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Ku Klux Klan (KKK)


The Ku Klux Klan, often known as the “KKK,” are an American white supremacist group, listed as a terrorist organization in the US. The KKK’s origin story is not linear; there are thought to be two organizations founded that became what we know as the Ku Klux Klan today. A first version of the Ku Klux Klan was founded immediately after the Civil War, and lasted through until the 1870s. Then, another group of the same name was founded in 1915: it is this iteration of the Ku Klux Klan that persists today in America. The 19th Century version of the Klan reached a peak between 1868 and 1870, as it was part of the impetus behind the restoration of white rule throughout the states of North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. However, largely due to its excessive violence, this iteration of the KKK was disbanded by its first leader in 1869. While the Supreme Court did declare the Klan unconstitutional in 1882, by then it had largely dissipated, simply because its original objective – of restorating white supremacy in the US South – had been achieved by Jim Crow laws. (1) After this, the KKK was later revived by white Protestants near Atlanta in 1915, where it became the group that still persists today. (2)

The estimated membership of the Ku Klux Klan has declined somewhat recently, due perhaps to the appeal of newer, varied racist groups that have both more modern tactics and a more updated aesthetic. The rhetoric of these newer groups is often focused more online and specifically aimed at younger audiences, in comparison to the Klan. However, the news coverage and mythology of the KKK still powerfully endures, conveying the perception that the group is a central force within white supremacist politics and action in America today. The KKK operate in the same alternative online spaces as many other far-right groups in the US, and have become part of the election denial malaise that gathered momentum after the 2020 US election. The Klan is fast becoming seen as out of touch and defunct in comparison to the proliferation of other white supremacist organizations throughout the US. (2)

History & Origins

The Ku Klux Klan has effectively two founding stories, both tied into the developing history of race in America. In 1865, six Confederate veterans gathered in Pulaski, Tennessee, at the conclusion of the Civil War. They created the Ku Klux Klan: a vigilante group that would organize a campaign of violence and terror against the African American people that might benefit from any steps forward taken during Reconstruction. There is an argument that the Ku Klux Klan’s rapid founding and expansion is linked to the spirit of ‘frontier justice’ that has been entwined into American politics from very early in the country’s founding: in the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center, ‘[t]he quest for personal justice and  revenge became a key motivation for many who later rode with the Ku Klux Klan, especially among those who were poor and uneducated.’ (3) Examples of this so-called ‘frontier justice’ were the night patrols set up by white men deputized for the purpose of prowling Southern roads and enforcing a curfew for enslaved people, as well as looking for those who ran away. Following the end of the Civil War, the founders of the Ku Klux Klan were able to capitalize on the fact that many people’s cities, plantations and farms were ruined: white Southerners were often impoverished, hungry, and surrounded by the army that had defeated them. It was in this atmosphere that the KKK was able to secure a quick rise to influence. 

The KKK began with a meeting of six ex-Confederates in December 1865 in the town of Pulaski, Tennessee. They formed a secret club, called the Ku Klux Klan. While academics and historians disagree on the intention of these founders, the word quickly spread about this new organization whose members met secretly and hid their faces, practicing rituals and holding initiations. Some of the first Klan activities were very different from the violence that they would later enact: a common one was to ride up to a black family’s home wearing a frightening mask, and ask for water. When it was offered, the Klansman would ‘gulp’ it down while it secretly went into a rubber tube leading to a leather bottle beneath his robe; when several water buckets were drained, he would tell the family he had not had a drink since he died on the battlefield of Shiloh, before galloping away. The presence of armed white men roving the countryside at night recalled slave patrols, and the Klansman’s actions soon evolved into violence, such as whippings and then bloody clashes. (3)

Ironically, the increasing violence of the KKK during 1866 supported the Radical Republicans in the North of the US who argued for harsher measures to be taken against Southern administrations. The Radicals won overwhelming victories in the Congressional elections of 1866, while in 1867 the Klan called all chapters to send representatives to Nashville for a meeting to decide how the group would respond to Reconstruction policies. At this convention, white supremacy was determined to be the ideological foundation of the Klan, and with this codification of thought came a commitment to harsher tactics: it was here that the KKK doubled down on violence, leaving behind its prior scare tactics. 

By 1868, stories about the Klan were appearing in newspapers, and state capitols took action to repress the group – however, it was too late, as the KKK quickly became the de facto law enforcement in some areas. It is widely believed that the first era KKK was disbanded in January 1869 by its first leader, Forrest, due to the widespread atrocities committed in its name – while many of these were indeed perpetrated by the group, some were done by individuals masquerading as Klansmen, and Forest wanted to avoid responsibility for either. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate cavalry commander, and controversial figure, in the American Civil War. However, he lost his fortune in the war, and the abolition of slavery meant that he could not continue to utilize that previously lucrative form of generating income; eventually, Forrest settled on managing a plantation that used convict labor. Forrest’s controversial nature mainly originated from his culpability in the Fort Pillow Massacre, where on April 12, 1864, his command surrounded a small Union installation on the Mississippi River, 40 miles north of Memphis. After failing to negotiate the surrender of the fort, Forrest ordered his soldiers to take it, leading to a battle characterized by close combat and chaos. It is also clear that Forrest’s men were, at some points, killing African American soldiers who were attempting to surrender. This massacre outraged the Northern populace, and after between 277 and 295 Union soldiers were skilled – many of whom were black – the rallying cry “Remember Fort Pillow” was used by many African American troops. 

In 1871, night riding and mask wearing were expressly forbidden by the US Congress; yet a more powerful dampener on the Klan’s popularity was the fact that white Southern Democrats in fact won elections easily and were able to pass laws taking away the rights black people had won. Thus, those that had flocked to the KKK did not need them. However, in the latter half of the 19th century, there was a wave of immigration to the US, and this sparked a feeling in some that the nation was being overrun by alien people. Then, World War I had a deep, destabilizing effect on people’s lives across the Western world. Lastly, the 1890s marked the beginning of a movement in the South to give meaningful agency to black people, and a reactionary white populace instead wanted them frozen out of society. Among these events, a Spanish war veteran named William J. Simmons took 15 Fraternalists via hired bus to Stone Mountain, where he lit a match and called into being the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. It would later become apparent that Simmons mainly wanted to make money from the Klan, as he would later sign over its membership proceeds to two publicists as a fee for promotion – the Klan expanded its hatred of black people to become hated of Jews, Catholics, Asian people, immigrants, night clubs and more. Growth in Klan membership was fueled by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, based on the 1905 book The Clansman; it depicted black Americans as lazy and violent, suggesting if they gained full citizenship, they would threaten the security of the white race. Almost as quickly as the resurrection of the KKK took off however, it began to dissipate. 

By 1926, the group was suffering counterattacks from the clergy, the press and some politicians. Yet it did not fade away entirely as it had done previously: instead, the Ku Klux Klan became a smaller, more underground organization throughout the 1930s, with a membership that had fallen from its peak of over 100,000 to now 30,000, who focused on intimidating black people who attempted to vote, night riding, and clashing with union organizers. Gradually leadership was replaced various times, and the Klan’s actions continued amid internal disputes; by the 1950s, the group was at its lowest membership since the resurgence of 1915. Broadly, the Klan is strong when its leaders are able to capitalize on social tensions and fears stirring among white people, yet its popularity often brings scrutiny on its violence, which leads to partial collapse. In more modern times, the largest KKK presence has been the Unite the Right rally of Charlottesville, where an antifascist activist Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters. This rally was a gathering of far-right, white supremacist activists and characterized by the carrying of classic Klan symbols such as tiki torches, as well as chants of “Jews will not replace us”. (4) It is arguable that the biggest impact of the KKK in modern times is the echoing of its imagery by other far-right groups. 

Ideology & Goals

The Ku Klux Klan arose in reaction to black people attaining more rights within America – while it later expanded to hatred of various other minorities and an oppressive attitude towards women’s rights, the Klan’s original ideology is that of white supremacy, and its goals were ultimately the return to an enslaved, oppressed black population throughout the US. They felt particular vitriol for the adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, which extended civil and legal protections to former slaves and prevented states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.’ (5) Later, when it became clear that slavery was not returning, successive versions of the KKK campaigned for the return for segregation, and then more broadly the white power movement. Later leaders also brought their own angles to the KKK while continuing to operate under the umbrella of white supremacy, such as David Duke, who founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1975, and who held distinctly antisemitic views that crossed over with neo-Nazism. (3)  

The ideology of the first era KKK took two years to become fully codified – from its founding till the convention in Nashville in 1967. However, by the second era, there was more organization: the Klan now had a rule book, published in 1916. Entitled the Kloran, it lays out the ideological framework of the group and includes the rituals and internal titles as well as beliefs. While the book spent many years in secrecy, the advent of the internet has made it easily accessible. This text is where the white supremacy is codified: ‘we shall ever be true in the faithful maintenance of White Supremacy and will strenuously oppose any compromise thereof in any and all things.’ Prospective members had to be (and swear they were) ‘native-born white, Gentile American citizen[s].’ The book also includes famous visual imagery associated with the Klan, namely, the long white robes often worn by Klansmen, as well as the motif of the burning cross, which is named as ‘the emblem of that sincere, unselfish devotedness of all Klansmen to the sacred purpose and principles we espoused.’ Then, there are the titles – the Klan has an internal structure that has become unique and recognisable among political groups. The overall leader of the KKK is always named the ‘Grand Wizard’, and is the  ‘Emperor of the Invisible Empire’; the KKK also call themselves ‘the Invisible Empire’, seeing themselves as an entity answering to and following the Grand Wizard. The chief of an individual KKK unit is named an ‘Exalted Cyclops’, also known as a ‘Klavern’; group chaplains then go by ‘Kludd’, which is a name taken from the language used by ancient Druids. The internal structural and mythological titles used within it are some of the most famous aspects of the Ku Klux Klan, and during its rise to recognition, they afforded the Klan a sense of mystique – however whimsical the naming structure appears today.

Approach to Resistance 

The Klan’s approach to achieving their aims has always centered on intimidation of black people – and later a wider variety of minority groups. As well as frightening people with masks and robes, they swiftly progressed into violence when they were still quite a young movement, deliberately giving their violent acts the aesthetic and blueprint of slave patrols to further frighten black communities. They carried out whippings, beatings and lynchings in their early days, and this violent approach has continued to be entwine with the organization’s history, leading them to be listed as a terrorist group in the US. In both eras of the KKK, their violent approach to furthering their cause led them to be targeted by law enforcement; however, the pattern throughout history of the Klan seems to be one of resurgence, descent into violence, then dissipation, so it remains to be seen whether the group has died down in a permanent sense. 

During the mid 20th century, the Klan discovered bombing as a mode of resistance that they had not yet explored to its full potential: between 1956 and 1963, 138 bombings were reported and the KKK was thought to be responsible for many, as they sought to prevent integration in the South. The Klan also clashed with counter protesters and communities that they intimidated, such as a 1979 incident where 80 Invisible Empire members armed with shotguns, pistols and clubs squared up to a “Free Tommy Lee Hines” parade in Decatur, leading to two black men and two Klansmen being shot in a resulting battle. There was also a Texas Knights guerrilla warfare branch set up, who called themselves the Texas Emergency Reserve, indicating at least one instance of organized paramilitary coordination by the group. (3)

The KKK also use rallies and marches, partly to intimidate black communities, but also to create imagery that is unsettling, with their long white robes, pointed hats, and masks. This garb, decreed in the group’s codifying text, is designed to conceal the wearer’s identity and absolve them of responsibility for their (often) violent actions, while the tiki torches add to the effect. While the aesthetic may be holding the Klan back in the age of the internet, where far-right aestheticism has moved towards military-style clothing and tactical gear, at the time of their founding, they were much more terrifying. There were still Klan rallies throughout 2022, and KKK messages such as “take back the country” were still part of their propaganda – and working their way into the political conversation more widely. However, in the last five years, the Klan rallies have shrunk, and their largest presence in the last 10 years remains the tiki-torch-adorned Unite the Right rally of 2017. The other Ku Klux Klan rallies were all smaller, more remote and operated independently by individual Klan branches, rather than being more widely coordinated.

Relations & Alliances

The first notable alliance made by the Ku Klux Klan is the one they made with the neo-Nazis. During the 1970s, there emerged a neo-Nazi movement alongside the resurgence of the Klan, and this movement attracted people who agreed with the KKK that the white race was superior, but who dressed in military-style uniforms instead of robes, and who followed Adolf Hitler as their teacher. They also shared a contradiction with the Klan: that of longing for mainstream acceptance, while practicing violent confrontational tactics. As the late 1970s turned into the 1980s, Klansmen and neo-Nazis began to work together, united by their focus on white supremacy. There were some leaders in the Klan’s history who began their journeys as neo-Nazis, and progressed into Klan membership – and later, many Klansmen were radicalized by the more paramilitary tendencies of their neo-Nazi counterparts. (3)

The combination of the Klan, with its deep roots in American history, and the neo-Nazis, with their militarism, was a forceful combination by the early 1980s. Secret camps sprang up to give paramilitary training to white supremacists of all persuasions, preparing them for a race war that they believed would take place across America. This is part of the wider expansion that would happen in the far-right and white supremacist movement throughout the 1980s and up to the present day, in the 2020s. The Klan’s white supremacist ideology became a framework through which its members could be united with other movements that shared this cornerstone belief, and while the KKK itself may now be more a collection of recognizable imagery than an organization planning rallies, it has infiltrated and blended with today’s far-right movement over decades previously.

Works Cited

(1) - Ku Klux Klan. Britannica. Last updated March 22, 2024. Accessed 25 March 2024. 

(2) - Ku Klux Klan. Southern Poverty Law Center. Accessed 25 March 2024. 

(3) - Southern Poverty Law Center, edited by Richard Baudouin. Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism and Violence. Sixth Edition, 2011. Accessed 25 March 2024. 

(4) - Allyn, Bobby; Laurel Wamsley. NPR. ‘NeoNazi Who Killed Charlottesville Protester Is Sentenced To Life In Prison’. June 28 2019. Accessed 25 March 2024. 

(5) - United States Senate. The Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871. Senate Historical Office. Accessed 25 March 2024. 

(6) - Associated Press. ‘Century-old rule book describes KKK beliefs, practices.’ Accessed 25 March 2024. 

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