"KKK" by Michael Casim is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The United States has faced deep racial problems throughout its history. One of the most well-known racist groups in the nation has been the Ku Klux Klan, otherwise simply known as the KKK. The KKK believes white people are superior to other races, and that they should be in a dominant position in society. These types of ideas have existed throughout our history, but the KKK has gone through three waves of popularity since the 1800s.
The First KKK: 1860s
The Ku Klux Klan first sprang up in Pulaski, Tennessee, sometime near the beginning of 1866. The Civil War had just ended, and six soldiers from the Confederacy formed the group in reaction to the end of slavery and the beginning of Reconstruction. It was designed to be a brotherhood of white men who shared racist ideologies. For instance, they did not believe Black people should be allowed to participate in society. The KKK was not the only white supremacist group that appeared during Reconstruction, but it was one of the most influential and long-lasting.
Members of the Klan wore masks and robes; the costumes served to scare their victims and to protect their identities. They acted as a terrorist group, killing freed slaves and any Republican leaders who were trying to create laws to protect African Americans.
One of their biggest goals was to keep African Americans and Republicans from voting, because they wanted to maintain white Democrat rule in the southern states. To do this, they violently intimidated voters on their way to the polls during election seasons. For example, in Louisiana over 2,000 people were killed or injured in the few weeks before the 1868 presidential election.
Northern Republicans, as well as some southern Democrats, began to oppose the Klan and campaigned against their cruel treatment of African Americans. Soon Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which specifically protected people against the KKK. The Klan mostly disappeared by the mid-1870s, although a few smaller white supremacist groups still committed violence against African Americans in the South.Q1
The Second KKK: 1915 – 1920s
The second wave of the Ku Klux Klan started in 1915, in Atlanta, Georgia. That year, the film TheBirth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffiths, was released. It glorified the actions and legacy of the original Klan from the 1860s, and it inspired William Joseph Simmons to start a new Klan movement on Stone Mountain in Georgia. It stayed local for a while, but by the early 1920s it spread across the Midwest and reached a membership of 1.5 million people. This phase of the Klan was much more organized and structured than the first.
The Second Klan kept the overall vision of white American supremacy, but it also added a religious angle. Two-thirds of Klan members were white Protestant ministers. They wanted to maintain Protestant Christian morals, so they were against behaviors like divorce and drunkenness. But they also hated the many Catholic and Jewish immigrants who were coming to America during this time. They saw themselves and white Protestants as morally superior; however, all mainstream Protestant groups condemned their extreme views. In the South, the KKK still targeted Black people.
The Second Klan still wore gowns, this time white robes with masks and tall, cone-shaped hats — clothing inspired by the depiction of the Klan in Griffiths’ film. Another idea that the Klan had taken from the film was the practice of cross burning. They burned large wooden crosses in public and private meetings to emphasize their supposed commitment to Protestant morality.
This time, although there was still some violence (especially in the South), the Klan focused more on political actions. They pushed for legal prohibition of alcohol and opposed any non-Protestant immigration from foreign countries. Many Klan members were elected to local, state, and national political offices, where they enforced their white supremacist, nativist viewpoints.Q2
Very shortly after its peak, the Second Klan began to dissolve for several reasons. In-fighting and the criminal behaviors of some Klan leaders also affected membership. Lists of Klan members in some communities were leaked, which led many other people to leave the group out of embarrassment and fear that their names would be smeared. States also began to pass laws against wearing the signature costumes, which also took away anonymity. Finally, when the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s, many members did not have the time or money to continue to participate.
The Third KKK: 1960s – present
Although the formal structure of the Ku Klux Klan fell apart, small white supremacist groups started popping up again in the 1960s. They used the KKK name and wore the same white costumes. These groups became very violent in the South during the Civil Rights Movement.
When the Civil Rights Movement swept across the nation in the 1950s and 1960s, white members of the Klan opposed the expansion of rights for African Americans. Like the first KKK, they used violence to intimidate and oppress African Americans. Bombings, especially of Black churches and activists’ homes, were extremely common. They also tried to make deals with southern lawmakers to keep Civil Rights laws from being passed. Fortunately, their efforts were not successful, and the U.S. has passed many laws to protect civil rights for minorities.
There are still some independent Ku Klux Klan groups scattered around the country today, mostly in the South and the Midwest. Their membership continues to decline, but membership in hate groups in general continues to increase in the United States. Some believe that the KKK is less popular because they do not effectively use the internet to recruit new members. Today the KKK also fights against immigration and same-sex marriage.Q3
“America’s Most Infamous Hate Group: The KKK” by Jessica McBirney. Copyright © 2017 by CommonLit, Inc. This text is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
- Ideology(noun): the set of ideas and beliefs of a group or political party
to express complete disapproval of, typically in public
Reconstruction politics was a catalyst for widespread racism and hatred that freed people experienced throughout the South. The Ku Klux Klan, founded by a Confederate general in 1866, became known as the "invisible empire of the South" in which members represented the ghosts of the Confederate dead returning to terrorize African Americans and Republicans. Although it was a covert organization, the Klan’s displays of violence and intolerance were anything but discreet. Many murders and beatings were never reported due to fear of reprisal from the Klan. This document is an example of the type of threats for which the KKK became known. In this case, the target was Davie Jeems, a black Republican recently elected sheriff in Lincoln County, Georgia. The language of the document evokes a ghostly menacing presence; even the handwriting is reminiscent of a ransom note. The word "notice" and the two holes at the top indicate that it was most likely posted in a public place. Someone has written on the back of the sheet that "similar threats have prevented all the other Republican officers to take their [commissions]." With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1871, the already weakened Klan became dormant, but it resurfaced again in 1915.
A full transcript is available.
To Jeems, Davie. you. must. be, a good boy. and. Quit. hunting on Sunday and shooting your gun in the night. you keep people from sleeping. I live in a big rock above the Ford of the Creek. I went from Lincoln County County [sic] during the War I was Killed at Manassus in 1861. I am here now as a Locust in the day Time and. at night I am a Ku Klux sent here to look after you and all the rest of the radicals and make you know your place. I have got my eye on you every day, I am at the Ford of the creek every evening From Sundown till dark I want to meet you there next Saturday tell platt Madison we have, a Box. For him and you. We nail all, radicals up in Boxes and send them away to KKK - there is. 200 000 ded men retured to this country to make you and all the rest of the radicals good Democrats and vote right with the white people
Questions for Discussion
Read the document introduction and transcript and apply your knowledge of American history in order to answer these questions.
- Why was this notice addressed to Davie Jeems? Explain why the notice was apparently posted publicly.
- How did the author(s) of the note use fear of the supernatural to frighten the reader?
- To what extent does this note show the frustration and anger of some white Southerners to the policies of the Radical Republicans?