White-hooded Ku Klux Klansmen at fiery cross ceremony in Deep South of USA. Picture: Historical United States of America
White-hooded Ku Klux Klansmen at fiery cross ceremony in Deep South of USA. Picture: Historical United States of America

Creepy origins of the Ku Klux Klan

What began on Christmas Eve 1865 as a social group, grew to a terror organisation that by the 1920s reached peak membership of up to six million people across the United States.

From its humble beginnings, the Ku Klux Klan heralded an horrific chapter in American history that still exists today, 150 years after its initial formation.

The aftermath of the Civil War gave around four million African-Americans their freedom but there were several obstacles to successfully rebuilding the South during what was known as the Reconstruction Period of 1865-77.

From 1865 to 1871 the first wave of the KKK killed hundreds of African-Americans and their white supporters, driving thousands of families from their homes, sexually assaulting thousands of women and men.

The KKK launched a campaign of horrendous racism, coupled with violence and terror, as well as widespread robbery as they stole all possessions of African-Americans, from guns and land to food and livestock.

It's no wonder at least one historian refers to the Ku Klux Klan as "America's recurring nightmare".

THE FIRST WAVE OF THE KKK

The name Ku Klux Klan comes from the Greek word kyklos, meaning "circle". It's believed the word "clan" was added simply for alliteration reasons. It was officially founded on Christmas Eve, 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee.

The name of the KKK came from the Greek “kyklos” meaning circle.
The name of the KKK came from the Greek “kyklos” meaning circle.

Former Confederate cavalry general and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest was the KKK's first "leader in chief," otherwise known as the "grand wizard" (the Klan apparently liked quirky titles). Forrest originally formed the KKK as a paramilitary group that included six Confederate soldiers in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

At first, the men primarily discussed ways to reverse the federal government's progressive policies. They saw themselves as representing the white people who once had the power but now resented the freed slaves and feared retaliation.

The original KKK planned to mostly intimidate the former slaves who were legally granted civil rights protection after the war. The Klan was particularly concerned about policies that increased the rights of the African-Americans.

The meetings soon turned into something more sinister - a group that, above all else, pledged to hold on to their white supremacist agenda.

It didn't take long for the entire ideology of the KKK to shift focus, throwing a spotlight on the bitterness and anger many felt about the disenfranchisement of the South in the Reconstruction Era.

Its members saw the freed African-Americans and their allies as their enemies, as well as the Republican opposition and made life incredibly frightening for anyone perceived to be an enemy. It was a truly frightening time for all African-Americans and anyone that tried to help them.

Nathan Bedford Forrest, wealthy cotton-planter & daring cavalry leader in the US Civil War. Also believed to be the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
Nathan Bedford Forrest, wealthy cotton-planter & daring cavalry leader in the US Civil War. Also believed to be the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.

Historian Linda Gordon is the author of The Second Coming of the KKK. According to Gordon, founding leader Forrest tried to break up the KKK in 1869 when he realised the group was becoming excessively violent.

But this was an impossible task as the Klan was already too powerful by then. Gordon claims the entire success of the KKK rested on its ability to trade on fear. The Klan generated widespread terror by planting false allegations - mostly centred on black men being sexually aggressive towards white women. These false accusations made white women fearful and the KKK used that fear to justify their white terrorism.

The KKK liked to ride their horses at night, threatening and frightening any black people they could find. If anyone defied them, they were whipped, beaten and often murdered (typically called "lynching".)

Historian Elaine Frantz Parsons wrote in Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction that the Klan insisted on continuing the Southern tradition of "night riders", who intimidated slaves to control them.

The Klan also extended their hostilities to the southern whites who befriended and defended African-Americans. Wearing their costumes, the KKK would shoot into windows, often burning houses with the occupants still inside. Those they didn't kill, they drove off their properties - destroying their farms and leaving successful black farmers with nothing.

By 1877, the federal government had disbanded any guarantee of the rights of the freed people, (freed slaves) - this meant the KKK could operate without any opposition.

The small number of southern white elites who were opposed to the KKK justified government inaction by defending the Klan as "a private, non-state organisation of poor, uneducated 'white trash', so police and courts were powerless to control it."

Ku Klux Klan were adept at terrorising all sectors of the community and stamping out opposition.
Ku Klux Klan were adept at terrorising all sectors of the community and stamping out opposition.

Gordon writes: "That excuse was bogus: police and sheriffs colluded with and often joined the Klan, ensuring that it could operate with impunity.

"Those who justified inaction also claimed that the Klan robes, hoods and masks made it impossible to identify Klan members. This too was not actually true: in most communities the identities of Klansmen were well known."

THE END OF THE FIRST WAVE OF THE KKK

By the time Forrest tried to disband the KKK, his organisation was already more terrifying and powerful than he ever intended.

President Ulysses Grant had passed the Ku Klux Act in 1871, authorising the military to crush what was then a terrorist group. The act meant nine South Carolina counties were placed under martial law.

Then, in 1882, there was a huge backflip with the US Supreme Court declaring the Ku Klux Act unconstitutional. This led to grave fears the Klan would rise again but, by then, it had mostly disappeared.

However, it would rise up once more, bigger and more terrifying than ever.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION

During WWI (1914-18), the KKK started to reorganise - said to be fuelled by a movie, The Birth of a Nation, which featured a story about the first KKK defending white people against blacks.

The film was deeply controversial; it's depiction of the Klan was, ludicrously, as saviours of the rest of the population.

When the movie was shown in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1916, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) held a peaceful protest. It was the first time in history the association had been called to action because they feared there'd be a renewed backlash against African-Americans.

But the protest did little to prevent the next wave of the KKK.

According to historian Linda George, by 1920, the KKK had gained peak membership, appealing to those who believed their lives were superior to those of immigrants.

This new version of the Klan went beyond discriminating only against African-Americans; they spread their net of evil even wider - now their hate focused on immigrants, Catholics, Jews and "coloured people".

It's ideology shifted once again - now the Klan supported what they called "clean living" and attacked "dope, bootlegging, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, unfair business dealings, sex, marital 'goings-on,' and scandalous behaviour."

THE KKK COSTUME

KKK members made their own costumes of white robes, with conical hats and masks; designed to frighten people, as well as to hide their identities.

According to historian Alison Kinney, while the pointed white hood and robe is now synonymous with the KKK, it was more common for members to wear a variety of costumes, including using "black face" to mock their victims.

"Klansmen wore gigantic animal horns, fake beards, (dark)-skin caps, or polka-dot paper hats; they imitated French accents or barnyard animals; they played guitars to serenade victims. Some Klansmen wore pointed hats suggestive of wizards, dunces, or Pierrots; some wore everyday winter hoods, pillowcases, or flour sacks on their heads," Kinney writes.

Later, the costume was seen as less a disguise and more of a way to show others you were part of the KKK. Historian Linda George says the purpose of the costume wasn't always to protect identities because most locals knew exactly who the Klan members were beneath their disguise.

THE SECOND WAVE OF THE KKK

This new wave of the Klan started in 1915, led by William J. Simmons in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Cross burning became a signature symbol of the Klan's hatred and is still seen as a sacred ceremony for members. Historians refer to the second wave as a time when Klan members served in all levels of government.

Interestingly, while the KKK identify with the Protestant religion, they don't see cross burning as sacrilegious but, rather, a symbol of their Christianity. The Klan started to diminish by the end of the 1920s when membership shrunk from 5-6 million to just a few thousand. According to Linda George, this decline had very little to do with any kind of opposition. Instead, she writes, "It withered from the inside: members resented the national headquarters' steady demand for dues and other levies, corrupt leaders were caught drinking and embezzling, and one Grand Goblin was convicted of a murder so vicious that it evoked national media attention.

The decline did not, however, mean that Klan ideas died out. A third wave of the KKK began again in 1950, focusing on the civil rights movement.

Historians have differing views on the KKK's central values. Historian Leonard J. Moore believed the KKK of the 1920s was "the story of a backward segment of American society, one trapped by economic insecurity, dying small-town ways, and an inability to adjust psychologically to the 'modern age'."

The KKK continues today but almost every Christian denomination denounces its existence.

Klansmen on horseback in the Deep South of the USA. Source: Historical United States of America.
Klansmen on horseback in the Deep South of the USA. Source: Historical United States of America.

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