Ku Klux Klan: History, Meaning & Atrocities

Ku Klux Klan

Established around 1865, the KKK is regarded as one of the most infamous and violent racist groups in America.

In 1865, after the American Civil War had died down, a secret white group with ulterior and sinister motives established itself in the South as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The initial goal of the Klan was to resist Reconstruction Policies (1865-1877) of the Republican government. The KKK mainly stood for white supremacy. What did these white supremacists seek to achieve at the inception of the KKK? And what are some of the atrocities that have been committed by the KKK since its birth? The article below presents a very objective account of the origin story, the evolution and atrocities of the Ku Klux Klan:

Brief History of the KKK

The group’s foundation coincided with the Reconstruction Era. Right after the Civil War, during the presidency of Andrew Johnson, the KKK was born in the South on 24th December 1865. The main goal of the group was to resist the government policies of the Republican Congress, and also sound a trumpet of white supremacy. The controversial secret group later soared to about 4-5 millions of followers. As time went on, the group locked horns with the civil rights movement, causing immense suffering to civil rights activists across the U.S.

Evolution of the Ku Klux Klan over the years

The Ku Klux Klan was formed by army veterans of defeated Southern Confederates states. At a drinking (social) club in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Ku Klux Klan emerged from “Kyklos” or “Kuklos” (a Greek word which means a “circle”). “Klan” was alliterated from the English word “clan”.

the kkk

KKK members posing with what appears to be a Confederate flag in the background. Image Source

Nathan Bedford Forrest was seen as a one-time leader of the group who held the title Grand Imperial Wizard. Thanks to punitive measures put in place by the federal government, the Klan diminished in size all throughout the 1870s. However, the almost obliterated KKK soon had winds in their sails as a result of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 critically acclaimed, but highly controversial, film- “Birth of a Nation“. The movie explores the events that transpired immediately after the American Civil War, as well as during the Reconstruction Era. Although Griffith’s cinematography prowess in the movie was ground-breaking at the time, the film stirred a lot of emotions by depicting a group white-hooded southerners as valiant knights who came to the rescue of the South from the evil hands of radical Republicans, Northerners (carpetbaggers), and uncivilized and inferior blacks.

The Birth of a Nation

A group of civil rights activists pictured here protesting the 1915 controversial epic, “Birth of a Nation”. Image credit: Library of Congress/Corbis/Getty Images

Somehow, the President of the U.S. at the time, President Woodrow Wilson, gave the movie his tacit approval by screening it in the White House. In the eyes of the Klansmen, this was seen as a huge boost to their cause – an approval that came from the highest office in the land. The KKK got more and more confident, and their publicity grew upon the film’s release on February 8, 1915. In short, the film gave credence to the various Jim Crow segregation laws of the South. Many historians and political commentators strongly believe that the “Birth of a Nation” undoubtedly re-inspired the formation of the KKK in 1915, under the guidance of William Joseph Simmons- a man widely considered as the father of the modern Ku Klux Klan.

Simmons capitalized on the film, as well as many other tensions that were evident in America, to propagate the ideas of the KKK. He was the brain behind KKK’s new looks- costumes, burning crosses, aprons and philosophical doctrines. He also worked very hard to make the KKK attractive to young southerners. Gradually, KKK’s  reign of terror quadrupled in weight and numbers.

Factors that Differentiated the North from the South

Some factors precipitated the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in the South. The North and South varied a lot in terms of economic and political strength. Southerners were completely different from their counterparts in the North. The difference in climate and geography of the two sides influenced the demand for unique raw materials. The South’s economy thrived on agriculture (farming).

Back up North, it was a different thing altogether. Northerners were a much more liberal group of states. Northerners were focused on industrialization and urbanization. The agriculture-centered South had a need for slaves to work in the plantations. After the civil war, many slaves were freed kind courtesy to the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the 13th Amendment ratified in the U.S. Constitution. On the other hand, Northerners were busily assembling technological machines to speed up work. The disparity between the two sections of America explains why evil deeds (such as the KKK and Jim Crow Laws) started and triumphed in the South.

Effects of the Civil War and the Beginning of the KKK

With the Civil War over, the southern states’ economies weakened.  After losing the war, whites in the South felt humiliated. Their properties were destroyed during the war, even though President Abraham Lincoln, and later his successor Andrew Johnson, categorically stated that the South be treated in a fair and humane manner. The agricultural plantation (manned by African slaves) began to fall apart because the slaves were freed. Since the black laborers reduced in number, it significantly affected the agricultural output of the South.

Governmental power of the South was in the hands of Republicans. The Reconstruction policies focused on creating an equal environment for blacks. This didn’t go down well with the southern whites. In the end, Black Codes and the Ku Klux Klan were born in the South in order to restore white supremacy over the blacks.

Ku Klux Klan Atrocities in the South

As 1867 rolled in, there was an increase in black representation in Congress and governmental institutions across most Southern states. The Ku Klux Klan took the path of organized violence and brutal campaigns against the Reconstruction Policies directed towards the development of the African American communities. The KKK were joined by other vicious groups such as the White Brotherhood.

African-American politicians became victims of inhumane physical assaults by the Ku Klux Klan. The attack targeted up to 10% of black lawmakers. About seven African-American legislators were killed by the KKK. The Klan helped popularize old terms such as “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” in the South. The Deep South termed opportunistic Northerners, educated and affluent people that came to the states with the intention of benefiting from the Reconstruction policies, as “Carpetbaggers”. On the other hand, Southerners who collaborated well with the North during the Reconstruction period were given the derrogative title, “Scalawags”. Carpetbaggers, scalawags, as well as a plethora of African-American Institutions, suffered attacks from the Ku Klux Klan. There was no escape, the Klan’s presence could be found in virtually all the southern states of the United States.

The group flourished, even though they didn’t have a well-established leadership. Their code of dressing was popularly identified by masked men in long and white robes (hoods). They mostly launched their attacks in the night. Black minority regions were the most targeted areas of the KKK. The nefarious activities of the KKK took a dangerous turn in mid-winter, 1871. Around that time, 500 Klan members attacked and a county jail in South Carolina. They killed at least 8 black prisoners.

Ku Klux Klan Boom of the 1920s

Ku Klux Klan

A Ku Klux Klan march at Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. (1928). Image Source

The second Klan of the KKK reached its peak growth in 1920. At that time, the KKK witnessed a membership boom which numbered over 4 million people nationwide. Money began flowing into the group as the KKK sold its racial insensitive attire, symbols, and publications. The second Klan adopted a burning cross as their key symbol. Members donned white robes and masks; they partook in parades and marches nationwide, especially in the South. Blacks lived in a state of a constant nightmare, as the white terrorist group unleashed violence upon violence on defenseless African-Americans. The new Klan also came with religious hatred towards Jews and Catholic Christians.

Brief Decline and Resurgence of the Klan

At the time that the US was rocked by the Great Depression (late 1920s to the 1930s), the Ku Klux Klan began to fall apart. The economic meltdown, which was characterized by a high unemployment rate and low business activities, lasted from 1929 to 1940. The Depression also resulted in a massive KKK membership decline. The group was plagued by severe fractions and low group morale. For a brief period of time, in the early 1940s, the group were even disbanded. The KKK went on to become a relatively inactive and an obscure group for the next two decades or so.

However, there was a rebirth of the group, as the 1964 civil rights acts were passed. Southern states hesitated to comply with the acts and social changes. Due to Washington’s crack down on the group, some Klan members went underground and periodically meted out violence through shootings and bombings. U.S. president at that time, President Lyndon Johnson decried the unlawful activities of this sinister and racist group. He also announced on TV the apprehension of 4 very influential Klan members who were responsible for the death of a white civil-rights woman.

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