Flaming crosses and white hoods are what comes to mind when we hear the words: Ku Klux Klan. Since 1865, this organisation has been responsible for thousands of murders, lynchings, and beatings. It’s tentacles have extended into corridors of power. Two state governors who tried to bring the KKK down saw their own political careers destroyed. So, let’s look back at over 160 years of the Ku Klux Klan and try to make sense of this terrifying phenomenon.
Because only by understanding, can we ultimately defeat it.
TRIGGER WARNING: As this is a brief history of the violent and racist activity of the Ku Klux Klan, it will include some language from the past that is unacceptable today, though I’ve kept this to a bare minimum. And there will be accounts of crimes that are upsetting.
Black Americans exercise their rights
The American Civil War ended in 1865 with the anti-slavery Union states of the north defeating the pro-slavery Confederate states of the south. Then followed a period dubbed the Reconstruction. Legal changes were enacted that ended the cancer of slavery. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments freed all African-Americans, ensuring they were treated equally before the law, giving them the vote, and the right to run for public office.
Shaking off their shackles, African-Americans wasted no time in organising politically. The Equal Rights League, founded in 1864, experienced rapid growth with other similar organisations proliferating across the south. African-Americans set their sights on sitting in the state legislatures that had once been dominated by slaveholders. In 1868, for example, Louisiana elected its first black Lieutenant Governor, Oscar James Dunn. Though he died in mysterious circumstances four years later and poisoning has long been suspected.
Across the southern states, over 1,500 African-Americans were elected as senators, representatives, judges, and public officials. This situation continued from the end of the Civil War to the late 1870s. However, these black politicians needed the protection of the federal authorities, Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party, and even the armed forces. As Reconstruction ended, white southern Democrats – “Dixiecrats” – pushed African-Americans out using the muscle of the KKK.
Getting formerly enslaved people out of politics required massive intimidation and terror. Alongside that, an ideology justifying white supremacism and a semi-militarised organisation operating at street level. Very similar to 20th century fascist movements. Step forward the KKK.
The Ku Klux Klan is formed and the 1868 presidential election
In 1865, at Pulaski in Tennessee, six Confederate veterans formed the Ku Klux Klan. It evolved rapidly from a social club into a means of suppressing black political activity through fear. The 1868 presidential election was the first big test for the KKK. The Republican Union army general Ulysses S. Grant was pitched against Democrat rival, Horatio Seymour.
It was almost a certainty that Grant would win but former Confederates pulled out all the stops to get Seymour into the White House. Unlike US elections today, voter suppression wasn’t going to be achieved with underhand rule changes. No – this was 1868. Mass murder, whippings and beatings were deployed to keep black voters away from the ballot boxes.
During the election campaign, it’s estimated there were 2,000 murders in Kansas – a state with a long reputation for politically motivated violence – and 1,000 in Louisiana. Newspaper reports I’ve trawled during the 1868 election campaign detail a state of lawlessness in New Orleans. One southern paper, The Tennessean, ran a long letter from the Democratic campaign committee in Louisiana blaming African-Americans for all the recent killings in the state.
Or as the committee put it, Republicans and southern blacks had reduced “a great community of white people into subjection to the rule of a minority composed of strangers and negroes”. Directly below the letter was a headline: “War of Races inaugurated in Huntsville, Alabama”. This article stretched credulity to breaking point, claiming that the Ku Klux Klan had been in the vicinity of one meeting of black activists but “the Kuklux (sic) did not molest the negroes in any way whatever”.
At the early stages of the 1868 election, the Ku Klux Klan wrote to The New York Herald laying out its version of events. The south, it claimed, had been infiltrated by “gigantic secret political organizations”. Their objective was to “Africanize the south”. This echoes the racist Great Replacement Theory in our own time that falsely asserts that black and brown immigrants to Europe are “reverse-colonising” whites with the connivance of shadowy elites.
Only whites, the KKK declared, were fit to govern:
“White men, and white men alone, are the comprehensive exponents of constitutional liberty, must and will exclusively rule and govern the American Republic”.
Like white supremacists today, the KKK wrapped itself in The Constitution and Founding Fathers. Any white person could join its ranks, the letter continued, but not “Radicals, Infidels, and negroes”. It admitted to being a clandestine society dedicated to stopping racial equality in its tracks. And as the 1868 election evidenced, it would resort to any means to achieve its goals.
Another newspaper report I found during my research reported that the KKK would “carry the state” of Alabama on behalf of the Democrats (Chicago Tribune, October 27, 1868) – such was their power. There was little doubt that the KKK was, in effect, the armed wing of the Democrat party. It was also a means of stopping some poor whites voting the same way as their black neighbours. A worry stated explicitly in southern newspapers.
There needed to be an ideology that bonded poor and rich whites against black people and the KKK’s vitriol offered that solution. To stop dirt poor whites finding common cause with equally poor blacks, the KKK had to convince these whites they were both racially superior and that their black neighbours were in some way undermining them.
Despite everything the KKK did, Grant won the 1868 election with the support of northern states and incredibly took southern states like Alabama, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee and South Carolina. These states swung to Grant for one reason only – the votes of freed African-Americans. Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia were not allowed to vote as they were still not fully reconstructed.
But this would be the last time Republicans would out-poll Democrats in the south until 1964.
Southern Governor versus the Ku Klux Klan
In 1870, one southern political leader resolved to bring the Klan down. William Woods Holden was Governor of North Carolina. He’d started out as a pro-slavery Democrat but rejected the Confederate secession ending up a Republican. Back in power for a second time as governor in the 1868 election, he hired detectives, called out the militia, declared martial law, and suspended habeas corpus – all to crush the KKK.
On June 23, 1870, Holden issued a statement explaining the need for such draconian measures. It was a grim litany of murders of African-Americans by the KKK.
In February 1869, Daniel Blue together with his pregnant wife and five children had been shot dead in their home and their bodies burned. A year later, Wyatt Outlaw had been dragged to a tree and hanged by Klansmen wearing their robes. Despite his misleading surname, Outlaw was a black police officer.
Between April 2 and May 15, 1870, twenty-one people – both black and white – had been whipped by KKK members. On May 14, 1870, an African-American had been tied to a tree while fifteen “of these demons” raped his wife.
Holden’s statement, which I’m quoting from the original newspaper, goes on in this vein. It’s an incredibly depressing read. What emerges isn’t just a series of random attacks on black people – but a concerted campaign of violence intended to break the spirit of African-Americans. This was a form of psychological warfare. The intention was to reinstate the servility that slaves had once felt obliged to show their masters through fear of the consequences.
Unfortunately for Holden, the Democrats regained majorities in both the North Carolina Senate and House of Representatives by the end of 1870. They impeached him in the House and put him on trial in the Senate. By March 1871, he was the first governor of the United States to be impeached, convicted and removed from office.
What Holden, as a seasoned politician, had realised was that the state Republicans were up against a de facto coalition of the Democrats and the Ku Klux Klan. The Democrats accused Holden of playing fast and loose with the constitution, over-extending his powers. But these same Democrats were colluding with a gang of hooded murderers to suppress the black vote, which benefitted them electorally.
President Grant passed the Ku Klux Klan Act in the year that Holden was impeached and ironically, using the same measures across the south, the organisation was snuffed out for a while.
DISCOVER: How Europe helped the Confederates
The first era of the KKK comes to an end
In the 1880s, the talk was of a disbanded KKK and an almost academic interest in what exactly this phenomenon had been and why it had chosen such a curious name. But like a quiescent volcano, a rump of the Ku Klux Klan was simmering below the surface.
The reason for its reduced visibility was that African-Americans had been pushed out of southern politics, terrorised away from voting stations, expelled from government offices, and subjected to segregation. And the party of slavery – the Democrats – were back in control from Texas to Virginia. Grant’s KKK Act was certainly a hindrance to activity but for now, white supremacists were content to focus on pushing Republicans out of state houses and put murder on the back burner for now.
In August 1899, The Tennessean reported that a group of KKK veterans were planning a reunion. It had been twenty-five years since their glory – or rather gory – days of activity. Little could they have expected that a second era for the Ku Klux Klan was about to open up. They told the newspaper that the violence and bloodshed associated with their organisation had in fact been committed by “unworthy new recruits or by men in now way connected with the order, but who found its name a convenient shield”.
Asked whether the Klan had agitated for a race war, one old activist gave a very illuminating answer. In summary, he argued that if the federal authorities had left the south alone, then black people would have continued happily in a slave-like condition as before:
“No opportunity was lost to alienate the late slave from his late master. The freedman, uninfluenced by outsiders, would for the most part have continued to work and sing and dance on the old plantation, content to receive a moderate allowance of the crop, and come to look to ‘Old Massa’ for advice and assistance in all troublous circumstances.”
But instead the federal abolitionists had played on the “excessive vanity and the emotional nature” of the black man, encouraging him to move from the plantations to the towns, where he had – horror of horrors – got involved in politics. Crops went unharvested and it was impossible to find a servant. The implication being that a white person could never perform these tasks.
And there you have it, in a nutshell, the world the KKK pined for had – as the author Margaret Mitchell put it later in her famous novel – gone with the wind.
And good riddance!
Revival of the Ku Klux Klan
As the south was transformed in the late 19th century, the mythology of the ‘Old South’ grew. A place of chivalry, good manners, and hospitality…and slavery. Organisations like the Daughters of the Confederacy railed against everything new and sanctified the old ways.
In 1913 at Chattanooga, Tennessee, the daughters were addressed by a churchman, the Reverend William E. Thompson on Confederate Memorial Day, which was also the birthday of the civil war era President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. Thompson spoke of the KKK’s Invisible Empire – “the men who organized, in grotesque and spectral garb, around the homes of the south, were in every sense heroes”.
His comments were echoed by others in the former Confederate states who set out to rewrite the KKK’s history and airbrush out their racist, sectarian violence. They were not child killing hoodlums but latter-day medieval knights rescuing white damsels in distress. But there were still people around who had experienced Klan brutality and seen loved ones murdered or whipped by hooded KKK thugs. Their stories were told in newspapers hostile to the organisation.
But a new dawn for the KKK was approaching. In Atlanta, Georgia in 1915, “Colonel” William Joseph Simmons re-founded the Ku Klux Klan. A ceremony took place at midnight on Thanksgiving on top of a granite boulder known as Stone Mountain under a blazing, fiery cross. Oaths of allegiance were taken with tree members of the original KKK present.
Simmons’ pseudo-military rank was conferred on him by a society called the Woodmen of the World. And his title of “Professor” was derived from a short-lived KKK-friendly place of indoctrination, Lanier University. His inspiration for reconstituting the KKK came from watching the shockingly racist 1915 movie, The Birth of a Nation – which glorified the Klan and depicted African-Americans in a manner that might have even shocked some Confederates!
The second era saw the Klan not only terrorising African-Americans but attacking Irish-Americans, Roman Catholics, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, and political “Radicals”. Its membership overlapped with other campaigns that attracted white Protestants like the drive for Prohibition with groups such as the Anti-Saloon League.
By 1925, the KKK boasted four million members across the south and that year, it held a huge procession in Washington DC in a show of strength. As it grew, so did the murders, lynchings, tarring and featherings. One anti-Klan activist was shot dead in front of his wife in Oklahoma. At his funeral, it soon emerged that the pastor conducting the service was in the KKK as he attacked the deceased from the pulpit and the widow exited in floods of tears.
The Red Summer of 1919
The end of the First World War led to discharged armed services personnel arriving back home to economic depression and little by way of reward for their service on the battlefront. Sadly, many took it out on their African-American neighbours.
The year 1919 witnessed a Red Summer of attacks by whites against blacks in an estimated 26 US cities. A large number of African-Americans died at Elaine, Arkansas in race riots, which spread northwards through Washington DC and up to Chicago.
In 1917, Tulsa, Oklahoma saw a group, the Knights of Liberty, beat up trade union activists but worse followed on June 1, 1921 when armed white residents burned down 35 blocks in the Greenwood district leaving up to 200 African-Americans dead and over 800 seriously injured. In both incidents, police and other law enforcement were found to have been complicit with the white supremacists.
On July 24, 1919, Chilton Jennings – an African-American – was arrested in Gilmer, Texas for an alleged assault on a white woman. A mob of about a thousand white people used sledgehammers to break into his jail cell, drag him out, and hanged Jennings in front of the courthouse. However, this led to something never witnessed before. Astonishingly, for the first time, a group of southern white men stood trial for the lynching. Although convicted, their sentences were benign.
Another southern governor takes on the Ku Klux Klan!
With the KKK resurgent, another southern governor decided to take on the cross-burning thugs as Holden had done fifty years before. Deploying similar methods, he would share the same fate as Holden. Impeached and thrown out of the governorship.
Jack Walton was elected Governor of Oklahoma state in 1923 having previously been mayor of Oklahoma city. He was on the left of the Democrats pursuing pro-union and pro-farmer policies. With events in Tulsa still uppermost in the minds of politicians, Walton decided to crack down on the Ku Klux Klan. This began with martial law declared in certain counties but by September 1923, he extended this to the entire state. Walton also suspended habeas corpus.
The problem for the governor was that the state legislature – especially his own party – was riddled with KKK supporters. As with Holden, his tactics were deemed unconstitutional and he was removed from office. Unprepared to leave the political fray, he published his own newspaper: Jack Walton’s Paper. In one editorial he thundered: “I’ll never quit my fight on the Ku Klux Klan as long as I’m on earth and alive.”
Fortunately, the KKK brought itself down in large measure with a series of sex scandals, financial skullduggery, and infighting. But would revive once again during the 1960s as the fight for civil rights resumed. A struggle that has continued to the present day. And that is confronted by a variety of white supremacist and extreme Right groups whose arguments and methodology owes a sinister debt to their white-robbed precursors in the Ku Klux Klan.