Political and Social Movements

Ku Klux Klan

What is the history of the Ku Klux Klan?

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a white supremacist group originally formed in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, when Confederate Army veterans formed what they called a “social club.” The first leader (called the “grand wizard”) was Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821–1877), a former general in the Confederate Army, who, on April 12, 1864, in the final days of the Civil War, led a massacre of 300 black soldiers in service of the Union Army at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.

As the unofficial arm of resistance against Republican efforts to restore the nation and make full citizens of its black (formerly slave) population, the Ku Klux Klan waged a campaign of terror against blacks in the South during Reconstruction (1865–77), the 12-year period of rebuilding that followed the Civil War. Klan members, cloaked in robes and hoods to disguise their identity, threatened, beat, and killed numerous blacks. While the group deprived its victims of their rights as citizens, their intent was also to intimidate the entire black population and keep them out of politics. White people who supported the federal government’s measures to extend rights to all black citizens also became the victims of the fearsome Klan. Membership in the group grew quickly, and the Ku Klux Klan soon had a presence throughout the South.

In 1871 the U.S. Congress passed the Force Bill, giving President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) authority to direct federal troops against the Klan. The action was successful, causing the group to disappear—but only for a time. In 1915 the society was newly organized at Stone Mountain, Georgia, as a Protestant fraternal organization (called “The Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc.”), this time widening its focus of persecution to include Roman Catholics, immigrants, and Jews, as well as blacks. Members of all of these groups became the target of KKK harassment, which now included torture, whippings, and public lynchings. The group, which proclaimed its mission of “racial purity,” grew in number and became national, electing its own to public office in many states, not just the South. But the society’s acts of violence raised the public ire, and by the 1940s, America’s attention focused on World War II (1939–45), and the Klan died out or went completely underground. The group had another resurgence during the 1950s and into the early 1970s, as the nation struggled through the era of civil rights. The Klan still exists today, fostering the extremist views of its membership and staging marches to demonstrate its presence on the American landscape. Such demonstrations are often attended by protestors.


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