Birth of the Ku Klux Klan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Formed by white southerners who were disaffected by the outcome of the Civil War and the liberation of African Americans, the original Ku Klux Klan was short lived. However, it left a legacy that would grow into an organization of institutionalized race hatred and survive into the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

With the end of the Civil War (1861-1865) in the United States in 1865 and the emancipation of African American slaves in the South, tension arose between old-order southern whites and Radical Republicans of the North who were devoted to a strict plan of Reconstruction that required southern states to repeal their discriminatory laws and guarantee civil and voting rights to African Americans. Federal instruments for ensuring African American rights included the Freedmen’s Bureau Freedmen’s Bureau[Freedmens Bureau] and the Union Leagues. In reaction to the activities of these organizations, white supremacist organizations sprouted in the years immediately following the Civil War. Such organizations included the Knights of the White Camelia Knights of the White Camelia , the White League White League , the Invisible Circle Invisible Circle , the Pale Faces Pale Faces , and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Ku Klux Klan;formation of African Americans;and Ku Klux Klan[Ku Klux Klan] [kw]Birth of the Ku Klux Klan (1866) [kw]Klux Klan, Birth of the Ku (1866) Ku Klux Klan;formation of African Americans;and Ku Klux Klan[Ku Klux Klan] [g]United States;1866: Birth of the Ku Klux Klan[3900] [c]Organizations and institutions;1866: Birth of the Ku Klux Klan[3900] [c]Terrorism and political assassination;1866: Birth of the Ku Klux Klan[3900] Forrest, Nathan Bedford Clarke, Edward Young Ralston, Samuel Moffett Jackson, Edward L. Simmons, William Joseph Stephenson, D. C. Duke, David E.

The Ku Klux Klan would eventually lend its name to a confederation of organizations spread throughout the United States, but it began on a small scale in 1866. It was started in Pulaski, Tennessee, Tennessee;Ku Klux Klan as a fraternal order for white male Protestants who were linked by their opposition to Radical Reconstructionism Reconstruction;and Ku Klux Klan[Ku Klux Klan] and an agenda to promote white dominance in the South. The early Klan established many of the unusual rituals and violent activities for which the Ku Klux Klan would become notorious throughout its long history.

Thomas Nast cartoon published in Harper’s Weekly in 1874 vilifying the Ku Klux Klan as inflicting on former slaves a fate worst than slavery itself/

(Library of Congress)

The early members of the Klan regarded the South as an “invisible empire,” with “realms” consisting of the southern states. A “grand dragon” headed each realm, and the entire “empire” was led by Grand Wizard General Nathan Bedford Forrest Forrest, Nathan Bedford . Leadership posts had titles such as “giant,” “cyclops,” “geni,” “hydra,” and “goblin.” The original Klan also established the practice of members wearing white robes and pointed hoods that covered their faces. The practice arose from the belief that black people were so superstitious that they would be easily intimidated by the menacing, ghostlike appearance of their oppressors. The hooded costumes also allowed members to maintain anonymity during nighttime rides, when they harassed African Americans whom they considered to be “uppity Negroes” and anyone who defended them. Such offensive language remains a testament to the bigotry and racism deeply entrenched in white American society and fed upon by the Klan.

The early Klan soon began perpetrating acts of violence, including whippings, house-burnings, kidnappings, and lynchings. In 1869, as Klan violence was escalating, Forrest Forrest, Nathan Bedford disbanded the organization. On May 31, 1870, and on April 20, 1871, the U.S. Congress Congress, U.S.;and Ku Klux Klan[Ku Klux Klan] passed the Ku Klux Klan Acts Ku Klux Klan Acts of 1871 , or Force Acts, designed to break up the white supremacist groups. Speaking in the Senate on March 18, 1871, for the second Force Act, John Sherman said of the Ku Klux Klan:

They are secret, oath-bound; they murder, rob, plunder, whip, and scourge; and they commit these crimes, not upon the high and lofty, but upon the lowly, upon the poor, upon the feeble men and women who are utterly defenceless. . . . Where is there an organization against which humanity revolts more than it does against this?

The Ku Klux Klan Acts were passed, but parts of them were later ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The original Klan was short lived, but it later resurfaced during times of racial tension, often in conjunction with periods marked by xenophobia and anti-immigrant paranoia. The first major resurgence of the Klan occurred in 1915. In November of that year, the new Ku Klux Klan was founded by preacher William Joseph Simmons Simmons, William Joseph on Stone Mountain, Georgia Georgia;Ku Klux Klan . Simmons proclaimed the new organization to be a “high-class, mystic, social, patriotic” society devoted to defending womanhood, white Protestant values, and “native-born, white, gentile Americans.”

The image Motion pictures;and Ku Klux Klan[Ku Klux Klan] of the Klan as a protector of white virtue was reinforced by D. W. Griffith’s Griffith, D. W. popular 1915 film Birth of a Nation Birth of a Nation (film) , which was based on the novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, The (Dixon) (1906) by Thomas F. Dixon Dixon, Thomas F. , Jr. Griffith’s film depicted lustful blacks assaulting white women, with hooded members of the Klan riding to the rescue. It was probably no coincidence the rise of the new Klan presaged the period of the Red Scare (1919-1920) and the Immigration Act of 1921, the first such legislation in the United States to establish immigration quotas on the basis of national origin.

The new Ku Klux Klan cloaked itself as a patriotic organization devoted to preserving traditional American values against enemies in the nation’s midst. An upsurge of nationalist fervor swelled the ranks of the Klan, this time far beyond the borders of the South. White men and women both joined to ensure the survival of the white race. This second Klan adopted the rituals and regalia of its predecessor as well as the same antiblack ideology, to which it added anti-Roman Catholic, Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];and Ku Klux Klan[Ku Klux Klan] anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-birth-control, anti-Darwinist, and anti-Prohibition stances. Promoted by ad-man Edward Young Clarke Clarke, Edward Young , Klan membership reached approximately 100,000 by 1921. By some estimates, membership rose to more than 5 million during the 1920’s, and the Klan rolls included some members of Congress.

Some Klan observers have argued that the power of the Klan was actually worse in the North than it was in the South. In 1924, an outspoken opponent of the Klan, journalist William Allen White White, William Allen , lost a bid for the governorship of Kansas to a Klan sympathizer. In Indiana, local grand dragon D. C. Stephenson Stephenson, D. C. , who was known to rule the statehouse, helped elect Samuel Moffett Ralston Ralston, Samuel Moffett , a Klan member, to the Senate in 1922. Stephenson also influenced voters to elect Edward L. Jackson Jackson, Edward L. as governor in 1925. Jackson and Stephenson were later disgraced by investigations into their misuse of funds. Stephenson was also later convicted of second-degree murder after kidnapping and raping his secretary, who took poison to force him to get her to authorities.

Stephenson is only one example of the criminal personalities that typified Klan membership. The Klan has been credited with perpetrating more than five hundred hangings and burnings of African Americans. Klan victims were primarily men who broke the “racist codes” kept in secret by the Klan. In 1924, forty thousand Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., sending a message to the federal government that there should be a white, Protestant United States. Eventually, however, the Klan’s growing identification with brutal violence alienated many of its members, whose numbers are believed to have dropped to about thirty thousand by 1930.

Klan activities again increased shortly before U.S. entry into World War II in 1941, and membership rose toward the 100,000 mark. However, when the U.S. Congress Congress, U.S.;and Ku Klux Klan[Ku Klux Klan] assessed the organization more than one-half million dollars in back taxes in 1944, the Klan again dissolved itself to escape payment. Two years later, however, Atlanta physician Samuel Green united smaller Klan groups into the Association of Georgia Georgia;Ku Klux Klan Klans and was soon joined by other reincarnations, such as the Federated Ku Klux Klans, the Original Southern Klans, and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. These groups revived the old racist agenda and violent methods of previous Klans and during this period were responsible for hundreds of criminal acts. Of equal concern was the Klan’s political influence: A governor of Texas Texas;Ku Klux Klan was elected with the support of the Klan, and a senator from Maine was similarly elected. Even a Supreme Court justice, Hugo Black Black, Hugo L. , revealed in 1937 that he had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

During the 1940’s, many states passed laws that revoked Klan charters, and many southern communities issued regulations against the wearing of Klan masks. The U.S. Justice Department placed the Klan on its list of subversive elements, and in 1952 the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation used the Lindbergh law (one of the 1934 Crime Control Acts) against the Klan. Another direct challenge to the principles of the Klan came during the 1960’s with the rise of the Civil Rights movement and new federal civil rights legislation. Martin Luther King, Jr., prophesied early in the decade that it would be a “season of suffering.” On September 15, 1963, a Klan bomb tore apart the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama Birmingham, Alabama , killing four young children.

Despite the outrage of much of the nation, the violence continued, led by members of the Klan who made a mockery of the courts and the laws that they had broken. Less than a year after the Birmingham bombing, three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi, including one African American and two whites from the North involved in voter registration drives. This infamous event was later documented in the 1988 motion picture Mississippi Burning Mississippi Burning (film) . Such acts prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a televised speech in March, 1965, to denounce the Klan as he announced the arrest of four Klansmen for murder.

After the convictions of many of its members in the 1960’s, the Ku Klux Klan became comparatively dormant, and its roster of members reflected low numbers. However, as it had done in previous periods of dormancy, the Klan refused to die. Busing for integration of public schools during the 1970’s provoked Klan opposition in both the South and the North. In 1979, in Greensboro, North Carolina North Carolina;Ku Klux Klan , Klan members killed several members of the Communist Party in a daylight battle on an open street. Since that time, Klan members have been known to patrol the Mexican border, armed with weapons and citizen-band radios, in efforts to drive illegal immigrants back to Mexico. The Klan has even been active in suburban California, at times driving out African Americans who attempted to move there. On the Gulf Coast, many boats fly the infamous AKIA flag, whose acronym stands for “A Klansman I Am,” a term that dates back to the 1920’s. Klan members try to discourage or run out Vietnamese fishers.

Notable Klan leaders active after 1970 include James Venable Venable, James , for whom the Klan became little more than a hobby, and Bill Wilkinson, a former disciple of David Duke Duke, David E. . Robert Shelton, long a grand dragon, helped elect two Alabama governors. David Duke, a Klan leader until the late 1980’s, was elected a congressman from Louisiana, despite his well-publicized Klan associations. In 1991, Duke ran for governor of Louisiana and almost won. During the 1980’s, the Klan stepped up its anti-Semitic Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];and Ku Klux Klan[Ku Klux Klan] activities, planning multiple bombings in Nashville. During the 1990’s, Klan leaders trained their members and their children for what they believed was an imminent race war, and taught followers survival skills and weaponry at remote camps throughout the country.


Throughout its many generations, the Klan has maintained that it is a patriotic organization, interested in preserving the principles upon which the United States was originally based. However, the Klan’s history of violence against African Americans, nonwhites in general, and Jews Jews;and Ku Klux Klan[Ku Klux Klan] is the most anti-American sentiment conceivable in a republic founded on the principles of tolerance in service of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

A major blow was struck against the Klan by the Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Alabama, when, in 1984, attorney Morris Dees began pressing civil suits against several Klan members, effectively removing their personal assets, funds received from members, and even buildings owned by the Klan. Despite such setbacks, as late as 2005, the Ku Klux Klan continued to solicit new “Aryan” members and even maintained a Web site for this purpose. However, in contrast to the organization’s traditional image, it now stressed a different message:

The Imperial Klans of America Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are a legal and law abiding organization that will NOT tolerate illegal acts of any sort. If you take it upon yourself to violate the law, you do so on your own, If you commit an illegal act it will result in your membership with the IKA to be on suspension and you may be banished. We cannot and will not be responsible for any member committing any illegal acts.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bridges, Tyler. The Rise of David Duke. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. A thorough discussion of a dangerous member of the Klan in the 1990’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chalmers, David Mark. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. 3d ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1987. Considered the bible of works about the Klan, this book has seen numerous editions and updatings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ezekiel, Raphael. The Racist Mind: Portraits of American Neo-Nazis and Klansmen. New York: Viking Press, 1995. Psychological insights into racism. Explores conditions of childhood, education, and other factors in an attempt to explain racist behavior.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacLean, Nancy. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Scholarly history of the Klan’s twentieth century renaissance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quarles, Chester L. The Ku Klux Klan and Related American Racialist and Antisemitic Organizations: A History and Analysis. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999. Study of the Klan in the broader context of white supremacist organizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Randel, William. The Ku Klux Klan: A Century of Infamy. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965. An excellent history of origins and events, which also uses a moral perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stanton, Bill. Klanwatch: Bringing the Ku Klux Klan to Justice. New York: Weidenfeld, 1991. The former Klanwatch director explains new initiatives to disable the Klan, most of which have been effective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trelease, Allen W. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and the Southern Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995. Scholarly study of the disruptive role of the Ku Klux Klan during post-Civil War Reconstruction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wade, Wyn Draig. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. Wade recounts the Klan’s history and episodes of violence, revealing its legacy of race hatred.

Reconstruction of the South

Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau

Mississippi Enacts First Post-Civil War Black Code

Civil Rights Act of 1866

Memphis and New Orleans Race Riots

Fourteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Thaddeus Stevens. Ku Klux Klan;formation of African Americans;and Ku Klux Klan[Ku Klux Klan]

Categories: History