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Ku Klux Klan (KKK), informally known as The Klan, is the name of several past and present hate group organizations in the United States whose avowed purpose was to protect the rights of and further the interests of white Americans by violence and intimidation. The first such organizations originated in the Southern states and eventually grew to national scope. They developed iconic white costumes consisting of robes, masks, and conical hats. The KKK has a record of using terrorism, violence, and lynching to murder and oppress African Americans, Jews and other minorities and to intimidate and oppose Roman Catholics and labor unions.

The first Klan was founded in 1865 by Tennesseemarker veterans of the Confederate Army. Groups spread throughout the South. Its purpose was to restore white supremacy in the aftermath of the American Civil War. The Klan resisted Reconstruction by assaulting, murdering and intimidating freedmen and white Republicans. In 1870 and 1871 the federal government passed the Force Acts, which were used to prosecute Klan crimes. Prosecution and enforcement suppressed Klan activity. In 1874 and later, however, newly organized and openly active paramilitary organizations such as the White League and the Red Shirts started a fresh round of violence aimed at suppressing Republican voting and running Republicans out of office. These contributed to white Democrats regaining political power in the Southern states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1915, the second Klan was founded. It grew rapidly in a period of postwar social tensions, where industrialization in the North attracted numerous waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and the Great Migration of Southern blacks and whites. In reaction, the second KKK preached racism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Communism, nativism, and anti-Semitism. Some local groups took part in lynchings, attacks on private houses, and carried out other violent activities. The Klan committed the most numerous murders and acts of violence in the South, which had a tradition of lawlessness.

The second Klan was a formal fraternal organization, with a national and state structure. At its peak in the mid-1920s, the organization included about 15% of the nation's eligible population, approximately 4–5 million men. Internal divisions and external opposition brought about a sharp decline in membership, which had dropped to about 30,000 by 1930. The Klan's popularity fell further during the Great Depression and World War II.

The name Ku Klux Klan has since been used by many independent groups opposing the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, they often forged alliances with Southern police departments, as in Birmingham, Alabamamarker; or with governor's offices, as with George Wallace of Alabama. Several members of KKK-affiliated groups were convicted of murder in the deaths of civil rights workers and children in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birminghammarker, and the assassination of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers, and three civil rights workers in Mississippimarker. Today, researchers estimate that there may be more than 150 Klan chapters with 5,000–8,000 members nationwide. The U.S. government classifies them as hate groups, with operations in separated small local units.

First Klan 1865–1874


Six middle-class Confederate veterans from Pulaski, Tennesseemarker, created the original Ku Klux Klan on December 24, 1865, in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. They made up the name by combining the Greek (κυκλος, circle) with clan. The Ku Klux Klan was one among a number of secret, oath-bound organizations using violence, including the Southern Cross in New Orleansmarker (1865), and the Knights of the White Camellia (1867) in Louisiana.

Historians generally see the KKK as part of the postwar violence related not only to the high number of veterans in the population, but also to their effort to control the dramatically changed social situation by using extrajudicial means in order to restore white supremacy. In 1866, Mississippimarker Governor William L. Sharkey reported that disorder, lack of control and lawlessness were widespread; in some states armed bands of Confederate soldiers roamed at will. The Klan used public violence against blacks as intimidation. They burned houses, and attacked and killed blacks, leaving their bodies on the roads.

More recently, historian Bob Brewer has suggested that the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC) were a precursor to the KKK. Most recruits to the KGC were in the Southwest, in Texasmarker and New Mexicomarker, where they formed private militias to carry out raids in actions that people hoped would extend slave territory after the Mexican War. While some sympathizers and recruits to the KGC were found during the Civil War in the states bordering the Ohio River, the organization was considered dissolved before the end of the war.

A political cartoon depicting the KKK and the Democratic Party as continuations of the Confederacy
In an 1867 meeting in Nashville, Tennesseemarker, Klan members gathered to try to create a hierarchical organization with local chapters eventually reporting up to a national headquarters. They elected Brian A. Scates to be the Leader and President of this organization. Since most of the Klan's members were veterans, they were used to the hierarchical structure of the organization, but in fact the Klan never operated under this structure. Former Confederate Brigadier General George Gordon developed the Prescript, or Klan dogma. The Prescript suggested elements of white supremacist belief. For instance, an applicant should be asked if he was in favor of "a white man's government", "the reenfranchisement and emancipation of the white men of the South, and the restitution of the Southern people to all their rights." The latter is a reference to the Ironclad Oath, which stripped the vote from white persons who refused to swear that they had not borne arms against the Union, although in practice only a minority of whites were disenfranchised.

Gordon supposedly told former slave trader and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, Tennesseemarker, about the Klan. Forrest allegedly responded, "That's a good thing; that's a damn good thing. We can use that to keep the niggers in their place." A few weeks later, Forrest was selected as Grand Wizard, the Klan's national leader, although he always denied his leadership.

In an 1868 newspaper interview, Forrest stated that the Klan's primary opposition was to the Loyal Leaguesmarker, Republican state governments, people like Tennessee governor Brownlow and other carpetbaggers and scalawags. He argued that many southerners believed that blacks were voting for the Republican Party because they were being hoodwinked by the Loyal Leaguesmarker. One Alabama newspaper editor declared "The League is nothing more than a nigger Ku Klux Klan."

Despite Gordon's and Forrest's work, local Klan units never accepted the Prescript and continued to operate autonomously. There were never hierarchical levels or state headquarters. Klan members used violence to settle old feuds and local grudges, as they worked to restore white dominance in the disrupted postwar society. Historian Elaine Frantz Parsons commented on the make up of the membership:
Lifting the Klan mask revealed a chaotic multitude of antiblack vigilante groups, disgruntled poor white farmers, wartime guerrilla bands, displaced Democratic politicians, illegal whiskey distillers, coercive moral reformers, sadists, rapists, white workmen fearful of black competition, employers trying to enforce labor discipline, common thieves, neighbors with decades-old grudges, and even a few freedmen and white Republicans who allied with Democratic whites or had criminal agendas of their own.
Indeed, all they had in common, besides being overwhelmingly white, southern, and Democratic, was that they called themselves, or were called, Klansmen.

Historian Eric Foner observed:
In effect, the Klan was a military force serving the interests of the Democratic party, the planter class, and all those who desired restoration of white supremacy.
Its purposes were political, but political in the broadest sense, for it sought to affect power relations, both public and private, throughout Southern society.
It aimed to reverse the interlocking changes sweeping over the South during Reconstruction: to destroy the Republican party's infrastructure, undermine the Reconstruction state, reestablish control of the black labor force, and restore racial subordination in every aspect of Southern life.

To that end they worked to curb the education, economic advancement, voting rights, and right to keep and bear arms of blacks. The Ku Klux Klan soon spread into nearly every southern state, launching a "reign of terror" against Republican leaders both black and white. Those political leaders assassinated during the campaign included Arkansasmarker Congressman James M. Hinds, three members of the South Carolinamarker legislature, and several men who served in constitutional conventions."


Klan members adopted masks and robes that hid their identities and added to the drama of their night rides, their chosen time for attacks. Many of them operated in small towns and rural areas where people otherwise knew each other's faces, and sometimes still recognized the attackers. "The kind of thing that men are afraid or ashamed to do openly, and by day, they accomplish secretly, masked, and at night." With this method both the high and the low could be attacked. The Ku Klux Klan night riders "sometimes claimed to be ghosts of Confederate soldiers so, as they claimed, to frighten superstitious blacks. Few freedmen took such nonsense seriously."

The Klan attacked black members of the Loyal Leaguesmarker and intimidated southern Republicans and Freedmen's Bureau workers. When they killed black political leaders, they also took heads of families, along with the leaders of churches and community groups, because people had many roles. Agents of the Freedmen's Bureau reported weekly assaults and murders of blacks. "Armed guerilla warfare killed thousands of Negroes; political riots were staged; their causes or occasions were always obscure, their results always certain: ten to one hundred times as many Negroes were killed as whites." Masked men shot into houses and burned them, sometimes with the occupants still inside. They drove successful black farmers off their land. Generally, it Canby reported that in North and South Carolina, in 18 months ending in June 1867, there were 197 murders and 548 cases of aggravated assault.

Klan violence worked to suppress black voting. As the following examples indicate, over 2,000 persons were killed, wounded and otherwise injured in Louisianamarker within a few weeks prior to the Presidential election of November 1868. Although St. Landry Parish had a registered Republican majority of 1,071, after the murders, no Republicans voted in the fall elections. White Democrats cast the full vote of the parish for Grant's opponent. The KKK killed and wounded more than 200 black Republicans, hunting and chasing them through the woods. Thirteen captives were taken from jail and shot; a half-buried pile of 25 bodies was found in the woods. The KKK made people vote Democratic and gave them certificates of the fact.

In the April 1868 Georgiamarker gubernatorial election, Columbia Countymarker cast 1, 222 votes for Republican Rufus Bullock. By the November presidential election, however, Klan intimidation led to suppression of the Republican vote and only one person voted for Ulysses S. Grant.

Klansmen killed more than 150 African Americans in a county in Floridamarker, and hundreds more in other counties. Freedmen's Bureau records provided a detailed recounting of beatings and murders of freedmen and their white allies by Klansmen.

Milder encounters also occurred. In Mississippimarker, according to the Congressional inquiry

One of these teachers (Miss Allen of Illinoismarker), whose school was at Cotton Gin Port in Monroe Countymarker, was visited ... between one and two o'clock in the morning on March 1871, by about fifty men mounted and disguised.
Each man wore a long white robe and his face was covered by a loose mask with scarlet stripes.
She was ordered to get up and dress which she did at once and then admitted to her room the captain and lieutenant who in addition to the usual disguise had long horns on their heads and a sort of device in front.
The lieutenant had a pistol in his hand and he and the captain sat down while eight or ten men stood inside the door and the porch was full.
They treated her "gentlemanly and quietly" but complained of the heavy school-tax, said she must stop teaching and go away and warned her that they never gave a second notice.
She heeded the warning and left the county.

By 1868, two years after the Klan's creation, its activity was beginning to decrease. Members were hiding behind Klan masks and robes as a way to avoid prosecution for free-lance violence. Many influential southern Democrats feared that Klan lawlessness provided an excuse for the federal government to retain its power over the South, and they began to turn against it. There were outlandish claims made, such as Georgian B. H. Hill stating "that some of these outrages were actually perpetrated by the political friends of the parties slain."


Union Army veterans in mountainous Blount County, Alabamamarker, organized 'the anti-Ku Klux.' They put an end to violence by threatening Klansmen with reprisals unless they stopped whipping Unionists and burning black churches and schools. Armed blacks formed their own defense in Bennettsville, South Carolinamarker and patrolled the streets to protect their homes.

National sentiment gathered to crack down on the Klan, even though some Democrats at the national level questioned whether the Klan really existed or believed that it was just a creation of nervous Southern Republican governors. Many southern states began to pass anti-Klan legislation.

In January 1871, Pennsylvaniamarker Republican Senator John Scott convened a Congressional committee which took testimony from 52 witnesses about Klan atrocities. They accumulated 12 volumes of horrifying testimony. In February, former Union General and Congressman Benjamin Franklin Butler of Massachusettsmarker introduced the Ku Klux Klan Act. This added to the enmity that southern white Democrats bore toward him. While the bill was being considered, further violence in the South swung support for its passage. The Governor of South Carolina appealed for federal troops to assist his efforts in keeping control of the state. A riot and massacre in a Meridian, Mississippimarker, courthouse were reported, from which a black state representative escaped only by taking to the woods.

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed Butler's legislation. The Ku Klux Klan Act was used by the Federal government together with the 1870 Force Act to enforce the civil rights provisions for individuals under the constitution. Under the Klan Act, Federal troops were used for enforcement, and Klansmen were prosecuted in Federal court. More African Americans served on juries in Federal court than were selected for local or state juries, so they had a chance to participate in the process. In the crackdown, hundreds of Klan members were fined or imprisoned. In South Carolina, habeas corpus was suspended in nine counties.

The Klan declines and is superseded by other groups

Although Forrest boasted that the Klan was a nationwide organization of 550,000 men and that he could muster 40,000 Klansmen within five days' notice, as a secret or "invisible" group, it had no membership rosters, no chapters, and no local officers. It was difficult for observers to judge its actual membership. It had created a sensation by the dramatic nature of its masked forays and because of its many murders.

One Klan official complained that his, "so-called 'Chief'-ship was purely nominal, I having not the least authority over the reckless young country boys who were most active in 'night-riding,' whipping, etc., all of which was outside of the intent and constitution of the Klan..."

In 1870 a federal grand jury determined that the Klan was a "terrorist organization". White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction by Allen W. Trelease (Louisiana State University Press: 1995) It issued hundreds of indictments for crimes of violence and terrorism. Klan members were prosecuted, and many fled from areas that were under federal government jurisdiction, particularly in South Carolina. Many people not formally inducted into the Klan had used the Klan's costume for anonymity, to hide their identities when carrying out acts of violence. Forrest ordered the Klan to disband in 1869, stating that it was "being perverted from its original honorable and patriotic purposes, becoming injurious instead of subservient to the public peace". Historian Stanley Horn writes "generally speaking, the Klan's end was more in the form of spotty, slow, and gradual disintegration than a formal and decisive disbandment". A reporter in Georgia wrote in January 1870, "A true statement of the case is not that the Ku Klux are an organized band of licensed criminals, but that men who commit crimes call themselves Ku Klux".

While people used the Klan as a mask for nonpolitical crimes, state and local governments seldom acted against them. African Americans were kept off juries. In lynching cases, all-white juries almost never indicted Ku Klux Klan members. When there was a rare indictment, juries were unlikely to vote for a conviction. In part, jury members feared reprisals from local Klansmen.

Others may have agreed with lynching as a way of keeping dominance over black men. In many states, officials were reluctant to use black militia against the Klan out of fear that racial tensions would be raised. When Republican Governor of North Carolina William Woods Holden called out the militia against the Klan in 1870, it added to his unpopularity. Combined with violence and fraud at the polls, the Republicans lost their majority in the state legislature. Disaffection with Holden's actions led to white Democratic legislators' impeaching Holden and removing him from office, but their reasons were numerous.

The Klan was destroyed in South Carolina and decimated throughout the rest of the South, where it had already been in decline. Attorney General Amos Tappan Ackerman led the prosecutions.

In some areas, other local paramilitary organizations such as the White League, Red Shirts, saber clubs, and rifle clubs continued to intimidate and murder black voters.

In 1874, organized white paramilitary groups formed in the Deep South to replace the faltering Klan: the White League in Louisianamarker and the Red Shirts in Mississippimarker, Northmarker and South Carolinamarker. They campaigned openly to turn Republicans out of office, intimidated and killed black voters, tried to disrupt organizing and suppress black voting. They were out in force during the campaigns and elections of 1874 and 1876, contributing to the conservative Democrats regaining power in 1876, against a background of electoral violence.

Shortly after, in United States v. Cruikshank (1875), the Supreme Court ruled that the Force Act of 1870 did not give the Federal government power to regulate private actions, but only those by state governments. The result was that as the century went on, African Americans were at the mercy of hostile state governments that refused to intervene against private violence and paramilitary groups.

Whereas the number of indictments across the South was large, the number of cases leading to prosecution and sentencing was relatively small. The overloaded federal courts were not able to meet the demands of trying such a tremendous number of cases, a situation that led to selective pardoning. By late 1873 and 1874, most of the charges against Klansmen were dropped although new cases continued to be prosecuted for several more years. Most of those sentenced had either served their terms or been pardoned by 1875.

The Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker eviscerated the Ku Klux Act in 1876 by ruling that the federal government could no longer prosecute individuals although states would be forced to comply with federal civil rights provisions. Republicans passed a second civil rights act (the Civil Rights Act of 1875) to grant equal access to public facilities and other housing accommodations regardless of race. Ironically, the Klan during this period served to further Northern reconstruction efforts, as Ku Klux violence provided the political climate needed to pass civil rights protections for blacks. Although the Ku Klux Act of 1871 dismantled the first Klan, Southern whites formed other, similar groups that kept blacks away from the polls through intimidation and physical violence. Reconstruction ended with the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes, who suspended the federal military occupation of the South; yet blacks still found themselves without the basic civil liberties that Congressional Republicans had sought to secure.

In 1882, long after the Klan was destroyed, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Harris that the Klan Act was partially unconstitutional. It ruled that Congress's power under the Fourteenth Amendment did not extend to the right to regulate against private conspiracies.

Klan costumes, also called "regalia", disappeared by the early 1870s (Wade 1987, p. 109). The fact that the Klan did not exist for decades was shown when Simmons's 1915 recreation of the Klan attracted only two aging "former Reconstruction Klansmen." All other members were new. By 1872, the Klan was broken as an organization. Nonetheless, the goals that the Klan had failed to achieve itself, such as suppressing suffrage for Southern blacks and driving a wedge between poor whites and blacks, were largely accomplished by the 1890s by militant Southern whites. Lynchings of African Americans, far from being ended by the Klan's disintegration, instead peaked in 1892 with 161 deaths.

The second Klan: 1915–1944

Refounding in 1915

Three closely linked events occurred in 1915:

  • The film The Birth of a Nation was released, mythologizing and glorifying the first Klan.
  • Leo Frank, a Jewish man whose controversial death sentence for the rape and murder of a young white girl named Mary Phagan had been commuted, was lynched near Atlantamarker against a backdrop of media frenzy.
  • The second Ku Klux Klan was founded at Stone Mountain, Georgia, supplementing its original anti-black ideology with a new anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, Prohibitionist and anti-Semitic agenda. The bulk of the founders were from an Atlanta-area organization calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan that had organized around Leo Frank's trial. The new organization emulated the fictionalized version of the Klan presented in The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation

Director D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation glorified the original Klan. His film was based on the book and play The Clansman and the book The Leopard's Spots, both by Thomas Dixon, Jr.. Dixon said his purpose was "to revolutionize northern sentiment by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat!" The film created a nationwide Klan craze. At the official premier in Atlanta, members of the Klan rode up and down the street in front of the theater.

Much of the modern Klan's iconography, including the standardized white costume and the lighted cross, are derived from the film. Its imagery was based on Dixon's romanticized concept of old Scotland, as portrayed in the novels and poetry of Sir Walter Scott. The film's influence and popularity were enhanced by a widely reported endorsement by historian and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

President Wilson

The Birth of a Nation included extensive quotations from Woodrow Wilson's History of the American People, as if to give it a stronger basis. After seeing the film in a special White Housemarker screening, Wilson allegedly said, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." Given Wilson's views on race and the Klan, his statement was taken as supportive of the film. In later correspondence with Griffith, Wilson confirmed his enthusiasm. Wilson's remarks immediately became controversial. Wilson tried to remain aloof, but finally, on April 30, he issued a non-denial denial. Historian Arthur Link quotes Wilson's aide, Joseph Tumulty: "the President was entirely unaware of the nature of the play before it was presented and at no time has expressed his approbation of it."

Leo Frank

Another event that influenced the Klan was sensational coverage of the trial, conviction and lynching of a Jewish factory manager from Atlanta named Leo Frank. In lurid newspaper accounts, Frank was accused of the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a girl employed at his factory.

After a trial in Georgia in which a mob daily surrounded the courtroom, Frank was convicted. Because of the presence of the armed mob, the judge asked Frank and his counsel to stay away when the verdict was announced. Frank's appeals failed. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes dissented from other justices and condemned the mob's intimidation of the jury as the court's failing to provide due process to the defendant. After the governor commuted Frank's sentence to life imprisonment, a mob calling itself the Knights of Mary Phagan kidnapped Frank from prison and lynched him.

The Frank trial was used skillfully by Georgia politician and publisher Thomas E. Watson, the editor for The Jeffersonian magazine. He was a leader in recreating the Klan and was later elected to the U.S. Senate. The new Klan was inaugurated in 1915 at a meeting led by William J. Simmons on top of Stone Mountainmarker. A few aging members of the original Klan attended, along with members of the self-named Knights of Mary Phagan.

Simmons stated that he had been inspired by the original Klan's Prescripts, written in 1867 by Confederate veteran George Gordon in an attempt to create a national organization. These were never adopted by the Klan, however. The Prescript stated the Klan's purposes in idealistic terms, hiding the fact that its members committed acts of vigilante violence and murder from behind masks.

Social factors

The second Klan arose during the nadir of American race relations, in response to urbanization and industrialization. Massive immigration from the largely Catholic countries of eastern and southern Europe led to friction with America's longer-established Protestant worshipers. The Great Migration of African Americans to the North stoked racism by whites in Northern industrial cities; thus the second Klan would achieve its greatest political power not in any Southern state, but in Indianamarker. The migration of African Americans and whites from rural areas to Southern cities further increased tensions. The Klan grew most rapidly in cities which had high growth rates between 1910 and 1930, such as Detroitmarker, Memphismarker, Daytonmarker, Atlantamarker, Dallasmarker, and Houstonmarker. Stanley Horn, a Southern historian sympathetic to the first Klan, was careful in an oral interview to distinguish it from the later "spurious Ku Klux organization which was in ill-repute — and, of course, had no connection whatsoever with the Klan of Reconstruction days".

In an era without Social Security or widely available life insurance, it was common for men to join fraternal organizations such as the Elks or the Woodmen of the World in order to provide for their families in case they died or were unable to work. The founder of the new Klan, William J. Simmons, was a member of twelve different fraternal organizations. He recruited for the Klan with his chest covered with fraternal badges, and consciously modeled the Klan after those organizations.

Klan organizers signed up hundreds of new members, who paid initiation fees and bought KKK costumes. The organizer kept half the money and sent the rest to state or national officials. When the organizer was done with an area, he organized a huge rally, often with burning crosses and perhaps presented a Bible to a local Protestant minister. He then left town with the money. The local units operated like many fraternal organizations and occasionally brought in speakers.

The Klan's growth was also affected by mobilization for World War I and postwar tensions, especially in the cities where strangers came up against each other more often. Southern whites resented the arming of black soldiers. Black veterans did not want to go back to second class status, and some were lynched, still in uniform, on returning from overseas.


In reaction to social changes, the Klan adopted anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist and anti-immigrant slants.

Klan groups lynched and murdered Black soldiers returning from World War I while they were still in military uniforms. The Klan warned Blacks that they must respect the rights of the white race "in whose country they are permitted to reside". The number of lynchings escalated, and from 1918 to 1927, 416 African Americans were killed, mostly in the South.

When two black men attempted to vote in November 1920 in Ocoee, Floridamarker, the Klan attacked the black community. In the ensuing violence, six black residents and two whites were killed, and twenty five black homes, two churches, and a fraternal lodge were destroyed.

Although Klan members were concentrated in the South, Midwest and west, there were some members in New Englandmarker, too. Klan members torched an African American school in Scituate, Rhode Islandmarker.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a violent and zealous faction of the Klan called the Black Legion was active in the Midwestern U.S. under Virgil Effinger.


Lender et al. state that the Klan's resurgence in the 1920s was aided by the temperance movement. In Arkansasmarker and elsewhere, the Klan opposed bootleggers, and in 1922, two hundred Klan members set fire to saloons in Union Countymarker. The national Klan office was finally established in Dallasmarker, Texasmarker, but Little Rockmarker, Arkansas was the home of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan. The first head of this auxiliary was a former president of the Arkansas WCTU. One historian contends that the KKK’s "support for Prohibition represented the single most important bond between Klansmen throughout the nation". Membership in the Klan and other prohibition groups overlapped, and they often coordinated activities. For example, Edward Young Clarke, a top leader of the Klan, raised funds for both the Klan and the Anti-Saloon League. Clarke was indicted in 1923 for violations of the Mann Act.

Blaine Amendments

In 1921, the Klan arrived in Oregonmarker from central Californiamarker and established the state's first klavern in Medford. In a state with one of the country's highest percentages of white residents, the Klan attracted up to 14,000 members and established 58 klaverns by the end of 1922. Given the small population of non-white minorities outside Portland, the Oregon Klan directed attention almost exclusively against Catholics, who numbered about 8% of the population. In 1922, the Masonic Grand Lodge of Oregon sponsored a bill to require all school-age children to attend public schools. With support of the Klan and Democratic Governor Walter M. Pierce, endorsed by the Klan, the Compulsory Education Law was passed with a majority of votes. Its primary purpose was to shut down Catholic schools in Oregon, but it also affected other private and military schools. A number of states passed Blaine Amendments, which forbid direct government aid to religious schools.

Labor and anti-unionism

The social unrest of the postwar period included labor strikes in response to low wages and poor working conditions in many industrial cities, often led by immigrants, who also organized unions. Klan members worried about labor organizers and the socialist leanings of some of the immigrants, which added to the tensions. They also resented upwardly mobile ethnic Catholics. At the same time, in cities Klan members were themselves working in industrial environments and often struggled with working conditions.

In southern cities such as Birmingham, Alabamamarker, Klan members kept control of access to the better-paying industrial jobs but opposed unions. During the 1930s and 1940s, Klan leaders urged members to disrupt the Congress of Industrial Organizations(CIO), which advocated industrial unions and was open to African-American members. With access to dynamite and skills from their jobs in mining and steel, in the late 1940s some Klan members in Birmingham began using bombings to intimidate upwardly mobile blacks who moved into middle-class neighborhoods. "By mid-1949, there were so many charred house carcasses that the area [College Hills] was informally named Dynamite Hill." Independent Klan groups remained active in Birmingham and were deeply engaged in violent opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.


A significant characteristic of the second Klan was that it was an organization based in urban areas, reflecting the major shifts of population to cities in both the North and the South. In Michigan, for instance, 40,000 members lived in Detroit, where they made up more than half of the state's membership. Most Klansmen were lower- to middle-class whites who were trying to protect their jobs and housing from the waves of newcomers to the industrial cities: immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who tended to be Catholic and Jewish in numbers higher than earlier groups of immigrants; and black and white migrants from the South. As new populations poured into cities, rapidly changing neighborhoods created social tensions. Because of the rapid pace of population growth in industrializing cities such as Detroit and Chicago, the Klan grew rapidly in the U.S. Midwest. The Klan also grew in booming Southern cities such as Dallas and Houston.

For some states, historians have obtained membership rosters of some local units and matched the names against city directory and local records to create statistical profiles of the membership. Big city newspapers were often hostile and ridiculed Klansmen as ignorant farmers. Detailed analysis from Indianamarker showed the rural stereotype was false for that state:

Indiana's Klansmen represented a wide cross section of society: they were not disproportionately urban or rural, nor were they significantly more or less likely than other members of society to be from the working class, middle class, or professional ranks.
Klansmen were Protestants, of course, but they cannot be described exclusively or even predominantly as fundamentalists.
In reality, their religious affiliations mirrored the whole of white Protestant society, including those who did not belong to any church.

The Klan attracted people but most of them did not remain in the organization for long. Membership in the Klan turned over rapidly as people found out that it was not the group they wanted. Millions joined, and at its peak in the 1920s, the organization included about 15% of the nation's eligible population. The lessening of social tensions contributed to the Klan's decline.

The burning cross

The second Klan adopted a burning Christian cross as its symbol, using it as a rallying point and a means of intimidation against their targets. No such crosses had been used by the first Klan.

The practice of cross burning had been loosely based on ancient Scottish clans' practice of burning a St. Andrew's cross (an X-shaped cross) as a beacon to muster their forces for war. In The Clansman (see above), Dixon had falsely claimed that the first Klan had used fiery crosses when rallying its men to fight against Reconstruction. Griffith brought this image to the screen in The Birth of a Nation, adding to the confusion by mistakenly portraying the burning cross as an upright Latin cross rather than the St. Andrew's cross that the Highland clans had actually used. Simmons adopted the burning Latin cross wholesale from the movie, prominently displaying it at the 1915 Stone Mountain meeting, and the incendiary symbol has been indelibly associated with the Ku Klux Klan ever since.

Political influence

Sheet music to "We Are All Loyal Klansmen", 1923

The Klan had major political influence in several states and was influential mostly in the center of the country. The Klan spread from the South into the Midwest and Northern states, and into Canada where there was a large movement against Catholic immigrants. At its peak, Klan membership exceeded four million and comprised 20% of the adult white male population in many broad geographic regions, and 40% in some areas. Most of the Klan's membership resided in Midwestern states.

In another well-known example from the same year, the Klan decided to turn Anaheim, Californiamarker, into a model Klan city. It secretly took over the City Council, but the city conducted a special recall election and Klan members were voted out.

Klan delegates played a significant role at the path-setting 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York City, often called the "Klanbake Convention". The convention initially pitted Klan-backed candidate William Gibbs McAdoo against Catholic New York Governor Al Smith. 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.

In some states, such as Alabama, the KKK worked for political and social reform. The state's Klansmen were among the foremost advocates of better public schools, effective prohibition enforcement, expanded road construction, and other "progressive" political measures. In many ways these reforms benefited lower class white people. By 1925, the Klan was a political force in the state, as leaders like J. Thomas Heflin, David Bibb Graves, and Hugo Black manipulated the KKK membership against the power of Black Belt planters who had long dominated the state.

Black was elected senator in 1926 and later became a Supreme Court Justice. In 1926, with Klan support, a former Klan chapter head named Bibb Graves won the Alabama governor's office. He pushed for increased education funding, better public health, new highway construction, and pro-labor legislation. Because the Alabama state legislature refused to redistrict until 1972, however, even the Klan was unable to break the planters' and rural areas' hold on power.

Unlike its predecessor, which had been an exclusively partisan Democratic organization, the second Klan was courted by both Republicans and Democrats in the Midwest, and endorsed candidates from either party that supported its goals; Prohibition in particular helped the Klan and the Republicans to make common cause in the North. In the South, however, the Republican party was powerless; thus, the southern Klan remained Democratic, closely allied with Democratic police, sheriffs, and other functionaries of local government.

Resistance and decline

Nazi propaganda poster from 1944, showing a Ku Klux Klan hood and a lynching noose
Many groups and leaders, including prominent Protestant ministers such as Reinhold Niebuhr in Detroit, spoke out against the Klan. In response to blunt attacks against Jewish Americans and the Klan's campaign to illegalize private schools, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League was formed after the lynching of Leo Frank. When one civic group began to publish Klan membership lists, the number of members quickly declined. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People carried on public education campaigns in order to inform people about Klan activities and lobbied against Klan abuses in Congress. After its peak in 1925, Klan membership began to decline rapidly in most areas of the Midwest.

In Alabamamarker, KKK vigilantes, thinking that they had governmental protection, launched a wave of physical terror in 1927, targeting both blacks and whites who had violated racial norms and for perceived moral lapses. The state's conservative elite counterattacked. Grover C. Hall, Sr., editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, began publishing a series of editorials and articles that attacked the Klan for its "racial and religious intolerance". Hall won a Pulitzer Prize for his crusade. Other newspapers kept up a steady, loud attack on the Klan, referring to the organization as violent and "un-American". Sheriffs cracked down. In the 1928 presidential election, the state voted for the Democratic candidate Al Smith, although he was Catholic. Klan membership in Alabama dropped to less than six thousand by 1930. Small independent units continued to be active in Birmingham, where in the late 1940s, members launched a reign of terror by bombing the homes of upwardly mobile African Americans. KKK activism increased as a reaction against the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

D.C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of Indiana and 22 northern states, was convicted in 1925 for second degree murder resulting from his part in the rape and subsequent death
of Madge Oberholtzer. After Stephenson's conviction in a sensational trial, the Klan declined dramatically in Indiana. Historian Leonard Moore concluded that a failure in leadership caused the Klan's collapse:

Stephenson and the other salesmen and office seekers who maneuvered for control of Indiana's Invisible Empire lacked both the ability and the desire to use the political system to carry out the Klan's stated goals.
They were disinterested in, or perhaps even unaware of, grass roots concerns within the movement.
For them, the Klan had been nothing more than a means for gaining wealth and power.
These marginal men had risen to the top of the hooded order because, until it became a political force, the Klan had never required strong, dedicated leadership.
More established and experienced politicians who endorsed the Klan, or who pursued some of the interests of their Klan constituents, also accomplished little.
Factionalism created one barrier, but many politicians had supported the Klan simply out of expedience.
When charges of crime and corruption began to taint the movement, those concerned about their political futures had even less reason to work on the Klan's behalf.:

Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans sold the organization in 1939 to James Colescott, an Indiana veterinarian, and Samuel Green, an Atlanta obstetrician, but they were unable to staunch the exodus of members. In 1944, the IRS filed a lien for $685,000 in back taxes against the Klan, and Colescott was forced to dissolve the organization in 1944.

Ku Klux Klan members march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. in 1928.

Thanks, in part to the Klan terror directed at them five million blacks left the South for northern, midwestern and western cities from1940-1970 though they found that some of the most politically powerful Klan chapters were in Indiana. The Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence in Indiana politics and society after World War I. It was made up of native-born, white Protestants of many income and social levels. Nationally, in the 1920s, Indiana was said to have the most powerful Ku Klux Klan. Though it counted a high number of members statewide, its importance peaked with the 1924 election of Edward Jackson for governor. A short time later, the scandal surrounding the murder trial of Indianana Klan official D.C. Stephenson destroyed the image of the Ku Klux Klan as upholders of law and order. By 1926 the Ku Klux Klan was "crippled and discredited."

After World War II, folklorist and author Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Klan and provided information to media and law enforcement agencies. He also provided secret code words to the writers of the Superman radio program, resulting in episodes in which Superman took on the KKK. Kennedy's intention to strip away the Klan's mystique and trivialize the Klan's rituals and code words may have contributed to the decline in Klan recruiting and membership. In the 1950s, Kennedy wrote a bestselling book about his experiences, which further damaged the Klan.

The following table shows the change in the Klan's estimated membership over time. (The years given in the table represent approximate time periods.)
Year Membership
1920 4,000,000
1924 6,000,000
1930 30,000
1980 5,000
2008 6,000

Later Klans, 1950 through 1960s

The name "Ku Klux Klan" began to be used by several independent groups. Beginning in the 1950s, individual Klan groups began to resist the Civil Rights Movement by bombing houses in transitional neighborhoods and the houses of activists, as well as by physical violence, intimidation and assassination. In Birmingham, Alabama, during the tenure of Bull Connor, Klan groups were closely allied with the police and operated with impunity. There were so many bombings of homes by Klan groups that the city's nickname was "Bombingham". In states such as Alabama and Mississippimarker, Klan members forged alliances with governors' administrations.

Many murders went unreported and unprosecuted. Continuing disfranchisement of blacks meant that most could not serve on juries, which were all white. According to a report from the Southern Regional Council in Atlantamarker, the homes of forty black Southern families were bombed during 1951 and 1952. Some of the bombing victims were social activists whose work exposed them to danger, but most of them were either people who refused to bow to racist convention or were innocent bystanders, unsuspecting victims of random violence.

Among the more notorious murders by Klan members:

Violence at a Klan march in Mobile, Alabama, 1977

  • The 1965 Alabama murder of Viola Liuzzo. She was a Southern-raised Detroitmarker mother of five who was visiting the state in order to attend a civil rights march. At the time of her murder Liuzzo was transporting Civil Rights Marchers.
  • The 1966 firebombing death of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer Sr., 58, in Mississippi. In 1998 former Ku Klux Klan wizard Sam Bowers was convicted of his murder and sentenced to life. Two other Klan members were indicted with Bowers, but one died before trial, and the other's indictment was dismissed.

There was also resistance to Klan violence. In a 1958 North Carolinamarker incident, the Klan burned crosses at the homes of two Lumbee Native Americans who had associated with white people and threatened to return with more men. When they held a nighttime rally nearby, they found themselves surrounded by hundreds of armed Lumbees. Gunfire was exchanged, and the Klan was routed at what became known as the Battle of Hayes Pond. In 1953, newspaper publisher W. Horace Carter received a Pulitzer prize for reporting on the activities of the Klan.

When the Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, the police commissioner Bull Connor gave Klan members fifteen minutes to attack the riders before sending in the police. When local and state authorities failed to protect them, the federal government established more effective intervention.

While the FBI had paid informants in the Klan, for instance in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1960s, its relations with local law enforcement agencies and the Klan were often ambiguous. The head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover, appeared more concerned about Communist links to civil rights activists than about controlling Klan excesses. In 1964, the FBI's COINTELPRO program began attempts to infiltrate and disrupt civil rights groups.

As 20th-century Supreme Court rulings extended federal enforcement of citizens' civil rights, the long-neglected Force Act and Klan Act from Reconstruction days were revived and used by federal prosecutors as the basis for investigations and indictments in the 1964 murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner; and the 1965 murder of Viola Liuzzo. They were also the basis for prosecution in 1991 in Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic.

Since the 1970s

Once African Americans secured federal legislation to protect civil and voting rights, the Klan shifted its focus to opposing court-ordered busing to desegregate schools, affirmative action, and more open immigration. For instance, in 1971, Klansmen used bombs to destroy ten school buses in Pontiac, Michiganmarker. Klansman David Duke was active in South Boston during the school busing crisis of 1974. Duke was leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from 1974 until he resigned from the Klan in 1978.

On November 3, 1979 the Greensboro massacre occurred in Greensboro, North Carolinamarker where five marchers were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party while staging a protest, while no Klan or neo-Nazis were injured or killed. This was the culmination of attempts by the Communist Workers Party to organize industrial workers, predominantly black, in the area.

Jerry Thompson, a newspaper reporter who infiltrated the Klan in 1979, reported that the FBI's COINTELPRO efforts were highly successful. Rival Klan factions accused each other's leaders of being FBI informants. Bill Wilkinson of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was revealed to have been working for the FBImarker. During Thompson's brief membership, his truck was shot at, he was yelled at by black children, and a Klan rally he attended turned into a riot when black soldiers on an adjacent military base taunted the Klansmen. Attempts by the Klan to march were often met with counter protests and sometimes with violence.

In 1980 three Ku Klux Klansmen shot four elderly black women (Viola Ellison, Lela Evans, Opal Jackson and Katherine Johnson) in Chattanoogamarker, Tennesseemarker following a KKK initiation rally. (A fifth woman, Fannie Crumsey, was injured by flying glass in the incident.) None of the five victims died. Attempted murder charges were filed against the three Klansmen, two of whom - Bill Church and Larry Payne - were acquitted by an all-white jury and the other of whom - Marshall Thrash - was sentenced by the same jury to nine months on lesser charges. He was released after three months. In 1982 a jury awarded the five women $535,000 in a civil rights trial.

After Michael Donald was lynched in 1981 in Alabamamarker, the FBImarker investigated his death. Two local Klansmen were convicted of having a role including Henry Hays who was sentenced to death. With the support of attorneys Morris Dees and Joseph J. Levin at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Michael's mother, Beulah Mae Donald, sued the Ku Klux Klan in civil court in Alabama. Her lawsuit against the United Klans of America was tried in February 1987. The all-white jury found the Klan responsible for the lynching of Michael Donald and ordered the Klan to pay $7 million USD. To pay the judgment, the Klan turned over all of its assets, including its national headquarters building in Tuscaloosamarker.

After exhausting the appeals process, Henry Hayes was executed for Donald's death in Alabama on June 6, 1997. It was the first time since 1913 that a white man had been executed in Alabama for a crime against an African American. Thompson, the journalist who claimed he had infiltrated the Klan, related that Klan leaders who appeared indifferent to the threat of arrest showed great concern about a series of civil lawsuits filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center for damages in the millions of dollars. These were filed after Klansmen shot into a group of African Americans. Klansmen curtailed activities to conserve money for defense against the lawsuits. The Klan itself used lawsuits as tools. They filed a libel suit to prevent publication of a paperback edition of Thompson's book.

The present-day Ku Klux Klan is not one organization. Rather it is made up of small independent chapters across the United States. The formation of independent chapters has made the KKK groups more difficult to infiltrate and researchers find it hard to estimate its numbers. KKK members have stepped up recruitment in recent years but the organization continues to grow slowly, with membership estimated at 5,000–8,000 across 179 chapters. These latest drives have seized upon issues such as people's anxieties about illegal immigration, urban crime and same-sex marriage.

The only known former member of the Klan to hold a federal office currently in the United States is Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginiamarker, who said he "deeply regrets" having joined the Klan more than half a century ago, when he was about 24 years old. Byrd joined as a young man in the 1940s, recruiting 150 friends and acquaintances from his small West Virginia town. He later said he was a Klan member for about a year, but contemporary newspapers carried stories about a letter of his recommending a friend as Klaneagle in 1946. In 2005, when he published a memoir and was asked again about his life, Byrd said, "I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times ... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened."

Some of the larger KKK organizations in operation include:
  • Bayou Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, prevalent in Texasmarker, Oklahomamarker, Arkansas, Louisianamarker and other areas of the Southeastern U.S.
  • Church of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
  • Imperial Klans of America
  • Knights of the White Kamelia
  • Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, headed by national director and self-claimed pastor Thom Robb, and based in Zinc, Arkansasmarker. It claims to be the biggest Klan organization in America today. Spokesmen refer to it as a "sixth era Klan", and it continues to be a racist group.

Numerous smaller groups use the Klan name. Estimates are that about two-thirds of KKK members are concentrated in the South, with another third situated primarily in the lower Midwest.

On November 14, 2008, an all-white jury of seven men and seven women awarded $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages to plaintiff Jordan Gruver, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center against the Imperial Klans of America. The ruling found that five IKA members had savagely beaten Gruver, then 16 years old, at a Kentucky county fair in July 2006.

Many Klan groups have formed strong alliances with other white supremacist groups like Neo-Nazis. Some Klan groups have become increasingly "Nazified" adopting the look and emblems of Nazi skinheads.

Although there are numerous KKK groups, the media and popular discourse generally refer to the Klan for expediency. The ACLU has provided legal support to various factions of the KKK in defense of their First Amendment rights to hold public rallies, parades, and marches, and their right to field political candidates.


Membership in the Klan is secret. Like many fraternal organizations, the Klan has signs which members can use to recognize one another. A member may use the acronym AYAK (Are you a Klansman?) in conversation to surreptitiously identify himself to another potential member. The response AKIA (A Klansman I am) completes the greeting.

Throughout its varied history, the Klan has coined many words beginning with "KL" including:
  • Klabee: treasurers
  • Klavern: local organization
  • Kleagle: recruiter
  • Klecktoken: initiation fee
  • Kligrapp: secretary
  • Klonvocation: gathering
  • Kloran: ritual book
  • Kloreroe: delegate
  • Kludd: chaplain

All of the above terminology was created by William Simmons, as part of his 1915 revival of the Klan. The Reconstruction-era Klan used different titles; the only titles to carry over were "Wizard" for the overall leader of the Klan, "Night Hawk" for the official in charge of security, and a few others, mostly for regional officers of the organization.

See also



First published in 1971 and based on massive research in primary sources, this is the most comprehensive treatment of the Klan and its relationship to post-Civil War Reconstruction. Includes narrative research on other night-riding groups. Details close link between Klan and late 19th century and early 20th century Democratic Party.
An unsympathetic account of both Klans, with a dedication to "my Kentucky grandmother ... a fierce and steadfast Radical Republican from the wane of Reconstruction until her death nearly a century later".

Further reading

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