strong resonance between the Frank trial and The Birth of a Nation, because they saw an analogy between Mary Phagan and the film's character Flora, a young virgin who throws herself off a cliff to avoid being raped by the black character Gus, described as "a renegade, a product of the vicious doctrines spread by the carpetbaggers."

The Frank trial was used skillfully by Georgia politician and publisher Thomas E. Watson, the editor for The Jeffersonian magazine at the time and later a leader in the reorganization of the Klan who was later elected to the U.S. Senate. The new Klan was inaugurated in 1915 at a mountaintop meeting led by William J. Simmons and attended by aging members of the original Klan, along with members of the Knights of Mary Phagan.

The burning cross is a symbol used by the Klan to create terror. Cross burning is said to have been introduced by William J. Simmons, the founder of the second Klan in 1915.
The burning cross is a symbol used by the Klan to create terror. Cross burning is said to have been introduced by William J. Simmons, the founder of the second Klan in 1915.


In keeping with its origins in the Leo Frank lynching, the reorganized Klan had a new anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant slant. This was consistent with the new Klan's greater success at recruiting in the U.S. Midwest than in the South. As in the Nazi party's propaganda in Germany, recruiters made effective use of the idea that prospective members' problems were caused by Blacks or by Jewish bankers, or by other such groups.

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

This Klan was operated as a profit-making venture by its leaders, and participated in the boom in fraternal organizations at the time. It differed from the first Klan. The first Klan was Democratic and Southern, but this Klan, while it still boasted members from the Democratic Party, was to a greater degree Republican and was influential throughout the United States, with major political influence on politicians in several states.

Sheet music to "We Are All Loyal Klansmen," 1923.
Sheet music to "We Are All Loyal Klansmen," 1923.

Political influence

The second Ku Klux Klan rose to great prominence and spread from the South into the Midwest region and Northern states and even into Canada. At its peak, Klan membership exceeded 4 million and comprised 20% of the adult white male population in many broad geographic regions, as high as 40% in some areas. Most of the membership resided in Midwestern states.

Through sympathetic elected officials, the KKK controlled the governments of Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Oregon in addition to some of the Southern legislatures. Klan influence was particularly strong in Indiana, where Republican Klansman Edward Jackson was elected governor in 1924, and the entire apparatus of state government was riddled with Klansmen. In another well-known example from the same year, the Klan decided to make Anaheim, California, into a model Klan city; it secretly took over the city council, but was voted out in a special recall election.

Klansmen in Anaheim, California, 1924.
Klansmen in Anaheim, California, 1924.

Klan delegates played a significant role at the pathsetting 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York City, often called the "Klanbake Convention" as a result. The convention initially pitted Klan-backed candidate William McAdoo against New York Governor Al Smith, who drew the opposition of the group because of his Catholic faith. After days of stalemates and rioting, both candidates withdrew in favor of a compromise. Klan delegates defeated a Democratic Party platform plank that would have condemned their organization. On July 4, 1924, thousands of Klansmen converged on a nearby field in New Jersey where they participated in cross burnings, burned effigies of Smith, and celebrated their defeat of the platform plank.

In Illinois, the Klan supported national Prohibition. In 1923, the Klan essentially took over Williamson County, Illinois, forcing elected government officials out of office, to be replaced by unelected "Kluxers", as they were called in Illinois. Federal officials apparently deputized the Klan. Large mobs went door to door, searching houses for alcohol. Persons possessing alcohol were taken to Klan prisons. This eventually led to the "Klan War" in which local gangsters eventually overpowered the Klan and allowed the restoration of lawfully elected government (Charles Birger and Shelton Brothers Gang).

A number of highly notable political figures in the U.S. and Canada joined the Klan or flirted with membership. The list includes two Supreme Court justices and, according to evidence which is in some cases contested, possibly two presidents.

Main article: Notable Ku Klux Klan members in national politics
D.C. Stephenson's prison mugshot, 1926
D.C. Stephenson's prison mugshot, 1926


The second Klan collapsed largely as a result of a scandal involving Republican David Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of Indiana and fourteen other states, who was convicted of the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer in a sensational trial (she was bitten so many times that one man who saw her described her condition as having been "chewed by a cannibal").

As a result of these scandals, the Klan fell out of public favor in the 1930s and withdrew from political activity. Grand Wizard Hiram Evans sold the organization in 1939 to James Colescott, an Indiana veterinarian, and Samuel Green, an Atlanta obstetrician, but they were unable to staunch the exodus of members. The Klan's image was further damaged by Colescott's association with Nazi-sympathizer organizations, the Klan's involvement with the 1943 Detroit Race Riot, and efforts to disrupt the American war effort during World War II. In 1944 the IRS filed a lien for $685,000 in back taxes against the Klan, and Colescott was forced to dissolve the organization in 1944. The name Ku Klux Klan then began to be used by a number of independent groups. The following table shows the decline in the Klan's estimated membership over time.[36] (The years given in the table represent approximate time periods; years after 1944 represent the total for all groups using the Klan name.)

Ku Klux Klan members march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1928.
Ku Klux Klan members march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1928.
year membership
1920 4,000,000
1930 30,000
1970 2,000
2000 3,000

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

Anthony and Viola Liuzzo, 1949.
Anthony and Viola Liuzzo, 1949.

Later Ku Klux Klans

After World War II, the Klan's victims began to fight back. In a 1958 North Carolina incident, the Klan burned crosses at the homes of two Lumbee Native Americans who had associated with white people, and then held a nighttime rally nearby, only to find themselves surrounded by hundreds of armed Lumbees. Gunfire was exchanged, and the Klan was routed.[37]

A new focus of the postwar Klan was to resist the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1963, two Klan members carried out the bombing of a church in Alabama that had been used as a meeting place for civil rights organizers. Four young girls were killed, and outrage over the bombing helped to build momentum for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Klan used threats, intimidation, and murder to disrupt voter registration drives in the South, and to prevent registered black voters from voting. The Klan was involved in the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi, and also murdered Viola Liuzzo, a Southern-raised white mother of five who was visiting the South from her home in Detroit to attend a civil rights march.

Violence at a Klan march in Mobile, Alabama, 1977.
Violence at a Klan march in Mobile, Alabama, 1977.

In 1964, the FBI's COINTELPRO program began attempts to infiltrate and disrupt the Klan. COINTELPRO occupied a curiously ambiguous position in the civil rights movement, since it used its tactics of infiltration, disinformation, and violence against violent far-left and far-right groups such as the Klan and the Weathermen, but simultaneously against peaceful organizations such as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This ambivalence was shown dramatically in the case of the murder of Liuzzo, who was shot on the road by four Klansmen in a car, of whom one was an FBI informant. After she was murdered, the FBI spread false rumors that she was a communist, and that she had abandoned her children in order to have sex with black civil rights workers. Regardless of the FBI's ambivalence, Jerry Thompson, a newspaper reporter who infiltrated in the Klan in 1979, reported that COINTELPRO's efforts had been highly successful in disrupting the Klan; rival Klan factions both accused each other's leaders of being FBI informants, and one leader, Bill Wilkinson of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was in fact later revealed to have been working for the FBI.[38]

Once the century-long struggle over black voting rights in the South had ended, the Klans shifted their focus to other issues, including affirmative action, immigration, and especially busing ordered by the courts in order to desegregate schools. In 1971, Klansmen used bombs to destroy ten school buses in Pontiac, Michigan, and charismatic Klansman David Duke was active in South Boston during the school busing crisis of 1974. Duke also made efforts to update its image, urging Klansmen to "get out of the cow pasture and into hotel meeting rooms." Duke was leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from 1974 until he resigned from the Klan in 1978. In 1980, he formed the National Association for the Advancement of White People, a far-right white nationalist political organization. He was elected to the Louisiana State House of Representatives in 1989 as a Republican, even though the party threw its support to a different Republican candidate.

An inflammatory cartoon that was used as evidence in the civil trial resulting from Michael Donald's murder.
An inflammatory cartoon that was used as evidence in the civil trial resulting from Michael Donald's murder.

In this period, resistance to the Klan became more common. Thompson reported that in his brief membership in the Klan, his truck was shot at, he was yelled at by black children, and a Klan rally that he attended turned into a riot when black soldiers on an adjacent military base taunted the Klansmen. Attempts by the Klan to march were often met with counterprotests, and violence sometimes ensued.

The lynching of Michael Donald, 1981.
The lynching of Michael Donald, 1981.

Vulnerability to lawsuits has encouraged the trend away from central organization, as when, for example, the lynching of Michael Donald in 1981 led to a civil suit that bankrupted one Klan group, the United Klans of America[39]. Thompson related how many Klan leaders who appeared indifferent to the threat of arrest showed great concern about a series of multimillion-dollar lawsuits brought against them as individuals by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a result of a shootout between Klansmen and a group of African Americans, and curtailed their activities in order to conserve money for defense against the suits. Lawsuits were also used as tools by the Klan, however, and the paperback publication of Thompson's book was canceled because of a libel suit brought by the Klan.

Klan activity has also been diverted into other racist groups and movements, such as Christian Identity, neo-Nazi groups, and racist subgroups of the skinheads.

Knights of the Ku Klux Klan

"Knights of the Ku Klux Klan" has been part of the title of at least ten organizations patterned on the original KKK. The most prominent of these was the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc., which was founded in November 1915 by William J. Simmons and disbanded in 1944 by James Colescott. At its peak this fraternal organisation had around three to five million members.

In 2005 the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (Knights Party) is headed by National Director Pastor Thom Robb, and based in Harrison, Arkansas. It is the biggest Klan organization in America today. The sixth era Klan continues to be a racist group.

Robb's group in the past produced such Klan stars as David Duke, but it is now continuing a long, slow decline. In 1991 Thom Robb said that he foresaw imminent respectability for the Klan: "You take Exxon. They had an identity thing to overcome after that oil spill. Well, the Klan has an image problem to overcome, also."

The Ku Klux Klan today

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

Today the only known former member of the Klan to hold a Federal office in the United States is Senator Robert Byrd, who says he "deeply regrets" joining the Klan over half a century ago, when he was about 24 years old. There are currently no known members of the Klan who also hold a Federal office.

Some of the larger KKK organizations currently in operation include:

  • Church of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan[40]
  • Imperial Klans of America
  • Knights of the White Kamelia

There is a vast number of smaller organizations.[41]

In 2005 there are an estimated 3,000 Klan members, divided among 158 chapters of a variety of splinter organizations, about two-thirds of which were in former Confederate states. The other third are primarily in the Midwest region. [42][43][44]

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

In a July 2005 incident, a Hispanic man's house was burned down in Hamilton, Ohio, after accusations that he sexually assaulted a nine-year-old white girl. Klan members in Klan robes showed up afterward to distribute pamphlets.

Ku Klux Klan vocabulary

Membership in the Klan is secret, and the Klan, like many fraternal organizations, has signs members can use to recognize one another. A member may use the acronym AYAK (Are you a Klansman?) in conversation to surreptitiously identify himself to another potential member. The response AKIA (A Klansman I am) completes the greeting.

Throughout its varied history, the Klan has coined many words [45] beginning with "KL" including:

  • Klabee: treasurers
  • Klavern: local chapter
  • Kleagle: recruiter
  • Klecktoken: initiation fee
  • Kligrapp: secretary
  • Klonvocation: gathering
  • Kloran: ritual book
  • Kloreroe: delegate
  • Kludd: chaplain

See also


  1. ^  According to the 1920 census, the population of white males 18 years and older was about 31 million, but many of these men would have been ineligible for membership because they were immigrants, Jews, or Roman Catholics. Klan membership peaked at about 4-5 million: http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/2207/The_Ku_Klux_Klan_a_brief__biography, retrieved August 26, 2005.
  2. ^  Horn, 1939, p. 9. The founders were John C. Lester, John B. Kennedy, James R. Crowe, Frank O. McCord, Richard R. Reed, and J. Calvin Jones.
  3. ^  Horn, 1939, p. 11, states that Reed proposed "κύκλος" ("kyklos") and Kennedy added "clan." Wade, 1987, p. 33 says Kennedy came up with both words, but Crowe suggested transforming "κύκλος" into "kuklux."
  4. ^  Wade, 1987.
  5. ^  The quote is from the 1868 Revised Precept, from Horn, 1939.
  6. ^  The Oddfellows, for example, were founded in 1810, and focused strongly on providing a safety net for members' families. Similar provisions were made by the United American Mechanics, founded in 1845. A later example was the Woodmen of the World, which had a connection to the second Klan via William J. Simmons.
  7. ^  Horn, 1939. Horn casts doubt on some other aspects of the story.
  8. ^  data compiled from http://users.bestweb.net/~rg/lynching_century.htm, retrieved June 26, 2005
  9. ^  http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-694, retrieved August 26, 2005.
  10. ^  Horn, 1939.
  11. ^  Horn, 1939, p. 375.
  12. ^  Wade, 1987, p. 102.
  13. ^  Horn, 1939, p. 375.
  14. ^  Cincinnati 'Commercial', August 28, 1868, quoted in Wade, 1987. Full text of the interview on wikisource.
  15. ^  Horn, 1939, p. 27.
  16. ^  quotes from Wade, 1987.
  17. ^  Horn, 1939, p. 360.
  18. ^  Horn, 1939, p. 362.
  19. ^  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_enforce.html, retrieved August 11, 2005.
  20. ^  Wade, 1987, p. 85.
  21. ^  Wade, 1987.
  22. ^  Horn, 1939, p. 373.
  23. ^  Wade, 1987, p. 88.
  24. ^  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_enforce.html, retrieved August 11, 2005.
  25. ^  Wade, 1987, p. 102.
  26. ^  Wade, 1987, p. 109, writes that by ca. 1871-4, "For many, the lapse of the enforcement acts was justified since their reason for being --- the Ku-Klux Klan --- had been effectively smashed as a result of the dramatic showdown in South Carolina." Klan "costumes or regalia" had disappeared by the early 1870's (Wade, p. 109). That the Klan was entirely nonexistent for a period of decades is shown by the fact that in 1915, Simmons's refounding of the Klan was attended by only two aging "former Reconstruction Klansmen" (Wade, p. 144). Horn, a very sympathetic Southern historian of the first Klan, was careful in an oral interview to distinguish it from the later "spurious Ku Klux organization which was in ill-repute—and, of course, had no connection whatsoever with the Klan of Reconstruction days." http://www.lib.duke.edu/forest/Research/ohisrch.html, retrieved August 11, 2005. A PBS web page (retrieved August 12, 2005) states that "By 1872, the Klan as an organization was broken."
  27. ^  Wade, 1987, pp. 109-110.
  28. ^  http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/jbalkin/opeds/historylesson1.pdf (PDF), retrieved August 12, 2005.
  29. ^  http://faculty.smu.edu/dsimon/Change-CivRts2.html, retrieved August 15, 2005.
  30. ^  http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAliuzzo.htm, retrieved August 15, 2005.
  31. ^  New York Times, August 12, 2005, p. A14.
  32. ^  Dray, 2002.
  33. ^  http://www.geocities.com/emruf5/birthofanation.html, retrieved July 7, 2005.
  34. ^  Dray, 2002, p. 198. The comment was relayed to the press by Griffith and widely reported, and in subsequent correspondence, Wilson discussed Griffith's filmmaking in a highly positive tone, without challenging the veracity of the statement.
  35. ^  Wade, 1987, p. 137.
  36. ^  http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/2207/The_Ku_Klux_Klan_a_brief__biography, http://www.africanamericans.com/KuKluxKlan.htm, http://www.adl.org/hate-patrol/kkk.asp, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2730, all retrieved August 26, 2005.
  37. ^  Ingalls, 1979; http://www.lib.unc.edu/ncc/ref/nchistory/jan2005/jan05.html, retrieved June 26, 2005.
  38. ^  Thompson, 1982.
  39. ^  http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAkkk.htm, retrieved June 26, 2005.
  40. ^  http://www.adl.org/backgrounders/american_knights_kkk.asp, retrieved June 26, 2005.
  41. ^  http://stop-the-hate.org/klanbody.html, retrieved June 26, 2005.
  42. ^  Southern Poverty Law Center. Active U.S. Hate Groups in 2004. Intelligence Report. Retrieved April 5, 2005 from http://www.splcenter.org/intel/map/hate.jsp.
  43. ^  http://www.adl.org/backgrounders/american_knights_kkk.asp, retrieved June 26, 2005.
  44. ^  http://www.adl.org/hate-patrol/kkk.asp, retrieved August 26, 2005.
  45. ^  Axelrod, 1997, p. 160


  • Axelrod, Alan. The International Encyclopedia of Secret Societies & Fraternal Orders, New York: Facts on FIle, 1997.
  • Dray, Philip. At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, New York: Random House, 2002.
  • Hamby, Alonzo L. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Horn, Stanley F. Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, 1866-1871, Patterson Smith Publishing Corporation: Montclair, NJ, 1939.
Horn, born in 1889, was a Southern historian who was sympathetic to the first Klan, which, in a 1976 oral interview [46], he was careful to distinguish from the later "spurious Ku Klux organization which was in ill-repute—and, of course, had no connection whatsoever with the Klan of Reconstruction days."
  • Ingalls, Robert P. Hoods: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979.
  • Levitt, Stephen D. and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: William Morrow (2005).
  • McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
  • Newton, Michael, and Judy Ann Newton. The Ku Klux Klan: An Encyclopedia. New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1991.
  • Steinberg. Man From Missouri. New York: Van Rees Press, 1962.
  • Thompson, Jerry. My Life in the Klan, Rutledge Hill Press, Inc., 513 Third Avenue South, Nashville, Tennessee 37210. Originally published in 1982 by G.P. Putnam's Sons, ISBN 0399126953.
  • Truman, Margaret. Harry S. Truman. New York: William Morrow and Co. (1973).
  • Wade, Wyn Craig. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. New York: Simon and Schuster (1987).
An unsympathetic account of both Klans, with a dedication to "my Kentucky grandmother ... a fierce and steadfast Radical Republican from the wane of Reconstruction until her death nearly a century later."

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