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Ku Klux Klan
The Ku Klux Klan is considered as the most notorious of American hate groups. In beginning, black Americans were the Klan's primary target. Over its long history of violence, it also attacked Jews, immigrants, gays and lesbians and, more recently, Catholics. Since it was organized in 1865, the Klan presented itself as a Christian organization. Nowadays, the Klan groups go in the guise of variety of theological and political beliefs (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2015).
The following sections discuss how Ku Klux Klan was formed, why it had a place in the history of the United States of America and even allowed to exist until the '50s and '60s during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Origins of Ku Klux Klan
In Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) article regarding Ku Klux Klan’s history, it recounted that the Klan was founded as a social club or fraternity by six college students in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee. Capitalizing on the fear they fostered among former slaves due to their night activities, the group rapidly expanded in other southern towns. By 1867, a formal meeting was held, establishing the Klan’s codes, rules and structure. In this meeting, former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest attended and was elected as the Grand Wizard, acting as the supreme leader of the Klan (Anti-Defamation League, 2013). The group’s name, Ku Klux Klan or KKK, came from the Greek word kyklos—meaning circle, and the Scottish- Gaelic work clan –believed to be selected as a form of alliteration (History.com Staff, 2009).
The Rise and Fall of Ku Klux Klan
Source: Thorpe, 2014
It was estimated that at least 10 percent of the black legislators elected around 1867-1868 constitutional conventions fell victims to the Klan’s violence marked by lynchings, tar-and-feathering and rapes (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2015). In most occasions, the reasons for lynchings of black people then were shallow ranging from vagrancy, looking suspicious or simply borne from KKK member’s demand for respect (Thorpe, 2014).
So who were behind the Ku Klux Klan? At the height of KKK activities, its membership reached 4 million. It was believed that KKK members came from all walks of life, from farmers and laborers, to planters, lawyers, merchants, including physicians and ministers. But majority came from poorer southern whites. In the areas where KKK violent activities were prominent, local law enforcement or officials were either members themselves or opted not to take action against it (History.com Staff, 2009).
As an organization, it also struggled for control or lack thereof, from various factions. However, when its reputation was already being tarnished by the violent activities under the Klan’s name, prominent member started to withdraw. Its leader former Confederate General Forrest, was left with no choice but to break up the formal organization, which was followed by other local units. The groups left who were led by unauthorized members continued with their acts of terrorism (Anti-Defamation League, 2013).
When Republican state governments in the South sought Congress’ help to curb KKK’s violent activities, three related Enforcement Acts were passed. The strongest of which was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 that designated certain crimes committed by KKK individuals as against federal law. It included acts conspiring to deprive citizens of their right to hold office and equal protection under the law. The Act authorized the president to send federal forces to stifle Klan violence. Former President Ulysses S. Grant at that time promptly exercised this power in 1871 to squash the Klan’s criminal activities in South Carolina and other areas in the South. Since then, white supremacy ideology and KKK’s influence in the South gradually faded. Towards the end of 1876, Democrats gained control again of the entire South (History.com Staff, 2009). However, by 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Ku Klux Klan Act was unconstitutional (WGBH Educational Foundation, 2013).
KKK at the Height of Civil Rights Movement to Present
It was not surprising therefore that in the early 20th century, a group of white Protestant was able to revive the Klan in Atlanta, Georgia. The organization’s leader this time, William J. Simmons, a former long-time member, was inspired by the movie “Birth of a Nation” which portrayed KKK’s side of the story during the Reconstruction era (Anti-Defamation League, 2013).
This renewed KKK movement, which began some time in 1915, was also triggered by the surge of new immigrants in the U.S. and fear of potential threat of spread of communism as its offshoot. Thus, this new generation of KKK was not only against blacks, but also opposed immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and even perceived immoral acts of individuals or establishments. Unlike before, the organization aimed to establish an image of promoting “law and order” amidst the ongoing World War 1. They burned crosses, rallied and protested on the streets to show their sentiments. They justified their actions as part of civil rights (Anti-Defamation League, 2013).
Once again, KKK’s membership grew reaching around a hundred thousand. The organization also earned generous funding from various supporters. At one point, it was even perceived as influential in politics that even late President Harry Truman, during his candidacy wore their white hood and robe. However, as KKK’s strength grew, violent activities came back, ruining its image and reputation. There were also scandals involving the revenue it was generating, leadership rivalries, and problems with drugs and alcohol at the top ranks. This resulted into its decline in membership, and ultimately, near dissolution of the Klan by 1929, right about the time of Great Depression. (Anti-Defamation League, 2013).
When World War II ended, given all the turmoil and economic challenges, the Klan lost the interest and support it had before. It became disunited and the local groups that remained in existence opted to be independent (Anti-Defamation League, 2013).
In the 1950s and 1960s, the era of Civil Rights movement, there were attempts to restore the Klan. This was primarily motivated by growing resentment by some Southerner-KKK members over the improving conditions of African Americans. However, the American society has changed. They have become more discerning of the Klan’s motives and objectives. Hence, their unification efforts and criminal activities became under scrutiny and under close watch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Anti-Defamation League, 2013).
One such case was the bomb explosion in a Baptist Church in Birmingham, instigated by members of KKK in September 1963. It left four young African girls as victims. FBI launched exhaustive investigation to bring the identified perpetrators to justice. While they failed to do this in 1970s due to lack of witness, changes in the law enabled them to revive the case in early 2000, which led to prosecution of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank (GlobalSecurity.Org, 2015).
The other infamous incident occurred in June 1964 at the start of what is known as “Freedom Summer”. The Klan in Mississippi burned a church and beat its parishioners when they failed to find the activist they were looking for among them, named Michael Schwerner, who was responsible for organizing African-American communities to vote. Eventually Schwerner and his fellow volunteers were entrapped by the Klan, and were later found buried on a farm. The series of court trials for this case created public awareness and resentment of the Klan’s activities. It resulted not only into prosecution of 18 defendants, but also to the swift passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964 by July of that year (GlobalSecurity.Org, 2015).
KKK indeed wreaked havoc in the South and revealed detestable evils of man should they left on their own, without law and order. Hopefully, from this episode in America’s history, people have learned their lesson and have truly imbibed the principles to which the nation was foundedfreedom and equality for all, regardless of race, gender, belief and other differences.
Anti-Defamation League. (2013). Ku Klux Klan - History. Retrieved from
GlobalSecurity.Org. (2015). The Ku Klux Klan in the Sixties. Retrieved from
History.com Staff. (2009). Ku Klux Klan. Retrieved from
http://www.history.com/topics/ku-klux-klan and http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/kkk-founded
Southern Poverty Law Center. (2015). Ku Klux Klan. Retrieved from
Thorpe, G. (2014). 10 Outrageous Reason Black People Were Lynched in America.
Retrieved from http://atlantablackstar.com/2014/02/14/10-outrageous-reasons-black-people-were-lynched-in-america/6/
WGBH Educational Foundation. (2013). Rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Retrieved from
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