On December 24, 1865, six Confederate veterans founded a social club in Pulaski, Tennessee, inspired by the Sons of Malta. Initially they just engaged in initiations, ceremonies, and the like. This is how it stayed for a little while, but the question arose of what the purpose of the organization was. According to Albert Stevens (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”. They decided this purpose was to restore government under Southern whites and opposed carpetbaggers, scalawags (Southerners who supported Reconstruction), and politically active blacks. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was the organization’s first leader.
The first Klan was easily the most violent of the Klans, and disguised under their hoods (which were not the white uniform you think of) they engaged in intimidation, committed whippings, tortures, and lynchings against politically active blacks, carpetbaggers, and scalawags. Their crimes exceeded all those of the subsequent Klans combined and became a huge problem for Reconstruction governments, with murders committed by people identifying as the KKK in the thousands. Despite the KKK having “official” leaders, it never had a real centralized structure and by 1869 people identifying as Klansmen who engaged in terrorism went so far that Forrest officially disbanded it, but in keeping with the organization’s lack of a central structure, it continued to engage in such activities and was found by a federal jury to be a terrorist organization in 1870. Their acts provoked federal responses, such as the Force Act and the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871, which permitted the president to suspend habeas corpus to fight the group. These were vigorously enforced and proved effective in destroying the first Klan.
Although the aims of the first KKK didn’t occur while they were active, what they wanted in the South ultimately occurred between 1877 and 1900. Additionally, although the Klan was ended, there were still violent paramilitary organizations with this aim in mind, such as the White League and the Red Shirts. These organizations declined once their goals were achieved. Some in the first Klan would go on to have political careers, including:
John Tyler Morgan – U.S. Senator and Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK.
Joseph E. Brown – U.S. Senator, Georgia
John B. Gordon, U.S. Senator, Georgia, a founder of the organization in his state.
Edmund Pettus – U.S. Senator, also Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK.
George Gordon – U.S. Representative from Tennessee, the first Grand Dragon for Tennessee, authored the group’s precept.
The Second Klan: The Most Successful (1915-1944)
In the early 1900s, there were many changes occurring in the United States, including influxes of immigrants, urbanization, and a perceived lessening of social standards and fear of radicalism. In 1915, the film Birth of Nation showed in theaters and it was a highly popular albeit controversial film, which inspired the formation of the second Klan that year by William J. Simmons at Stone Mountain, Georgia. This Klan began the practice of wearing white hooded uniforms as well as cross burnings, which was an old Scottish clan practice. Simmons was ousted in 1922 and succeeded by Hiram Wesley Evans, a Texas dentist who in the previous year had led a group of Dallas Klansmen who kidnapped black bellhop Alexander Johnson, gave him twenty five lashes, and burned “KKK” on his forehead with acid for having relations with a white woman. The case was not prosecuted as many community leaders, including the sheriff, were Klansmen themselves. However, Evans as leader publicly discouraged vigilante activity as he realized it got the KKK bad press.
The Klan initially grew under Evans and he emphasized 100% Americanism, which in his view meant white and Protestant. His description of the Klan was:
“1. This is a white man’s organization. 2. This is a gentile organization. 3. It is an American organization. 4. It is a Protestant organization” (Rice).
Strangely enough, the Klan for a short time even branched out into Canada, emphasizing, along with being white and Protestant, “Britishness”. However, although this incarnation of the Klan was the least violent it was also prone to vigilantism. The Dallas KKK was in particular known for its violence. The most common act was flogging people at night for “moral offenses”, with most of the people targeted being fellow white Protestants. As a political organization, they had some successes as their pushes against Catholic and Jewish influence and immigration resonated among many voters. This Klan was nationwide and supported people from both parties…their politics were neither on the whole conservative or progressive and they appealed to both parties to grow their organization. The Klan also engaged in activities that got them good press such as charity drives, summer camps for children, donations to churches, and raising money for Protestant hospitals (Rothman). They had their greatest successes in the states of Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas. These included:
. Electing fellow Klansman Earle B. Mayfield to the Senate in 1922.
. Electing Clifford Walker Georgia’s governor in 1922, who would be revealed as a Klansman in 1924.
. Electing Klansmen Rice Means to the Senate in 1924 and Clarence Morley governor in Colorado. The latter pushed to exclude all non-Protestants from teaching at the University of Colorado and to ban sacramental wine.
. Electing Governor Owen Brewster in Maine in 1924. Although Brewster never publicly endorsed the Klan, he never condemned them either.
. Electing in Indiana ally Edward Jackson as governor and Klansman Arthur Robinson to the Senate.
. Electing Oregon’s Walter Pierce governor in 1922 and as well as having the Speaker of the Oregon House, Kaspar K. Kubli (that’s right, KKK was his initials), as a Klan member. They supported a law that banned private schools, which had the purpose of ending Catholic schools and was overturned by the Supreme Court. Pierce lost the organization’s support after backing Robert La Follette for president in 1924.
. Electing Alabama Klansman Hugo Black to the Senate in 1926, who succeeded vocally anti-Klan Oscar Underwood.
. Getting Republican leaders, including Calvin Coolidge, not to condemn them by name in 1924. Despite Coolidge opposing many Klan platforms and opposing the Klan itself, not publicly calling them out by name, supporting Prohibition, and signing into law the Immigration Act of 1924 was sufficient for them to back the Republican ticket that year. Additionally, the 1924 Democratic convention was so divided between pro and anti-Klan people that it became known as the “Klanbake”. Although the platform contained no condemnation of the KKK, compromise nominee John W. Davis did so himself.
These successes were helped by people who joined them as a means of social networking as in many communities social leaders joined the organization as one that promoted Protestant values. Fryer and Levitt (2012) state of the second Klan, “Rather than a terrorist organization, the 1920s Klan is best described as a social organization with a very successful multilevel marketing structure fueled by an army of highly incentivized sales agents selling hatred, religious intolerance, and fraternity in a time and place where there was tremendous demand”. In the North, the KKK placed its emphasis on anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism rather than anti-black racism, which remained an emphasis in the Southern Klans. By 1925, the organization had 4 million members.
These successes, however, were short lived. The organization was getting more and more backlash from the vigilante violence, corruption surrounding the organization, and moral hypocrisy from its leaders. Its politicians were also losing reelection to anti-Klan candidates: Governor Brewster, Senator Means, and Senator Mayfield lost renomination, and Governor Clarence Morley lost reelection thanks in part to his incompetent and corrupt administration.
The Crime That Ended the Indiana Klan and Weakened the National Klan
D.C. (David Curtiss) Stephenson was one of the most prominent and ambitious Klan leaders, leading the Indiana Klan, which became a force in itself in the organization. He was an effective leader whose efforts had helped elect Edward Jackson governor, got a quarter million people as members in the state, and had managed to influence legislation on various subjects. However, he had a dark side that was exacerbated by his drinking problem. He was prone to violence while drunk and had physically attacked his first wife. In 1926, he was arrested for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of school teacher Madge Oberholzer. Oberholzer had been beaten, ravished, and raped by Stephenson, who had bit her everywhere. He told her after the rape, “You must forget this, what is done has been done, I am the law and the power” (Abbott). Oberholzer subsequently poisoned herself with mercury and died. A prosecutor not involved with the Klan, William Remy, indicted Stephenson. He was convicted of kidnapping, rape, and second-degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Governor Edward Jackson’s career fell along with Stephenson, as he aired his dirty laundry when Jackson wouldn’t pardon him.
This scandal as well as others badly harmed the Klan and wrecked it in Indiana. By 1928, membership had dropped to 4,000. Stephenson would be released in 1950. The Klan’s membership after the 1920s would primarily be in the South and even there it would be in decline: by 1930 Alabama’s KKK would be down to 6000 members. The organization had increasing money troubles and in 1939 Evans resigned. There were still sporadic incidences of violence surrounding the Klan in the South, including the murders of a young white couple they caught on a lovers lane as well as a white barber who was beaten to death for drinking in Atlanta. In 1944, the organization was unable to pay its taxes and folded.
The Third Klan: The Least Successful and Popular One (1946-present)
In 1946, Atlanta physician Samuel Green founded the third and final incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. This is the one we know of today and it focused on opposition to civil rights and communism. This Klan used violence specially targeted at blacks, most notoriously the 1964 murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi, the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four girls, and the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. There were numerous bombings of black homes at this time. They saw some gains in membership in the 1950s and 1960s, but this growth was limited to the South. Legal action on a federal level and FBI infiltration helped bring the organization into decline. However, there still were acts of violence from Klan members, such as the killings of five communist protestors in 1979 in Greensboro, North Carolina and the lynching of black nineteen-year old Michael Donald in 1981.
The most successful figure in this period was arguably David Duke. Duke had been a member of the American Nazi Party in his younger years and had once been Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan who had tried to make the organization have a more respectable appearance. After running for office as a Democrat, he switched to Republican in 1988, claiming that he was a born-again Christian and that he had renounced racism and anti-Semitism. With this official stance, he managed to win a seat in the Louisiana House. Duke tried to run for the Senate in 1990 and managed to win the Republican nomination for governor in 1991 as a product of a three-way primary race among them. The Republican leadership did not support Duke, and he lost badly to incumbent Edwin Edwards.
The KKK remains a fringe organization that has at most a few thousand members nationwide but is nonetheless a most potent symbol of hatred and the first thing people think of when they think of a racist organization.
Abbott, K. (2012, August 30). “Murder Wasn’t Very Pretty”: The Rise and Fall of D.C. Stephenson. Smithsonian Magazine.
Fryer, R.G. & Levitt, S.D. (2012, November 9). Hatred and Profits: Under the Hood of the Ku Klux Klan. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 127(4).
Gruberg, M. Ku Klux Klan. The First Amendment Encyclopedia.
Miller, T. (October 2020). The First Black Dentist in Texas. D Magazine.
Rice, A.S. (1962). The Ku Klux Klan in American Politics. Public Affairs Press.
Rothman, J. (2016, December 4). When Bigotry Paraded Through the Streets. The Atlantic.
Stevens, A.C. (1907). The Cyclopædia of Fraternities; a compilation of existing authentic information and the results of original investigation as to more than six hundred secret societies in the United States. New York City and Paterson, New Jersey: Hamilton.