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Ku Klux Klan

Members of the second Ku Klux Klan at a rally during the 1920s.
Members of the second Ku Klux Klan at a rally during the 1920s.

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was originally a fraternal organization in the United States that advocated white supremacy and promoted Protestantism to the exclusion of other religions. It was founded by ex-servicemen of the Confederate Army in 1866, but it was disbanded by 1869. The original group opposed the reforms enforced on the South by federal troops regarding the treatment of former slaves, often using violence to achieve their goals. Nathan Bedford Forrest, however, claimed that the "protection of southern womanhood" was the reason he founded the Klan.

A second distinct group using the same name was started atop Stone Mountain near Atlanta in 1915 by William J. Simmons. This second group existed as a money-making fraternal organization and fought to maintain the ways of the past against increasing numbers of Roman Catholics, Jews, Blacks, Asians, and other immigrants into the United States. This group, although preaching racism, was a mainstream organization with 4 million members at its peak in the 1920s. Its popularity fell during the Great Depression, and it was disbanded during World War II in 1944 by James Colescott.

The name Ku Klux Klan has since fallen into the public domain. It was adopted in different forms by many different unrelated groups, including many who opposed the Civil Rights Act and desegregation in the 1960s. Today, dozens of organizations with chapters across the United States and other countries use all or part of the name in their titles.



The name Ku Klux Klan comes from κυκλος (kyklos), the Greek word for circle, and the Scots Gaelic-derived word "clan". Another etymology proposes an onomatopoeia of the loading of a gun (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mentions this latter etymology in the Sherlock Holmes story The Five Orange Pips).


Members of the Klan wear white robes with hoods, representing the ghosts of soldiers that returned from the dead to take revenge on their enemies, and hiding their faces. Another explanation of the white robes and hoods was the "anonymity of good works" – as the Ku Klux Klan members believe their works were given to them by God, they wear the robes and hoods as a symbol of humility. Yet another explanation of the costumes may have been to imitate the medieval Knights Templar. Much of the original leadership of the Klan were Scottish Rite Masons with the degree of "Knight Templar." Titles such as "Grand Wizard", "Exalted Cyclops" and "Kleagle" are used to indicate status.


The original Ku Klux Klan

The original Ku Klux Klan was first established in Pulaski, Tennessee after the end of the American Civil War on December 24, 1865 by Confederate veterans. It grew to prominence after a convention held in Nashville in the summer of 1866. At this convention, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest presided as the Grand Wizard.

The organization had two main stated goals: to aid Confederate widows and orphans of the war, but more importantly to oppose the extension of voting rights to Blacks, and other measures to end segregation, that were introduced as part of Reconstruction. As federal control of the ex-Confederate states was withdrawn, the local white population re-established their power and with it segregation laws. Additionally, Forrest officially disbanded the organization in 1869 because it had evolved into an entity which he believed had strayed from its original mission and had instead grown increasingly violent and antagonistic.

In 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant put what was believed to be the final nail in the Klan's coffin by signing The Klan Act and Enforcement Act. The Klan became an illegal terrorist group, and the use of force was authorized to suppress and disrupt the organization's activities. These efforts were so successful that the Klan was eliminated in South Carolina and decimated throughout the rest of the country. (The Klan Act was declared unconstitutional in 1882, but the Klan was largely gone by then.)

The second Ku Klux Klan

The second Ku Klux Klan was established during World War I, a feat which arguably would not have been possible without President Woodrow Wilson's influence and D. W. Griffith's controversial classic film, The Birth of a Nation. Upon seeing the film, Wilson remarked, "It was like writing history with lightning. It is all so terribly true." [1](PDF) Griffith's film was based on the book and play The Clansman and the book The Leopard's Spots , both by Thomas Dixon who intended "to revolutionize northern sentiment by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat!". This is consistent with the new Klan's greater success at recruiting in the US Midwest, than in the South. Many poor whites were drawn to the idea that their economic woes were caused by Blacks, or by Jewish bankers, or by other such groups, similar to the Nazi party's propaganda in Germany.

This Klan was operated as a profit-making venture by its leaders, and participated in the boom in fraternal organizations at the time. It differed from the first Klan; the first Klan was Democratic and Southern, this Klan boasted members from both the Democratic and to a lesser degree Republican parties and was influential throughout the United States, with major political influence on politicians in several states. It collapsed largely as a result of a scandal involving David Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of Indiana and fourteen other states, who was convicted of the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer in a sensational trial (she was bitten so many times that one man who saw her described her condition as having been "chewed by a cannibal"). The second Klan dwindled in popularity throughout the 1930s. It was disbanded in 1944 and the name Ku Klux Klan fell into the public domain.

In the 1920s and 1930s a faction of the Klan called the Black Legion was very active in the Midwestern U.S. Rather than wearing white robes, the legion wore black uniforms reminiscent of pirates. The Black Legion was the most violent and zealous faction of the Klan, and were notable for targeting and assassinating Communists and Socialists.

Later Ku Klux Klans

After World War II, several organizations using the name Ku Klux Klan were established to counter the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These are the Klans that are still seen today, though as American society has become more racially inclusive, the Klan has once more shrunk dramatically and fractured. The major factions currently include the Imperial Klans of America, the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Knights of the White Camelia.


The KKK, and second generation groups, began with exclusively Protestant memberships. From the early 1900s through the 1940s, hundreds of thousands of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), primarily in the South and the Midwest, saw the KKK as a part of their faith. Millions more viewed the KKK's tactics as morally reprehensible and extreme, but nonetheless saw its members as valid Christians and generally agreed that WASPs were inherently superior to other groups. At that time, the oppression of black people (as well as Jews and Catholics) was seen by many extremists as part of "God's plan". By the early 1970s, however, most groups claiming ties to the KKK dropped anti-Catholicism from their officially-stated doctrines, and in the mid-1980s a Klan chapter was found to exist in New York City's borough of Queens, with most of its reputed members being Catholic, primarily of Irish descent.

Political influence

The second Ku Klux Klan rose to great prominence and spread from the South into the Midwest and Northern states and even into Canada. At its peak, most of the membership resided in Midwestern states. Through sympathetic elected officials, the KKK controlled the governments of Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Oregon in addition to those of the Southern Democratic legislatures. It even claimed to have inducted Republican President Warren Harding at the White House. Klan delegates played a significant role at the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York City, often called the "Klanbake Convention" as a result. The convention initially pitted Klan-backed candidate William McAdoo against New York Governor Al Smith, who drew the opposition of the group because of his Catholic faith. After days of stalemates and rioting, both candidates withdrew in favor of a compromise. Klan delegates defeated a Democratic Party platform plank that would have condemned their organization. On July 4, 1924 thousands of Klansmen converged on a nearby field in New Jersey where they participated in cross burnings, burned effigies of Smith, and celebrated their defeat of the platform plank.

At its peak in the 1920s, Klan membership exceeded 4 million and counted many politicians among its members. Even the 33rd President (Harry Truman), a Democrat, was on the verge of becoming a member of the Klan, though he soon changed his mind because of their anti-Catholicism. In Saskatchewan, Canada the KKK was seen as having a dramatic effect on the provincial election of 1929, which defeated the James G. Gardiner Liberal government and installed the 1929-1934 Conservative government of James T.M. Anderson. Another former Klansman to rise to national prominence was the Democrat Senator and later Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who later repudiated the organization. Early in his political career Black defended one of the group's members for the assassination of Father James Coyle, an Alabama Catholic priest, and obtained a "not guilty" verdict through a Klan-controlled jury. David Duke served as a Republican state representative and ran for office in Louisiana in both Democratic and Republican primary elections. He served until 1978 as the National Director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and resigned from the Klan in 1980. West Virginia's Democratic Senator Robert Byrd was a recruiter for the Klan while in his 20s and 30s, rising to the title of Kleagle; he has since called joining the Klan his "greatest mistake."


The Klan's original 19th century manifestation is not known to have used any flags or symbols. The 20th century version originating in 1915 focused on the use of the American flag and a flag bearing a Christian cross, as is documented in Klan instructional materials and photographs from the 1920s, the Klan's heyday.

Klan groups in the 1920s used the movement's official flag, a white field upon which was a black cross, thereupon superimposed a red symbol representing either a flame or a drop of blood (explanations of this symbol vary). Although this emblem is little used by the many splinter "Klan" groups today, it may well be considered the official flag and symbol of the Ku Klux Klan. Although Confederate symbols are sometimes mistakenly associated with the KKK, this usage occurred only in the 1950s and later, and is historically inappropriate.

Some Klan groups in the 1950s and 1960s appropriated the Confederate battle flag (the Southern Cross, not related to the "Stars and Bars" or governmental flag of the Confederacy) in efforts aimed against desegregation and racial integration in the South. This appropriation of Southern symbols has been widely disavowed by historical and heritage activists in the South today. In its current fragmented form, the Klan in some instances continue to use both the Battle Flag and the American flag.

See also: cross burning.


Though often still discussed in contemporary American politics as representing the quintessential "fringe" end of the far right spectrum, today the group only exists in the form of a number of very isolated, scattered "supporters" that probably do not number more than a few thousand. In a 2002 report on "Extremism in America" the Jewish Anti-Defamation League wrote "Today, there is no such thing as the Ku Klux Klan. Fragmentation, decentralization and decline have continued unabated." However they also noted that the group's supporters "need for justification runs deep in the disaffected and is unlikely to disappear, regardless of how low the Klan's fortunes eventually sink."

As of 2003, there were an estimated 5,500 to 6,000 dedicated Klan members, divided among 158 chapters of a variety of splinter organizations, about two-thirds of which were in former Confederate states. The other third are primarily in the Midwest region. [2]

Individuals who consider themselves members of the Klan tend to conceal their affiliation. They may use the acronym AYAK ('Are you a Klansman?') in conversation to surreptitiously identify themselves to another potential member. The response AKIA ('A Klansman I am') completes the greeting.

The ACLU has provided legal support to various factions of the KKK, including defense of First Amendment rights to hold public rallies, parades, marches, and field political candidates.

Related articles

External links


  1. Southern Poverty Law Center. Active U.S. Hate Groups in 2003. Intelligence Report. Retrieved April 5, 2005 from

Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12