Overview: Three Klans
The first Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, sometime between December 1865 and August 1866 by six former officers of the Confederate army as a fraternal social club inspired at least in part by the then largely defunct Sons of Malta. It borrowed parts of the initiation ceremony from that group, with the same purpose: "ludicrous initiations, the baffling of public curiosity, and the amusement for members were the only objects of the Klan," according to Albert Stevens in 1907. The name is probably derived from the Greek word kuklos (κύκλος) which means circle; the word had previously been used for other fraternal organizations in the South such as Kuklos Adelphon. The manual of rituals was printed by Laps D. McCord of Pulaski.
According to The Cyclopædia of Fraternities (1907), "Beginning in April, 1867, there was a gradual transformation ... The members had conjured up a veritable Frankenstein. They had played with an engine of power and mystery, though organized on entirely innocent lines, and found themselves overcome by a belief that something must lie behind it all — that there was, after all, a serious purpose, a work for the Klan to do."
Although there was little organizational structure above the local level, similar groups rose across the South and adopted the same name and methods Klan groups spread throughout the South as an insurgent movement promoting resistance and white supremacy during the Reconstruction Era. For example, Confederate veteran John W. Morton founded a chapter in Nashville, Tennessee. As a secret vigilante group, the Klan targeted freedmen and their allies; it sought to restore white supremacy by threats and violence, including murder, against blacks and white Republicans. In 1870 and 1871, the federal government passed the Enforcement Acts, which were intended to prosecute and suppress Klan crimes.
The first Klan had mixed results in terms of achieving its objectives. It seriously weakened the black political establishment through its use of assassinations and threats of violence; it drove some people out of politics. On the other hand, it caused a sharp backlash, with passage of federal laws that historian Eric Foner says were a success in terms of "restoring order, reinvigorating the morale of Southern Republicans, and enabling blacks to exercise their rights as citizens". Historian George C. Rable argues that the Klan was a political failure and therefore was discarded by the Democratic leaders of the South. He says:
the Klan declined in strength in part because of internal weaknesses; its lack of central organization and the failure of its leaders to control criminal elements and sadists. More fundamentally, it declined because it failed to achieve its central objective – the overthrow of Republican state governments in the South.
After the Klan was suppressed, similar insurgent paramilitary groups arose that were explicitly directed at suppressing Republican voting and turning Republicans out of office: the White League, which started in Louisiana in 1874; and the Red Shirts, which started in Mississippi and developed chapters in the Carolinas. For instance, the Red Shirts are credited with helping elect Wade Hampton as governor in South Carolina. They were described as acting as the military arm of the Democratic Party and are attributed with helping white Democrats regain control of state legislatures throughout the South. In addition, there were thousands of Confederate veterans in what were called rifle clubs.
KKK rally in Chicago, c. 1920
In 1915, the second Klan was founded atop Stone Mountain, Georgia by William Joseph Simmons. While Simmons relied on documents from the original Klan and memories of some surviving elders, the revived Klan was based significantly on the wildly popular film, The Birth of a Nation. The earlier Klan had not worn the white costumes or burned crosses; these were aspects introduced in the film. When the film was shown in Atlanta in December of that year, Simmons and his new klansmen paraded to the theater in robes and pointed hoods—many on robed horses—just like in the movie. These mass parades would become another hallmark of the new Klan that had not existed in the original Reconstruction-era organization.
Beginning in 1921, it adopted a modern business system of using full-time paid recruiters and appealed to new members as a fraternal organization, of which many examples were flourishing at the time. The national headquarters made its profit through a monopoly of costume sales, while the organizers were paid through initiation fees. It grew rapidly nationwide at a time of prosperity. Reflecting the social tensions pitting urban versus rural America, it spread to every state and was prominent in many cities. The second KKK preached "One Hundred Percent Americanism" and demanded the purification of politics, calling for strict morality and better enforcement of Prohibition. Its official rhetoric focused on the threat of the Catholic Church, using anti-Catholicism and nativism. Its appeal was directed exclusively at white Protestants; it opposed Jews, blacks, Catholics, and newly arriving Southern and Eastern European immigrants such as Italians, Russians, and Lithuanians, many of whom were Jewish or Catholics themselves. Some local groups threatened violence against rum runners and notorious sinners; the violent episodes generally took place in the South. The Red Knights were a militant group organized in opposition to the Klan and responded violently to Klan provocations on several occasions.
The second Klan was a formal fraternal organization, with a national and state structure. During the resurgence of the second Klan during the 1920s, its publicity was handled by the Southern Publicity Association—within the first six months of the Association's national recruitment campaign, Klan membership had increased by 85,000. At its peak in the mid-1920s, the organization claimed to include about 15% of the nation's eligible population, approximately 4–5 million men.
From 1923 there were two Ku Klux Klan organizations: that founded by Simmons, and a splinter group founded by D.C. Stephenson.
Internal divisions, criminal behavior by leaders—especially Stephenson's conviction for the abduction, rape, and murder of Madge Oberholtzer—and external opposition brought about a collapse in the membership of both groups. The main group's membership had dropped to about 30,000 by 1930. It finally faded away in the 1940s. Klan organizers also operated in Canada, especially in Saskatchewan in 1926–28, where Klansmen denounced immigrants from Eastern Europe as a threat to Canada's British heritage.
The "Ku Klux Klan" name was used by numerous independent local 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, Alabama; or with governor's offices, as with George Wallace of Alabama. Several members of Klan groups were convicted of murder in the deaths of civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 and children in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963.
As of 2016, researchers estimate that there are just over 30 active Klan groups existing in the United States, with about 130 chapters. Estimates of total collective membership range from about 3,000 to between 5,000–8,000. In addition to its active membership, the Klan has an "unknown number of associates and supporters."
Today, many sources classify the Klan as a "subversive or terrorist organization". In April 1997, FBI agents arrested four members of the True Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Dallas for conspiracy to commit robbery and for conspiring to blow up a natural gas processing plant. In 1999, the city council of Charleston, South Carolina passed a resolution declaring the Klan a terrorist organization. In 2004, a professor at the University of Louisville began a campaign to have the Klan declared a terrorist organization in order to ban it from campus.