The History of the Ku Klux Klan
The end of the Civil war is very significant part of history. As the struggle of blacks for freedom came to an end, a new form of struggle began to form. Political, social, and economic gains of blacks after the Civil war became frightening, and the idea of whites loosing superiority over blacks felt unacceptable. Poor social class feared of losing their jobs, and wealthy of loosing cheap labor. As a result, racist groups began to form. The name Ku Klux Klan is now known all over the world for the sense of terror that it sends through peoples’ minds. At first formed as a small social club to preserve the white culture, slowly became large heartless group of extremists threatening black community.
In 1865, after the Civil War, in Pulaski, Tennessee Nathan Bed Forrest and six other ex confederate soldiers met and formed the organization. Their name came from a Greek word “kuklos” which means “circle” that symbolizes characteristics of this the group which were Unity and Order. The principles found by the members did not sound like anything harmful or racist at first. In fact, it looked like the Klan would be on the side of poor and hopeless. The goal, at first, was to create a social club that would (1) “protect the weak, the innocent, the defenseless, from the indignities, wrongs, and outrages of the lawless … (2) “protect and defend the constitution of the United States, and all laws passed in conformity thereto and to protect the states and the people thereof from all unlawful seizure…” (John Mecklin “The Ku Klux Klan” pg.64) The Klan spread and gained its members through the newspapers and clubs, soon becoming an organization with origins in many southern states.
To some whites, the freedom of slaves meant that their social and economic ways of life had been defeated and found satisfaction in Klan. As more people joined, ideas began to change causing the Klan to slowly become violent and fearful. Within a year of its establishment the Klan went out of control, terrorizing and killing black community. “The victims were overwhelmingly Negro, and they suffered for every crime, real or imaginary, from murder and rape to defend themselves against attack and voting the Republican ticket.” (Allen Trelease “White Terror” pg.28) Their goal was to frighten the black and also white community so they can have an impact on their political decisions and votes. Klansmen were not only after weak civilians, but also high rank government officials that took action in abolishing slavery. Senator William Wyatt as one of the victims “was taken from his house at night by Klansmen who beat him over the head with pistols and left him unconscious.” (Allen Trelease “White Terror” pg.35) Their main goal was to prove the public that they don’t fear anything and nothing can stop them from accomplishing their beliefs. “Three Negro women of Noxubee County were visited on the same night and whipped for living as mistresses.” (Allen Trelease “White Terror” pg.276) Their outrageous reasons for punishment scared most of the people and had big impact on some campaign results.
Organizations in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi were always seeking to recruit new members but this time, with different principles in mind. At this point in time, not anyone could become part of the Klan. They have set criteria in order for a person to join; “one hundred percent Americanism, law and order, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and the purity of womanhood”. (John Mecklin “The Ku Klux Klan” pg.38). Since the big cities had mixed ethnicities, Klan was looking for its members in areas that were least occupied by the blacks such as, villages and small towns of south. Throughout months the Klan grew and became more violent to the point that legal actions had to be taken by Government.
The Klansmen brutalism could not be controlled by Nathan Forest anymore since it had spread so quickly in many areas. The shocking impact the Klan had, required Nathan to act fast if he didn’t want to be responsible. By the autumn of 1968, he disbanded the organization saying that “The Klan was being perverted from its original honorable and patriotic purposes, becoming injurious instead of subservient to the public peace and the public safety for which it was intended” (Chester L. Quarles “The Ku Klux Klan and Related American Racialist and Anti-Semitic Organizations” pg.49). His speech as a leader had some impact but it was not enough to make the expected change he wanted. Government became the only hope for those who suffered. It became illegal by Congress to take away the rights of a person due to a skin color or ethnicity. Benjamin Franklin Butler wrote the Civil Rights Act of 1971, also known as Ku Klux Klan Act. It was originally passed because some southern states during Reconstruction were unwilling, since unable, to act against violence caused by the Ku Klux Klan. Police started to arrest people, involved in any racist organization. Even military actions were accompanied if necessary by president Ulysses S. Grand. The immediate end of Klan became main objective of government and its huge efforts caused Klan to vanish by 1872.
After the Reconstruction, movie called “Birth of a Nation” aired in 1915, directed by D.W. Griffith is seen as critical turning point in history. The African Americans are shown as the main reason for domestic issues in the postbellum America. Reactions that this movie brought about caused Ku Klux Klan to form again. “The same year the film came out, 1915, the Klan was reborn at Stone Mountain, Georgia. At Stone Mountain, a cross was burned. The original Klan had not burned crosses, but some other organizations had, and Griffith’s film portrayed a cross-burning.” (Phyllis Gerstenfeld “Hate Crimes: Causes, Controls, and Controversies” pg.111). Colonel William Simmons was the establisher of the second Ku Klux Klan. He thought of the movie as a tremendous opportunity to reform the Klan. “Five thousand people had joined by 1920, when Colonel William Simmons paid the publicity firm to recruit new members.” (Phyllis Gerstenfeld “Hate Crimes: Causes, Controls, and Controversies” pg.111) The number of new members grew from thousands to over 5 million in future years. One of the main reasons for such a rapid increase was the settlement of immigrants from Europe and Asia, and the anti-immigrant response was joining the Klan. It was also anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist. Science of genetics and anthropology was another factor that feared the Klan members. It was argued at the time that “human beings were divided into a number of biologically distinct races, that these races determined individual characteristics such as intelligence and industriousness, and that some races were inherently superior to others. Furthermore, interbreeding of races was to be especially avoided because it would lead to the degradation of the superior race” (Phyllis Gerstenfeld “Hate Crimes: Causes, Controls, and Controversies” pg.111). Simmons also looked for collaboration, in order to gain new members, and finance the organization. He joined forces with Edward Young Clarke, who’s Southern Publicity Association managed World War I membership drives for the Red Cross, YMCA and other worthy causes. Since Simmons charged $10 initiation fee for each Klansman, within couple of year it became a stable organization. The Ku Klux Klan was more advanced politically than in the past. ”The Invisible Empire had helped elect presidents and had sent special delegations to the national conventions of both political parties in 1924 and 1928.” (Patsy Sims “The Klan” pg.10). It was unbelievable that they were able to reach so high in government. Ku Klux Klan hierarchy became unstoppable for couple of years.
In October, in 1921 The Congressional investigation called Simmons to testify in front of the U.S. House Committee. He was asked to explain the doings of the Klan. His words were “This is purely a fraternal and patriotic organization and is in no sense a regulative or corrective organization” (John Mecklin “The Ku Klux Klan” pg.22). A question was answered in a polite manner, he was also relaxed and used humor and sarcasm. It displayed that he would be extremely hard to defeat. He knew he could not reveal the truth behind the Klan under any circumstances. The hearing ended with no direct consequences to the Klan.
Within few months the Ku Klux Klan’s days of power were coming to the end. “Period of steep decline caused by internal feuding, scandals, increased activism by opponents, and the fading of the group’s romantic image. By 1930 the Klan, which had attracted an estimated 5 million members during the early 1920s, was reduced to about 30,000 supporters” (Ku Klux Klan in the Twentieth Century” New Georgia Encyclopedia). The organization limped along over 10 years before finally disbanding in 1944, after being prosecuted for failure to pay federal taxes.
Ku Klux Klan is known to this day all over the world, as it has an impact on many countries even after it ended. Its History of violence and manipulation led to racist appeals that divided people as a whole not just in United States. The name became popular among people who still express their hatred. Some still claim to be in Ku Klux Klan organization but no proves has been made that any exist. Yet people still propagate their name as an expression of hatred that sadly still exists everywhere. United States as country where the Klan was created is also the one that is making the biggest different in Uniting the world as one race. Hopefully, within few years racism will vanish just like the Klan did.
• Sims, Patsy “The Klan” Second Edition. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
• Trelease, Allen “White Terror” New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971.
• MacLean, Nancy “Behind The Mask of Chivalry” New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
• Chester L. Quarles “The Ku Klux Klan and Related American Racialist and Anti-Semitic Organizations “ McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers, London 1999
• Mecklin, John. “The Ku Klux Klan” A Study of the American Mind. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963.
• Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld ”Hate Crimes: Causes, Controls, and Controversies” Sage Publications Inc. Published In 2004
• Lavender, Catherine “D.W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915)”. 22 April 2007. http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/birth.html.
• Weisberger, B.A. “When White Hoods Were In Flower” American Heritage 43.2 (1992): 18. Academic Search Premier. 20 April 2007. http://search.ebscohost.com