Arguably one of America’s most infamous secret societies, the Ku Klux Klan, has a violent and extremist history. Let’s look at the three iterations of this hate organization as it changed and evolved.
What is the Klu Klux Klan?
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a right-wing terrorist group in the United States that force its agenda through terror tactics and violence.
They historically have had a white supremacist agenda and were originally a vigilante group standing against Reconstruction and African American freedom in Southern states.
Over time and in three different iterations, the group included Jews, Latinos, Asian Americans, Catholics, Native Americans, LQBTQ+, Muslims, Immigrants, and left-wing supporters on their hate list.
Predominantly made up of middle-class white men, the group has a network of factions or chapters with a specific member hierarchy. They concerned themselves with white nationalism, anti-immigration, and the “purification” of American society.
A Brief History of the KKK
There were three main periods during the history of the United States of America when Ku Klux Klan support flourished.
The first was after the American Civil War ended and was an underground movement against the Reconstruction Era of the 19th century. The group was started as a social club by confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865 and became a southern white underground resistance to the ideas of black economic empowerment. The original KKK was disbanded during the 1870s when the Jim Crow laws were enacted.
In the 1920s, after World War 1, the second iteration of the KKK began. They still had a racist agenda, but it now extended to immigrants and not just African-Americans.
The third iteration of the KKK started in the 1950s with the Civil Rights Movement. It was a reaction to desegregation and equal rights for African Americans and other minority groups.
1st Iteration: Looking at the Original Ku Klux Klan
The original Ku Klux Klan was started by Nathan Bedford Forrest in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865. This social club wanted to maintain black economic instability and white racial and economic superiority in the post-war South.
They were not a centralized national organization but a network of local terrorist groups. They used violence, voter intimidation, and voter fraud to restrict black economic empowerment in Southern states.
They wore elaborate costumes and hoods to protect their identity. Originally the KKK was an underground resistance to Reconstruction and the attempts to redress the legacy of slavery and sought to overthrow the Republican state government in the South.
During the peak of their terror campaign between 1868 and 1870, they killed thousands of African Americans. The Ku Klux Klan act of 1871 was the first piece of US legislation that made individuals and States punishable under federal law for hate crimes.
The group disbanded with the Jim Crow laws,1877 to the 1950s, that enforced racial segregation.
2nd Iteration: The KKK after Word War 1
In 1903 a 13-year-old factory worker in Atlanta, Georgia, named Mary Phagan, was found murdered. Her Jewish boss was arrested and sentenced to death. He was part of a fraternal society called the Jewish B’nai B’rith and challenged the sentence. In response to the overturned death penalty ruling, a secret society called The Knights of Mary Phagan abducted and lynched him.
In 1905 a novel by Thomas Dixon Jr called The Clansman was published. It painted a romanticized picture of the KKK and sought to justify segregation. In 1915 the book was adapted into a movie called Birth of a Nation.
These three events inspired a man named William J. Simmons, who, on Thanksgiving Day 1915, burned a cross with other group members and revived the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan.
This group had the same white supremacist agenda as the original KKK, but they now had a strong anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic sentiment and feared immigrants were changing traditional American culture.
3rd Iteration: 20th Century Revival
The third iteration of the KKK was in response to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.
It was more violent than the second iteration. During the 1950s and 1960s, there were more than 70 bombings in Georgia and Alabama, arson cases at 30 black churches in Mississippi, and at least 40 home bombings in transitional areas.
One prominent act of violence was the Birmingham Church Bombing on 15 September 1963, where four young black girls were killed.
In 1964 the FBI became involved and had widespread informants in various KKK chapters. Due to FBI pressure, a congressional probe, internal faction fighting, and costly court cases, membership of the KKK dropped drastically.
David Duke founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1975, and his anti-semitic hatred resonated with right-wing neo-nazi factions. With a drop in new KKK members, they have turned to other right-wing extremist groups, which has led to an organized white power movement.
The Evolution of Prejudice
All three iterations of the KKK have had racism as an inherent agenda, but each group’s specific targets and tactics have reflected the societal changes of the time.
The original KKK was based exclusively on securing white supremacy as it had been known in the Confederate South.
The second surge in KKK activity in the 1920s was not primarily Southern, and they added more groups to the hate list, including Jews, Catholics, and other immigrant minorities.
Each iteration of the KKK has used different methods to garner widespread support and gain a following without losing sight of its underlying agenda. There is also an argument that the KKK has become less of a social movement and white supremacist group and more of a mentality.
Versions of this hate organization seem to flourish during times of social upheaval and calls for racial equality. The KKK, as we historically know it, may be less active today, but its intolerant agenda is still present and can be seen in right-wing white supremacist groups.