Ku Klux Klan

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Ku Klux Klan

Ku Klux Klan (ko͞oˌ klŭks klăn), designation mainly given to two distinct secret societies that played a part in American history, although other less important groups have also used the name. The first Ku Klux Klan was an organization that thrived in the South during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. The second was a nationwide organization that flourished after World War I. Subsequent groups calling themselves the Ku Klux Klan sprang up in much of the South after World War II and in response to civil-rights activity during the 1960s.

The First Ku Klux Klan

The original Ku Klux Klan was organized by ex-Confederate elements to oppose the Reconstruction policies of the radical Republican Congress and to enforce a second class status upon former slaves. After the Civil War, when local government in the South was weak or nonexistent, there were fears of black outrages and even of an insurrection but also strong opposition to civil and economic rights for African Americans. Informal vigilante organizations or armed patrols were formed in almost all communities. These were linked together in societies, such as the Men of Justice, the Pale Faces, the Constitutional Union Guards, the White Brotherhood, and the Order of the White Rose. The Ku Klux Klan was the best known of these, and in time it absorbed many of the smaller organizations.

It was organized at Pulaski, Tenn., in May, 1866. Its strange disguises, its silent parades, its midnight rides, its mysterious language and commands, were found to be most effective in playing upon fears and superstitions. The riders muffled their horses' feet and covered the horses with white robes. They themselves, dressed in flowing white sheets, their faces covered with white masks, and with skulls at their saddle horns, posed as spirits of the Confederate dead returned from the battlefields. Although the Klan was often able to achieve its aims by terror alone, whippings and lynchings were also widespread and vicious, not only against blacks but also against the so-called carpetbaggers and scalawags, whites of the North and South who favored equal political, educational, and economic rights for blacks.

A general organization of the local Klans was effected in Apr., 1867, at Nashville, Tenn. Gen. N. B. Forrest, the famous Confederate cavalry leader, was made Grand Wizard of the Empire and was assisted by ten Genii. Each state constituted a Realm under a Grand Dragon with eight Hydras as a staff; several counties formed a Dominion controlled by a Grand Titan and six Furies; a county was a Province ruled by a Grand Giant and four Night Hawks; the local Den was governed by a Grand Cyclops with two Night Hawks as aides. The individual members were called Ghouls.

Control over local Dens was not as complete as this organization would seem to indicate, and reckless and even lawless local leaders sometimes committed acts that the leaders could not countenance. General Forrest, in Jan., 1869, seemingly under some apprehension as to the use of its power, ordered the disbandment of the Klan and resigned as Grand Wizard. Local organizations continued, some of them for many years.

The Klan was particularly effective in systematically keeping black men away from the polls, so that the ex-Confederates gained political control in many states. Congress in 1870 and 1871 passed legislation to combat the Klan (see force bill). The Klan was especially strong in the mountain and Piedmont areas. In the Lower South the Knights of the White Camelia were dominant. That order, founded (1867) in Louisiana, is reputed to have had even more members than the Ku Klux Klan, but its membership was more conservative and its actions less spectacular. It had a similar divisional organization, with headquarters in New Orleans. Efforts under the Grant administration to end white violence and intimidation of blacks were largely successful, though the end of Reconstruction in 1877 led to the suppression of black civil rights and the entrenchment of segregation.

The Second Ku Klux Klan

The second Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915 by William J. Simmons, an ex-minister and promoter of fraternal orders; its first meeting was held on Stone Mt., Ga. The new Klan had a wider program than its forerunner, for it added to “white supremacy” an intense nativism and anti-Catholicism (it was also anti-Semitic) closely related to that of the Know-Nothing movement of the middle 19th cent. Consequently its appeal was not sectional, and, aided after 1920 by the activities of professional promoters Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Y. Clarke, it spread rapidly throughout the North as well as the South. It furnished an outlet for the militant patriotism aroused by World War I, and it stressed fundamentalism in religion.

Professing itself nonpolitical, the Klan nevertheless controlled politics in many communities and in 1922, 1924, and 1926 elected many state officials and a number of Congressmen. Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Oregon, and Maine were particularly under its influence. Its power in the Midwest was broken during the late 1920s when David C. Stephenson, a major Klan leader there, was convicted of second-degree murder, and evidence of corruption came out that led to the indictment of the governor of Indiana and the mayor of Indianapolis, both supporters of the Klan. The Klan frequently took extralegal measures, especially against those whom it considered its enemies. As was the case with the earlier Klan, some of these measures, whether authorized by the central organization or not, were extreme.

At its peak in the mid-1920s its membership was estimated at 4 million to 5 million. Although the actual figures were probably much smaller, the Klan nevertheless declined with amazing rapidity to an estimated 30,000 by 1930. The Klan spirit, however, was a factor in breaking the Democratic hold on the South in 1928, when Alfred E. Smith, a Roman Catholic, was that party's presidential candidate. Its collapse thereafter was largely due to state laws that forbade masks and eliminated the secret element, to the bad publicity the organization received through its thugs and swindlers, and apparently from the declining interest of the members. With the depression of the 1930s, dues-paying membership of the Klan shrank to almost nothing. Meanwhile, many of its leaders had done extremely well financially from the dues and the sale of Klan paraphernalia.

The Klan after World War II

After World War II, Dr. Samuel Green of Georgia led a concerted attempt to revive the Klan, but it failed dismally as the organization splintered and as state after state specifically barred the order. Southern civil-rights activities during the 1960s gave the Klan a new impetus and led to revivals of scattered Klan organizations. The most notable of these were Mississippi's White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, led by Robert Shelton. The newly revived Klan groups were responsible for violent attacks against blacks and civil-rights workers in cities throughout the South, including Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Fla., Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., and Meridian, Miss. In spite of its efforts, the new Klan was not strong, and by the end of the decade its power and membership had declined to practically nothing. Although a resurgence of support for the Klan was manifest in the surprising popularity in the early 1990s of David Duke of Louisiana, actual membership in Klan organizations is estimated to be in the low thousands.


A. W. Tourgée's Fool's Errand (1879) and T. Dixon's Clansman (1905), on which D. W. Griffith based his film The Birth of a Nation, were two popular novels about the original Klan. For other works on the Reconstruction era Ku Klux Klan see A. W. Tourgée, The Invisible Empire (1880, repr. 1989); W. L. Fleming's edition (1905) of J. C. Lester and D. L. Wilson, Ku Klux Klan; S. F. Horn, Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, 1866–1871 (1939, repr. 1973). The structure of the Klan after World War I is discussed in J. M. Mecklin, The Ku Klux Klan (1924), A. S. Rice, The Ku Klux Klan in American Politics (1962), N. MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry (1994), K. J. Baker, Gospel According to the Klan (2011), T. R. Pegram, One Hundred Percent American (2011), and L. Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK (2017). D. Lowe's Ku Klux Klan: The Invisible Empire (1967) and D. Cunningham's Klansville, U.S.A. (2012) deal with the final period of Klan activity, as do D. M. Chalmer's Hooded Americanism (1968) and W. C. Wade's The Fiery Cross (1987), which also discuss the first and second Klans.

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Ku Klux Klan

a secret racist organization founded in the Southern United States in 1865 to promote and uphold ‘white’ supremacy. It has been (and is) the most virulent white racist organization in the US, and has international links. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK or Klan) is devoted to maintaining the alleged superiority of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP).

This highly secretive underground organization has been responsible for lynching, killing, bombing and intimidating blacks and other opponents throughout the last 125 years. The KKK manifesto states: ‘Our main and fundamental objective is the maintenance of the supremacy of the white race… History and physiology teach us that we belong to a race which nature has endowed with an evident superiority over all other races…’

It is best known for its members’ wearing of white robes and hoods as they publicly terrorize their victims. However, the KKK engages in less violent, if covert, political activity, and while it is impossible to be accurate about the extent of its membership, at times estimated to be over one million, the influence of the Klan is still considerable.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from Conspiracies and Secret Societies. It is a summary of a conspiracy theory, not a statement of fact.
Enlarge picture
KKK Imperial Wizard Dr. H. W. Evans leads a parade in Washington, D.C., in this 1926 photo.

Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan, born in 1865, had nearly died out until Hollywood resurrected it in 1915.

On December 24, 1865, in Pulaski, Tennessee, General Nathan Bedford Forrest and a small band of former Confederate soldiers decided that they had to do something to restore the Democratic Party in the South after the Civil War and to help Dixie shake off the oppressive yoke imposed upon it by Radical Republican carpetbaggers who were taking advantage of the era of Reconstruction by lining their own pockets. And there was the matter of the Federal troops who backed up the Freedmen’s Bureau, established by Congress in 1865, in looking after the former slaves. In 1866 the bureau spent $17 million building four thousand schools, a hundred hospitals, and an undeclared number of homes for the blacks who had once toiled in the fields for their food and shelter as enslaved people. Now war-ravaged southern white families were poor and, in their view, were being treated like slaves. Something had to be done.

The name Ku Klux Klan (KKK) comes from the Greek word for “circle,” kyklos, and the Scots-Gaelic clan. Klansmen dressed in white robes because they represented the ghosts of the brave Confederate dead; hoods protected the anonymity of individuals who were performing good deeds for their neighbors. Some researchers have said that the robes and hoods were an imitation of the Knights Templar and a symbol of humility.

General Forrest was the first grand wizard, and he presided at a convention of the Klan held in Nashville in 1866. There was growing concern in the South that elevating the political and social status of the blacks would threaten white supremacy. Southerners especially feared the schools being constructed: the image of the former slaves as educated men and women was not an easy one for them to accept. The Klan set out to curb black education and advancement by fear tactics and violence, and those white southerners who attempted to interfere, especially if they were Republicans, were punished with the same brute force. The KKK became the strong-arm enforcers of the Democratic Party in the South.

As the federal government withdrew its control of the former Confederate states, local white governments reestablished their power and put segregation laws in place. The blacks may have been freed, but they soon found that their freedom had definite boundaries that must be honored.

General Forrest had protested the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed adult male suffrage, and he wished to do everything in his power to stop blacks from voting. Essentially an antebellum southern gentleman, Forrest declared that his main purpose in establishing the Klan was the protection of southern womanhood. However, as the Klan became more powerful and brutal, Forrest was appalled at the violence and hatred perpetrated by the group that he had organized. The KKK had become synonymous with torture, destruction of private property, and even murder. In 1869 Forrest disbanded the Ku Klux Klan.

By then, however, the Klan had become a many-headed monster and had established itself in too many locations to be easily controlled, much less halted. Some Klansmen who cherished a gallant view of the South followed their general’s order to disband, but by 1870 the Klan had scattered into dozens of individual groups that paid no heed to General Forrest’s order to abandon violent night raids and the practice of organized fear and intimidation.

In 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant made the Klan an illegal terrorist group by signing the Ku Klux Act. The authorization and use of federal force against the Klan destroyed those who wore the hood and white robe in South Carolina and virtually eliminated the nightriders in the rest of the nation. The Klan faded into the shadows. White supremacy and strict segregation laws eventually became firmly established throughout the South, so there was no real need for the White Brotherhood, the Men of Justice, the Constitutional Union Guards, or the Knights of the White Camelia to sow death and destruction on a regular basis.

The Ku Klux Klan practically disappeared until 1915 when a preacher named William J. Simmons was influenced by Thomas Dixon’s book The Clansman (1905) and D. W. Griffith’s film adaptation, The Birth of a Nation (1915), and re-formed the White Brotherhood.

Ku Klux Klan Timeline

1918: After World War I, the Klan turns its attention to immigrants, singling out Jews, Roman Catholics, socialists and communists, and other “foreigners.”

1920: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) defies the Klan by holding its annual convention in Atlanta, at that time a stronghold of the KKK.

1922: Hiram W. Evans becomes the imperial wizard of the KKK. Under his leadership the KKK grows rapidly and elects state officials in Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Oregon, and Maine.

1925: KKK membership reaches 4 million. They are nearly impervious to arrest, much less conviction, in small southern communities.

1944: The organization is disbanded again after a number of Klan leaders are arrested for corruption and murder and the nation weathers first a Great Depression and World War II.

1950s: The KKK is revived when the civil rights movement heads south. Robert Shelton organizes the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and nightriders once again terrorize those blacks who want to vote. Lynching is still used as a method of controlling the black population.

September 15, 1963: A bomb explodes under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, injuring twenty-three and killing four girls—three fourteen-year-olds and one eleven-year-old.

October 8, 1963: Robert Chambliss, a member of the KKK identified as the man who placed the Birmingham, church bomb, is found not guilty of murder, fined one hundred dollars, and sentenced to six months in jail for possessing a box of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit.

Summer 1964: The KKK instigates the firebombing of thirty black homes, thirty-seven black churches, and the beatings of over eighty civil rights volunteers. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner are murdered by the KKK on June 12 in Mississippi.

March 21, 1981: Henry Hays, son of the second-highest-ranked Klansman in Alabama, and James Knowles abduct nineteen-year-old Michael Donald and lynch him. Local police claim Donald’s death is the result of drug deal gone bad.

June–December 1983: Knowles is found guilty and sentenced to life and Hays is found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of Michael Donald.

February 1987: Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) support Beulah Mae Donald, who launches a civil suit against the KKK for the lynching death of her son Michael. The all-white jury finds the KKK responsible and orders it to pay damages of $7 million, resulting in the Klan’s turning over all its assets, including the national headquarters in Tuscaloosa.

June 6, 1997: Henry Hays is the first white man executed for a murder of an African American since 1913.

May 17, 2000: The FBI announces that a splinter group of the KKK, the Cahaba Boys (Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton, and Frank Cherry), carried out the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing and the murders of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.

May 2002: Seventy-one-year-old Frank Cherry of the Cahaba Boys is sentenced to life in prison.

June 22, 2005: Forty-one years to the day that the civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner disappeared, former Klansman Ray Killen, eighty, is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty years in prison for each killing.

Today the name Ku Klux Klan has become public domain, and dozens of groups use all or part of the name in their titles.

Conspiracies and Secret Societies, Second Edition © 2013 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Ku Klux Klan


a secret racist terrorist organization in the USA. It was established in 1865 in Pulaski, Tenn., and was directed against the Negroes and their white sympathizers.

Under pressure from progressive public opinion the American government was compelled to ban the organization in the early 1870’s. The Klan went underground but did not stop its activities. It has become active during periods of an upswing in the Negro liberation movement: after World War I (1914–18), in the years of the world economic crisis (1929–33), and during the first few years after World War II (1939–45). Terrorist acts by the Ku Klux Klan have been directed against progressive organizations in the USA.


Foster, W. Negritianskii narod v istorii Ameriki Moscow, 1955. (Translated from English.)
Aptheker, H. (ed.). A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States. New York, 1962.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ku Klux Klan

anti-Negro terrorist organization, started in southern U.S. [Am. Hist.: Allen, 46–49]
See: Bigotry

Ku Klux Klan (KKK)

group espousing white supremacy takes law into its own hands. [Am. Hist.: EB, V: 935]

Ku Klux Klan

post-Civil War white supremacist organization used terrorist tactics against blacks. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 1505]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ku Klux Klan

1. a secret organization of White Southerners formed after the US Civil War to fight Black emancipation and Northern domination
2. a secret organization of White Protestant Americans, mainly in the South, who use violence against Blacks, Jews, and other minority groups
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005