Ku Klux Klan Spreads Terror in the American South

In the early 1920’s, the Ku Klux Klan intensified its perpetration of violence in the name of racial, “moral,” and religious purity.

Summary of Event

On Thanksgiving night in 1915, William Joseph Simmons led a group of twelve friends up to Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, Georgia, and before a burning cross swore them in as charter members of a secret fraternal organization dedicated to the ideals of racial purity and traditional morality. “The Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc.,” was chartered as a new fraternal order by the state of Georgia on December 4, 1915. Simmons, the organization’s “Imperial Wizard,” had served in the Spanish-American War as a private in an Alabama regiment; he was not trained for any career and was a member of numerous fraternal clubs. Ku Klux Klan
[kw]Ku Klux Klan Spreads Terror in the American South (1921-1924)
[kw]Klan Spreads Terror in the American South, Ku Klux (1921-1924)
[kw]Terror in the American South, Ku Klux Klan Spreads (1921-1924)
[kw]American South, Ku Klux Klan Spreads Terror in the (1921-1924)
[kw]South, Ku Klux Klan Spreads Terror in the American (1921-1924)
Ku Klux Klan
[g]United States;1921-1924: Ku Klux Klan Spreads Terror in the American South[05370]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;1921-1924: Ku Klux Klan Spreads Terror in the American South[05370]
[c]Organizations and institutions;1921-1924: Ku Klux Klan Spreads Terror in the American South[05370]
[c]Terrorism;1921-1924: Ku Klux Klan Spreads Terror in the American South[05370]
[c]Crime and scandal;1921-1924: Ku Klux Klan Spreads Terror in the American South[05370]
Simmons, William Joseph
Clarke, Edward Young
Evans, Hiram Wesley
Thomas, Rowland

Membership in the Klan cost a ten-dollar fee and the price of a white robe. Recruitment coincided with the Atlanta showing of a new film by D. W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915), Birth of a Nation, The (film) which glorified the first Ku Klux Klan in the turbulent Reconstruction era after the American Civil War. That original Klan had risen in the beaten South, and its goal had been to continue to “keep the Negro in his place”—in the fields and subordinate to whites. It was founded in 1866 by a Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Forrest, Nathan Bedford who disbanded it in 1871.

Conditions in the United States after World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period were conducive to the sort of thinking to which the Klan appealed. Returning veterans were full of the extreme patriotism born of victory. They were greeted by the “Roaring Twenties,” a time of exuberant celebration and a positive attitude about America’s “manifest destiny.” To the Klan, this exuberance seemed to undercut the old American values of religion and morality. Moreover, African American veterans also returned from the war proud of their own distinguished service and filled with high expectations for peacetime. The hopes of America’s blacks at the time were not very different from the dreams of the newly freed slaves that had given rise to the original Klan.

In addition, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant profile of the U.S. population was changing. Whereas earlier immigrants had come primarily from Protestant northern Europe, early twentieth century immigrants were mostly Italian, Irish, and Polish Catholics, Russian and Slavic Jews, and Asians. The Klan saw its role as that of the guardian of the old moral values in a radically changing American environment. The new Klan objected to Catholics, perceiving their loyalty to a foreign pope as conflicting with their loyalty to the United States. The Klan similarly accused Jews of an un-American devotion to ancient beliefs. Asians, like blacks, suffered from the fault of looking “different.” These groups became the targets of the Klan’s literature of denunciation.

Beneath the rule of the Imperial Wizard, the Klan was arranged nationwide in eight “Domains,” each under a “Grand Goblin.” Each state was a “Realm” under a “Grand Dragon.” Realms were divided into “Provinces” under “Great Titans,” and Provinces into local Klans, each under an “Exalted Cyclops.” The Imperial Wizard appointed a cabinet of twelve “Genii” and an assistant called the “Emperor.” For his new Klan, Simmons had borrowed not merely the name but also the titles and secret language of the original Klan. Simmons had decided on these Klan features, as well as the costume, manual (the “Kloran”), ritual, and philosophy, as early as 1911.

The Klan’s growth was slow, and Simmons did everything, even mortgaging his house, to keep his effort alive. In 1920, he contracted with Edward Young Clarke’s Southern Publicity Association to build membership. Clarke was given the title of “Imperial Kleagle.” Admittedly motivated only by hope of profit, Clarke and his partner, Elizabeth Tyler, Tyler, Elizabeth soon discovered that they were most successful in recruiting when they emphasized the racial and religious “threats” to traditional American values posed by Catholics, Jews, blacks, and aliens. A membership sales force employed the concept of “pyramiding,” with each officer receiving a portion of every ten-dollar membership sold by his team. The pair’s plan of making the Klan prominent in the national press resulted in a great increase in Klan membership around the country; by 1924, membership was estimated variously from two million to five million.

The Klan was strongest in the South, especially in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, and Georgia; Atlanta was its “Holy City.” It also had remarkable numbers of members in Oregon, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and was particularly strong in Indiana. All strata of white male society could be found among its members, from professionals and state governors to rural and urban rowdies. There was much in the Klan’s program that represented the feelings of many Americans in the 1920’s, a fact illustrated by the vicious, non-Klan-related race riots in Chicago and in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1919, and by the sharp increase in lynchings of African Americans in the same year.

In the beginning, the Klan’s activities consisted of nighttime violence against individuals or the threat of violence by means of parades as demonstrations of potential force. Actual violence was perpetrated by only a small minority of the millions of members. It is interesting to note that most Klan violence was directed not at blacks but at whites whose morals displeased local Klan members, such as men alleged to be unfaithful to their wives, women who allegedly wore short skirts or “petted” in cars, and any white person who “fraternized” with blacks or patronized Jewish businesses.

Klan leader Simmons, along with Clarke and Tyler, claimed that the twenty-one days of stories about Klan violence published by the New York World and its affiliate newspapers around the nation in September, 1921, actually provided the catalyst that caused membership to burgeon. Indeed, the immediate reaction to the publicity was that more than two hundred applications for local chapters poured in, some on facsimile forms reprinted in the newspapers. In its series, the New York World enumerated 152 separate Klan outrages. Klan defectors provided information about the Klan’s forcing people to flee their towns as well as about lynchings, floggings, incidents of people being tarred and feathered, kidnappings, and more. Most of the reported violence occurred in Texas between February and July, 1921. In addition, the New York World published an article revealing that Clarke and Tyler, who were known to have reaped great profits from their Klan activities, had in 1919 been implicated in a morals scandal, the police records of which had somehow disappeared.

Equally productive of new memberships was the publicity surrounding a congressional investigation of the Klan in October, 1921. The Klan was thus in the headlines consistently for two months. Rowland Thomas, the writer of the New York World exposé, reviewed his case against the Klan before members of Congress and gave evidence about the Klan’s religious and racist publications. He further presented proof that Simmons had boasted that governors, members of Congress, and other government officials were part of the “Invisible Empire” and under his orders. The last witness during the investigation was Simmons himself, who for three days boldly denied that any of the violent acts that had occurred were committed by Klansmen. Still, the New York World noted that in three cases (in Mobile, Alabama; Pensacola, Florida; and Beaumont, Texas) Simmons had suspended or disbanded local chapters that had been accused of flagrant wrongdoing. Simmons charged the New York World with being a stronghold of Jewish opinion. After the investigation, he asserted, “Congress made us.”


Under Hiram Wesley Evans, who seized the leadership of the Klan in 1922 and forced the departure of Simmons and Clarke in 1924, the Klan renounced violence and worked at gaining power in the open political arena by campaigning and influencing legislation. The relocation of the organization’s offices to Washington, D.C., in 1925 was celebrated by a parade of forty thousand white-robed men and women down Pennsylvania Avenue. From that point on, the Klan emphasized the less controversial elements of its program and began to campaign for education, donations to Protestant congregations, and morality.

Evans’s plan was to distance the Klan from its many atrocities, such as that in August, 1922, when two farmers who had spoken out against the Klan were mutilated and murdered at Mer Rouge, Louisiana. In the period 1921 to 1923, Klan violence against Jews, blacks, and those allegedly involved in “vice” reached a fever pitch in Oklahoma. Finally, Governor John Walton installed martial law in the state, but he was soon removed from office, and the Klan rejoiced.

Other events continued to show the Klan in a bad moral light. In March, 1925, D. C. Stephenson, Stephenson, D. C. a Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan who had become notoriously rich and powerful through his Klan activities, was convicted of murder when a woman died after he had tortured and raped her. He received a life sentence, of which he served thirty-one years before being released from prison. In 1927, Evans entered a lawsuit against a group of seceding Pennsylvania Klansmen. In the ensuing courtroom battle, the Klan’s “dirty linen” was aired by secessionist witnesses and even by Simmons. One witness described the burning to death of an oil-doused Texan while hundreds of hooded Klansmen watched.

These and numerous other Klan outrages dominated headlines for months on end. By the end of the 1920’s, the accumulation of Klan outrages took an inevitable toll on the Klan’s popularity, effectiveness, and viability. When Evans announced in 1928 that Klansmen would no longer wear masks, it was too late to save the “hooded empire.”

The Klan’s entry into party politics proved damaging to the organization, as infighting grew among Klansmen seeking nominations. In some cases, however, the Klan could boast of having helped the election of an entire pro-Klan Republican slate. In 1924, the state of Oregon passed a compulsory public education bill that had been sponsored by the legislature with Klan backing. The measure, which effectively outlawed the existence of parochial schools, was one of the Klan’s most notable successes. In the same year, the Klan helped elect eleven governors and sixteen members of Congress. After exercising great influence in the presidential election of 1924 and helping to defeat Alfred E. Smith in 1928, the Klan’s importance and membership declined precipitously; by 1930, membership was down to between thirty thousand and fifty thousand. Most observers thought the decline was caused by the uninspiring ineptitude of the Klan’s leaders in the open arena of political life.

Although Klan literature continued to attack Catholics, Jews, blacks, and foreigners, the Klan in the 1930’s shifted its focus to assaulting communism and keeping blacks from voting. The Klan was never again the force in American life that it had been in the 1920’s. In 1939, Evans sold the Klan to James A. Colescott, a veterinarian from Indiana, and in 1944 the organization was dissolved in lieu of payment of $685,000 in back taxes.

The Klan experienced sporadic revivals in later years, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century it remained in splintered ineptitude and disrepute. Ultimately, the vast majority of Americans became disgusted with the Klan as an extremist group that trampled on the freedom and rights of all Americans. Further, the Klan’s false position as defender of the nation’s morals was exposed by the greed and immorality of certain of its leaders. Ku Klux Klan

Further Reading

  • Alexander, Charles C. The Ku Klux Klan in the Southwest. 1965. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Focuses on the Klan’s motivation of moral authoritarianism rather than racism. Includes glossary of Klan terminology and annotated bibliography.
  • Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s. 1931. Reprint. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Social history of the 1920’s in the United States places the activities of the Klan in context.
  • Cash, W. J. The Mind of the South. 1941. Reprint. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. General introduction to the intellectual ethos of the American South in the early part of the twentieth century sheds some light on how the programs of the Klan might have resonated with the general thinking of many white southerners.
  • Chalmers, David M. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. 3d ed. New York: F. Watts, 1981. One of the best general works on the Klan. Provides clear insight into the Klan mentality and the motivations that induced people of diverse backgrounds, urban and rural, northern and southern, to join the Klan. Focuses primarily on the Klan of the 1920’s, but includes a chapter on the original Klan of the Reconstruction era and concludes with chapters on the Klan from 1929 through the 1970’s.
  • Fry, Henry P. The Modern Ku Klux Klan. 1922. Reprint. Seattle: University Press of the Pacific, 2003. The author was a Klan defector and a major source of information on the Klan for the New York World 1921 exposé. Devotes much space to the newspaper’s coverage and to quotations from the depositions of witnesses at the congressional investigation that year.
  • Jackson, Kenneth T. The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930. 1967. Reprint. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992. Examines the Klan as an urban phenomenon and, for a time, a political force. Argues that many joined the Klan out of innocent patriotism and dropped out when realities were revealed. Asserts that Klan violence has been overemphasized. Includes excellent annotated bibliography.
  • Lutholtz, William. Grand Dragon: D. C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1991. Examines the extraordinary political power wielded by Stephenson and the Klan in Indiana in the 1920’s, when the mayors of Indianapolis and Evansville and the governor of the state allegedly became clients of the Klan.
  • MacLean, Nancy K. Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Presents a comprehensive analysis of the ideas and politics of the Klan of the 1920’s, drawing on internal Klan records. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Newton, Michael. The Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001. Examines the activities of all versions of the Klan in Florida from the days of Reconstruction through the new Klan of the 1920’s and up to the end of the twentieth century.
  • Rice, Arnold S. The Ku Klux Klan in American Politics. Rev. ed. New York: Haskell House, 1972. Provides concise historical background on the Klan of the 1920’s, focusing on the Klan’s political activities in local, state, and national elections and issues.

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